For an entire week Decatur High School senior Cecilia Kuehnel wore a hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women that covers everything but the eyes. She also awoke at 5 a.m. each morning to pray.
“I was praying with hundreds of thousands of people at the same time. It’s really empowering to know that we were all saying the same words with the same message,” Kuehnel said. She also refrained from eating pork and different types of meat—but she isn’t Muslim.
Kuehnel, who has been studying Arabic for the past two years, said she considers herself a Christian. However, for her senior project she decided to live as a conservative Muslim woman for a week, as a social experiment.
“I realized that I can’t learn the language if I don’t know the culture. The senior project opened up this whole opportunity for me—a period of time where I could do anything as long as it benefited the community,” Kuehnel said.
Part of Kuehnel’s project was to give a presentation to a class of seventh graders at Renfroe Middle School about her week masquerading as a Muslim woman. She said she wanted to spread awareness of Muslim culture to the children.
“Nowadays you can’t really afford to be ignorant and you need to know different cultures and ways of life, especially in Decatur,” Kuehnel said.
The students sat quietly in the library at Renfroe Middle, occasionally raising their hands to ask Kuehnel a question about her week. One student asked why she didn’t eat meat. “Because in the Koran it says Muslims are forbidden to eat animals with hooves,” she told him.
Kuehnel told the students that during her week wearing the hijab, every day was like studying for a test because each time she made a mistake saying a prayer in Arabic, she had to start all over.
“One time I was praying and I had my prayer rug facing mecca—you’re not allowed to have cats or dogs in the same room while you’re praying because it’s considered unclean,” Kuehnel told the students. “Before I knew it my cat had laid in front of me on my prayer rug. I had to wash the rug, my hands and my face, before I could pray. I missed about two cycles of prayer and had to redo them later in the day.”
One student asked Kuehnel what she would do differently if she could live her week wearing the hijab over again. She told him that she would surround herself with Muslims.
Originally, Kuehnel wanted to wear the hijab for an entire month but her teachers and parents thought that was too extreme.
“Even after I had sat down all of the Muslim students at my school and had them approve it, everyone thought it was too radical so I shortened it to a week,” Kuehnel said. “I guess the people who felt most uncomfortable with the project were mostly White Christians.”
Kuehnel said the majority of her time spent in public wearing the hijab was pleasant and many Muslim women came up to her and spoke to her in Arabic, which she was thrilled about. Kuehnel said the experience opened her eyes and her religious beliefs are now a hybrid of Islamic and Christian values.
In September, Kuehnel will be moving to Morocco for a year to study. She said her week spent living as a conservative Muslim woman has made her feel more prepared for what she will encounter during her stay in Morocco.
“I’m also more excited about learning the language than I ever have been before. I’ll be living with a host family in Morocco and every seventh day we’ll be going on a field trip. I think the first one we’ll be going on is a camel ride,” Kuehnel said.