Posted on April 22, 2005

‘No One Wanted To Be Near Me’

Kurt Hunt, Echo (Eastern Michigan University), Apr. 18

“It felt like no one wanted to be near me.”

This is how Eastern Michigan student Zoe Piliafas summed up her winter semester. Her new isolation wasn’t the result of being a bad or unpleasant person.

It was simply because she was — at least, for this semester — different. To her professors and her classmates, she was not Zoe, an outgoing and outspoken student. She was Zhooda, a student with a soft Middle Eastern accent who wore a burka (sometimes spelled burqa or burkha), the heavy, concealing garment that became known to most Americans only when the media turned it into a symbol of the repression of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“You’re not seeing the body of a female,” Piliafas said. “You’re seeing a garment that represents female.”

Under the supervision of political science professors Elaine Martin and James Ivers, Piliafas received independent study credit for wearing the burka the entire winter semester.

“Zoe kept a daily journal of her experiences,” Martin said. “She met with me several times throughout the semester, wrote and conducted an e-mail survey for students and professors and turned in a final paper summing up the experience. She received one credit hour.”

“I thought about this for probably three years,” Piliafas said. “At first I had really strong judgment on it, and I thought, ‘Well, what is this? Why would a woman have to cover herself from head to toe to stop someone else from looking at her?’

“I thought by telling a woman that she needs to be covered up, we’re telling her that she’s basically unworthy,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s how Muslims view it. I think they view it as one so worthy that she can’t be looked upon.”

It was an EMU political science class that solidified Piliafas’ interest in the subject.

“In one sense, Zoe’s project began with a women and politics class in which we discussed some of the human rights issues during the Taliban control of Afghanistan, and other countries with similar practices, including ‘honor killings,’“ Martin said. “Zoe’s interest was in women’s rights.”

“I wanted to say that you can’t breathe underneath this, which you can’t,” Piliafas said. “I wanted to say that this is so inhibiting I couldn’t run, which you can’t. I wanted to say that you can’t feel the sun on your face. You can’t. You can’t feel the wind on your face . . . And you don’t realize how much you miss those things until they’re completely taken away.

“There isn’t just a dress and then something you put over your head,” she said. “There’s something that goes on your arms . . . and then you have the dress and then you have a headband that pulls your hair completely back so . . . it never would be shown. And then you have a scarf that goes over all your hair and then you have a veil. So you have three layers of clothing on your head.

“But at the same time,” she said, “Everything that I wanted to go in and say negative about this, I ended up finding more — not positives — but more negatives in the opposite direction. How people treat people dressed like this.”

“I can tell you that she did feel de-humanized, although that was not her only feeling,” Martin said. “I think she wants to share her experience with others, in order to help us understand both why women may freely choose this and why some women may feel persecuted if they are forced to conform.”

“The first day walking out in public without my boyfriend next to me, without someone else having knowledge of the study made it so strange,” Piliafas said. “The reactions were completely different than anything I’d ever experienced. Staring. I felt uncomfortable. Nobody — it felt like nobody wanted to be near me.”

She also told of instances of blatant discrimination she encountered. Students laughing as she passed. One person referring to her as “ninja” to his friends. On an evening walk toward Halle Library, a group of students threw snowballs at her as she passed.

The difference in treatment was noticeable in her classes as well.

“People talked down to me, like I didn’t have any intelligence — and I have a 4.0,” she said. “There were many instances where I was in a group setting, and normally I take on a leadership role. I wasn’t even allowed the chance.”

Despite these sorts of problems, she never considered abandoning the project.

“I set out to do it, I was gonna do it,” she said. “I complained, but I was never gonna quit. Because I thought if I quit, everyone who said ‘she’s really not going to do this’ would be right.”

The idea of a non-Muslim student dressing in a burka for a semester proved controversial. Some students in her classes were not only surprised to learn the truth but also irritated at what they considered to be “dishonesty” on her part. Some felt she was being disrespectful to Muslims — although most Muslims she spoke to were supportive. She was even threatened once after she revealed herself to her classes.

When questioned about their stance on the project, most people seemed to be cautious but supportive.

“The motivations/ideology of the person performing the study could greatly influence the results or reporting of the results,” said Arain Affan, a 1998 graduate of Northwestern University, 2001 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and practicing Muslim. “Based on the description (provided by writer), it seems — and I’d hope — that the motivations of the person who did the study are without hidden agenda.

“I think it can serve to increase understanding among people who choose to dress differently,” he said. “I’d hope readers of the study’s results understand that in a free society, people may choose their belief system and the ways in which they manifest those beliefs.”

Sumair Sheikh, an EMU post-graduate student who self-identifies as Muslim, agreed.

“The purpose, tactics and goals are all worthy of this kind of study,”he said. “However, I don’t think she could get a full perspective of what it’s like to be a woman that ‘truly’ wears a burkha. She is not around that culture, as far as I know, she is not married to a man that expects that of her, so I wouldn’t say it would be accurate to fully gain a complete understanding of what it would be like to ‘put herself in the place’ of that ‘kind’ of woman.”

“I’m still not in agreement with this type of dress, but I want it to be a choice,” Piliafas said. “I don’t want to say anything against this type of dress, but I have said something against it numerous times in my journal. But I don’t want to bring attention to the negative of it because I think the Muslim community has been given a really negative light by the media, and I don’t know how fair that is.”

“To deal with any kind of discrimination, the issues need to be surfaced and directly addressed,” Sheikh said.”There needs to be a process of raising awareness to the general public who likes to generalize. Many people pigeonhole Muslims as one type of people.The Muslim community is unified by faith. However, there are many differences within that community.

“Hopefully, this study, if done objectively and made with good and many observations, will hit some people the wrong way and make them think,” he said.

Support came from some surprising places as well.

Midway through the semester, Piliafas blew her cover during a group project when she shook the hand of a new male group mate. Another group mate, a Muslim man who saw the handshake, immediately knew something was wrong.

“You ever do something and you realize the moment that you did it you should not have done that?” she said. “He (the Muslim group mate) immediately asked to speak with me outside. And I was anxious . . . He asked me what my philosophy was, what books I was reading — meaning Arabic books — that I couldn’t even repeat . . . I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll turn the question to him’ because he asked me if I was Muslim, and I said ‘Are you?’ And he said, ‘Yes I am, but more importantly, are you?’“

She felt she owed the man an explanation and, in the hallway outside her classroom, explained her project, her methods and her purpose. She didn’t know what to expect from him but was surprised by his reaction.

“He thanked me probably four or five times for doing the project, for taking an interest in the Muslim community,” she said. “He asked me what I’ve been experiencing, and what stands out in my mind, you know, is discrimination. And I told him that, and he said, ‘Sometimes I tell people I’m Italian.’“

It was near the end of the semester when Piliafas revealed herself to the rest of her classes. In order to get participation in her survey, her classmates had to know the truth.

One of her class revelations took place at the end of an assigned presentation when, standing in front of everyone, she decided to explain the project.

“I was debating whether or not to do this in the class because it was such a huge lecture hall, and I thought, ‘Well, what kind of participation am I going to get? A lot of people didn’t even know I was there,’“ she said. “But little did I know that everybody knew I was there.

“I told them, and jaws dropped,” she said. “People stared at me. The professor was taken aback, and then he said, ‘Anyone that is willing to do the survey, I’ll give extra credit to.’“

In the end, Piliafas found the project to be a life-changing experience.

“I changed a lot,” she said. “But for the most part, I was still myself underneath it.”

It was more than just a personal experience, however. She said that as much as the project affected her, she hopes it affects others even more.

“Who is going to be touched the most are those who were not very nice to me,” she said. She said she expects mixed reactions from the survey results. “I think that some people will say that these prejudices were all in my head and then some will recognize them as prejudice and maybe try to fix this or bring attention to that.

“I plan to maybe see if someone will publish my journal because I think it would be interesting for others to see what it felt like, you know, even for a moment,” she said. “Not as a Muslim — but in the garment.

“The motivation to do it has not reflected the answers that I’ve come up with,” she said. “The motivation to do it — I thought that it would be interesting to experience what those women experience. I do have some personal judgment on it, and I thought to tackle that head-on would be wise instead of just making a judgment without having any experience of it.

“I think I learned more than I can ever explain to someone else,” she said. “I think that it would be wise for people to venture out of the typical living-your-life and not ever giving much thought to someone else’s. I think it’s wise for everyone to experience a moment in someone else’s shoes.”