By Nara Schoenberg Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In response to several high-profile incidents surrounding the wearing of the hijab, the Chicago Tribune interviewed six Chicago-area women about why they wear the hijab, what it means to them, and what kinds of reactions they get.
Wrapped tightly around her head, with no softly draping fabric to distract her during meetings at her tech startup, Dilara Sayeed's hijab is American in more ways than one.
Her hijab, or Muslim headscarf, has a sleek, professional profile that is mostly seen in the U.S.
And the spirit with which Sayeed, a former Democratic candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives, wears her hijab is American as well. When Sayeed's Indian-born father questioned her decision to cover her hair at age 19, saying, "You're in America now; you don't have to do this," Sayeed's comeback was the stuff of a high school civics class: "It's because I'm American that I can choose to cover, Daddy."
At a time of fraught debate about immigration and national identity, the hijab has become a flashpoint and a symbol of solidarity, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donning a hijab after the Christchurch mosque shootings, and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro drawing criticism for asking whether U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar's hijab reflects beliefs "antithetical to the U.S. Constitution."
Controversy flared locally last year when WGN-TV news anchor Robin Baumgarten told Chicago fashion blogger Hoda Katebi, who wears a hijab, that she didn't sound like an American when she criticized U.S. policy. Baumgarten later apologized.
In response to such high-profile incidents, the Tribune interviewed six Chicago-area women about why they wear the hijab, what it means to them, and what kinds of reactions they get. The women interviewed were from families with roots in Syria, India, Africa and Palestine. They were black, white and brown, suburban and urban, immigrant and American-born. They spoke of bigotry and acceptance, of religious devotion and personal identity.
"Hijab is part of me, a part of who I am, something I can call basically home," said Saeda Sulieman, a college student. "If I don't wear the hijab, I feel less secure, less powerful."
While the Muslim holy book, the Quran, does not explicitly require head covering, it does call on Muslims, both men and women, to be modest in speech, action and self-presentation, according to Aminah Al-Deen, a professor emerita of Islamic studies at DePaul University.
Some Muslim women believe they are required to wear the hijab, while others do not.
And even beyond religion, the hijab has layers of nuanced and often very personal meaning: It can be a reminder to stay true to one's own beliefs. It can be a signal to teenage boys that you demand respect. The hijab can be a very American assertion of the right to self-expression. It can be flat-out feminist.
"It's a big 'screw you' to beauty standards, you know?" said graduate student Naima Zaheer, 25.
"Sometimes we buy into the idea that we're not enough, that we have to do a certain thing a certain way to be considered beautiful, and I feel like this is a way to say, 'No, I'm just going to be who I am.' "
Some women reported overwhelmingly positive reactions to their hijabs; others encountered more hostility. But all recalled at least one stranger who reacted badly.
"I had someone screaming at me, telling me I'm stupid, I can't drive, to go back to my own country, all of those Islamophobic things, and I'm just looking at them like, what is your problem?" said Dawn Najma Beasley, 39.
"They see me, and they see Desert Storm, they see ISIS, they see the propaganda. I was born and raised in Gary, Ind. My family is from the South Side of Chicago. I live down the street from Obama's house." ___ Saeda Sulieman In seventh grade, Saeda Sulieman felt ready to start wearing a hijab.
"My mom wears the hijab, and she was kind of like a role model," said Sulieman, now 18 and a freshman at Moraine Valley Community College. "Some people in my family don't, and that's their decision, obviously, but I chose to because I felt like it made me closer to God, and it made me feel like a better person."
When her friends asked her if she felt different now that she was wearing a headscarf, she told them she felt more confident because she was acting on her beliefs. Over time, her friends realized that she hadn't changed, she said, and her relationships with them actually grew stronger.
There was a difficult time about two months after she started wearing the hijab, when one classmate used the anti-Muslim slur "towelhead" and another called her a terrorist.
Sulieman cried when she told one of her teachers, but the school acted quickly, addressing the issue with the two offending students and their parents, and the comments stopped.
At high school, where Sulieman, who graduated early, is still president of the Muslim Student Association, there are Muslim students whose families hail from Egypt, Sudan and Palestine, said Sulieman, whose parents are Palestinian immigrants. Last year, the Muslim Student Association held a World Hijab Day event in which students could try on hijabs during lunch and ask questions.
School administrators, she said, have been supportive.
"They love to make sure that we feel comfortable," she said. "It's all about comfort, and making sure that we have a voice." ___ Dilara Sayeed "Can I be honest with you?" says Dilara Sayeed. "I think God's got so many more problems to deal with than whether I've got a scarf on my head or not."
And yet, every morning, Sayeed wraps a scarf around her head. She was wearing a hijab in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Muslim headscarf was so rare that people thought she was just expressing her personal sense of style. She wore a hijab despite the fact that she and her parents immigrated from India, where the hijab wasn't very common and despite the fact that her mother, a Muslim, did not cover her hair.
"It is my identity," Sayeed, founder and CEO of the online platform for peer-to-peer mentoring vPeer, said of her scarves, some colorful, some professional and sedate.
"It is the way I see myself as an American Muslim woman. It means something to me: It means I am a woman who is empowered, I am a woman who has integrity, I am a woman who serves."
In the West, she said, a woman is considered liberated because she can wear a bikini on the beach. But in her view, liberation doesn't lie in a particular article of clothing; it lies in the free choice to wear it. And unfortunately the misconception persists that women aren't freely choosing the hijab.
"We need to be real about this: Is putting on this scarf a challenge? I just finished telling you how empowered I am, but hell yeah," she said. "It's a challenge every single day. When I put it on, I have to prepare myself that when someone first meets me, they're going to think, possibly, that I am quiet, reserved, suppressed, not empowered."
That hurts sometimes, and sometimes it makes her angry, but it also makes her all the more determined to change people's minds.
"There's nothing like dialogue," she said. "Looking each other in the eyes is the cure to prejudice." ___ Dawn Najma Beasley Raised Christian in Gary, Ind., Dawn Beasley converted to Islam nearly four years ago.
"It was a natural conversion; God guided me to a better way of life because I was searching," said Beasley, 39, who is studying to be a phlebotomist. "I was studying religions. I was looking."
Islam, which has strong ties to Judaism and Christianity, was familiar to her, and she liked how detailed it is and how much practical information it offers regarding how to live your daily life. Praying five times a day and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan resonated with her, as did the hijab.