Hawraa Kamal, a Marietta College student from Kuwait, walked downtown Sept. 7, 2012, during her first month in America. An unfamiliar car pulled up beside her, and a man stepped out and began walking toward her. Without saying a word, he held up a cross, letting it linger inches from her face. Unsure of how to respond, Kamal calmly smiled at him. The man remained stoic, and after a few moments, retreated to his car and drove away.
Kamal, a 19-year-old freshman majoring in petroleum engineering, is a Muslim student who adheres to the traditional garb of the Islamic faith. She wears a hijab, or head covering, to conceal her hair as a form of modesty.
Kamal was confused by the man’s advance. She questioned the timing of the incident, which occurred four days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“My mom said, ‘maybe he thinks that you will disappear,’” Kamal said. “I don’t know why.”
Kamal is one of three Muslim females who attended Marietta College last semester. This is not the first time Muslim females have been enrolled here. However, Kamal and Eiman AlAbdullah, also 19, are the first two to have ever worn traditional Islamic dress, said Dr. Robert Pastoor, vice president of student life.
Because of this, they felt they faced discrimination, making their assimilation into American small-town life difficult.
“Were we prepared well enough for that?” Pastoor said. “Probably not.”
All three of the women will transfer to other American universities where they believe they will be more accepted.
Assistant Professor of Communication Dr. Tomeka Robinson describes herself as an “unofficial mentor” to Kamal and the other Muslim females on campus. Robinson does not identify as Muslim but was raised by an Islamic father. She said wearing the hijab makes the students more visible in an otherwise homogenous community.
“The scarf is the problem,” Kamal said.
According to a Brown University study on diversity from Sep. 2012, the Marietta-Parkersburg-Vienna region is 96 percent white, topping the charts as the second least diverse area in the nation. Its only competitor is Laredo, Texas, which is 95.6 percent Hispanic. This situates Marietta College in the whitest part of the country.
“…Most residents do not have the opportunity to interact and get to know visitors from other countries,” said Josh Schlicher, Marietta City Council president. “Marietta also has an older population that have a familiar territory and when that changes there is usually a time of adaptation. Unfortunately we don’t know how long that may take.”
Fatma Alostath, 19, began her first semester at the University of Dayton this month after spending three semesters as a Marietta College student.
“If you wear the hijab, people are racist here,” Alostath said. “The college is good. It’s just the town. They’re close-minded.”
Alostath does not wear a hijab. As a result, she feels she has been able to blend in more easily, but said she is still subjected to unwelcoming stares from the community.
In adherence to the Koran, some Islamic women dress conservatively, covering their hair in front of unfamiliar men. A Muslim woman’s father, husband and brothers are the only men who may see it. Wearing the hijab is an expression of modesty, meant to communicate the value of a woman. In Kuwait, there is no law requiring women to wear a hijab, but Kamal willingly chooses to do so.
“Our religion thinks the woman is like a diamond,” Kamal said.
“It’s almost like (being) a queen,” AlAbdullah said. “Not everyone can just go and kiss the queen.”
AlAbdullah explained that a woman’s hair embodies her beauty and can be attractive to men.
“That’s why we cover it,” she said. “If you want to wear it, you can wear it. That’s fine. If you don’t, you don’t.”
In addition to being seen as outsiders, living in Marietta makes finding meals each day a trying task for the women because they do not have easy access to affordable halal food. Similar to kosher food in the Jewish faith, halal is meat that has been prepared humanely according to Islamic religious texts. In the absence of halal, the women simply eat vegetables.
“We are struggling with everything,” AlAbdullah said.
Housing is also an issue. The students are unable to live on campus for religious reasons, contributing to feelings of isolation. To live in residence halls, the students would require a personal bathroom and a private environment. Without this, they cannot conveniently pray five times a day, as laid out by Islamic tradition. Additionally, The Koran forbids being in the presence of alcohol, a risk that cannot be eliminated in campus housing.
“If I were on campus, I would be involved in a lot of events, and I would meet more people,” Alostath said. “[The administration] probably should make private rooms for [us] on campus…that would help.”
A few faculty administrators have recognized this issue, but it is more complex than it appears on the surface.
“Even if there was an all-female dorm, it wouldn’t work because it’s not all Muslim-female,” Pastoor said.
Pastoor and Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Danford are considering visiting the Kuwaiti embassy in Washington, D.C. They will discuss the possibility of the Kuwaiti government funding the education of more women at Marietta College. If this happens, the administration wants to better prepare to meet the students’ needs.
“It’s unfair to bring them here if we can’t meet those requirements,” Pastoor said.
Pastoor believes that Marietta College is not the only institution facing challenges in assimilating Muslim students. However, Marietta College has a larger population of them compared to similar colleges because of its petroleum engineering program.
Though students and faculty may be more exposed to this culture, this does not mean the atmosphere has been entirely welcoming to these students. Kamal and AlAbdullah have both had problems in the classroom. On the first day of her chemistry lab, Kamal felt rejected by her peers when trying to find a partner for group work.
“They just look at me like I’m a stranger,” she said. “When I go to this class, I feel like everybody doesn’t like me.”
So disturbed by this, Kamal chose to drop the class.
On campus, these acts of discrimination have been isolated events, according to Pastoor and the students. However, in the community, the prejudice has been more pronounced. Kamal and AlAbdullah said children stare at them as they walk through Wal-Mart, pointing at their head garb and asking, “Mommy, what’s that?”
“We allowed them to live off campus thinking that would take care of their needs,” Pastoor said. “I don’t think we gave a lot of thought to the fact that the community was not going to be as welcoming.”
Local business owner Steve Barros has lived in Marietta for 16 years. Having moved from New York City, Barros noticed the extreme absence of diversity in his new surroundings. Those who are not local could be subjected to discrimination, he said.
“There are people in this town that have never been on a bus, train or plane—that have never left this area,” Barros said.
Barros said that most of the people he has met in Marietta are genuinely nice, but others are “so close-minded it’s terrible.”
“I’m not just going to pinpoint Marietta,” he said. “You’ll find that everywhere.”
Oftentimes, the only cross-cultural education people have comes from the media, in which a few extremist groups have skewed many Americans’ perceptions of Islam, Barros said. In Kuwait, however, children are taught about diverse cultures and religions from a young age, Kamal said.
“This is the American problem: you don’t know about us, but we know about you,” she said.
Alostath agreed that American media give a false impression of people in her country.
“(They say) we have war, we live in the desert and we don’t have information,” she said.
Contrary to this assumption, Alostath said in Kuwait, people are helpful and live in close community with each other.
“White, black or whatever, we’re all the same,” she said. “We accept outsiders. We don’t have any trouble with that.”
Alostath, Kamal, and AlAbdullah desire more genuine interaction with Americans who are curious about their culture. Each woman is happy to answer questions rather than being a victim of assumption.
“I just want them to respect me like I respect them,” Kamal said.
Though many Americans have inaccurate impressions of Islam, the Muslim women hope their time in Marietta has changed the perspectives of the people with which they have interacted.
Kamal’s passive response to the man with the cross was not because of a lack of words. It was the result of her devotion to the teachings of the Islamic faith.
“I did not want to talk to him; I just wanted to smile because of Islam.”