When Forest Park resident Sarah Reich heard that the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at the University of Illinois – Chicago was providing an opportunity for non-Muslim female students to wear the head scarf, called the “hijab,” for a week, she intuitively knew she had to take advantage of the opportunity.
Reich, a senior psychology major who will graduate from UIC in May, wrote the following in the MSA newsletter: “I knew from the moment I woke up Monday morning this was something I had to do. No, I am not Muslim. No, I do not plan on becoming Muslim, yet the opportunity to embrace a faith different than my own could not be passed up. When a person shows their beliefs every day [by wearing the hijab] despite prejudice, it is inspirational.”
Reich said that she felt immediately accepted when she approached the table in the UIC student center where MSA members were handing out hijabs to the young women who wanted to participate in what they were calling “A Week of Modesty.” The MSA female students gave her a hijab as a gift and helped her put in on correctly. She then attended a lecture given by a Christian who had converted to Islam and who presented the basics of his adopted religion.
On Tuesday, she wore the hijab all day and went to a lecture titled, “Six Feet Under, Anticipating the Inevitable,” which laid out what Muslims believe happens to people after they die. “Deep stuff,” Reich recalled with a smile.
“I really did not receive weird looks from anyone,” she recalled. “Since my school is diverse, people may have thought it was different for a white girl to wear a hijab, but on campus I had no strange reactions. On the el rides home, no one bothered me or treated me differently. I am lucky to live near Chicago because many universities in smaller towns or cities would not be so accepting of this.”
Ash Wednesday was the day that really impacted the 24-year-old college student. “When I say I’m going to do something I do it fully. I went to the Mass at Ascension [in Oak Park] wearing the hijab. I got my ashes while wearing the hijab.”
She then added a statement that reveals as much about her outlook as it does about the attitudes of the people at Ascension. “No one said anything. Ascension is a more modern church. No one was looking at me funny. People who are devout in any religion wouldn’t do that, but I was self-conscious because I didn’t want them to think I was trying to make a scene.”
That day she also wore the hijab in the presence of her parents and started telling them about the lectures she was attending. “I was impressed by how accepting they were that I was doing this,” she said. “My mom even said she wished she had a hijab because it was so pretty.”
“The lecture that day,” she added, “was on the Qur’an. It made me realize how similar it is to the Bible in many ways.”
Thursday was the high point of the week for the MSA. They put on a dinner which was attended by 150 students. The sisters, as Reich refers to the women in the MSA, wouldn’t let her stand in line but insisted on serving her the food which she said was “incredible.”
On Friday, those who participated in the week’s activities gathered and watched as the Muslim female students who had decided to wear the hijab permanently took what was called, “the pledge of modesty.” They also shared their experiences during the week. Most were very positive, but one young woman said two of her friends stopped talking to her when they saw her wearing the head scarf.
“I didn’t know any of the sisters personally before the week began,” Reich concluded, “so I was still judging them by their appearance. Now I got to know them as individuals. I learned that they are beautiful and devout, but they’re also college students who like to joke around.
“The week also made me stronger in my own Christian faith,” she concluded. “You can only really know your own faith fully when you experience other faiths.”