Talk Transcript: Islam in America

Karima Berkani knows better than most the difficulties of trying to straddle two cultures. The 24-year-old daughter of an Algerian-born Muslim father and an American-born Roman Catholic mother, Berkani was raised in a bireligious household. Her parents taught her to believe in God, but left the faith of choice up to her. When she was 17, she chose Islam, and ever since she has been dealing with the question of how to live her life as a good Muslim in one of the nation’s most liberal, all-American towns. NEWSWEEK's Alexandra Gekas spoke with Berkani about her life in Madison, Wis., and her work as a political activist in Palestinian and anti-Iraq War movements. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Do you wear the hijab?
Karima Berkani:
Not anymore. I went through a period where I wore it before September 11, and after [the 9/11 attacks] I tried to keep it up for almost a year, but [I was] being accosted. Although I could deal with it, my parents had a problem with it. I was attracting attention, and it was creating a huge divide in my family. They thought it wasn't safe for me to wear it.

What are the major dilemmas you face about wearing the headscarf or not?
My personal interpretation of what Islam is asking of me is that I dress modestly. I don't think the Qur'an insists on the hijab, I don't think it's required of me, but at the same time I do feel that I should follow the example of Muhammad's wives, who covered their heads. It's also a lifestyle, and I felt like it was easier to be an active Muslim by separating myself from American culture. And if I wanted to pray, boom, I already had the veil on. It also easily identified me as Muslim to other Muslims, and it made it much easier to dress modestly.

When you decided to wear the veil, how did non-Muslims react to you?
A lot of my good friends, who I was friends with before I started wearing the hijab, we stopped being friends, because they just didn't get it. A year or two after that there was more tolerance.

And how did people react to you when you were wearing the veil?
I love talking to old people, but I felt like when I was wearing hijab there was more fear from them than willingness to talk to a nice girl in the grocery store. I would get really sympathetic looks from some women and they would be way too nice to me, or sometimes I felt like I was deformed, and people were looking, but trying not to look,or people would talk to me like I don't speak English. The October after September 11 I was in my car with another girl who wears hijab and we were driving to an event at the mosque. It was around Halloween, and these drunk guys starting yelling "get a better costume!" But I wasn't wearing a costume.

Was there a big change in the way you were treated after September 11?
After September 11, a lot happened. One time I was walking with my cousin and this college guy ran up to us and was like "You f---ing rag head, go back to where you came from." But I've been living in Madison my whole life, probably longer than him. At airports, I would give people my American passport but they would still assume that I'm an immigrant, that I don't speak English. Going onto an airplane, people would poke the person next to them, point at me and start whispering. And that's what really upset me. People were afraid of me like I was holding a gun to their face, just by existing. But the people who were affected most by it were Muslim men, my male friends and my father, because when I was wearing hijab they got weird looks, too. One time someone asked my father why he makes his daughter wear that, or people would assume my dad is my husband.

Do you feel pressure from the Muslim community because you have chosen not to wear the veil?
I feel like a lot of it is self-induced. There are moments when you see some older man, and you can tell he's really religious. You feel shy, there's a tension like he's going to think I'm [not modest.] But I don't really feel like I've been judged for not wearing it.

To a lot of Americans the veil represents oppression. As an American woman who enjoys freedoms that women don't necessarily enjoy in the Arab world, what is your stance on that?
It depends on the context. If a woman isn't given the right to choose, if she's forced to wear it, then it is a symbol of oppression, as anything would be that you are forced to do. I could say the same thing about American society making me wear short shorts because it's the style. I felt like it was incredibly liberating to wear hijab because I was moving away from that pressure to wear this or that or whether my thighs were OK. I felt like "judge me for what I'm saying as opposed to what I look like."

In the Palestinian territories, there is a divide between religious and secular factions. How does that play out in American activism?
Working on Palestinian issues, I would have these dinners because I felt like we were missing out on new ways to get people into the movement. So I started organizing Palestinian dinners and lectures, and embroidery shows and Debkeh [Palestinian dance] shows, which had nothing to do with politics. They were very apolitical events, but the [religious] Muslim students wouldn't even cosponsor, let alone attend, the event.

What are the major conflicts you face as a young, Muslim American in America?
I think a lot of it, at twentysomething, is about finding a balance between where you're from, your traditions and where you're living. You need to be a productive part of society—Islam requires that of you, whether you're in a Muslim society or not. It's always a struggle to be around people who are different from you and I feel like I've become a lot more tolerant. But at the same time I'm hypersensitive. The second I turn on the news I feel so frustrated. Watching the news you always feel pushed on as a Muslim. Muslims in America have to take an extra step, because we're the newest group. People understand Jewish people and have cultural awareness that doesn't exist for Muslims. It's difficult figuring out where your place is, or even figuring out who am I going to get married to, where am I going to fit. I've met men who are too Western or not Western enough. Especially for Muslims who are first-generation Muslims, our parents raised us with standards from their societies from when they were our age. So many people who live in America are more strict than people in the countries where they're from.

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