I have a very dear friend named Sofi. I’ve known her for more than twenty years. We met on the train to New York. Back then we both commuted to NYC daily. When we met, Sofi’s daughter, Nazneen, was probably only eight years old and her son, Faizaan, had not been born yet. Nazneen has since graduated from college and graduate school and is now married and teaching at an all-girl Charter school in the Bronx. Faizaan is in his third year of college studying Nursing and a member of the Army ROTC. They both call me Aunt Sally.
Born in India, a Hindu country, Sofi is Muslim. I was raised Catholic. We never really talked about religion. I remember she fasted prior to Ramadan, but that’s as close as we ever got to discussing religious practices. On our daily commute, we mostly shared complaints about work and discussed whatever was going on with our families and friends.
Every year Sofi brought Nazneen and Faizaan to my Christmas Tree Trim Party. They joyfully helped decorate the tree. I can still remember a 3 or 4-year old Faizaan squealing gleefully as he threw fake snow at the tree branches. Aside from not eating my baked ham, they participated fully in my holiday traditions. And every year, one of the first Christmas cards I receive is from Sofi.
When Nazneen got married a few years ago, I was invited to the pre-wedding party for women only. It was a very rainy day, but that did not affect the festive atmosphere within the enormous tent set up for the party. I recall the brightly colored pillows that adorned the center “stage” area, and the many beautifully wrapped gifts. Nazneen was dressed in a rich, yellow outfit with red trim and the women took turns feeding her from dishes of specially prepared treats, wishing her all the best in her marriage. A Mehendi artist had painted an intricate pattern of beautiful henna designs on Nazneen’s hands and feet. And there was music and dancing. The young women clad in their gorgeous saris took turns on the dance floor. It was quite magical.
A few days later, I went to the wedding…the first Muslim religious ceremony I’d ever attended. Similar to every other wedding I’ve been to, there were prayers. What I remember most, however, was the Moun Dikhai Ritual. Once the marriage was solemnized, the bride and groom sat beside one another, and the groom got to see his bride, who had been veiled up to this point, through a mirror. There was something very sweet about that moment. Afterward there was food…lots of food, speeches, celebrating. Family had traveled from all over the world to attend the event. It was quite wonderful.
When I first met Sofi, she didn’t wear a veil, but she started to wear one a few years ago. Funny, but we never discussed that either. I actually learned about the religious beliefs behind “hijab”, or the wearing of the veil when I taught at Montclair State University. The reader I used included an enlightening essay by a Muslim student explaining that the notion that wearing a veil is oppressive and degrading to women is a misunderstanding of the practice. She stated that for Muslim women the veil is a means of achieving the Islamic ideals of honor, modesty, and stability. My favorite line in that essay is “Americans share these ideals, yet fail to recognize them in the context of a different culture.”
In light of world events over the past two weeks, I am profoundly grateful that what I know for sure about Muslims is what I learned from Sofi and that student essay.