How Muslim women decide to put on—and take off—hijab.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
May 12 2008 7:03 AM

Loving and Leaving the Head Scarf

What hijab's revolving door says about the religious mobility of American Muslims.

A woman wearing a headscarf
Wearing a hijab can be a form of rebellion or conformity for Muslim women

For most teenage girls, rebellion involves a tongue piercing or sneaking out to a beer-soaked party. But Suraya Ali, the daughter of unobservant Muslim immigrants from India, shocked her parents and her classmates by donning a Muslim head scarf. "It was my way of flipping the world off, saying, 'I can be what I want,' " says Ali, now 31, who grew up in a Chicago suburb.

But a decade and a half later, Ali had a "strange feeling" of no longer fitting in with her Muslim community; she was constantly set up with potential suitors who assumed her scarf symbolized a certain submissive attitude toward marriage; and her elite education had prompted her to question the traditional roles for men and women laid out in classical Islamic law. "I realized [wearing hijab] is not who I am anymore."

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Ali's decision was visible only to those who knew her (and because of her family's sensitivities, she did not want her real name used). But her experience reveals how very modern American Muslim life can be. Hijab in America is not a social norm of ages past, unquestioningly handed down; rather, it has become a tool of self-expression. Just as Americans frequently change jobs, leave marriages, and switch religious affiliations, American Muslim women choose to love, and sometimes leave, the head scarf.

When Yale anthropologist Carolyn Rouse studied African-American Muslim women for her 2004 book Engaged Surrender, she observed that the hijab (and, in some cases, niqab, or face-covering) was primarily about group identity. Many female converts, for example, started veiling themselves immediately—the two were seen as inseparable. Wearing hijab "signified belonging to the ummah," or the broader, idealized Muslim community, she said. But this voluntary expression of citizenship doesn't always last. By the time Rouse wrote her epilogue, several of the women she had followed no longer wore the scarf. One convert, Rouse wrote, "believes she used hijab to prove to herself the depth of her faith. Now that she feels more secure with her faith she does not feel she needs it."

When I first put on the head scarf eight years ago—starting off with a horrible tan-and-white polyester square I purchased before I realized hijab could be stylish—I felt that I was daring to follow my beliefs, come what may. What I believed at that moment, as I pinned the polyester beneath my chin, was that God wanted me to cover, to simultaneously hide my beauty (such as it was) and proclaim my faith. I had become Muslim two years earlier while living and working in East Africa. As a journalist and "honorary male," I had mixed with more Muslim men than women in my travels and therefore gave little thought to hijab before converting. It was only when I returned to the United States for graduate school that I begin to notice my fellow muslimahswearing head scarves. Had I missed something?

A turning point came one day at a cafe (OK, it was Starbucks) in Harvard Square, when a scarf-wearing woman walked in. Some customers gave her uneasy glances, and I felt sharp regret that she had no idea a fellow believer was sitting right there, silently supporting her. After that, I researched classical Islamic law as best I could and concluded that covering everything but your hands, face, and feet was, indeed, "required" for believing Muslim women.

The Quran actually has just two verses dealing specifically with women's dress. Chapter 33, verse 59, tells women to wear outer garments so they'll be recognized as Muslims and left alone. A longer verse, Chapter 24, verse 31, instructs women to guard their modesty, to cover their breasts, and not to display their beauty to males except their brothers, husbands, fathers, eunuchs, male slaves, etc. To the modern reader, the words can appear maddeningly ambiguous and painfully out of date, and they require not only translation from classical Arabic but a grasp of seventh-century historical context. Both passages are hotly debated. For hijab apologists, however, the verses, along with prophetic endorsement and scholarly rulings, prove that full covering is obligatory. This opinion is mainstream among Muslims in the United States; according to a 2007 study, 51 percent of American Muslim women wear hijab all or some of the time.

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