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Loving and Leaving the Head Scarf

What hijab's revolving door says about the religious mobility of American Muslims.

By Andrea Useem
Posted Monday, May 12, 2008, at 7:03 AM ET


For most teenage girls, rebellion involves a tongue piercing or sneaking out to a beer-soaked party. But Suraya Ali, the daughter of unobservant Muslim immigrants from India, shocked her parents and her classmates by donning a Muslim head scarf. "It was my way of flipping the world off, saying, 'I can be what I want,' " says Ali, now 31, who grew up in a Chicago suburb.

But a decade and a half later, Ali had a "strange feeling" of no longer fitting in with her Muslim community; she was constantly set up with potential suitors who assumed her scarf symbolized a certain submissive attitude toward marriage; and her elite education had prompted her to question the traditional roles for men and women laid out in classical Islamic law. "I realized [wearing hijab] is not who I am anymore."

Ali's decision was visible only to those who knew her (and because of her family's sensitivities, she did not want her real name used). But her experience reveals how very modern American Muslim life can be. Hijab in America is not a social norm of ages past, unquestioningly handed down; rather, it has become a tool of self-expression. Just as Americans frequently change jobs, leave marriages, and switch religious affiliations, American Muslim women choose to love, and sometimes leave, the head scarf.

When Yale anthropologist Carolyn Rouse studied African-American Muslim women for her 2004 book Engaged Surrender, she observed that the hijab (and, in some cases, niqab, or face-covering) was primarily about group identity. Many female converts, for example, started veiling themselves immediately—the two were seen as inseparable. Wearing hijab "signified belonging to the ummah," or the broader, idealized Muslim community, she said. But this voluntary expression of citizenship doesn't always last. By the time Rouse wrote her epilogue, several of the women she had followed no longer wore the scarf. One convert, Rouse wrote, "believes she used hijab to prove to herself the depth of her faith. Now that she feels more secure with her faith she does not feel she needs it."

When I first put on the head scarf eight years ago—starting off with a horrible tan-and-white polyester square I purchased before I realized hijab could be stylish—I felt that I was daring to follow my beliefs, come what may. What I believed at that moment, as I pinned the polyester beneath my chin, was that God wanted me to cover, to simultaneously hide my beauty (such as it was) and proclaim my faith. I had become Muslim two years earlier while living and working in East Africa. As a journalist and "honorary male," I had mixed with more Muslim men than women in my travels and therefore gave little thought to hijab before converting. It was only when I returned to the United States for graduate school that I begin to notice my fellow muslimahs wearing head scarves. Had I missed something?

A turning point came one day at a cafe (OK, it was Starbucks) in Harvard Square, when a scarf-wearing woman walked in. Some customers gave her uneasy glances, and I felt sharp regret that she had no idea a fellow believer was sitting right there, silently supporting her. After that, I researched classical Islamic law as best I could and concluded that covering everything but your hands, face, and feet was, indeed, "required" for believing Muslim women.

The Quran actually has just two verses dealing specifically with women's dress. Chapter 33, verse 59, tells women to wear outer garments so they'll be recognized as Muslims and left alone. A longer verse, Chapter 24, verse 31, instructs women to guard their modesty, to cover their breasts, and not to display their beauty to males except their brothers, husbands, fathers, eunuchs, male slaves, etc. To the modern reader, the words can appear maddeningly ambiguous and painfully out of date, and they require not only translation from classical Arabic but a grasp of seventh-century historical context. Both passages are hotly debated. For hijab apologists, however, the verses, along with prophetic endorsement and scholarly rulings, prove that full covering is obligatory. This opinion is mainstream among Muslims in the United States; according to a 2007 study, 51 percent of American Muslim women wear hijab all or some of the time.

" 'Hijab is beautiful, hijab is what God wants, hijab is a Muslim woman's duty'—that's become a mantra among Muslim communities," says Fatemeh Fakhraie, a graduate student, blogger, and co-founder of the Facebook group "Just Because I Don't Wear Hijab Doesn't Mean I'm Not Muslim."

These theological arguments, while important in their own ways, sometimes seem little more than a patina atop more primal social urges, however. Wearing hijab or not wearing hijab—just like owning a gun or driving a Prius—says something fundamental about your beliefs and aspirations. And in America, at least, beliefs have a funny way of changing.

My own fervent attachment to the scarf gradually faded. Two years after first donning it, I was married and no longer needed the scarf to broadcast my unavailability to non-Muslim guys. I had also moved to a Persian Gulf country where hijab was not a personal choice but a cultural system of sex segregation: On the beaches there, men in shorts played soccer and swam, while women in layers of black polyester dipped their toes in the water and shook sand from their shoes.

Like spouses who know they are headed for divorce but still go through the marital motions, many hijabis continue to wear the scarf in public long after its inner meaning has dissipated. They wait for a natural break in their lives to make the transition. I took it off on my return flight from the Persian Gulf to the United States. Ali removed it after finishing a summer internship. Another woman I know literally moved across the country to make the change, simultaneously leaving the tight-knit Muslim community she felt was suffocating her and the scarf that pledged her allegiance to it. Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, author of the 2005 essay collection Living Islam Out Loud, found that taking off hijab was about breaking up with not only her Muslim community but also her childhood assumptions. After she divorced an abusive husband, Abdul-Ghafur found herself judged and isolated by her fellow Muslims. Feeling burned by community norms that rushed her into marriage with the wrong guy, she questioned the hijab. "Taking it off expanded my identity—it was exciting, like a new haircut," she says.

But if you start pulling at the thread of doubt, how do you keep the whole sweater from unraveling? When religious scholar Karen Armstrong left her convent in the late 1960s, she proceeded to leave Catholicism, and today she says even the label of "freelance monotheist" feels restrictive. Ali still prays five times a day, fasts for Ramadan, and remains attracted to a somewhat-traditional religious outlook. "I don't think Islam is untrue in any way. But I did get very stuck in a way of looking at things that made Islam feel untrue, and I had to separate those things."

While many American Muslims dwell contentedly within the limits of modern Islamic orthodoxy—miniworlds where hijab can be taken for granted—others avoid it or pass through en route to more spacious destinations.

Andrea Useem is a freelance religion writer and editor. Her Web site is

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