Prejudice And Progress: Women With Hijabs Talk About What It’s Like To Wear The Muslim Headscarf

In Islam, the word hijab refers narrowly to a screen that shields you from strangers, and more broadly to rules of modesty in behavior, speech and dress that apply to both men and women, according to Al-Deen, the DePaul University professor. In the U.S., the word hijab is widely used to mean headscarf.

After she converted, Beasley, who lives with her husband and children, initially just covered her hair, but as she continued to practice Islam, she began to explore the broader meaning of hijab.

"Modesty looks different for every person," she said. "I'm a black woman, so for me, covering may be different from another person covering. You have different cultures, you have different body types, you have different understandings of what modesty is. There are universal rules in our religion, but it's very personal in its application."

For her, modesty has increasingly come to mean looser clothing and more layers. She'll wear an overcoat, a long sweater or a duster. She stopped wearing leggings outside the house, unless they're covered by other clothing.

"I'm very shapely, and I didn't necessarily want that to be my 'hello' when I walked into a room," she said. "I wanted to keep it more to just me as a person and make it less about my curves, or glitter, or bedazzling, or even labels. To me, modesty includes not being flashy." ___ Asma Akhras Asma Akhras felt respected and included when she wore a hijab as a college student in the 1990s.

She moved easily through local public schools while working as a supervisor of student teachers.

"I never felt that experience of being unwelcome," said Akhras, 44. "I've always carried myself very confidently and unapologetically: 'This is who I am.' But honestly, I feel this has been due more to my racial profile than to my faith profile."

Akhras, whose parents immigrated from Syria, looks white with blond hair and blue eyes, and she said that her experience has been one of white privilege, in which she's been spared much of the hostility endured by darker-skinned Muslims. Only in the past few years, with new restrictions on travelers from Muslim countries and a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, has Akhras' personal experience as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman grown stressful.

"I started sensing this attitude coming into my field of work, into my neighborhood, into my community," said Akhras, who is studying to be licensed as a school principal. "There's this look of 'you don't belong here.' "

There was a particularly troubling incident at a local Walgreens, where Akhras took one of her daughters to buy school supplies. Akhras was waiting outside the store in her car when a woman became irate, pounding on Akhras' car window and screaming that she couldn't stop there. Concerned for her daughter's safety, Akhras went inside the store, where the angry woman continued to berate her, yelling, "If you want to fight, let's fight."

After the woman found out that Akhras had called the police, she left, Akhras said.

Akhras finds the heightened response to the hijab to be stressful, and she misses the days when she could simply choose to cover her hair without worrying about how people would react.

Sometimes she'll avoid scrutiny by wearing a baseball cap or a hat instead of a scarf, still covering her hair, but in a manner that's not recognizably Muslim.

"Other people are hijacking my narrative," she said. "I'm not being allowed to be me." ___ Naima Zaheer There are times when Naima Zaheer is walking down the street and a stranger smiles so warmly that she gets confused. "Do I know this person?" Zaheer wonders.

The answer is no, she doesn't know that smiling person, or for that matter the one who steps forward and says, "You're welcome here." Strangers in the Chicago area are responding to the scarf that Zaheer wears over her hair. Maybe they're thinking of President Donald Trump's Muslim travel ban, or a news story about anti-Muslim bias, and they want the 25-year-old graduate student to know that they support her decision to express her faith.

"I so appreciate that," she said of the positive reactions from strangers. And yet, at the same time, she said, the underlying assumptions are interesting.

"I grew up here my whole life. Of course, I'm welcome here," she said with a laugh. "You know what I mean?"

Zaheer, who is completing her master's degree in speech pathology at New York University, with a goal of working with elderly stroke and cancer patients, said that the fundamental meaning of her hijab remains constant, "It's a way for me to show my love for God",  but the nuances fluctuate.

"Sometimes I feel like this is a way for me to privatize my sexuality: who sees me or the way that they see me," she said. ___ Hannah El-Amin Growing up Muslim in Chicago in the 1980s, Hannah El-Amin wanted her mom to be like all the other moms at her elementary school, so when her mother started wearing a headscarf, El-Amin wasn't pleased.

"Why would you want to do that?" she asked.

"I'm sure she explained it to me as her own personal choice, which I respected," recalled El-Amin, 39. "I just didn't think it was cool. But then I came to realize that there are different definitions of cool."

For El-Amin, the hijab is a religious statement: "It definitely attests to my priorities in that I put faith first, period." But there's also a reminder to herself to make good choices and do what's right. Responses, she said, have been overwhelmingly positive, along the lines of "that's a really beautiful scarf."

Even the one story she did tell about Islamophobia had a surprising twist. When she worked as a dietitian at a suburban hospital, a man noticed her near the front desk and asked, "Why is she here?" El-Amin asked what he meant. "Well, this is a Catholic institution. Why are you here?" the man said.

El-Amin asked the service representatives at the front desk if they were Catholic. They said no.

"Well, it's not like (they're) people who people kill people and cut people's heads off," the man said.

El-Amin told him that she had never cut anyone's head off, and that there are some Catholics who do awful things. The man denied that. "So there are no Catholics in jail?" El-Amin asked him. No, the man said. Minutes later, the patient the man had been waiting for appeared; it was his mother, and as it turned out, El-Amin was her dietitian.

The man watched, stunned, as his mother reached out to hug El-Amin, thanking her for everything she had done for her.

"I guess he was just meant to see that, because the timing was really incredible," El-Amin said.

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