On Wednesday, Feb. 6, the Maine Multicultural Center hosted an event called “Unveiling the Veil: Truths About Muslim Women in Maine.” Dina Yacoubagha and Marwa Elkelani shared their experiences as Muslim women in Maine and discussed common misconceptions surrounding women in their religion.
Yacoubagha is a Syrian native that came to the United States 22 years ago. She first moved to Houston and then to Canada when her husband’s J-1 Visa expired. The couple then moved to Maine and raised two children. She originally came to America to pursue a masters and doctorate in linguistics, but changed her mind and got her masters in social work from the University of Maine. She now does volunteer work, mostly for Food AND Medicine, a non-profit that helps low-income people address the root causes of poverty.
Elkelani was born in Alexandria, Egypt before her family moved to Oklahoma so that her father could pursue higher education. She obtained a technical writing degree from Oklahoma State University and then went on to pursue a linguistics degree. She described how her family incorporated American culture into their lives but still maintained a strong Islamic presence in their home.
Despite the different background and cultures of these women and others in Maine, they are able to form connections through their faith.
Elkelani and Yacoubagha discussed common misconceptions about Muslim women, particularly about the hijab. A hijab is a scarf or head covering that women wear to cover their hair and neck. Elkelani explained that wearing the hijab is something that women wear to please Allah however, women have the right to decide if they want to cover or not. The religion itself does not force women to wear the hijab, it is the culture that enforces it. Elkelani explained that her family never forced her to cover but encouraged it; she decided to cover when she was ready. Yacoubagha experienced the opposite, she said that she did not cover until she felt she was ready. When she made this decision, her family questioned why she decided to cover. While their families had differing perspectives on the hijab, both agreed deciding to wear the hijab empowered these women.
Yacoubagha further explained that any social misconceptions about women who wear the hijab, such as their education status or social oppression, are not representative of the whole. Yacoubagha explained that Islam teaches tolerance and acceptance of others and instead of passing judgement on other women, they look to each other as role models. They hope that Muslim women will see each other finishing their education or breaking free of social oppression and that will encourage others to follow suit.
In the United States, there is social and political pressure on immigrants to assimilate to American culture. Many schools typically decorate for Christmas, celebrate traditional Christian holidays and have school dances.
“We are against assimilation because of our religion,” Yacoubagha said. “I want my kids to have experiences with their friends … We try to talk about this Islamically not culturally… [my children] understand.”
Elkelani said the United States should be seen “as a salad bowl not a melting pot.” At a salad bar there are individual vegetables, dressings and toppings; every item maintains its identity in a salad. In a melting pot, individual identities are melded together, and they lose pieces of their identity. Instead of feeling pressured to assimilate to American norms and shed their religion, Muslim’s can embrace their faith and culture and still enjoy parts of American culture.
Elkelani and Yacoubagha hope to continue to share their faith and bridge gaps between Islam and other religions in the greater-Bangor community. They currently speak at different schools in the area through the Maine Multicultural Center to share their experiences and create a more tolerant environment for everyone.