Interview with Hijabi in Seoul City
Iman, better known to her YouTube Vlog followers as Hijabi in Seoul City, sat down with Sapelo Square and shared her story of being a young muslimah of color teaching and living in Korea. Check out our interview with this courageous sister who approaches the challenges of practicing Islam in the far east with an open heart and a video camera.
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Sapelo Square: Can you share with our readers why you started vlogging?
Iman (HISC): When I first considered moving to Korea I realized that there was no Islamic perspective on life in Korea on YouTube. I set up my channel to help other Muslims to see what it is really like to be Muslim in Korea.
SS: What’s the difference between being in Korea and being in America in regards to being Muslim? **
HISC: I’m from Minnesota and it has a huge predominately Somali population. Back home people will ask me, “Are you Somali?” and they can differentiate not only that I am Muslim, but also that I am Somali. In Korea they can’t really differentiate that I’m Somali and Muslim. They usually speak to me in Korean and they will ask me where I am from, and if I am from Malaysia because they have a lot of Malaysian tourists.
SS: What is the most difficult thing about living abroad in Korea as a Muslim? **
HISC: I think the number one thing is finding places to pray. Seoul is very cramped and there is not that much green space for us. Even though we can pray wherever it is kind of hard and you really have to coordinate your schedule. Sometimes I’ll go to the fitting rooms of H&M or Forever21 and just pray in the fitting room.
SS: Do you feel that people act differently towards you as a Muslim and have you faced discrimination? **
HISC: Well I live in a predominantly business district so there are a lot of office workers and what not. I would not say that I have experienced discrimination because nobody really approaches me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m Muslim and they’re kind of like “whoa” but I haven’t had anything like that.
I had a funny incident happen to me just as a tourist in Korea, before moving here. I was coming out of the subway station and there were these ajummas (middle aged Korean women) that usually hand out fliers for different restaurants and other things. One ajumma made a comment along the lines of “You’re in Korea now, you can take that off it’s ok!” So I just looked at her and I said in Korean that “Its not like that” and just went on my way. I think that’s the first time that I experienced something like that.
SS: Do you see yourself as an ambassador, so to speak, for your faith?
HISC: I am in a unique position with my job where I can freely discuss their religious questions, but I can’t discuss Islam with my students. With my younger students, they can’t connect that I’m wearing my scarf as a result of my religion, they just think I like wearing it. I do know that my older students are observant and pick up on the fact that I am Muslim. Once I had a student comment on my wearing hijab while donning a hooded sweatshirt, “Lol, Ms. Iman, double hijab.”
On the other hand, some Koreans group me in with the large population of Asian tourists and the xenophobia that is associated with them. Many assume that I don’t speak Korean or English and would rather draw their attention to my white expat colleagues and friends. I know that my very existence here does serve to change minds.
SS: What was your first experience praying in a Mosque or designated prayer space in Korea like?
HISC: I knew about Seoul Central Mosque before moving to Korea. It was built in the 70s in Itaewon. Seeing the Allahu Akbar at the front of the masjid was eye-opening. It was not necessarily this spiritually moving moment, but Islam had made it to Korea. Korean tourists come to take pictures of the mosque. The mosque offers classes and has a Korean speaker to answer questions. They even have da’wah pamphlets in Korean. You can also find musallas in other major cities in Korea.
SS: Do you feel that being a minority (Muslim-female-person of color) unites you more with other Muslims you encounter in Korea? More so than say in the US where communities are quite fragmented in terms of ethnicity and cultural groups?
HISC: Sadly, I don’t get to see other Muslims on a regular basis. I do get to see Muslim friends (a lot of them are reverts) on the weekend, and I have a close Somali friend here from the UK, but she was unable to find better employment due to discrimination over her hijab and is leaving Korea soon. It’s a small, but growing community.
SS: How do you think being physically disconnected from your community and family back home impacts your relationship with Allah?
HISC: It definitely has brought me closer to Allah. I have really had to rely on myself and if I have problems I have to confide in Allah. The experience has allowed me to reevaluate and reflect on my relationship with Him.
SS: Is there a particular surah/dua/piece of advice that gives you comfort while in Korea?
HISC: I am a huge fan of Yasmin Mogahed’s Reclaim Your Heart. Her book gives me so much comfort. It’s in English, but offers Qur’an and commentary and advice (even connecting experiences to the life of the Prophet (s.a.w.). Mogahed is also active on Facebook and posts inspiring messages that always bring everything back to one’s faith, back to Allah.
SS: How hard is it to eat halal in Korea?
HISC: Korea is a big pork and alcohol-loving country so it’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t mix meat into everything. Staying away from pork is hard, but there are a lot of halal restaurants that cater to Muslims and vegetarian restaurants.
Check out Hijabi in Seoul City explore the first ever Muslim-catered guesthouse in Korea, Eid Guesthouse, conveniently located just 1 minute from Seoul Central Mosque.
**Several of the questions were adapted and reposted from an interview with blogger and vlogger CharlyCheer