UConn Salaam held the panel “Demystifying What it Means to be Muslim” Wednesday, consisting of Zach Guarino, Marwan Youssef, Haya Jarad and Alaa Osman to share the experiences of Muslim students on campus and how they have encountered Islamophobia.
The panel provided a variety of perspectives, with two boys and two girls represented, each from different backgrounds. Of the four students on the panel, Guarino is the only UConn alum, as well as the only one to convert to Islam.
The panel was first asked about their experience praying at UConn compared to in Muslim countries. Jarad said prayers are easier to observe in Muslim countries and regions, such as Palestine where her family is from, compared to in the U.S. Youssef agreed, saying in Egypt everyone knew when the Church bells rang it was time for prayers, but here he needs to have a reminder set on his phone. He also found people in the U.S. are far less religious, but he enjoys the religious diversity in UConn students, since Egypt consists largely of Christian and Muslim people. Guarino said he sometimes feels uncomfortable praying in public, since he has been yelled at by passersby before when he’s done so with friends.
Jarad explained the reason there is anxiety over praying publicly is because, unlike in most religions, Islamic prayers can’t be discreet, as they have a physical component.
The panel was then asked if they ever had any experiences with Islamophobia. Jarad said she had been the only Muslim woman working in the research lab she had interned in this past summer, and that some of her co-workers came up to her at the end of the summer saying their opinion of Islam had changed for the better from getting to know her.
“I am not saying I am perfect as a Muslim,” Youssef said. “You can’t judge my religion, but you can judge me.”
The panel was also asked about food restrictions. Youssef said he has found it difficult to get the breakfast food he likes, because most of the meat available in the dining halls are pork-based. He said Towers is the only dining hall that provides Halal meat he can eat, which is outrageous considering the number of dining halls on campus.
The panel was asked if being Muslim has any impact on their ability to identify as American. Guarino said nothing about being part of Islam affects his identity as an American, especially considering that Islam states you need to follow the laws of the country you’re in. Youssef said being American means being whatever you want, whether that means being Christian or Muslim, or anything else. He said you can believe whatever you want as long as you don’t infringe on the beliefs of those around you. He pointed out that there have always been exclusion of certain minorities in American history, but he believes Muslims, like the Irish and other minorities before them, will be integrated and accepted fully as time goes on.
Jarad said it’s offensive that many Americans equate all Muslims to the radical Muslims from 9/11. She said they do not represent the whole of Islam or the Muslim people.
The panel was also asked about the pressure of aspects of college, like drinking, that are banned in Islam. Guarino said he had never experienced lasting pleasure from activities like drinking, and he hasn’t missed it since he converted to Islam. He said he is fine doing regular activities like watching movies with his friends.
Osman said she felt a lot of pressure in high school to fit in, but that this pressure has largely disappeared since she started college. Youssef said it was a culture shock for him, going from Egypt where it was a scandal to see someone drink to UConn where drinking is everywhere. He found in Egypt, where alcohol was taxed 200%, drinking wasn’t an option. Here, it has become a choice for him, but one he finds easy to refuse.
The panel was asked about misconceptions they have heard about Muslims. Guarino said he found a lot of people were shocked to see he was a white Muslim person, because people often picture Muslims as Arab people. Guarino said he even found this misconception amongst other Muslims.
“The way I adjust that [people’s confusion at his being a white Muslim] is just talking about my experience, the choices that I’ve made and why I can be myself,” Guarino said.
Jarad said she found many people assume she is oppressed because she wears a headscarf, when, in reality, she is from an encouraging, kind family. She said her boss this past summer was even shocked she could drive, assuming she wouldn’t be allowed to.
“The best thing to do is kill them [assumptions] with kindness,” Jarad said.
Osman and Jarad were asked directly if they ever felt anxious about wearing their head scarves. Jarad said she decided to wear it as a child when she first started public school, having gone to a Muslim private elementary school.
“No girl has the same relationship with their headscarf, just like no one has the same relationship with their hair,” Jarad said.
Osman said she wears her head scarf for god and the values she upholds. She said she’s not afraid of wearing the headscarf because, as a black woman, she has faced racism with or without it. Unlike her race, she can take her head scarf on and off. Jarad pointed out that huge sections of Islam are devoted to protecting the rights of women in a legal sense, saying the first law made in Islam was no one could bury their living child based on gender, and that the religion is in no way oppressive of women. She said stories like child brides or girls who are forced to wear head scarves are cultural, and by no means stated or endorsed by Islam. Youssef said male inheritance laws and similar laws are in place for historical or cultural purposes, rather than due to sexism.
“Understand what’s behind the scarf, not the scarf itself,” Youssef said.
As the panel geared down, they were asked how they deal with fasting for Ramadon on campus, now that the holiday falls during the school year. Jarad said fasting is incredibly difficult and makes studying a lot harder, but by doing it in college dorms, where you aren’t policed by relatives, you are able to train your ability to say no to yourself. She said this self-control has translated to doing what’s right in other aspects of her life like completing assignments and getting up for class in the morning. Osman said it gets easier as the month goes on, and it gives her something to look forward to at the end of the day. Youssef said he finds it completely worth it, since one month of hunger expunges any sin he committed in the previous 11 months. He did concede, though, that he finds it difficult not to drink water for almost 16 hours each day.
“I think I took out of this that there’s way more of a community than I realized and that they’re actually active on campus and getting things done, like getting more Halal in the dining hall,” Kerry Doran, a seventh-semester civil engineering major, said. “That was a big thing. I learned a little about their religion as well, which was pretty neat.”
The panelists said they get support and resources on campus from the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and UConn Salaam, which is a subset of the Asian American Cultural Center, and that these places welcome all students to stop by. Before they left, they asked audience members to sign their petition to get more Halal food in the dining halls.
“Because there are so few of us on campus, I would say I definitely have had touching moments with the other Muslims on campus,” Abeer Mohamed, a seventh-semester psychology major, said. “I’ve definitely faced challenges as well because when I first came here, that was during the election time, so it was a very difficult time for me. But the community here has definitely helped me stay strong.
Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.