Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Beyond my veil, I'm just like you

As a Muslim woman who observes Hijab or the Islamic code of dress for women, I often get stares & wonder what people are thinking. Sometimes, I'm tempted to wear a sticker on my head that says "I'm not oppressed" or a t-shirt that says "My headscarf doesn't cover my brain!" It's really interesting how so many books that are deemed as "NY Times Best sellers" are anti-Islam or anti-Hijab.

Although I grew up in a religious community & family in Dubai, UAE, where most women observed Hijab, many of my friends in school did not. I'm not saying Hijab is not a tough choice, but it is one that I have made, am comfortable with, and do not see as an obstacle to my goals in life. And I'm also aware that many many women are oppressed in the Muslim World due to the narrow definitions of Hijab that religious leaders have imposed, but that doesn't mean Islam is at fault. It was refreshing to see an article that reflected my sentiments on the issue by Nadia Malik, a staff writer at the Daily Herald:

The three mannequins draw stares, some puzzled, some pitying, as they pose in the lobby of the Harper College student center.

Shrouded head-to-toe in black or red, their eyes peer out from behind Islamic veils. One stands in a paint bucket as punishment, a sign says, for not dressing modestly enough in Iran.

The college sponsored the exhibit to call attention to "hijab," the veil the Iranian government forces all women to wear.

The exhibit, a collection of clothing and photographs taken by journalism students in Tehran, does not hide its disgust for the veil. Through their lenses, the photographers see a symbol of female oppression and degradation.

The message isn't lost on anyone viewing the exhibit in Palatine, including myself. But I look through a different lens.

I can feel the other visitors looking at me, wondering whether I'm offended or enlightened by the political statement. One man is curious enough to ask.

Steven Peskind, a rabbi and a professor of world religions at Harper, chooses his words carefully so as not to offend.

"I'm interested in your opinion of this," he says. "I'd like to know what you think as someone who wears the veil."

The inquiry is simple enough, but it requires a complex answer.

How can I explain to people who see hijab as a tool of oppression that it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life? How can I convince the rabbi that this yard of fabric strengthens my identity?

Perhaps if he knew my story.

My mother kept asking as we drove down to Champaign before the start of my sophomore year.
The answers, when she listened to them, only frustrated her more. She reacted to each explanation the same way.

But I don't understand why.

No reason could satisfy my mother, Yasmeen, a devout Muslim and Pakistani immigrant who wore western fashions. My decision to embrace hijab, it seemed, would never make sense to her.
To be honest, when put down on paper, it didn't make much sense to me, either.

Until that moment, I had always mirrored those around me. I was an 18-year-old suburban girl who lived in a nice Westmont home, listened to the Backstreet Boys, pulled my hair back in a pony tail and wore flared jeans because they were the fashion.

My parents had instilled in my brother, sister and me a devotion to Islam. They raised us to pray five times a day and fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

But they never, not even once, talked about the veil.

My mom and dad had grown up in Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country where the veil is a personal choice. My mother never entertained the idea of wearing hijab. Her loose-fitting clothes followed her definition of Islamic modesty.

Because she had not considered the veil for herself, she never imagined it for her eldest daughter.

Unbeknownst to my mother, though, the first seeds were planted at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park when I was 16. My friend, a fellow student at the weekend school, told the class she had been considering the veil.

Our teacher, a young religious instructor, encouraged us to discuss it. She told us how the veil gave her a sense of identity after she converted to Islam during college.

Hijab, - an Arabic word meaning hide or conceal - entails wearing loose-fitting, opaque attire from head to toe. The clothes are meant to be modest, cloaking a woman's physical appearance to highlight her intelligence and personality.

In some Muslim metropolises, like my parents' hometown of Karachi, a head scarf isn't considered an Islamic obligation. Others interpret the burqa as a requirement because the Prophet Muhammad's wives covered their faces.

For Muslims in the United States, it is a personal choice dictated by family tradition or religious interpretation.

The veil has become an increasingly popular fashion and religious statement for young Muslims. In the past two decades, it has served as an old-school way for first-generation Muslim-Americans to celebrate their ancestors' religion.

The idea appealed to me, but I pushed it aside. I was a shy, somewhat awkward teenager. I didn't want to stick out further in my high school, where the majority of students were rich, white and Christian.

It wasn't until my first year at the University of Illinois that I contemplated the veil again.
The college, which has one of the country's largest Muslim Students Associations, seemed more welcoming to Islamic traditions. I met dozens of girls who wore hijab and found strength in their numbers. I could cover my hair without feeling self-conscious or worrying I'd stand out.


I went home at the end of my freshman year seriously considering the veil. I spent the summer going over the practicalities.

I would lie in bed at night, staring at my room's lavender walls, turning over the many reasons for not wearing it.

I worried, most of all, about people staring at me. Vanity reared its head, too, when I realized I could never wear hats or show off my good hair days to the world again.

The choice would mean more than just covering my hair. It would entail cloaking my entire body in public, save for my face and hands.

On summer days, I would be considerably warmer with arms, legs and hair covered.

I surprised myself by deciding I could accept the inconveniences. It just felt right.

Since childhood, I had been aware that I am different from those around me. I could feel the two sides - the "Muslim" one and the "American" one - abrading each other.

I finally realized I would never be happy if I kept pretending to fit in. I needed to embrace being Muslim and show the rest of the world that I wasn't ashamed of my identity.

In doing so, I liberated my American self. I was exercising the freedom and rights of self-expression upon which this country was built.

I didn't make my final decision until the moment I left for school. We had packed the car, and from my bedroom I could hear my mother yelling that we were running late.

It was a do-or-die moment. I opened the top drawer of my dresser and pulled out a white scarf that I wore during religious services.

I folded the lightweight square fabric into a triangle, wrapped it around my face and pinned it under my chin. I pulled the two remaining flaps in opposite directions around my neck and pinned them.

I dashed out of the house wearing gray track pants, a long-sleeved shirt with an aeropostale logo across the chest and a veil on my head.

I got into the car and hoped my mother wouldn't notice.

She, of course, did. She demanded an explanation as I backed the Ford Explorer out of the driveway.

I felt a sense of relief the minute I put it on. The reservations I had about wearing hijab seemingly disappeared.

I was at peace. Or at least as much at peace as any 18-year-old with an angry mother can be.
For the next 2¨ hours, my sister and I counted the corn rows as we listened to our mother's

steady flow of questions in her native Urdu.

Why do you want to wear it?

Do you want people to see you as a fundamentalist?

How will you get married if nobody knows what you look like?

I stopped answering before we reached the tollway. I had learned long ago it was easier to let my mom run out of steam than to try to cool her down.

She was still hot as she and my sister returned home later that day. It was 16-year-old Samia who finally calmed her.

"Mom," my sister said in English. "She's not doing anything wrong."

I can see the disdain in Barbara Njus' eyes as she views the Harper College exhibit.

The English professor has no tolerance for a culture that imprisons and tortures women for showing their hair. She shakes her head as she examines a photograph of women boarding the back of the bus, much like black people in the segregated South 40 years ago.

"It's difficult to look at," she says. "It really is."

I've seen contempt for Iranian law before. I share it, too.

But I fear disdain for that theocratic state often results in sorrow for all who wear the veil.
I don't need pity. In fact, I have come to resent it.

I spotted a woman wearing a burqa as I walked to class in the fall of 2001.

Fully covered in the flowing cloth, she navigated her way through Gregory Hall from behind netted fabric.

The sight startled me because I didn't know anyone on campus who wore the full veil. I was even more surprised later that day when I saw a second burqa-clad woman.

I respected their resolve so soon after Sept. 11. I wondered who they were.

A few days later, a teacher's assistant in my political science class solved the mystery. She explained that a feminist group on campus had donned the coverings to protest the plight of Afghan women who were forced to wear burqas under the Taliban regime.

I abhorred the treatment of women in Afghanistan, just as I empathized with their Iranian sisters. Yet I resented my fellow students' silent protest, which I viewed as a suggestion the burqa was inherently evil.

The implication offended me on behalf of all the women I knew who willingly wore the burqas and head coverings. The protest mocked our beliefs, implying anyone who wore hijab was oppressed.

They assumed we were demure, obedient Muslim women because we covered our hair. We looked different, but we were not unlike other students .

At the time, I lived with three other girls in a four-bedroom apartment off campus. All of us wore hijab. Once we got home from class, we stripped off our veils, put on comfortable clothes and watched MTV.

We spent our free time running up and down the complex stairs as we visited others who lived in the building, all the time wearing our veils. We put off writing papers to catch up on our soap operas and pulled pranks on each other.

Nothing about my life suggested I was a slave to my religion's feminine ideals. I simply had chosen, after much independent study and thought, to live my life as modestly as possible.
That includes, in accordance with Islamic law, wearing loose, opaque clothing that covers everything but my hands, face and feet.

The feminist group may consider my dress a symbol of oppression. But it's no worse than the hidden forms that exist in America.

We live in a country obsessed with the Western definition of beauty. I pity the oppressed women who fall victim to eating disorders or have plastic surgery to enhance their looks.
In college, many of my female classmates would shun their jackets and wear tank tops to bars in the middle of winter so they might be more attractive to guys.

Their attire looks as strange to me as I assume hijab seems to them.

The difference, though, is I support their right to do it.

The Harper exhibit triggers a powerful response from those viewing it.

They want to help the Iranian women who are forced to wear the veil as young as 7. How terrible for their self-esteem, more than one person says.

As they tsk-tsk and shake their heads, a lone voice poses a rhetorical question.

"Aren't women here suppressed?" an anthropology instructor asks. "These are universal feelings that we all experience."

If anything oppresses me, it's my crushing shyness.

I've always felt a bit apprehensive before I walk into a room. Wearing hijab - a cloth that hides my hair but draws more attention to me - exacerbated the problem.

A woman once approached me as I went into Panera for lunch. I offered a smile as she walked toward me, but her angry look wiped it off.

In an indiscernible accent, she asked me if I wanted to buy her passport. She implied, in her broken English, that she was more American than me.

It was an ironic opinion, given that I was born here and she couldn't even speak the language. I imagined her bragging to friends about the confrontation, and it sickened me.

I realized a cold truth that day. Regardless of the pride I felt wearing hijab, there would always be someone, somewhere who would consider me a terrorist because of it.

Yet as I grew accustomed to the veil, I got used to the looks and the occasional suspicions it drew. I remained timid, but no longer worried people were judging me because of my religious expression.

When I started at the Daily Herald in May 2003, I had the typical college intern's anxieties. I worried about pleasing my editors and finding stories.

Like high school, the DuPage County newsroom was predominantly white and largely Christian. But I had become so comfortable in my new skin, I didn't care if I looked different.

The staff treated me like anyone else. My sources acted with the same respect, and I could approach strangers without fear.

At the end of my internship, I was hired as a full-time reporter. It was an unusual career choice for a Muslim woman, but one my religion and my family encouraged me to pursue.

My veil hasn't stopped me or suppressed my professional goals. If anything, it has been an invitation for co-workers to use me as a resource on stories with Islamic themes.

A few have summoned the courage to ask about hijab. I greet their tentative questions with a warm response.

They want to know where I get my hair cut or if I'm hot in the summer. They are the same practicalities I thought about when I first considered the veil.

I tell them I go to a salon with a back room or one owned by a Muslim woman who cuts my hair in private. This way, I eliminate the risk of a man seeing me without my hijab.

Of course, I get warmer than others on hot summer days. But I've quickly learned which fabrics work best in certain temperatures.

The biggest question is what I look like in the privacy of my own home. They seem surprised to learn I look a lot like them.

I take off my veil when I return home, much as a businessman removes his tie. I wear short sleeves around the house and show the multiple piercings in my ears.

When I'm with my female friends, I dress like any other 23-year-old. I can put on shorter skirts and style my hair for parties, as long as no males are present who are not my relatives.

The questions, which some co-workers hedge with apologies for being too personal, show me they want to understand my decision and my background. And where there's acceptance, oppression does not dwell.

Two years after I decided to wear hijab, my younger sister called my mom from college to say she had made the same choice.

Samia obviously had learned from my experience and knew the conversation was best avoided while trapped in a confined space with my mother. A quick phone call would be much easier.

My mother, too, had learned from our skirmish.

"Oh, that's good," she told my sister.

She even smiled when she said it.

The transition, though, wasn't easy for any of us. My mother endured intense questioning and judgmental comments from friends who do not wear the veil.

She also grappled with the sideways looks I would receive when we were in public.

But she has now accepted my choice, as I knew she eventually would. It was easier to embrace my decision once she saw I remained the same person on the inside.

I've made an effort to increase my knowledge on Islam and pray five times a day. I still enjoy shopping for shoes, watching "The Simpsons" and reading Harry Potter books. I've given up the Backstreet Boys, but we all grow up some time.

I compensate for my shyness by greeting stranger's stares with a smile. I try to make myself appear open to questions about hijab, so as to lift the misconceptions shrouding it.

I give honest, informed opinions to questions like the one Professor Peskind asked me at Harper College.

My defense of the veil - but never of its Iranian enforcers - leads to a discussion of a book Peskind recently read.

It is about a young Iranian girl who flees to Europe with her family. Living amid Western culture, she realizes the importance of her religious values - even though she's against their imposition.

"The idea of Westernization automatically being better bothers me," Peskind says. "Do we risk demonizing the hijab? Isn't it possible that wearing the veil is just an expression of faith?"

Perhaps the professor has answered his earlier question for me.

Hijab: A normal girl living a normal life with a special religious conviction.