Archive | October 2014

The hang of the hijab

Until I met Diba, my Muslim friend and sister from Afghanistan, I only wore scarves around my neck. Wool scarves warmed me back East when temperatures plummeted during the long winters. Leaving the house without a scarf was foolish. Other times I draped a colorful scarf around my neck for style. I am from New York City after all, the world’s fashion center, and a girl had to look sharp. Diba asked me to join her at an Islamic memorial service for a relative. I said yes. Remember to cover your head she said. OK, no problem. I have plenty of scarves. I arrived before Diba with a scarf draped around my head. I must have looked like a wash woman because a Muslim sister glanced at me with a furrowed brow and said let me help you. I don’t look OK, I asked? Not quite as she rearranged my scarf so I was more presentable. I took no offense because I wanted to fit in with my Muslim sisters. I consider myself a woman of taste so wearing a lopsided scarf would be totally out of character for me. I appreciated the help.

After the service, I became curious about the hijab. I did not have the hang or the proper way to wear one. Muslim women looked so together. Did wearing a hijab come easily or did it take practice? Was it easy tucking in those pesky stray hairs that wanted to stick out? I should have been bold just enough to ask Diba who had a drawer full of scarves, bright and beautiful. There’s a proper way to tie your shoes so you don’t trip over your own feet; so there must be a proper way to wear a hijab. Instead of asking, I started self-discovery. I became a hijab watcher, scoping out women wearing hijabs. I saw so many different colors, sizes and styles. I love bold flashy colors that scream notice me, another remnant from growing up in the big city. New Yorkers can be like that, you know. We’re good at drawing attention to ourselves. I’m not really sure why but it’s a thing we do.

There’s other things native New Yorkers do, good and not so good. If you stare at someone, it’s considered rude, almost to the point of being slapped, certainly cursed at. I never liked people staring at me. I found it offensive. Sometimes I’d stick out my tongue or make a face to break the person’s stare. So I avoided long stares at Muslim women’s heads. I felt weird asking a strange woman questions about her headwear. Oh miss, how long does it take to put on your scarf? Would she think I was perverted? I wouldn’t expect a strange Muslim woman to ask me how long it takes to dress each morning. I only wanted to know more about the hijab.

Why do women wear the hijab? I read books and the internet. Several verses in the Quran say women should be modest and to cover their heads. However, in today’s world, not all Muslim women cover their heads. In the US for example, about half of Muslim women wear hijabs.

February 1st celebrated the first world hijab day, a chance to spread understanding about the hijab. Started by a Muslim American, non Muslims, Muslim women who do not cover and even interested men were encouraged to wear a hijab for one day and then post their experiences on a special Facebook page. I took the plunge, even though a reader who saw my post said I didn’t wear the hijab correctly. My heart was in the right place even if my hair wasn’t. (My story is on my blog).

A rather innocuous women’s garment, the hijab serves the same purpose as a Catholic nun’s head covering or a turban worn by Sikh women – to comply with religious doctrine. No big deal, right? Wrong. The hijab can provoke panic and fear. In some cases, it also stirs up loathing. For some, a Muslim woman in a hijab is like seeing the dreaded snake. It can make someone sweat and shake. Muslim women in the Western world have been physically assaulted wearing hijabs. Others have been turned down from jobs, rejected from sports venues or shunned by neighbors. The hijab has even resulted in lawsuits. Why fear a Muslim woman in a hijab and not a Catholic nun? Several reasons I think. Fear of the unknown, lack of information spread by a biased media and the unwillingness to accept that women wear the hijab by choice, not force. There is no need to rescue covered women unless of course they’re in a burning building or being mugged. So relax, women in hijabs aren’t on the prowl to take over the US. They want the same respect and courtesy extended to every other citizen to practice their religion and way of life. I’ve lived in Arizona for seventeen years. Dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and other Christians knocked on my door seeking to convert me (it didn’t work). Not once did a Muslim woman show up asking me to wear a hijab or to become a Muslim. Live together as brothers and sisters so said the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or perish together as fools. My choice is living together. I survived a near fatal car accident in 1994. I’m not ready to fight and die for stupid petty reasons especially over a headscarf.

 

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Muslim Women

Muslim women are fashionable and go shopping. Muslim women are stylish and wear make-up. Muslim women have a sense of humor and laugh at jokes. Muslim women work as nurses, attend college, and love their families. Muslim women are just like you and me, but they now are media demons, portrayed as oppressed, extremist or both. Black women were once burned by the media, depicted as mammy’s, welfare cheats, and other derogatory names. I got to know Black women by making friends, attending lectures at Harlem’s Schaumburg Library, and reading dozens of books about slavery, Black culture and history. Even when Black women graduated from the Ivy League people were often incredulous. The reaction was like how could you get into Harvard?

Now I’ve delved into the Muslim world, making friends, attending mosque services, going to lectures about Islam, and reading books. Muslim women are diverse. They are Persians, Arabs, Asians, Africans, and Western converts. Some are more devout than others. I’ve met Muslim women who skateboard while others never wear pants. Some Muslim women wear hijabs even to take out the trash while others do not cover at all. Some Muslim women drive buses while others are architects and lawyers.

Because alcohol is forbidden by Islam, the impression is that Muslim women don’t have fun. That’s absolutely not true. I’ve shared meals with Muslim women and laughed so hard that my stomach hurt. I don’t drink either (at least not since 1978) and prefer alcohol free entertainment. Muslim women have fun.

I’ve read the most vile, contemptible comments on the internet and in print publications about Muslim women. They’re oppressed, why else would they wear the hijab? Other women cover their heads such as Catholic nuns, Mennonites, Hasidic Jews, and Sikhs. Has anyone ever accused a Catholic nun of oppression?

They’re extremists, so say the radical right wing fringe. So are a lot of Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. Extremism of any form is dangerous to society. Most of the 6-8 estimated American Muslims are loyal and patriotic who love this country as much as any native born citizen. If an extremist Muslim commits a crime, then she should be held accountable.

If you do not know personally know Muslim women, get to know someone. I said hello to a Muslim woman at the airport where I volunteer last year. I asked if she needed help. She did not but we clicked. We had so much in common. We exchanged phone numbers and became the best of friends. Diba is like my sister and I love my Muslim friend very much. A simple hello changed my life. She introduced me to her Muslim friends and family. I’ve met other women through the American Muslim Women’s Association of Arizona. I met women at the mosque. I know Kameer from Somalia. There’s a lot of women on Facebook who I would love to meet in person someday especially Maha from Saudi Arabia. My Muslim sisters made me a richer person.