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Women of cover - Kansas City Star, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    Women of cover BY BILL TAMMEUS Knight Ridder Newspapers http://www.fortwayne.com/mld/newssentinel/living/9651381.htm KANSAS CITY, Mo. - (KRT) - It s just past
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 15, 2004
      Women of cover
      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
      about everything.

      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
      with her.

      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
      Kansas City.

      "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."


      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


      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
      their hair."

      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
      same person."

      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

      Prophet! Tell

      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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      Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information

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