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.
You may have seen her wearing a dark hijab (head scarf) at the grocery store, shopping at the mall, or picking up her child from school. A part of you may be curious to get to know who she is, but intimidation holds you back from saying hello. Obviously, you’ll need to gauge the appropriateness of the situation to decide how or when to reach out, but wherever and whenever the opportunity arises, here are five tips to help you engage in conversation with a Muslim woman:
1. Be respectful, but curious.
In any interaction, strong or insensitive comments make for a defensive conversation. Instead, through your inquiries and exchange, be openly curious and listen to what she has to say. Once you establish in your tone and responses that you respect her regardless of different beliefs or upbringings, it opens the possibility for comfortable, natural conversation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Asking questions eliminates the fear of assumptions, and it allows her voice to be the direct source. She is likely well-aware of the assumptions the world has about Muslims, and most Muslims would welcome the opportunity to clarify the misconceptions you may have.
2. Don’t feel the need to respond to each and every religious comment.
Living in America, we’re not used to religion coming into our conversations regularly. But for a Muslim woman, her religion is more than just her faith; it is deeply integrated into her life socially and institutionally, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if it comes up in conversation. Family dynamics, the way she prepares food, the way she eats, the way she steps into a room, and so many other major and minor life rituals are dictated by Islamic tradition. It can be easy to feel pressure to respond to each comment with a “Christian” response in a misguided effort to share Christ. However, God didn’t burden us with this pressure. He calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Any saving work is done by the Holy Spirit—not by your timely repartees. If you feel led by the Spirit to share your beliefs, feel free to. But realize you’re doing so not to prove her wrong, but out of obedience to God.
3. Realize that foreign-born Muslim women are not in their element—especially when they have immigrated recently.
Even if she has a large support group of family and friends in America, this is still not her home country. American culture is vastly different from Muslim and Middle Eastern culture. The latter is more collective and conservative, while the former is significantly more liberal and individualistic. On top of these differences, world news reports of Qur’an burnings and Muslim women being attacked creates understandable apprehension. If someone were to randomly come up to you and start a conversation without any preamble, you would likely be confused and skeptical of their intentions too. As a female, she is more vulnerable in our culture, which does not always understand or respect the boundaries she is used to. With this in mind, be smart and sensitive about how you approach her.
4. See past her veil.
Get to know her interests, passions, and talents. A Muslim woman is not just a missional objective for you as a Christian. She is a human being, made in the image of God. Her background, her culture, and her religion do not make up all of who she is, just like being a Christian isn’t all there is to you. It would make for a very imperialistic, one-dimensional conversation if you only sought her out to convert her and didn’t try to become her friend first.
5. Share yourself as well.
While you may be curious to find out more about her and her story, building a relationship is about mutual sharing and vulnerability. Freely open yourself to her and her questions. Make yourself known to her—that is how you build trust and intimacy for deeper friendships. This is the foundation that will allow you to share your beliefs and faith as well. Don’t be afraid to be vocal about your faith through the medium of your own life and story. If you’ve established your conversation on respect and understanding, she will be more than willing to hear what you have to say.
When we boil this all down, these suggestions can work for any new friendship you develop with a non-Christian. By approaching someone respectfully, building a relationship instead of just seeking to convert, and sharing and listening to each other’s stories, you open the door for mutual learning, growth, and love.
Karis Lee is a former editorial intern for Today’s Christian Woman. She and her family have lived the Middle East since she was 12 years old. Upon moving back to America 2 years ago, Karis is now a student at Wheaton College in Illinois pursuing her BA in English Writing and Journalism.