by Kristin Zinsmeister
“Did you ever feel pressure from your family?”
The Muslim woman looked at the American student interviewing her on the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia. The interviewer, Liza Melms, an Honors Program international relations major, knew the Muslim woman was expecting this question. Melms looked at the light purple fabric embellished with silver trim that covered the woman’s hair and cascaded over her shoulders. Melms found it hard to believe that such a fashionable item of clothing is a controversial garment in many parts of the world.
“No,” she responded, “this is my choice.” “How old were you when you started to wear it?” asked Melms. “Only five years ago, when I was 20. I had a calling from within my heart to be a better Muslim. You need to be ready before you make the big decision to wear it.”
Melms had been living in Indonesia for almost a month, but she was always surprised and appreciative of how open the Indonesian people were to talk with her about their religion. Although Melms planned most of her interviews, this one occurred unexpectedly and she wanted to soak in as much information as possible. She asked the Muslim woman several more questions that delved further into the Muslim religion before they parted ways.
Melms’ notes from these kinds of interviews are invaluable for her research on the role of the hijab or head scarf in Muslim women’s lives, and her Honors Degree with Distinction thesis, entitled Contrasting Indonesia and Egypt: the role of the hijab in public versus private life as a religious and cultural choice. This on-location research was made possible through the Plastino Scholarship, a highly competitive monetary grant of up to $6,000 that funds students to conduct off-campus self-designed learning experiences, after the students undergo a rigorous application and review process.
“Since we can spend no more than $6,000, I had to plan every expense I would have for every day of my travels. This was especially important for me since I was traveling to two countries, Indonesia and Egypt, to conduct my research.”
This past August, Melms spent 30 days in Indonesia. She split her time between Jakarta and Banda Aceh and through her interviews, gained insight into the Muslim way of life. She tried to formally record and interview a wide range of individuals including businesswomen, Islamic scholars, and leaders of Islamic organizations. She also informally interviewed about twenty other women and several men about the hijab.
“It’s amazing how much kindness people show you when you least expect it. Many Indonesians were like this. They showed you kindness and treated you like a part of the family when you didn’t really know if you’d ever see them again.”
“Many times I would randomly meet a person and start talking to them about my project and before I knew it I was conducting an informal interview…Because I don’t speak Bahasa Indonesian, all of my interviews were conducted in English, so most of the women and men were well-educated…they had all sorts of professions ranging from teachers to translators to students to secretaries to political activists to housewives.”
Melms’s ability to talk to complete strangers while alone in a foreign country comes from her inherent trust in the goodness of people, which she believes largely stems from her Midwestern roots. For example, while at the airport on her back to Jakarta from Banda Aceh, Melms met a man who, after talking with her about her research, gave Melms his phone number and asked her to meet his family since his wife and eldest daughter wore the hijab. “I could just as easily not have called him, but I decided to go for it.”
The next thing she knew, Melms was in a car on her way to his house to meet his wife and children. They treated her like a family member and talked openly about their Muslim faith. Melms noticed that the man’s eldest daughter wore a hijab while the younger daughter did not. When she asked why his youngest daughter did not wear a hijab he responded, “I don’t know, ask her.” Pleasantly surprised by his answer, Melms was happy to witness that decision to wear the hijab was truly an individual and personal choice. She found this to be the case among nearly every woman she was able to communicate with. When the man eventually drove her back to the airport a week later, he was almost in tears saying good-bye, and told her that she was like his own child. Melms also found herself teary-eyed.
Now that she has returned from the most populous Muslim nation of Indonesia, she is preparing for her Winter Session trip to the most populous Arab nation, Egypt. When asked if her research thesis has changed at all after her experience in Indonesia she was quick to reply. “My thesis has not changed at all; however, I do want to have more contacts in Egypt before I get there.”Melms hopes that upon completion of her research, she will have a more complete understanding of the hijab as well as Islam that will allow her to break the stereotypes that people have against Muslims. “One of the most important things I have learned so far is that, no matter what is going on the world politically, people are just people.”