Paula Miller began wearing her hijab in the classroom this spring.  She wants her students to see her as a Muslim American. Photo by Sarah Mercier.

Women of Faith and Action

Sitting on a bench facing a soccer field, half a dozen parents attentively watch their children pass, shoot and score. 40-year-old Paula Miller, an unmarried mother of two, tracks her 10-year-old daughter Giullietta’s movement, occasionally yelling, “Go Giugi, get up on it, come on!” As Paula shares in the excitement of the game, she looks no different from other parents — except for the hijab she wears.

“We’re at this weird point where our foreign policy has been taken over by dangerous people. I can’t wait [to wear it] any longer,” says Paula, who only recently added the hijab to her daily wardrobe. “People need to see [Muslims] are part of America, we are really normal, we are really nice.”

Paula, a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa Department of Geoscience, was born and raised in a Christian family in Cedar Rapids. But she gave up on Christianity at 17.

“Ronald Reagan was the president and he was pushing this prayer in school thing,” says Paula. “Obviously it was kind of using Christianity to further his popularity and to polarize the country. That’s really continued on until today—using people’s religion to get political attention,” says Paula.

Paula converted to Islam in 2002 when she was 35. At first, she only wore the hijab when she went to the mosque.

“I was a little strange about wearing it in public. I wasn’t sure how I would react if I got weird comments, which actually has never happened, I’m pleased to say,” she says.

Although Paula was very upset by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, she did not want to be seen as wearing the hijab as a symbol of protest.

“I didn’t want to wear it to show I was getting really frustrated with the government’s violent reaction in Afghanistan. I thought that was inappropriate,” says Paula. But the U.S. support for Israel during the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006 made her change her mind, and she has been proudly wearing her hijab ever since.

If Paula Miller repudiates America’s foreign policy, Shajia Ahmad, a Muslim student from Bangladesh, embraces America. Unlike Paula, Shajia chooses not to wear a hijab, preferring instead to dress exactly the same as the American girls around her, except that she never wears shorts in public.

“[Wearing shorts] would be easy for me. No one would take a second glance because everyone is doing it. But because I was brought up not doing it, I don’t think I could ever do it. In fact, I’ve tried but I just can’t do it,” says Shajia, giggling.

Shajia came to America with her parents when she was two and had never returned to her home country. “I feel like I’m American — growing up as an American child, raised in America and having a Muslim identity,” says Shajia. The 21-year-old University of Iowa junior majoring in journalism and international studies repeatedly refers to herself as “American,” although she is neither a citizen nor a permanent resident.

Unlike Shajia, who accepted the faith of her childhood, Paula went through various “spiritual experiences,” trying Yoga meditation, Buddhism and Taoism. But Memorial Day 2002 was a turning point. It was then that Paula had the dream.

“[In the dream] I was married to an Iranian friend,” says Paula. “Ironically, the man hated Islam, and I was not even that close to him.” But Paula believed that the dream was a force leading her toward Islam. She bought a paperback copy of the Quran and started reading.

“The very first chapters are like the Lord’s Prayer. Then I read the next chapter. It says ‘This is the book where there is no doubt.’” Paula says the words hit her like a lightening bolt. “That’s really where I converted, right at that point,” she says.