I warily eyed the ugly storm outside the windows of the grocery store. I quickly grabbed the last few items on my list and turned the corner to head toward the bakery section. Out of the corner of my eye a flash of black interrupted my lustful glances at the cakes display. A Muslim woman in a full, black abaya glided swiftly past me toward the checkout with two little children chasing after her. She must have recently moved to the area, or she was particularly religious, because only her eyes were exposed. Even her children were dressed in traditional tunics.
The familiar Arabic greeting, which I had exchanged countless times growing up in the Middle East, caught in my throat as she rushed by. By the time I awoke from my daze, the opportunity to talk with her had already passed. I paid for my groceries and beat myself up all the way home. It would have been wonderful to reach out, find out where she was from, and have a friendly conversation about my experience living in the Middle East. But it occurred to me that while I had instantly been drawn to the familiarity of her veils, others may be hesitant and unsure about how to engage in conversation with a Muslim woman in America.
The general uncertainty surrounding American and Middle Eastern foreign relations can sometimes create an awkward mental schism for daily social interactions with Muslim women. But this is a schism that needs to be bridged. As of 2010, there were more than two million Muslims living in the United States, and that number is predicted to more than double over the next two decades according to the Pew Research Center. While there are a significant number of native-born Muslims, almost two-thirds of the Muslim population in the U.S. is first-generation immigrants. It’s common for Muslim men to come to the U.S. to work and study, but often their wives can be very isolated.1