Quick Take:

It’s generally easy to be a Muslim in Santa Cruz, except when it’s not, Erica Aisha Charves writes. People often look at me strangely because I wear a headscarf. Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, which ended Sunday, reminds me to be patient and empathetic, and to continue to educate our community about Islam. It’s easier when I have coffee first.

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A person learns a lot about themself by giving up coffee, tea, and all food or a favorite beverage during daylight hours for a month.

It’s self-discipline. Sacrifice. A reminder of why charity and generosity matter. Kindness, gratitude and empathy — particularly for the poor and hungry — are themes of every Ramadan and Eid (EE-d) I’ve celebrated.

Erica Aisha Charves
Credit: Via Erica Aisha Charves

Eid, short for Eid al-Fitr, celebrates the end of the fasting for Ramadan and often takes place over three days. Ramadan marks the time when the Prophet Muhammad received the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

The fasting I just completed connects me to the more than 2 billion Muslims across the world and over 400 families in Santa Cruz County who just celebrated the Muslim holy month, which ran from April 1 until the evening of May 1. In Santa Cruz County, we have two Islamic centers — one in Santa Cruz and one in Watsonville — and both held large Eid celebrations Sunday evening and Monday.

Some people are surprised when I tell them Santa Cruz has that many Muslims or that we have a thriving community.

My favorite thing about our Santa Cruz mosque — and U.S. mosques in general — is the diversity; we have Arab, Pakistani, Indian, Indonesian, African, other Asian members along with white, Black and Hispanic converts. The mosque is definitely one of the most diverse places I’ve seen in the county. After praying ends, some families travel to bigger Bay Area mosques for Eid festivals, which include games, rides and bouncy castles for kids.

People bring food to morning Eid prayer and that, too, is a lovely blend of Moroccan, Syrian and Asian food, along with compulsory American doughnuts. Sugar is important after a fast.

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Communal fasting brings connection. There’s a deep joy in celebrating the end together and offering warm wishes after a day spent standing in lines praying as one in gratitude. We dress in our finest new outfits to attend Eid prayer.

I’m generally a stylish dresser, with impeccably matching headscarves, but not during Ramadan. During Ramadan, I’m far more likely to wear an abaya (the long black dress-robe). It’s not that I suddenly become more modest (although I like the modesty factor). It’s that without coffee, I am lazy. I also don’t want to get out of my pajamas, so I just put the robe — essentially a long-sleeved black dress (mine all have pockets!) — over my pajamas and throw on a headscarf. Every scarf matches. Pro tip: When you wear a headscarf, you never have to style your hair.

It’s generally fairly easy to be a Muslim in Santa Cruz — except when it’s not.

People here sometimes stare at me because I wear a headscarf — called a hijab — or an abaya. Once at Trader Joe’s a clearly unstable person harassed me in line (the cashier and I ignored it while chatting). When I go for coffee with friends, I notice strangers moving closer, trying to get a hint of what I might be saying. At times, when I walk the aisles of a grocery store, I feel people watching me.

Such moments are uncomfortable.

People assume because we live in a liberal town people who stand out don’t get bullied. They are wrong. In fact, I have been harassed or threatened only in large liberal cities. I was threatened with a knife on my college campus in Portland, Oregon. In Berkeley, a man followed me and screamed hateful words at me.

I actually have had no issues in Moscow, Idaho, where my mom lives. When I’m in Montana, I sometimes wear a giant beanie because it’s just easier to be a white woman in a hat and long sleeves there than a woman in a hijab.

I think it’s important to mention that I converted to Islam more than 20 years ago. For other Muslim women, people of color, trans folks and people with visible disabilities, it’s impossible to just throw on a beanie to avoid being othered, harassed, mistrusted or bathroom-policed based on appearance.

I often get asked to talk about my choice to wear a hijab and what it is like as a Muslim in Santa Cruz and the U.S. I have spent years talking about my feminism and the status of women in Islam. It is my passion and a field I researched for years, including while on a Fulbright to the United Arab Emirates. I enjoy sitting on panels, speaking at events, and am active in interfaith work.

In general, I’m thankful it’s as easy as it is to be a hijabi Muslim here.

I also get tired talking about my hijab. It’s only one small piece of my life as a Muslim, but it is the one bit everyone wants to discuss. So I share, because it’s also my joy to help increase mutual understanding where I can.

When I get harassed here and elsewhere, I lean on the faith and perseverance Ramadan brings. It’s a holiday focused on striving toward our best selves even when tired, hungry or caffeine-deprived.

It’s also about gratitude.

Have you ever thought of how blessed we are to have generally drinkable water arrive directly into our glass at home? While fasting, as my thirst increases, I focus on my gratitude for this incredible luxury. I also bless the people who make potable tap water possible. Thank you plumbers, water treatment specialists, engineers and tax dollars. I think of the women (alas! It remains mostly women) who walk miles to bring fresh water to their families. I think of the unhoused in Santa Cruz who lack ready water sources to drink or wash. During Ramadan and Eid, we thank God for our blessings and sympathize with, or preferably help, others in need.

Erica Aisha Charves
Credit: Via Erica Aisha Charves

I’m blessed to work at a wonderful nonprofit where I can take days off for Eid. It’s hard to stay up late to eat dinner past sunset and then to be up at 4 a.m. to eat again before dawn.

Only five places in town have halal meat (halal is basically a Muslim version of kosher), which makes it tricky to prepare meals, particularly at Ramadan. There is only one place to buy fresh halal chicken (thank you AJ’s Market in Soquel), while Safeway has halal beef and lamb.

When you are a minority, community acknowledgment by schools, officials, civic groups matters. I was, for instance, thrilled by Bookshop Santa Cruz’s recent Ramadan display. It makes me feel seen.

Our mosque also has wonderful community partners, partners from government to nonprofits and other faiths.

Now that Ramadan is over, I get to return to my morning coffee, lunch dates with friends and stylish outfits, complemented by fashionably color-coordinated hijabs.

If you see me around, please don’t stare. Smile. I’ll smile back. Because as the Prophet Muhammad said, even a smile is charity.

Erica Aisha Charves goes by both Aisha and Erica. She is a lifelong feminist and a graduate of Portland State University who now works at Community Connection, a Santa Cruz nonprofit focusing on mental health. She also volunteers with LGBTQ+ programs and interfaith groups. She has lived on three continents and spent five years abroad in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. She has also lived in five U.S. states. She likes California and Santa Cruz best of all. She has been here for 10 years. She is active on social media, where she uses the name Opinionatedhijabi.