By Leslie Linthicum
GALLUP — One day. One piece of cloth.
"Before I was just some girl, you know," Amber Tom says. "But then, after, it's like, 'Oh, it's that girl. She's the girl with the scarf.' I think that's what people around here call me. They don't know my name."
Since we're talking about labels, these are Amber Tom's: 20-year-old. Navajo. University of New Mexico-Gallup student. Devout Muslim.
It's the last identity that Tom has worn literally for the past two years.
"I just showed up one day with my head covered. I didn't talk to anyone about it," Tom says. "But I never took it off after that."
Tom's decision to begin wearing a hijab, the women's head covering that is prescribed in the Quran, was a public statement of something Tom had never hidden from her Navajo friends and classmates at Gallup High School, but something she had never advertised, either.
"I actually wanted to do it in high school," Tom says. But high school is a hard place to be different. "I wasn't brave enough. I just couldn't take the criticism yet."
In high school, when Tom was just another Navajo girl, she heard the kind of prejudice that people express when they think they're with their own: anti-Arab, anti-Muslim. People who didn't know Tom well never would have guessed those slurs were also pointed at her.
Amber's mother, a Navajo jewelry maker, was divorced with three kids when she met a Palestinian immigrant who was working for one of the many Arab-owned jewelry companies in Gallup.
Annabelle Wilson and Mustafa Ismail married when Amber was less than a year old and her brothers were 5 and 7. They all moved into Annabelle's one-room home in Tseyatoh west of Gallup and began to make a life as a blended family: blended races, blended cultures and blended religions.
While her older brothers were raised with Navajo traditions by their grandparents, Amber and her two half-sisters, Layla and Haya, were raised Muslim.
Amber was the only Navajo praying with the other women in the ornate green and white mosque that sits on Gallup's main highway.
One day. One piece of cloth.
"It just hit me one day: You know, I'm so dedicated. I believe with all my heart, without a doubt, that this is the religion that I want to have. So I was doing everything according to the Quran except for the hijab," Amber says. "When I first started wearing the hijab I had a lot of criticism. Actually, I lost all of my friends, all of them."
When Amber started her first semester at UNM-Gallup, she wore the hijab as well as the abaya, the long dress or robe that Muslim women wear.
She hadn't been at school long when some boys put a dent in her car and told her, "You need to tell the Arabs to go back to their country."
She kept the hijab, but started wearing jeans and tops like a normal college student.
"If I wear the abaya and I wear the hijab, I stand out more. And I notice I get a lot more direct discrimination, a lot of direct violence if I wear that. People are not so afraid to approach me when I'm wearing regular clothes."
Amber's Navajo family has been accepting and respectful of her choice. Other Navajos have a harder time reconciling a face that looks familiar with a head covering that seems foreign.
A Navajo woman approached Amber in a store recently and said, "Are you Indian? Are you Navajo? Why do you wear that scarf?"
"It's for religion," Amber said.
"Religion? What's the religion?"
"I'm a Muslim,"
"You're not Muslim. You're not Arab. You're Navajo. You're a lost child."
Amber is amused by some of the questions she is asked: How do you pray? Does that mean you're married?
Others don't ask questions. They just stare.
"They just look at me. I think they want to ask questions but I think they're afraid that they might offend me."
One day. One piece of cloth.
"It's a sign of dedication to my religion. Completely practicing the religion. Doing what the Quran says we have to do and just being a good Muslim. I want people to know that I'm Muslim and that I'm proud to be Muslim and you can see it just by wearing my scarf. This is my religion. It's who I am and who I grew up as.
"I'm fully happy. I'm happy with the way that I was raised. Who I am."