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Women in Islam

Interview With Rose Hamid: Flight Attendant, Hijab Wearer

By Andrea Cooper

Muslim womanMuslim women who wear the hijab have probably gotten accustomed to the occasional uneasy glance from fellow passengers when they fly on U.S. airlines. But what if that woman with the head covering who's walking down the aisle of your plane was not a passenger, but a flight attendant? Rose Hamid, 49, is an American raised in Cleveland, born to a Colombian mother and a Palestinian father. She has worn the hijab on flights since 2005. Over the course of several phone and email interviews, I asked Hamid, a mother of three, how she navigates the tensions that arise between her profession and her faith in a post-9/11 world.

You worked for US Airways before you decided to wear the hijab, and made the decision to cover in 1995, following a long sick leave. How did the airline react?

Rose Hamid: I couldn't wait to get back to work as a flight attendant. But when I returned, my supervisors told me the head covering was contrary to the company's uniform policy. They told me I had to find a job with the airline that didn't require a uniform. There was a job in the company store that paid minimum wage, and a secretary position in the maintenance department that paid just above minimum wage. Eventually, the company offered me a job in the flight attendant training department. I learned that I love teaching. I really liked being in front of a classroom and giving people information that was useful to them. I'd never done that before, other than pointing out the exit. It was something that I never would have thought to consider. In July 2005, I was informed that the company policy had changed. I would be allowed to return to work as a flight attendant while wearing a hijab. US Airways recently revamped its employees' uniforms and asked me for help in deciding upon a look for Muslim women. They came up with a "modesty jumper" which can be worn over pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and have included the hijab in their list of approved attire. We've come a long way, baby.

Did any of your colleagues ever challenge you about the hijab?

During a flight delay, a flight attendant I hadn't met before asked me, "What's that thing on your head?" When I explained, she said she was Catholic but didn't wear her crucifix, and that when her Italian grandfather came to this country, he loved it enough to want to assimilate.

She talked about how significant 9/11 was to her. This flight attendant had been based in Boston on 9/11, where some of the hijackers had boarded a plane. Afterward, she resented women who wore the hijab. She felt we were really rubbing our faith in her face. I tried to put myself in her place, and pointed out that what makes this country great is we can be who we are. I also talked about how much 9/11 had changed me. I had trained people on what to do in emergencies and had never trained for a terrorism scenario like that one. She listened, and I thought the conversation ended positively.

Did 9/11 affect you in any other way?

The day after 9/11, I had to go to a store and was very scared about how people would treat me. There was a guy working there collecting the shopping carts. As I walked by him, he looked at me and said, "Hey, how are you doing?" just like he did to every other person. That changed my world. That simple thing, him saying hello.

So did the offers of help. There were people from the local Jewish and Christian communities who wrote to the Muslim community and said that if we needed someone to come to Friday prayers to stand as guards, or if Muslim women felt scared about going out in public with their headscarves, that they would run errands for them or accompany them.

That concept of standing with someone, and knowing someone is standing with you, is extremely empowering. I try to stand with others, too. I find myself constantly defending the Jewish faith to Palestinians who view Jews only as the oppressors. One change since 9/11 is flying as a Muslim is trickier than it used to be. There was a story in the news earlier this year about a Muslim family ordered off a flight because they were chatting about the safest place to sit on the airplane. But they weren't terrorists and the FBI cleared them.

There are [Muslims] who get very, very nervous when they travel. At varying times, different members of my family have been pulled over before a flight and received extra scrutiny. It happens even though I'm an employee.

I do think most people have to deal with prejudice one way or another. It's easy to make negative assumptions about others– you have to really be cognizant of your own thoughts. Maybe a passenger is curt with me because of my head covering, or with a colleague because of her nationality or gender. But maybe he's upset because the flight is running late or he feels he hasn't received good service.

Assumptions can lead to funny situations, too. Part of my job is handing out immigration forms for foreigners to enter the United States. On a flight from Mexico, I assumed the mostly redheaded Irish dance troupe on the flight was returning from a visit to Mexico, so I didn't give them the forms. It turns out they were Mexicans of Irish descent going to Charlotte for a dance competition, and they barely spoke a word of English.

Have any memorable stories about passengers' reactions to you?

There was a man with a "Bama" hat on [for the University of Alabama football team] who had a problem with his meal. I helped him out. He asked if I was a Muslim and I said yes. "Why, you're nice," he replied in kind of a surprised tone. He had a friend who had told him all Muslims want to kill Westerners.

He went on to say, "I didn't think he was right. You see this Bama hat? About 99 percent of Bama fans are nice folks, but that one percent is just crazy. I figure that's how Muslims are." I laughed and told him he's exactly right.

You strike me as someone who is pretty open toward other people. Given your job, that's probably a good trait.

There's a saying of the Prophet that the person who gives salutations first is the most blessed. If every person was competing to be the first one to say hello, if that was the way we lived our lives, that would really change the world.

Editors' Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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September 2009
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