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Muslim women's head scarf a veil of mystery


Staff writer

Article Last Updated: 10/21/2008 01:07:36 AM EDT



Click photo to enlargeChristian Abraham/Staff photographer Student Jasmin Haffees, 13, at left, helps Fatima Sanni, 14,...123

It's all about the veil.


The hijab is a flowing slip of fabric Muslim women wrap scarf-like around their heads, tucking their hair beneath it so that not even a wisp escapes. They wear them pulled down to cover much of their foreheads, as well.


To the non-Islamic world, it is this modest bit of apparel that marks these women as Muslim. Even without intending to, these women stand out as different. From their attire, conclusions about them are drawn. That their religion is violent. Their devotion extreme. Their politics questionable.


Hijab is an Arabic term that means "to veil, to cover, to screen [or] to shelter." The Quran, however, does not mandate women wear hijabs. Rather, it instructs them to dress modestly. Most Islamic legal systems, based on centuries of Sharia -- Islamic jurisprudence -- interpret hijab as requiring women to dress so as to cover every part of their bodies with the exception of their face and hands when they are in public. And it can also refer to something metaphysical too. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, the Quranic meaning of hijab "refers to a spatial curtain that divides [men and women] or provides privacy" and allows for women to be clearly "identified and not harmed" when they mingle or travel.


Stereotypes remain


Long before she arrived on the Fairfield University campus as a freshman, Nargis Alizada, an Afghan refugee, donned a hijab in California when she became a teenager.








A motorcyclist spotted Alizada strolling down a San Diego street with her younger brother and drove off the road, onto the sidewalk, cursed her out as a "[bleep]ing Muslim. You're killing our people," and ripped her hijab off her head before knocking her down. The time was two years after the 9/11 attacks. "I was running as fast as I could," Alizada said. "I was so scared."


The experience left Alizada, her family and friends -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- shaken. Alizada's a petite, small-boned teenager with a waif-like look. It belies the dangers she's faced growing up in a fundamentalist country where it's illegal -- even a capital crime -- to teach a girl, or how her grandparents paid a tutor to educate her in secret in a basement of their home. Or how her dad paid smugglers $20,000 to sneak Alizada, her mom, sister and brother out of Afghanistan into Iran, hunched down under piles of hay and blankets in farm trucks and other vehicles.


"All of my friends figured I would stop wearing my hijab," Alizada said. "They told me that they understood if I didn't want to anymore."


Wearing a hijab is "part of our religion and our Quran's teachings to dress modestly," she said. "But I know many Muslim women who are devout who choose not to wear them."


Cultural differences


It can depend upon what country someone hails from. For instance, in Turkey, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, it is illegal for a woman to enter a government building, state-owned facility or public university wearing a hijab. Tunisia bans hijabs in some public places and police will halt women on the street to ask them to remove their hijabs. Tunisian authorities view hijabs as an uninvited form of sectarian dress.


By contrast, Bangladesh and Pakistan have no laws on hijabs, although there is strong social pressure in both countries for wearing them. In Saudi Arabia, Iran and under the Taliban regime, women are required to wear them whenever they leave their homes.


Surprising many of those closest to her, Alizada chose to continue wearing her hijab.


"There are so many places around the world where people can't practice their religion freely and openly if your religion is not that of the mainstream. And this is a country where people have the freedom of religion and the right to free speech. So why would I let some stranger dictate how I practice my faith? Why would I give this attacker that kind of power over me?" Alizada asks rhetorically. "It also makes me feel more comfortable when I go out in public. It's a sign of modesty. And I suppose there are certain sacrifices you make in different countries. My parents risked a lot to make it to the United States, so if wearing a hijab makes me more vulnerable to harm, I will have to be strong and accept that risk."


A matter of faith


Pure and simple, the motorcyclist's attack on Alizada was a hate crime. The Council on Islamic-American Relations claims each year there are an untold number of bias crimes against Muslims or people assumed to be Muslim. Most of them go unreported.


"If you know the truth about my religion," Alizada said, "then you know that it is a peaceful one and the people who are terrorists are extremists who don't represent the Islamic faith or the vast majority of Muslims."


Rabia Chaudry, a Bloomfield immigration attorney who graduated from the George Mason University School of Law in Virginia, is Muslim. After the 9/11 attacks, Chaudry started wearing a hijab. It wasn't to make a political statement. Her motivation came from her daughter. And the timing was coincidental.


Chaudry and her husband, an Islamic scholar, made a decision years ago to enroll their daughter in an Islamic day school so she would learn Arabic at an early age, become bilingual, and have a deeper understanding of her religion, its history and its evolution.


The school the Chaudrys sent their daughter to, outside Washington, required all students to wear a uniform. At the elementary level, the girls wore dark blue, flowing pants, almost bell-bottom-like, and matching hijabs.


Chaudry, who was raised a Muslim, never wore a hijab as a teen or when she attended college or law school.


One morning while dropping off her daughter, she remarked about the garment. "We were talking in the car and I asked her whether she intended to wear it when she grows up," Chaudry recalls. "And she said, 'No, Mommy.' She asked me if I wanted to know why and I said, 'Sure, tell me.' And she said, 'I'm not going to wear a hijab because you don't, Mommy.' "


Chaudry's daughter's words singed. "So I started thinking about it," Chaudry said. "I didn't do it for any political reasons whatsoever. And it wasn't like I woke up one day and decided, 'OK, I'm going to wear a hijab,' not that there would have been anything wrong with that. Really what I did was take baby steps. One day I wrapped one around my head when I got in my car with my daughter. I kept it on while I dropped her off at school. Then I'd take it off. Some time later, I walked into the [federal] building where I worked and got all the way to the elevator. I'd remove it getting into the elevator. A while later, I walked into my office wearing it and none of the attorneys said anything. Obviously they noticed it. It was a while before a receptionist asked me about it."


And despite the tense climate in the country after the 9/11 attacks, Chaudry believes the receptionist inquired more out of curiosity than anything else.


To wear or not to wear


Inside the University of Bridgeport mosque on a recent Friday night during Ramadan, all 30 of the women during Salat, the evening prayer service, wear hijabs or burqas, full-length outer garments that cover their heads and bodies. More than half of them say they only wear hijabs when they go to the mosque. For others, it's a staple of their wardrobe.


Yasmeen Harb smooths her hands over the gray, bell-shaped burqa that hides her slim, youthful figure. On someone older, shorter and bigger boned, this apparel would look drab and dowdy. There's nothing sexy about it. Not in the least. Still, on Harb it has this 1960s Birkenstock-meets-Annie-Hall retro look.


Harb came to Connecticut four years ago from Jordan with her husband, who is studying for his doctorate at UB. She tucks a stray hair under her hijab, least it show.


"This is the way I took my driver's license picture," Harb said, adjusting the top of her white cotton hijab so that it covers most of her forehead. No one at the state Department of Motor Vehicles gave her a hard time about it.


"They never asked me to remove it. I think they understand what a hijab means to me. Some women wear them only when they come to mosques. Me, I wear mine wherever I go whenever I go out."

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