Women of cover - Kansas City Star, USA
- Women of cover
BY BILL TAMMEUS
Knight Ridder Newspapers
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - (KRT) - It's just past 3 p.m. on a
Thursday, and the second-floor cafe at Barnes & Noble
bookstore is quiet. Only a dozen people sit at
tables_talking, reading, sipping chi-chi decaf teas.
Ayesha Kadir, wearing a hijab, the traditional Islamic
head scarf, sits with her back to the wall, giving her
a view of the whole cafe. Her hijab is not the black
cloth often seen on women in Muslim countries. Rather,
it's an elegant pink, chosen from her collection of
creams, whites, greens, blues, browns and even
"People look," says Kadir, a medical student at the
University of Missouri-Kansas City. "They're curious.
But they don't stare. It doesn't really make me feel
Nearby, two young men are chatting. A few minutes
after Kadir leaves, they walk out, too. But they
didn't even notice her and her hijab. One, however,
offers this: "There's been so much prejudice about
Muslims since 9/11 that it's unfair. I just think it's
their religion and their choice."
Other Muslim women make different choices about
whether to be women of cover. Fatimeh El-Sherif, a
recent UMKC graduate, used to wear the hijab but now
has decided not to, while Renee Zahara Echols, who
converted to Islam only a few months ago, has chosen
to cover her hair, even though that has created some
family tension. Her mother, father and brother, she
says, think her wearing the hijab is "stupid."
The decisions of these women reflect one aspect of how
followers of Islam are working out their presence in a
society unused to_and largely uneducated about_Islamic
traditions and customs. They also reflect the reality
that Islam, especially in the West, is not a
monolithic faith in which all practitioners agree
Although Kadir rarely gets a negative reaction to her
hijab, she did have a bad experience earlier this year
on a highway near Boonville, Mo. She was passing
another car when a man in a car behind her noticed her
head scarf and started tailgating her. He stayed close
to her back bumper for several anxious minutes.
"It was the first time I'd seen someone look at me as
if they could kill me," she says. But she wasn't
intimidated and she made sure, she says, that her face
showed no fear. Eventually he backed away and pulled
off the next exit.
For most of her adult life, that incident would not
have happened to her. She didn't start wearing the
hijab until she was 24 years old, almost two years
Like Kadir, El-Sherif and Echols, Muslim women in
America have faced both acceptance and discrimination,
especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by
terrorists who claimed to be acting in the name of
Islam. But Kadir says much of the reaction is mere
"Why do you wear that?" patients she meets as a
medical student ask her. And more than one child has
asked: "Are you a nun?"
"It's really an innocent question," she says, smiling
Kadir, 25, explains her hijab decision this way: "In
the Quran, it says in not one but many places that
people who believe in God and the Prophet Muhammad
have to show themselves as Muslims and not be afraid
to do so. That's part of faith. I believe that hijab
is the easiest way to identify myself."
El-Sherif, 20, however, says, "I really don't think
I'm doing anything against my religion" by not
covering. A growing Muslim feminist movement agrees
But Echols, 25, says she views herself "as a feminist,
and I don't wear the hijab because it's a rule or
because someone told us to wear it 1,400 years ago. I
choose to wear it as an expression of my identity and
as a protest against the ... pressure on women,
especially young women, to look a certain way and have
a certain body shape."
The dress of Muslim girls and women has become a point
of contention in various ways in America.
Last year the Muskogee, Okla., school district
suspended a sixth-grade Muslim girl for refusing to
remove her hijab. The case was settled this spring
with an agreement between the district and the Justice
Department. It allows the girl to wear the hijab and
requires the district to allow dress-code exceptions
for religious garb. That new code now is in place.
In Florida, a woman has sued Walt Disney World,
alleging she lost her job because the company's dress
code forbids her to wear the hijab. And in Cleveland,
a woman recently sued Cuyahoga County and the
sheriff's office after being forced to remove her head
scarf at a court hearing on a child custody dispute in
But so far the hijab issue has not become as divisive
in the United States as it has in France, where the
National Assembly earlier this year voted to ban the
scarves from public schools. French officials, in
fact, say the new law means that Sikh schoolboys must
abandon their turbans and, instead, wear hair nets.
The different views about what is appropriate dress in
Islam are rooted in how the religion's sacred texts
are interpreted. Both the Quran, Islam's holy book,
and the Hadith, the authenticated collections of
sayings and actions by the Prophet Muhammad, are used
to justify various positions. And those
interpretations can vary widely. Two examples:
"Nothing in the Quran addresses how women should
dress," says Fatma Al-Sayegh, a United Arab Emirates
University history teacher who recently spoke in
"The Quran and (Hadith) make it clear that hijab is a
religious requirement for Muslim women," counters
Mahbubur Rahm, editor in chief of The Message
International, a monthly magazine published by the
Islamic Circle of North America.
Peter Awn, professor of Islamic and comparative
religion at Columbia University, says questions about
proper attire for Muslim women "have much more to do
with custom and location than with religious texts.
What you will find in the early texts are arguments
that modesty is essential for both women and men. How
modesty was interpreted throughout the centuries by
commentators and lawyers, however, often differed."
MODESTY AND IDENTITY
El-Sherif, who is looking for a job at which she can
use her new UMKC communications degree, was conscious
of those different interpretations as she wrestled
with her decision not to cover her head.
"I used to wear hijab when I was younger," she says.
"I think I chose not to wear it because I felt it was
kind of limiting what I could do in society. It really
isn't something needed as it was during the time of
the prophet (Muhammad).
"During his time, it was very unsafe for a woman to be
out (alone). I think that while today's society isn't
as safe as it could be, it's much safer than it was.
... I try to dress respectfully. Modesty is not in
just how you dress but how you interact with your
neighbors and your family."
Echols, who is moving later this summer to Ann Arbor,
Mich., to work on a doctorate in literature at the
University of Michigan, doesn't "think modesty is a
very good reason" to wear the hijab today. "You can be
modest without covering your hair. We, as Muslim
women, need to reformulate why we wear hijab."
Kadir says her earlier decision not to wear the hijab
"wasn't so much a concern about being different, it
was more of an issue of believing I could fit into the
society more. I could still be modest without covering
my hair and my neck. I just didn't believe it was
necessary. I felt that simply didn't apply."
But then she attended a lecture by former U.S. Rep.
Paul Findley of Illinois in which he talked about how
Muslims could improve their lot in the United States
"and help people understand what Islam is," she says.
When Findley said, "Women have it easy because they
have their scarves, I thought, `Wow!' " That "made me
think again about identifying myself. Before, when I
didn't wear the hijab, no one knew I was a Muslim. And
when I talked to people, they didn't take me
IN ITS PLACE
There is essentially no disagreement among Muslims
about being called to dress modestly. For women, that
means not wearing tight-fitting clothing that reveals
the shape of their bodies.
For Echols, concern about how she looks has different
roots. She was born with glaucoma and now uses both a
white cane and a guide dog, Roy (short for Viceroy).
"People look at me anyway because of my dog," she
says, "or because I'm blind. I never really blended in
Since she began wearing a head scarf, Echols is
"having to explain it all the time, and my family
still isn't comfortable with it."
Her family, whom she describes as "nominally
Christian," worries that "it makes me look
unattractive because they always are concerned about
me looking normal," she says. Sometimes, she says,
they make jokes that equate Islam with terrorism and
bomb makers, so she doesn't' wear the hijab around
them. "I'm hoping that eventually they'll get used to
it," she says.
Awn, the Columbia University religion professor, notes
that "concern with women's modesty was equally
prevalent among Christians and Jews (in earlier times)
as among Muslims. In classical patriarchal
environments, for example, certain parts of a woman's
body were considered erotically charged and,
therefore, they needed to be guarded from public view.
Hair was universally recognized as such, and thus head
coverings were mandated."
He says older Roman Catholic women today no doubt
"remember that they used to be obliged to cover their
heads before entering a church. Why? Because this was
one of the last remnants in Roman Catholicism of this
same attitude toward women's hair. Even today, the
Vatican has serious restrictions on what a woman can
wear if she is to attend an audience with the pope. In
Orthodox Judaism, many women adhere to these same
restrictions and wear head scarves or wigs to cover
In countries in which Muslims constitute a majority of
the population, dress for women varies greatly.
In Uzbekistan, for instance, devout Muslim women can
be seen in public wearing simple skirts, short-sleeved
tops but no head covering. By contrast, in Saudi
Arabia, all women in public are required to be fully
veiled. Religious police enforce that. Such matters
were regulated even more strictly under the former
Taliban rulers in Afghanistan. Pictures of such
practice reinforced a belief in the West that veiling
or even just covering one's hair is a sign of the
oppression of Muslim women.
But Awn says the decision to wear the hijab among
American Muslim women "indicates nothing about a
woman's independence, education or ability to make her
own decisions. A head covering can be as much a
political statement as a socio-religious statement."
When Mahnaz Shabbir, 45, president of the Heartland
Muslim Council, lived in India with her parents in the
early 1960s, her mother was fully veiled. But, she
says, that practice began to disappear in India and
didn't begin to return until the 1980s.
Shabbir often speaks to civic groups, churches and
other gatherings about Islam. She'll talk without a
hijab and then put one on and say: "See? I'm still the
Dress customs also can vary from urban to rural areas
in Islamic countries.
"Tribal women," Awn says, "frequently wear whatever
they want. You can't work the fields in full modesty
regalia. In urban settings, however, concern about
modesty increased because of the proximity of so many
individuals unrelated to one's family group. You began
to see, therefore, a growing emphasis on female
seclusion and veiling."
There are no reliable figures on how many Muslims now
call America home. The estimates range from 2 million
to 10 million, though by all accounts the numbers are
As these Muslims seek their place in American culture,
the hijab will become more prominent, especially if
Muslim women adopt the position of Aminah Assilmi,
director of the International Union of Muslim Women, a
private nonprofit group based in Taylorville, Ky.: "To
ask me to go without my hijab would be like asking a
nun to go topless."
And say to the believing women
That they should lower
Their gaze and guard
Their modesty; that they
Should not display their
Beauty and ornaments except
What (must ordinarily) appear
Thereof; that they should
Draw their veils over
Their bosoms and not display
Their beauty except
To their husbands, their fathers ...
_ Surah 24:31
Thy wives and daughters,
And the believing women,
That they should cast
Their outer garments over
Their persons (when abroad):
That is most convenient,
That they should be known
(as such) and not molested ...
_ Surah 33:59
© 2004, The Kansas City Star.
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