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Serving as a Peace Corps Hijabi: Faith and Coexistence

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Imagine a world where people of different faiths can peacefully coexist. It’s not fiction or fantasy. It’s a world I have experienced.

My Peace Corps service in Benin has been filled with surprising moments. Among them is how people perceive me as a Hijabi (a woman who wears a headscarf).

Since deciding to wear a headscarf around age 12, I’ve gotten used to my religious identity being easily recognized in the U.S. My family immigrated to Virginia when I was 13. Yet, here in Benin, despite the fact that more than 20 percent of the population is Muslim, my religious identity is not obvious to the people in my community.

For the past two years, I have lived in a small agricultural community located in the southeastern part of Benin, where I teach English to students at the secondary level. My community is predominantly Catholic and Voodoo, with smaller populations of evangelical and Celestian Christians, as well as Muslims. With such religious diversity, interfaith marriages are very common, and the parents in many households often practice different and multiple faiths.

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Ghizlane teaches English to secondary students in southeastern Benin.

My head wrapping style, which is common for Muslim women in the U.S., is something new for people in my Beninese community. At times, people tell me I dress like Mary, Jesus’s mother, and assume that I am Catholic. They often think I am part of the Catholic mission in the village.

Like any global religion, Islam is practiced a bit differently in different countries. This includes the type of headwear worn by women for modesty. Muslim women here in Benin usually wear a beautifully decorated long scarf that not only covers their head but also the upper part of their bodies.

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Muslim women in Benin wear long scarves that cover the head and upper part of the body.

Girls, on the other hand, wear what I call “prepared” headscarves. These can simply be pulled over the head, and have an opening in the fabric for the face; there’s no need for any wrapping. The scarves usually have sparkly jewels on them and can be worn by any girl, regardless of whether she is Muslim. Girls like wearing such scarves, particularly in rural Benin, because they are pretty and comfortable.

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Beninese girls often wear colorful head scarves, regardless of their religion.

When I shared my Muslim American identity with my community members, they were astonished.

A Muslim in America? There are Muslims in America? were typical responses, followed by But where are your parents from? Are they also from the U.S.? This is a question I often received back in the U.S. as well. When I told them that Morocco was my birth place, I was able to witness their “aha” moment, as if I had finally added the last piece of a puzzle. Those moments provided great opportunities to talk about the diversity of the U.S., something I am very proud to share.

Wearing my scarf while serving has redefined what wearing hijab means for me. Never would I have thought that the scarf around my head would create such a strong connection between me and my community. I may not be easily identified as a Muslim woman here, but there is no ambiguity about the fact that I am a woman of faith. As most people in Benin believe in a higher power, making the religious part of my identity visible earns me a lot of trust, which is a key ingredient to integration in my community. Often friends, neighbors and students seek my home as a safe space to share their thoughts and personal problems, which brings us all closer to one another.

My most memorable moments have been sharing Eids (Muslim holidays) with my students and friends who aren’t Muslim, but who are happy to tag along with me to the Eid prayers that are held in the morning at a central location in the community. Women, men and children gather in front of the imam (Muslim preacher), glorifying God repeatedly out loud until the start of the Eid prayer. Sharing the joy and love with my community and students during that time, particularly those whom I usually see at school, brings us all closer.

Moments like these and many others have made my opportunity to serve this community even more memorable and impactful. It has also made me realize that if interfaith coexistence can happen in Benin, it can be a model for other parts of the world as well.