I am privileged to work in a context where I meet amazing and very diverse people every day. When I moved into my new professional position in Southern California, I experienced a bit of culture shock after spending most of my life in places to the north and out of the limelight. The first time I attended a party and complimented a woman on her beautiful blue jacket only to have her respond with "who" she was wearing, I realized I was not in "Kansas" anymore. She was very kind and was not making any statement about me - this was her world - but my immediate reaction was intimidation, if not shame. Next I went to a yoga class and discovered California chic exercise attire, not to mention a cocktail hour where anything other than black clothing was startling. Each time I turned around I seemed to be dressed "wrong." I soon learned that the best a professional woman can do is never to try and dress "right," but to simply do ones best not to stand out too much (the unstated, crisp look of Ann Taylor Factory Store outlet has become my new best friend).
Enter Muslim women into this professional world. Some are young mothers, first or second generation Americans. Some are hijabi by choice, with heads covered, others are not - but all dress somewhat conservatively out of respect for God, family and religion. Which means dress, let alone practicing their religion, can set these women apart from the culture around them. That is not to say there is no fashion involved - indeed their fashions are quite intricate. Yet what I have learned from these close friends of mine is there is no shame in not fitting in perfectly with the women around you.
Instead, I am struck by a humility that is not self-effacing, but rather a graciousness combined with healthy self-esteem. I have learned their clothing and practice of faith reflects a wish to honor the Divine as well as a conviction that anyone can be herself in America and be respected. I have learned the way they are raising their children is with the best of the American dream in mind - offering girls and boys the best opportunities for education, sports, culture, and religious instruction so they can fully develop themselves. I have learned they are optimistic that growing up in this context, their little girls will have full rights and their little boys will deeply respect women.
I have learned from my Muslim women friends what it means to be an American. It does not mean worrying about superficiality, such as standing out or blending in. It means fully embracing American values of freedom, opportunity and family.
Ironically at a time when Muslims are under attack as anti-American, we learn from them what some of us have forgotten - that at its heart, this is a land of freedom and opportunity. I am deeply grateful and honored by their presence in my life and community, and hope I can gain even a portion of the self-esteem and optimism I see in my friends every time we meet.