Muslim and Jewish Women on the Road for Civil Rights

Back in April, a busload of white and brown Jewish and Muslim women, some in hijab, headed south along the civil rights trail from Georgia to Alabama to Tennessee. What could go wrong?

We’re riding with Brenda, a third-generation female bus driver from Asheville, North Carolina, and Todd, our African American civil rights expert. We’re a world away from the 1961 Freedom Riders on Greyhound buses who were attacked by violent mobs for attempting to integrate Southern bus terminals. But this is also far from a Disneyland outing. We’re in the Trump era of hate with his Muslim ban and war on immigrants.

We’ve signed on for the Building Bridges Civil Rights Bus Tour created by the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. SOSS is a national organization committed to bringing Muslim and Jewish women together to cross the religious divide by getting to know each other and, together, stand up against racism and discrimination. Women are responding. Founded by Sheryl Olitsky and Atiya Aftab in 2013, SOSS is a grassroots organization with national guidelines. Since Trump’s election, the number of chapters has more than tripled, from 45 to 145, with some 2,500 members in the U.S. and Canada. Another 2,000 potential members are interested in joining if they can find enough local women to organize chapters.

The trip planners navigated the minefield of dietary requirements—kosher, halal, vegetarian, gluten-free and, out of respect for our Muslim sisters, no alcohol except for wine as part of Shabbat in Memphis. At our volunteer stint at Habitat for Humanity, Muslims had no trouble finding a place to pray on the grass before getting to work ripping out the innards of a house under renovation. Shabbat services were walking distance from our Memphis hotel.

Nearly 50 women on a bus together for eight days can’t stop talking. A woman from Manila tells me, “Everyone wants to know which one I am” (Jewish or Muslim). In fact, she’s a Catholic convert to Judaism, and she’s on her iPad, preparing for her next Shabbat Torah reading. A woman in hijab from a Washington suburb tells me that she benefits from white privilege even with a head covering. She’s on a spiritual trip that’s taken her from growing up Catholic in Beaumont, Texas, where the media dubbed her alma mater “the last high school in America to desegregate.” Her husband is Turkish, an observant Muslim. It took her years to convert and even longer to cover her head. She says that as president of her mosque, she’s the only woman president her imam knows of, and she once surprised a Protestant minister by telling him a woman can be a feminist and a Muslim.

Two women, one in hijab, discover they both went to the same Catholic school in a tiny upstate New York town near the Canadian border. One converted to Islam. One converted to Judaism. Their meeting on this bus is destiny. AMY STONE, the Lilith Blog.