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Finding true identity: Woman's 're-veiling' proves to be highly enlightening

Najla Ghazi Amundson, keynote speaker at the 11th annual Red River Women's Studies Conference at NDSU, talked about wearing the hijab, a headscarf worn by Arab women, for the first time. Dan Koeck / NDSU University Relations

FARGO - When Najla Ghazi Amundson covered her head with the hijab, she bared her true self to the world for the first time.

While pursuing a doctoral degree in communication at North Dakota State University four years ago, the former WDAY-TV news anchor opted to don the traditional Muslim headscarf for eight days as a research project.

Amundson spoke about that experience during the 11th annual Red River Women's Studies Conference Friday at NDSU.

"It made me realize that I am othered," Amundson told an audience of 50. "We are all othered. Women of the world are othered ... and yet I had spent years trying to escape that label."

Amundson spoke of her childhood in Akron, Ohio, where she was the only Arab American in her neighborhood or large high school.

Her Syrian parents were Muslim, although they didn't attend mosque, fast or observe Muslim holidays.

Still, from an early age, Amundson knew her faith was inextricably tied to her identity. "Being Muslim isn't a religion. It's a way of life," Amundson says.

Amundson says she coped with feeling different by trying to act like her Christian and Jewish classmates. She later participated in the most western of rituals: representing her state in the Miss America Pageant.

When Amundson decided to wear the hijab as a research project, she admits being motivated partly by the belief that writing about her personal experience would be simpler than conducting surveys or interviewing others.

"Well, it would have been simple if I wasn't Muslim," Amundson said. "It would have been simple if I hadn't had years of struggle over my identity of being Arab American and Muslim."

After seeing herself in the traditional garb for the first time, she was shocked.

"I just stood there and looked at myself and thought, 'My god, I look Arab,' " she says. "In the process of covering myself, I really uncovered everything."

She was terrified to walk on campus in Arab dress for the first time. "I felt physically sick. I almost didn't get out of my car," she said.

Another powerful experience with the hijab involved her son. Amundson was prepared to take him to seventh-grade orientation when he said: "Can you take that off?"

Amundson explained that she couldn't as it was part of a project. He became emotional, telling her he didn't want people to make fun of her or talk about her.

In the end, they decided the best compromise was to call his father and have him take the boy to school.

But after Amundson hung up, she found her son in tears.

"You are brave enough to go out with it on, and I'm not brave enough to have you come with me to school," he said. "I feel bad. I am not ashamed of you. I just don't want my friends saying anything about you."

The experience, Amundson said, was very difficult.

She was struck by another pivotal experience when she walked by two college girls on campus.

The young women were perfectly made up and dressed in tight-fitting clothes and high heels. Amundson noticed how uncomfortable the girls looked. One girl tugged at her mini-skirt.

"It just hit me all at once," she said. "I am not a body. I am a being. There's nothing to look at. I'm free.

"That was a really amazing experience."

Although Amundson returned to her normal dress after that week, she says the experience forever changed her.

Now she is more likely to speak up when someone makes a racist comment. "I will tell people: 'I am Muslim, and that offends me,' " she says.

It also helped assuage some of her own inner conflicts. "I feel more at peace with the mix of identities that make me who I am," she said.

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