Hispanic woman who converted to Islam experiences prejudice from fellow East Harlem residents

By Michael J. Feeney
NY Daily News
August 31, 2011

Julissa Fikri grew up in East Harlem – and never thought she’d hear hateful words in her own neighborhood about converting to Islam.

“As soon as I started wearing [the hijab] I got a lot of stares,” said Fikri, 27, who was raised as a Christian in East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Houses and became a Muslim seven years ago.

“Even my own Latino people feel like I betrayed them,” she siad. “They see me veiled and they think ‘she’s under \[her husband’s\] grasp’ and that’s not the case. “This is not a bad thing. I’m not oppressed. I’m very comfortable. I just want people to know that I’m the same person.”

Now, Fikri, who is Puerto Rican and Dominican, is on a mission to educate those around her – including her own mother – becoming one of many Muslim women who have started to share her story on YouTube to educate the public.

“It’s something very foreign to the Hispanic community,” Fikri says of the hijab in one video. “They immediately associate the religion with the culture of being Arab, and that’s something now that I want to educate people, especially in this community. It is two different things – culture and religion.”

Fikri said she started exploring Islam in 2004 after a personal crisis made her start looking into religion for guidance and she read a Spanish language Quran.

She later met her Egyptian husband, who she married in 2010 and who is also a Muslim.

But it wasn’t until earlier this year, in February, when Fikri started wearing the hijab – the traditional head scarf worn by Muslim women – that she noticed the resistance from some in her community.

At one point, Fikri said she was walking near E. 117th St. and Pleasant Ave. to pick up her daughter from school when a Latino man said in Spanish: “Oh, so she changed her race. Now, she’s Arab.”

In another incident, a woman at a bodega looked at her and called her a terrorist, she recalled.

“It hurt a lot,” she said, noting she was being snickered at by people who’ve known her since she was a child. “I live here. I grew up here.”

Even Fikri’s own mother, who is Dominican, had some reservations about her chosen religion.

“Take that thing off, you’re Spanish. We don’t wear that,” Fikri recalled her mother telling her in Spanish.

Fikri’s situation is not uncommon, said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“That’s not an unusual story by any means,” he said, noting it’s not just the Latino community where people view joining the Muslim religion as “race betrayal.”

“The Muslim women’s headscarf is still a red flag for those who harbor hostile views [toward the Muslim religion]” he said.

As Fikri watched her two kids play in El Barrio’s Thomas Jefferson Park earlier this week, she told the Daily News, “I am not any different than anybody else. This is part of my belief.

When asked what she would say to people who have given her a tough time, she said:

“Before you judge me, remember just because I wear a scarf that does not separate me from society,” she said. “Underneath the scarf, I’m just the same person. I’m an American. I’m a human being.”

YouTube video link

NY Daily News link