Converted Muslim deals with ingrained prejudices

November 04, 2013 09:57 am

Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, Orenda Dadkhah was set to travel to a relative’s house a short distance from her own home. She carried her hijab with her but did not wear it.

Since her conversion to Islam in 1994, Dadkhah had never gone in public without the traditional head covering. But after 9/11, her husband, a Muslim originally from Afghanistan, worried about her safety and asked her not to wear it. In New Jersey, where Dadkhah and her family lived, hostility toward Muslims was running high.

Dadkhah tried to do as her husband asked — but going without her hijab simply felt wrong.

Even if some Muslims were to blame for crashing airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, she saw no good reason to deny her faith. She couldn’t make herself try to be anyone other than who she was.

Not then, and not now.

“It was from the house to the car, and then I put the hijab on again. Since then I have always worn it,” Dadkhah said during a recent visit to La Grande. “My faith is against going without it, and I thought why am I going to do that? I am not a bad person.’”

Many people in Northeast Oregon remember Dadkhah as Orenda Christy, the daughter of Clint and Cheryl Christy and a member of the Enterprise High School Class of 1990. They remember her as a kid who enjoyed both academics and sports and liked working with children.

Right out of high school, she found a job as a nanny in New York City, though she worked at it only a short time before returning home. By then, her family had moved from Enterprise to La Grande.

Orenda Christy went to Eastern Oregon University, worked as a teacher’s assistant at Heidi-Ho Preschool and as a volleyball coach at La Grande Middle School.

Youthful restlessness got the best of her again, and she moved to New Mexico for a time. Then she landed a second nanny job, this time in New Jersey. Her life changed forever when she took a trip to New York City and met her future husband, Amin Dadkhah.

The son of Afghan refugees, he adhered to his family’s Muslim faith. At first, the girl from rural Oregon was put off by that. She had her ingrained prejudices, even if she wasn’t always aware of them.

“When you hear the word ‘Muslim’ you get negative images,” Dadkhah said. “I know I had a negative feeling about Islam. But the more Amin and I spoke, the more questions I asked, and I was surprised to learn that the faith was completely opposite to the thoughts in my head.”

Dadkhah said she found Amin to be friendly, social and respectful, and not at all interested in oppressing her. Before they were married, she steeped herself in his religion. She said conversion to Islam was her choice, not her man’s.

“He said I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. He told me if I was interested in it, I’d have to do it of my own accord,” she said.

She made her statement of faith, her shahadah, in a mosque in New Jersey in 1994. Four years later, she and Amin were married.

Today, they have four children and live in Pittsburgh, Pa. Currently, Amin works in Afghanistan for a company that provides cultural advisers to the armed forces.

It happened that on Sept. 11, 2001, Dadkhah was scheduled to fly from Newark, N.J., to visit her parents who had moved to Montana. She heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center over the car radio on the way to the airport. Her flight, of course, was canceled.

“I was devastated that it happened, and more devastated when it was suspected that Muslims did it. I thought, if they are Muslims, it’s completely against the faith,” she said.

Life for American Muslims became more stressful after 9/11. Dadkhah said she has encountered open anger and hostility over the years, though she has never been threatened with violence.

Ingrained prejudices will always be hard to overcome. She said the sight of a woman in a hijab can bring out the worst in some people.

“Once a man said to me, ‘Why don’t you go back where you came from?’ I thought, where would you like me to go, Enterprise?” she said.

The hijab has its meaning and its place. For Dadkhah, it is a part of life, but not all of life. She likes to point out that even in some Christian sects, women traditionally cover their heads.

“Judge me for what’s in my head, not what’s on it,” she said.