Understanding my "Other" Anthropology 618. Final Project

I want to paint a picture of an individual. This is a 'case study' of an Islamic woman. She does not speak for every Muslim, but she has a voice worth listening to. The story comes from the small anecdotes and details she told me. It is told through this presentation, breaking it down so as to paint a complete picture. I would have this project feature as the cover story in a magazine like National Geographic.

My Other's Beliefs and Values

My other's name is Hebah ("hih-bah"). I met her After my Observation of the Islamic Center's evening Prayer.We met in the women's prayer room, where I was able to speak with her 'uncovered.' I felt at though I was being trusted with something special, which in fact, I was.

Centers of Value

WHen I asked Hebah what her centers of Value were, she lit up. She had Such a brightness to her expression that it was natural for me to smile along with her. She told me that her's and all muslim's purpose in life is to worship god, or allah, in "his way." A valuable life was one in which a person lived with the highest level of Character and lived out every action as if it were an act of worship.

Images and Realities of Power

Hebah explained that power in the Islamic world comes directly from Allah. There are no pews in a temple because everyone is equal. The king will pray next to the commoner. The room for prayer is purposefully bare. There are no false idols to be prayed to. Even if they were in the image of Allah, they would be man-made and prayers would be going through a middle man. All prayer in islam is directly between the person and god.

Master Stories

Hebah believes that the master story of Islam is tied to the other religions of the book, Judaism and Christianity. Islam believes in Jesus ("peace be upon him") the prophet. In islam, jesus was the savior that the people needed, but he was not the son of God. Islam does not believe in the holy trinity. The Islamic faith translates to "one who submits to the creator."

The master story involves seeing the good because you have experienced the bad. Islam does not believe in a hierarchy, and knows that every human being believes in security, safety, and providing children with all the opportunities of the future.

"The 24 hour news cycle has skewed Islam as evil and bad, but I believe that all people are fundamentally good. When bad happens, it is a result of cause and effect. People feel justified in their action because it is a reaction to what has happened to them." - Hebah

Four Functions of Religion


Hebah spoke to me about living every single action as if it were worship. She truly believes that every decision during the day should be influenced by a love and devotion to Allah. "This is why we pray 5 times a day," she says. Human nature is forgetful and detrimental. We are self-serving and easily swayed. It is too hard to remember all of the promises you made if you are only praying one time a day, or just one time a week!


The world is the way it is because of who we are as people. To sin is to be human , to be selfish, petty, arrogant. These are all human characteristics, yet Hebah believes that we are all "fundamentally good." The way the news and politics work today means that there is a desperate need for negativity. Politicians thrive on fixing problems, so there must be problems. Lately, Islam has been the scapegoat for these problems. There are people who do bad things for all different reasons, it is not the fault of Islam.


When we spoke about relationships, Hebah talked about the love inside of a family. There is the love between a man and a woman, and the love these parents have for their children. She also talked about how Islam does not give the power of judgement to any one soul living on earth. Again, Islam is between you and Allah. If you are asking for forgiveness, are sincere about it, then begin to live your life in the way you see is correct, then Allah has forgiven you. It is not up to a human to decide if you are doing things correctly or if you have been saved. Society is ruled by each person completely submitting themselves to the creator.


'Wisdom for life' to Hebah means sincerity, modesty, and submission. Not submission in the sense of being overpowered, but in the way of placing complete trust and faith in the plan of the creator. She sees this in the way Muslims pray. When their bodies are folded to the ground in a position of vulnerability, it is because they are expressing their true submission to Allah. To be modest is to give the utmost value to a person. Hebah's sense of confidence and the knowledge of who she is within her own life and in her marriage comes from her covered appearance. She knows that only her family members get to see her and that people in the real world "have to deal with [her] brain, [she] doesn't give them any other option!"

"People seem to think that our covering is a form of oppression, but they are wrong. This is my choice. I know that only my husband gets to look at me and I get to choose when my body is seen. In fact, if my husband asked me to uncover, we'd have a very serious conversation about why he wanted me to be out in front of other men as his trophy wife."

Key Features of the Broader Culture


Islam Operates on 5 Pillars of Belief:

Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith.

Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day.

Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy.

Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca.

Social Structure

The Social Structure of Islam Is based on the belief that man and woman were created equal, but differently. Man and Woman are complementary. Man is supposed to be the provider and Protector. the woman is supposed to a good wife and mother. First and foremost, these are their responsibilities, but they may do more if their original roles are met.

"Islam makes clear to all men that they have come from the same parents and are therefore brothers and equal as human beings. Allah created a human couple to herald the beginning of the life of mankind on earth, and everybody living in the world today originates from this couple."

Islam 101: http://www.islam101.com/sociology/socialOrder.htm


In the Islamic world, everything is centralized in Mecca and with the Hajj. Prayer is always facing toward Mecca wherever the person is located. In terms of exchange, every person is equal under Islam. There is no hierarchy in the Islamic faith. The individual who stands at the front of the group praying is called the imam, or "one who leads the prayer." This is not a solidified position. Prayers are usually led by the member of the group who is the most knowledgeable or has memorized the most scripture from the Qur'an. If this person in absent, another will lead the prayer. Additionally, Islamic temples do not have pews. Those taking part in prayer stand side by side in rows, as equals.

Other's Worldview

Hebah's worldview consists of the people she comes into immediate contact with. She does not live by what the media says about her culture or her religion. In order to live a life with the highest character, she performs every action with the creator in mind. Her purpose in life is to live in His way. This means partaking in the gender roles established by Allah. Men and women were created equal, but different. The way to be pure in the eyes of the creator is to be sincere in your intentions.

Lines of Relationship

There is a sense of mutual constitution between Hebah and her local Islamic community. She grows in her own faith because she is supported by them and they consequently grow in their faith because she is a confident, vibrant example of peaceful, faithful practice.

Structural History

I would place Hebah in the 'Compartmentalization and Privatization' stage. This is because Hebah does not wish to see what is happening on a global scale. There is too much violence for her. It is difficult to remain positive if all she is seeing is negative images of her faith. Hebah has chosen to focus on her direct circle of interaction and influence. She has no power to change the big picture, so why worry about it. Things will happen and she will react to them with her family as the top priority. She is able to compartmentalize the anger and aggression being directed at her and focus on her faith privately. It is commendable that she feels so secure in her faith that she can tune out the negativity of the world and create an environment of positivity for her community and family.

Core Dynamic

Covering --> Staring --> Questions --> Confidence--^-----------------------------------------------------------------

This dynamic was explained to me by Hebah. It seems quite backwards, but from her perspective, I was able to understand her thinking. Hebah started covering only 5 days after 9/11. The days following the chaos were in fact terrifying for peaceful Muslims in the United States. Hebah was seeing news that reported Muslim women uncovering because they were scared of the actions that may be taken against them. It was their fear that finally gave Hebah the confidence to cover. She says that she has since found her true confidence. She notices the stares on campus or in public and knows that she has to 'be smart' about where she goes, but "don't all women?" she says. Hebah sees and feels the staring, but she encourages people to ask questions if they are curious. She is trying to promote a positive view of Islam to her community. Every time she makes a new friend or can answer a simple question, Hebah's confidence in her choice to cover grows. She knows who she is and that people have to respect her for her thoughts and opinions, not her body.

Hebah's Habitus

Hebah is an open person. She willingly talked about her faith and some of her main beliefs after just meeting me. She has told me a few of her habits and everyday behavior, but I have also observed a few things that help paint a full picture of who this woman is. Hebah is a loud, confident person. These characteristics translate into being an outspoken leader. Taking her Gender role into consideration, I would apply this role as a leader to the other women in her community. Hebah would not consider it her place to command or lead the men. In a private setting with her husband, they are complete equals, but in society, the men's role as protector and provider must be respected and acknowledged.

Hebah is extremely intelligent. She went to Kansas State University and received her degree in engineering. She is also a very warm, welcoming person which makes her naturally accomplished at speaking. It was easy to let her talk about her faith uninterrupted. she is a strong woman who is raising her kids with concrete morals and a positive disposition. Her own disposition is one of happiness. Hebah is a passionate individual. I couldn't believe how open she was with me throughout our conversation. We talked about many controversial topics, religion obviously being the main focus, but also the violence and negativity that is currently surrounding her faith. Hebah's choice to avoid social media and any media in general shows me that her priorities lie with her family and the current events that are directly influencing their lives.


The most important relationships to hebah are the purely submissive relationship she has with the creator, the loving, equal marriage she shares with her husband, and the merciful, unconditional love she has for her children. One Thing Hebah said to me about a mother's love for her Children was this: Of the 1oo mercies God has created, only one exists on earth. That is the love a mother feels for her children. The other 99 mercies are waiting for us on judgement day. To hebah, this is just a glimpse of the creator's power. It REITERATES her opinion that no person on earth has the power to decide your fate. We have no idea what is waiting for us and all we can do is love our families and live our lives the Way the creator has told us to.

Hebah's entire livelihood is based in her faith and the validity to which she holds these beliefs. If she were to change her opinion, she would also be changing her way of life. This is not an overstatement. Hebah admittedly lives out every decision and action with Allah's true life as an example and goal. Losing sight of that vision would shatter the structure in Hebah's life. In addition, she would lose the trust and support of her community which is central to Hebah's life.

Cultural Capital

Embodied: Hebah spoke with no accent and used proper english grammar. The way in which she speaks clearly communicates the fact that she is educated and knowledgeable.

Objectified: As far as I could tell, material objects were not a high priority for Hebah. In addition to not owning a TV or radio, Hebah's family has one car and during our discussions, material possessions were rarely, if ever mentioned.

Institutionalized: hebah has an engineering degree, which is extremely prestigious in any circle. In addition to her academic accomplishments, Hebah would consider her marriage to be an institutional cultural capital. It is an element of status to be a married women in the Islamic Culture.

Hebah theHero

1. Hebah was born a Muslim. She did not choose the family or society she was born into, but accepted it just the same. In the past few decades, the Islamic faith has been the victim of media scrutiny and internal conflict. For this and other personal reasons, Hebah wasn't comfortable 'covering' even though she felt it was the right thing to do in her faith.

2. The attacks on September 11, 2001 were horrific and shocked the world into an uneducated hatred for all Muslim people. Hebah heard news of Muslim women uncovering because they were scared of the reactions or threats they would or had received. Only 5 days after 9/11, Hebah found the strength and confidence to cover. She saw the actions of these other women as desperate pleas for strength. If they were not strong enough to stand for the Islamic faith, Hebah would be an example and stand for them.

3. I don't know if Hebah had a specific mentor in her journey, but if she had a vision of who to follow, it would be the creator himself. Remembering that Hebah does not believe in worshiping false idols, I see her asking for advice or guidance, but her true mentor and strength is in the form of submission to Allah.

4. This connection Hebah has with the creator, which is neither corrupted or interrupted will show Hebah the power of unconditional love. Her steadfast belief in the creator's power will give Hebah the confidence to live a life with the truest character. This will allow Hebah to live the hero's life that she is being called to lead.

5. There is danger in living such a life. A true hero will be threatened by unbelievers or challengers. There are many who feel threatened by a person's sense of absolute confidence. The passion Hebah shows for her faith and the confidence she has in her life and purpose may cause others to react negatively. In the recent past, Hebah has experienced a few ugly situations like this. She has been called a terrorist, told that she couldn't buy bleach for her bombs, and was almost run off the road with her children in the car. Anti-Islamic sentiments are very strong right now and it takes courage to dress and act the way she does. The ignorance of these people however are showing Hebah just how important it is to remain strong in her ideals and in her faith.

6. Hebah is relatively strong in her resolution to be an advocate for peaceful Islam. That said, in the moments when her family is being threatened or when she is the recipient of an especially horrible insult, it is tempting to put away her cover and become more homogeneous with society. It would be easier and she would not have to put herself in harms way.

7. I can easily foresee a moment in Hebah's future in which she becomes an icon for Islam at some level. Even if that is the local level, her passion, positivity, and confidence are going to be the key to making a change. Her transcendence may be as simple as becoming a leader in her community, but it will be a powerful event.

8. I believe that Hebah is striving for peace, understanding, and acceptance between Muslims and non-Muslims. Her rise to recognition will do wonderful things for the local Islam chapter, but she will truly succeed when there is an open sense of acceptance in the community.

9. Once Hebah has achieved her goals at the local level, I am not sure it will be her goals to expand any further. She is so focused on her family and its success that I think her 'return' will include sharing her story with others for the purpose of sending them off carry her message and success to other places. In a way, this is the ultimate ending for Hebah's story; she will achieve both her religious and personal goals in life and will achieve the balance between these two motivations.

Dark Moments

Hebah has struggled with her faith in light of the societal stigmas that have been put on Islam. To be a positive, influential, happy person while your faith is being targeted as a violent hateful organization is extremely difficult. Even more difficult on the individual level is identifying yourself as a Muslim in a community where that is not always a safe thing to be. It is understandable, but one of Hebah's weaknesses has been her fear of judgement and retaliation if she were to cover. In the past, she decided against covering because she was scared and lacked the confidence.

a "strengthness"

I think this "weakness" shows how Hebah has grown and it helps tell her Hero Story. After she saw other women like her uncovering for the sake of fear, she immediately took up the cry. In the sense of growth, this development has become a "strengthness" of hers. She now knows what empowerment feels like. She can sympathize with those still living in fear of judgement or aggression. Her progression makes her a hero of the people and an excellent candidate to combat the cultural barriers against Islam.

Creating Significance and meaning

Hebah is striving to live life with the ideal character every single day, in every decision she makes. If her actions do not speak of significance, I do not know what does. She is dedicating her life emotionally, culturally, socially, and personally to a belief. The peace she exudes is meaningful because it comforts others who may be questioning their decisions or their faith. Also in a world were organized religion and tradition are starting to become unpopular, Hebah is being an example for her children of how to balance religion with everyday life.

Additional Considerations

Core Insight

From what I have learned from Hebah, I wish to convey the fact that she may be my 'other,' but our morals, goals for success, focus on family, and general positive outlook on life run parallel to each other. I had one of the most connected, invested conversations with a stranger because we were both curious about the other and as we spoke, we learned. Instead of judging, we listened. I came away from the Islamic center with a newfound understanding and sense of acceptance for a culture I had been nervous about. I am not discrediting the threat of extremists. They exist, both Hebah and I agree on that. That said, there are extremists in every single group you will ever encounter. We both strive to see the good in people and in the world. I am still so thankful that I got to meet and talk with Hebah because I have a connection to a person who believes and thinks the way I do, in a completely different position in society. It gives me hope that we can find a balance and peace among all people. A difference in religious belief does not mean that people are fundamentally different. Like Hebah said, people are fundamentally good and this is what we must focus on.

My own subjectivity

As I talked with Hebah, I realized how easy it was to discuss gender roles and 'hiding our bodies' from the eyes of men. We could roll our eyes and laugh about the men checking their reflections in the one way mirrors (The men can't see into the women's prayer room, but the women can see into the men's room). This was an element of being on the same side as my 'other' and this perhaps made the interview easier for me. One thing that I became aware of was my lack of 'cover' during our interview. My hair was down and I hadn't thought about it, but I was wearing leggings to an extremely conservative religious service... (I kept my long coat on the whole time). I was able to empathize with Hebah's perspective on covering, but have never felt the urge to cover my hair or body to quite that extent. I didn't know if I was being inconsiderate and that made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I will never know exactly how covering makes these women feel, so it's a challenge for me to write from her perspective. One additional aspect of this culture that I was unfamiliar with was how to interact with the men. I offered my hand upon meeting them and was confused when seemed hesitant to shake it. Later, I learned that this was very forward of me. In the Islamic culture, women are not touched by men. It is one of the ways in which men practice modesty. They do not look at women directly in the eyes beyond initially meeting them so as to avoid suggestive thoughts and they do not touch women. Without knowing all of the cultural rules and regular behaviors, I could make an assumption about Hebah's life and be completely off base. That said, based on what I learned and what I have researched, I feel confident in the general direction of my story.

Speaking for Hebah

The only way I can think of to preserve Hebah's character and her story is to explain the way her words spoke to me. I can preface any opinions by saying that this is what I believe she meant, or 'if I understand what Hebah was saying...' I do not want to alter the integrity of her character by making assumptions about her opinions and beliefs. I want to paint a picture of the person I met and listened to without compromising who she is for a story. Hebah struck me as an honest, loving, and devoted individual. She carries herself with a confidence that comes from her faith and it was refreshing to hear her words of explanation mixed with a message of hope for the future. Her hero story is still playing itself out, but I can only imagine the impact her life will have on the people she interacts with. What a joy it was to meet her and learn about an 'other.'

Created By
Maggie Thomas

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