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Behind the veil 

By Jeremiah Rygus
June 4, 2008
Photo by Trung Le.


Senior Zakiya Qadir, a Near Eastern Studies major, shows an extra scarf found in the Muslim Student Association’s office.

During the last six years, images of Islam have flooded the media — some positive, others negative, but almost all of them misunderstood.

For many Americans, the most common image of Islam is of a veiled woman. Pictures in newspapers or on TV depict everything from a completely covered woman in Afghanistan to the more common headscarf.

These images conjure a myriad of thoughts and emotions for many who have little understanding of what the hijab is and what it means to the women who choose to wear it.

Hijab is an Arabic word that literally means “cover.” More accurately though, the word means, “to veil, shelter or protect.” Here in the West, we refer to the head covering itself as hijab, but in its Islamic context, the word refers to the virtues of modesty, privacy and morality.

“There’s much more to hijab than a piece of cloth,” said Zakiya Qadir, a senior and Near Eastern Studies major. “It’s an entire lifestyle. The way I dress is just a part of being a hijabi.” A “hijabi” is someone who wears the head covering.

If a woman decides to don the hijab, there is more involved than simply placing a scarf on her head.

“The scarf is to cover the hair, neck and ears,” said Kiki Rizki, a senior studying marketing. “You don’t have to wear the traditional full robe [jilbab], but your clothing has to cover all of your body except your feet and hands.”

But women must remember the idea behind the covering.

“It has to be loose fitting, though,” senior Choclit’ Handley said. “If your clothes look like you painted them on, it defeats the whole purpose of being modest.”

Handley, a journalism major, chooses to wear the traditional jilbab. Wearing black cloth from head to toe, Handley is easy to spot on campus, displaying her faith proudly and appearing quite unlike the typical Seattleite. Though her tall stature, dark skin and Islamic clothing could make it easy to assume that she is an immigrant with a different culture than most Americans, nothing could be farther from the truth.

“I grew up here as a pretty typical American girl,” she said. “My family are Christians, I was on the cheerleading team in high school and I led Bible studies here on campus.”

Last July, Handley converted to Islam and decided to dress in hijab. She made the decision on her own and said that she didn’t feel any pressure to do so from friends or leaders in the Muslim community. Though for some women wearing hijab may make her family proud, Handley’s family reacted with the opposite.

“It was pretty bad at first,” she said. “My parents took my conversion pretty hard. But it’s better now.”

For Handley, the decision to wear the hijab was strictly religious and not cultural.

“I wear hijab for one reason: God,” she said. “I wear it because I want to please him.”

The Quran instructs women to cover themselves, but Mary Najdzin, a senior in international studies and comparative religion, said it isn’t mandatory.

Najdzin, also a convert from a non-Muslim family, explained that hijab is a way of honoring Allah and is heavily encouraged, but it is not a pillar of the faith.

“Your status as a Muslim is not dependent on whether or not you wear hijab,” she said. “It’s not like you’re a bad Muslim if you don’t, but it can definitely help you become a better one if you do.”

Hijab removes the pressures of society to conform to the standards of physical beauty. Theoretically, once a woman decides to wear the hijab, she isn’t judged by her appearance. Her actions and words are all that remain to base her character on. It also serves as a constant reminder that a decision has been made to live a certain way.

“When I wear hijab, I am saying to the world that I am a Muslim,” Handley said. “I really have to watch what I say and do. If I speak harshly to someone or go around gossiping and backbiting, I make a mockery of my religion. It makes you an ambassador for your faith all day long.”

Many Westerners view hijab as oppressive and archaic. A large portion of liberals and feminists even consider it to be a step backward for women. While freedom of religion is widely supported among such groups, there is a common sentiment that hijab is something that is not necessary outside of Islamic nations.

“The Quran does not say that a woman must wear hijab,” said Zakariya Dehlawi,* a senior and president of the Muslim Student Association. “And not only that, the decision to wear it must be made by her. Men are not allowed to force it on women.”

Men are not instructed to cover their hair and ears like women because those body parts of a man are not typically considered seductive.

“Anytime you hear of women being forced to wear hijab, it is cultural or political,” Najdzin said. “Certain regimes have taken passages and practices from the Quran and used them for their own purposes. That’s not Islam though; it’s just a specific culture.”

Iran and Saudi Arabia are the only countries that still require women to wear hijab by law. Southern Afghanistan and some rural areas of Pakistan use strong social pressure to keep it obligatory, but there is no legal basis for the practice. In the United States, many mosques encourage it, but it is not mandatory for anyone.

“I felt oppressed before I started wearing hijab,” Qadir said. “When I first started wearing it, I felt totally liberated. When I was in high school, I was always so worried about how I looked and whether my clothes were fashionable. Most women don’t realize how much they actually worry about that until one day they don’t anymore. Now I’m free to just be me.”

Lina Motiwala said that when her appearance was no longer a factor, she was forced to be more introspective.

“It the hijab really forces you to respect and examine your real worth: what’s inside. It’s good for your self-esteem when you know people are talking to you, or friends with you, because of who you are, not what you look like,” she said.

“If someone isn’t interested in being my friend because I don’t look the same as other girls, why would I want them in my life?” said Qadir.

“Especially with guys,” added Rizki. “It’s pretty obvious what they’re interested in if they don’t want to hang out with you because you wear hijab.”

In predominantly Muslim nations, seeing a woman wearing hijab is as common as seeing a woman in the United States wearing heels. But for young Muslims in the United States, it can be hard sometimes to constantly be dressed differently.

“Sometimes I’ll walk past a store and see a really cute sundress,” Motiwala said. “And I’ll want to buy it just like anyone else. We are women, after all.”

“If I want something like that, I’ll get it,” Handley said. “I just wear it at home.”

For the women who wear the hijab, Western culture continually challenges them to choose the pious lifestyle they live daily. Unlike in Muslim countries, they go against the grain. And the last seven years have added an intensified amount of discrimination to what was once just a lack of understanding.

Each one of the girls interviewed here gave accounts of being harassed or treated like a second-class citizen after Sept. 11, 2001.

“I had lots of friends in high school,” Qadir said. “I put the hijab on for the first time just before 9/11 and everything was fine. But after the attacks, I suddenly didn’t have anyone to sit with anymore.”

Unless a Muslim man is wearing traditional clothing, he is undistinguishable from others. Hijabi women don’t have that luxury. They announce each day that they are part of the group that some consider America’s enemy.

Najdzin, whose parents are Polish and Korean non-Muslims, says people often speak slowly and simply to her as if she were unable to comprehend conversational English. Handley has been called a terrorist and has been accused of not really being an American, even though she was born and raised here.

“Sept. 11 really ‘otherized’ Islam,” Handley said. “And the minute you ‘otherize’ something, you begin to demonize it. All of a sudden I became the ‘other,’ just because of my faith.”

A few weeks ago, as a group from the Muslim Student Association waited to board a ferry for Vashon Island, a woman approached the group and began hurling accusations and profanities at them.

“It was mostly directed at the girls,” Dehlawi said. “I guess their hijabs ticked her off. I just told her that she was being rude and that her actions weren’t necessary, but she just kept going, so we left.”

None of the girls expressed fear for their safety here in Seattle. As a whole, they consider it a pretty open-minded and accepting city, but they weren’t sure if life would be the same in other parts of the country.

The United States isn’t the only Western nation where this discriminatory behavior is occurring, though. France, where Muslims comprise 10 percent of the total population, has just passed a law that forbids public school students from wearing hijab. The law states symbols or attire from any religion will no longer be permitted in the secular school system, but many Muslims feel that this law is directed at them.

But with all the potential hardships of wearing the hijab in Western society, none of the girls interviewed expressed anything but positive feelings about their experience as a hijabi.

“When I started wearing hijab, I felt like it completed my identity,” Motiwala said. 

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