“I never felt anything negative about Winthrop or Rock Hill,” Rose Hamid said Friday, on her first trip back to the university campus since her notable appearance almost three months earlier.
Until then, Hamid was a fairly anonymous, Charlotte-based writer and activist working on social justice issues and interfaith dialogue outside of her job as a flight attendent. At least, as anonymous as she can be in the headscarf Hamid wears as an expression of her Islamic faith.
She stood out even more at the Jan. 8 rally at the Winthrop Coliseum for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who only weeks before had announced plans to bar Muslims from entering the United States. Hamid was ejected for silently protesting Trump’s appearance, and in the process became a worldwide face of opposition to Trump’s proposal, appearing in national and international coverage of the event.
Other protesters were ejected from Trump’s rally, many of them friends and fellow activists Hamid traveled with for the event, but none of them embodied so clearly the group Trump had spoken against.
“Anything inspiring that I say, I give thanks to God,” Hamid told a crowd of mostly young women Friday at a conference of the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association at Winthrop, where she was invited to give the plenary address. “I’ve been praying for the right thing to say since this happened. ... I feel like I carry a lot of weight.”
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Hamid grew up in a mixed Palestinian Arab and Latino household. She was nominally raised Catholic, but as a young woman Hamid says she could best be described as agnostic and “against organized religion.” It was only when she started a family with her husband, a largely non-practicing Palestinian Muslim, that she began to feel a need for a more religious structure to her life. The faith tradition she turned to was Islam.
But even as she covered herself in public, Hamid felt her religion called her to be more publicly engaged in the issues of her wider community. The theme of her speech Friday was Muslim women’s rights.
“You might say, ‘You’re a Muslim feminist? That doesn’t sound possible.’ Especially if you see the way women are treated in some Muslim-majority countries,” Hamid said. “But those countries are like that not because of Islam but in spite of it.”
She told the crowd Islam and its holy book, the Quran, calls for equality among believers regardless of gender. Early Islamic society gave women the right to own their own property, to choose their spouse and initiate divorce. The Islamic practice of polygamy – allowing up to four wives to a man – was instituted in response to a war that left the community with a gender imbalance, Hamid said, and was meant to ensure the equal dignity of all a man’s wives.
“It says women must have a sense of respect and honor, not be a girl on the side somewhere,” she said. “In some ways, she said, Islam was “the first women’s rights movement.”
“That’s Protesting 101”
That sense of pride led her to join a group that planned to protest Trump’s Rock Hill appearance, and what the mixed-faith group of activists feared was an increasingly Islamophobic turn in the presidential campaign. Knowing she’d draw the attention of photographers, Hamid donned a T-shirt designed by her son that said “Salam: I Come in Peace” and a yellow star designed by a Jewish friend reminiscent of the identifying badges issued in Nazi Germany.
She knew she’d stand out in a crowd of Trump supporters, but no more so than in her job as a hijab-wearing flight attendant. “I’m used to getting looks from people,” she said. “And they get really confused when I start translating the instructions into Spanish.”
Arriving early, she made sure to find a seat directly behind Trump’s podium, hoping to get within view of the media cameras.
“In the (online) comments, people were like, ‘They sat in front of the cameras on purpose,’ ” Hamid said. “Well, yeah. That’s Protesting 101.”
Most of the people she interacted with in her section were personally very nice to her, Hamid said. Her scarf made her more of an attraction than an outsider.
“One couple took pictures with me, they shared their popcorn,” she remembers. “I hope they don’t think I was being sneaky. I didn’t want to offend them. I think they thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got a Muslim (for Trump)!’ ”
When she and her companion stood in silent protest, at first she was worried no one would notice, because at that point, everyone was standing to cheer the candidate. But once the crowd figured out what she was doing, they began waving their signs and chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump,” the pre-announced signal to alert security to protesters. Hamid said the candidate seemed to think they were cheering him.
As she was escorted out, the crowd on the aisle turned more abusive. One man asked if she was carrying a bomb. Another, confusingly, yelled, “Issa loves you,” using the Arabic name for Jesus.
“At first, I thought he was a supporter,” Hamid said, “Then I turned and saw his face and thought, ‘Oh no. That is not how you show Jesus loves you.’ ”
But she kept smiling throughout, figuring she might be the only Muslim many had ever seen and wanting to leave a good impression.
“My son watched it later and said they looked like hate zombies,” she said. “They weren’t like that before Trump got them all riled up.”
But even as she was being escorted out of the Coliseum, Hamid’s phone rang with a call from CNN. A reporter had spotted her in the crowd before the event and introduced himself, expecting they might have a reason to talk later.
Soon, she was being interviewed on TV, talking to media stretching from South America to South Korea. She always stressed that her goal was not so much to protest Trump as to be “anti-hate speech.” And especially with foreign media, she emphasized how unusual a scene this was in America.
“I’m a better Muslim in America than I could be in any other country, because I choose to follow God, not because anyone tells me to,” she said. “And I always said I was not thrown out because I was Muslim, but because we were protesting. And we expected to get thrown out.”
In response to a student’s question on Friday, Hamid said she would protest a Trump event even now, after campaign events have developed a reputation for violence against protesters. She doesn’t feel like the protests really break through, though, since they’ve come to be expected.
But she also thinks it’s important to stand up to hate speech on the campaign trail, telling the story of a fellow Muslim woman who was shouted at on the street.
“He said, ‘You’re Muslim. Get out of here. You’re godless people. You murder people,’ ” she recounts the man saying to the woman in front of her child. “When anyone talks about punching people in the face, getting them carried out on stretchers, internment camps, it gives people permission to act like this.”
Hamid said she still feels at home in the otherwise heavily Christian South. “I’d rather be around people who are God-conscious, who feel like they have something to emulate, than people who don’t feel that way,” she said.
Hamid’s talk resonated with Asma Elhuni, a Georgia State University student who also wears hijab and called the speaker “kind of an icon in the Islamic community right now.”
“I really appreciate them having a Muslim speak, especially during a time when politics has turned Islamophobic and a lot of people are recipients of hate speech,” Elhuni said. “Having a human element means more than anything you could say or write.”