Islamic Awareness Month events focus on understanding

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Feb. 6, 2017

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Emory's Muslim Student Association kicked off Islamic Awareness Month by hosting last week's Wonderful Wednesday. Since Feb. 1 is World Hijab Day, the MSA invited passersby to try on headscarves and ask questions about hijab and Islam. Here, MSA member Talah Bakdash (left) helps a student wrap her scarf.

With smiles and curiosity, they approached the Emory Muslim Student Association (MSA) table, situated in the heart of Asbury Circle last week for Wonderful Wednesday.

On the table, a tumble of literature, from pamphlets listing events planned on campus for Islamic Awareness Month to notecards for passersby to anonymously submit “Ask a Muslim” questions that would later be answered on the MSA Facebook page.

But it was the scarves that drew most of the attention — a generous pile of big, colorful headscarves presented in association with World Hijab Day that carried an invitation to press beyond cultural assumptions.

A poster explained: “Hijab is not representative of a specific sect or of every Muslim woman. It is a woman’s choice to wear it or not wear it based on a variety of factors. Remember that hijab is not just a headscarf, but a way of carrying yourself. Feel free to ask any of us what our experiences with hijab have been like…”

“Do you have any questions?” asked Talah Bakdash, an Emory sophomore majoring in creative writing and psychology, who has chosen to wear the hijab since she was in the sixth grade.

It was the ultimate icebreaker. Soon, a small crowd of men and women were gathering to ask questions — “Is it hot? What does it mean to you? Why do you choose to wear it?” — and allow Bakdash to deftly fold and wind the scarf around their own heads.

As a sophomore majoring in anthropology, Esther Garcia found herself drawn to the MSA table on Wednesday to talk about the faith and experience what it felt like to briefly slip a hijab over her own delicate braids.

“Part of the importance of this, for me, is becoming more aware of their culture,” says Garcia. “I was interested in knowing why they are doing this, and besides, I like standing in solidarity with our Muslim students, just being here and letting them know we care.”

Creating dialogue, dispelling myths

For MSA President Sundus Tameez, the Wonderful Wednesday gathering was not only the kick-off for events scheduled on campus for Islamic Awareness Month, but a forum to help demystify the religion.

“Islamic Awareness Month is just a chance to let people know more about what Islam is and isn’t,” says Tameez, a junior majoring in psychology. “Right now, given the current climate, there are a lot of misconceptions around what it is, what we believe and who we are as a people.”

The notecards slowly stacking up in a plastic box bore testimony to the public’s curiosity, with questions ranging from “Do you feel discriminated against on a regular basis because of your choice to wear a hijab?” and “How can I best serve as an ally to the Muslim community?” to a light-hearted “How are Muslims so cool?”

Tameez says she’s grateful for the opportunity to create dialogue at Emory, where about 325 undergraduate students in Emory College self-identify as Muslim and the MSA has maintained a campus chapter for nearly 25 years.

“Thankfully, at Emory I feel part of a very supported environment,” she says. “It may be a bubble, apart from the rest of the world, but I’m very grateful to be in a place where I feel safe. I’ve had a very positive experience here.”

Tameez grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, the first student at her private, all-girls school to wear a hijab, which she emphasizes is a personal choice, to be decided by each Muslim woman. For her, the scarf serves as a physical reminder of her spiritual beliefs, her devotion to God, and a reminder to live her life with integrity and accountability.

Part of the role of Emory’s MSA is to help others better understand aspects of the faith, Tameez says. To help facilitate that, the campus community is invited to attend a series of free public events scheduled this month.

Events for Islamic Awareness Month range from a public program held last week on being black and Muslim to a Feb. 11 health and fitness promotion event that will bring over 60 Muslim schoolchildren from around Atlanta to campus to meet with former NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and former NCAA women’s basketball player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir.

Remaining events open to the campus community this month include:

  • Islamic Inquiry: An Open Forum — Thursday, Feb. 9, 7:30-8:30 p.m., Candler Library, Room 124
  • Muslims and Mental Health — Wednesday, Feb. 15, 6-8 p.m., Psychology and Interdisciplinary Sciences building (PAIS) 290
  • Muslims Today — Tuesday, Feb. 21, 6:30-8 p.m., Mathematics and Science Center (MSC) E208
  • Celebrate Islam — Friday, Feb. 24, time and location to be announced.

To learn more about Islamic Awareness Month at Emory, visit here or write emory.u.msa@gmail.com.