Head Strong: Muslim Women Say The Hijab Is A Symbol Of Faith, Not Oppression

By Precious Fondren
The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  As reporter Precious Fondren reports, “Often people believe that Muslim women are forced by the men in their lives to wear the hijab. This is a myth that Muslim women want to dispel immediately.”


Contemporary Christians rarely shy away from symbolic professions of their faith, whether it be a cross around their neck or the outline of a fish on their license plate.

But for Muslim women who venture in public, the terrain is trickier. Wearing a hijab — the simple head covering that serves as a sign of their commitment to Islam and acknowledgement of their cultural roots — tends to bring a variety of responses, ranging from curiosity to hostility.

Navigating that terrain hasn’t gotten much easier in the nearly 20 years since 9/11.

Currently six European countries ban wearing burqas in public, and this year Quebec passed a law that penalizes teachers and other public service employees for wearing religious garb in the classroom. Doing so limits their chances for promotion.

None of which has deterred the most determined Muslim women, who say wearing a hijab as much a symbol of empowerment as of their devotion to God.

“It’s my way of serving God and I believe that it’s mandatory; that is like reason enough for me,” said University of Toledo student Walaa Kanan. Born and raised in Toledo, Ms. Kanan said a diverse group of Muslim women influenced her decision to wear the hijab.

“I’m a little bit different, though. I started wearing the hijab a lot younger than what is normal. I started wearing it … in second grade.”

Because she was young and “didn’t grasp the full meaning behind wearing it,” she said family members thought her choice to wear the hijab was just a phase.

“They were like,’Oh, she’s a kid. She’s probably gonna wear it sometimes’, but I stuck with it.”

Adopting the hijab early is not the case for most young women. Consider Zobaida Falah, a Sylvania entrepreneur who started wearing the head covering as a freshman in high school.

“Growing up in Kentucky I was visibly the only Muslim,” Ms. Falah said. “I was literally the token Muslim in my class, my school, and even in my city.”

Ms. Falah said that after 9/11 she felt as if she was a walking representation of her religion which stressed her out.

“That was a huge burden on me, because I felt I had to perfect everything I did, or I at least had to second guess every action that I did, because I didn’t want to be perceived in a negative way,” she said.

What exactly is this garment that’s caused so much secular consternation?

The hijab is a head covering veil that predates the arrival of Muhammad in Arabia. It’s intent is to maintain modest and privacy against the gaze of unrelated males. Unlike a burqa, which entails fully covering the face leaving only the eyes unmasked, hijabs are closer to scarves wrapped around the head.

The word “hijab” comes from the Arabic root “hajaba” which means to hide or make invisible. In modern Arabic language it’s used to describe the way women are encouraged to dress.

On whether wearing the veil is a requirement, Muslim religious writings aren’t entirely clear. Ovamir Anjum, chair of Islamic studies at the University of Toledo, said there are various passages in the Qur’an that make reference to the covering of the prophet’s wives, but some Muslims disagree about who it applies to: only the prophet’s wives or all Muslim women?

“There’s a verse in the Qur’an that says that women should take their headscarves and wrap that around there, and not show their beauty except to their husbands or close relatives like fathers and brothers and so on,” Anjum said. “They are meant to dress in a way that is not designed to draw attention.”

While some women adhere to covering at a young age, others don’t decide until much older.

“It’s a sign of showing who I am as a Muslim,” 58-year-old Manal Elshiekh said. Born and raised in Egypt, Ms. Elshiekh started wearing the hijab full-time when she moved to Perrysburg with her family about 20 years ago. For her, wearing the hijab was a way to reconnect with her faith and move away from shallow ideas about beauty.

“When I was young, I just want to be proud of the way I look and scared how people will look at me,” she said. “I was afraid I would look older than I was. Then I came to one point I said,’Who I am going to please, I’m going to please the people or God?'”

Often people believe that Muslim women are forced by the men in their lives to wear the hijab. This is a myth that Muslim women want to dispel immediately.

“In reality, it’s the woman’s choice. 100 percent,” Zobaida Falah said. “My father didn’t force me to wear it, my brothers didn’t force me, my husband didn’t force me. It was 100 percent my choice, I chose to do it.”

Unable to control her irritation at the thought of being labeled oppressed Ms. Kanan agrees.

“It’s so baffling to me that people think they have the right to come tell me whether or not I’m oppressed,” she said. “That’s literally so counterproductive to feminism. Like, you’re gonna tell me that something I’m doing by choice is oppressing me and I shouldn’t do it. Like, you’re oppressing me by telling me I shouldn’t do what I feel like doing.”

There is no Quranic penalty for not adhering to Muslim dress, but university chair Ovamir Anjum said that some women in conservative cultures can face social ridicule.

“A woman who doesn’t wear the hijab is looked down upon by her own family and sometimes the community,” he said. “But that only happens in very conservative places.”

Despite the growing community of Muslims in Toledo there aren’t any specialty stores for women to buy their hijabs.While this isn’t an issue for some, who get their hijabs online or from family overseas, the desire for better representation does exist.

“We need it to be normalized in society,” Ms. Falah said. “Because the reality is there are Muslim women walking around in everyday life who wear the hijab.”

All three women say the rules for wearing the hijab are pretty straightforward. They must cover whenever they’re in public and whenever they’re around men that aren’t their husband, father, brother, grandfather, and son. There aren’t any restrictions on color, fabric, or pattern.

“But the hijab isn’t just about the covering the head,” says Ms. Kanan. “Covering the head is the very last thing. It’s also about the way you dress.”

Outside of wearing the hijab, women are also expected to wear loose fitting clothing as not to show off their figure.

“If I would put on a pair of tight jeans, my mom would say, ‘Those are really tight. That’s showing off your entire figure, you need to wear something a little bit looser,’ ” Zobaida Falah recalled.

Despite the multitude of reasons women decide to wear or not wear the hijab, Ms. Falah says most Muslim women enjoy opening up about their faith so never be afraid to ask educated questions. They are here as flag bearers.

“This is an open invitation. If you’re a non Muslim and you have questions, feel free to walk up to us and ask us questions. As long as they’re not offensive. But let me just end with, no, we don’t shower in these,” she says, chuckling.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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