12:01am

Thu April 21, 2011
Hidden World Of Girls

Lifting The Veil: Muslim Women Explain Their Choice

Originally published on Thu April 21, 2011 11:37 am

For centuries, Islamic scholars have said that Muslim women must cover their hair. But many Muslim women don't.

There are about 1 million Muslim women in America; 43 percent of them wear headscarves all the time, according to the Pew Research Center. About 48 percent — or half a million women — don't cover their hair, the survey found.

The split between women who've covered and women who've never done so has existed for decades. But now a generation of women is taking off the headscarf, or hijab.

Although the scarf is a public, sometimes even political symbol, women say the choice to unveil is highly private, emotional and religious.

'A Huge Responsibility'

Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, 27, grew up attending an Islamic school in Bridgeview, Ill., a tiny Arab enclave on Chicago's southwest side. It's a place where most Muslim women wear the hijab.

For 14 years, Abdelnabi was one of them. But after she graduated from college, she took off her hijab. Now, she has sideswept bangs, the kind that hide part of her face. She's quiet, reflective and sometimes shy.

"I'm the kind of person who likes to walk into a room and be unnoticed," Abdelnabi says. "When you wear hijab and you walk into a room, everyone notices you; everyone stares at you; everyone makes assumptions about you."

"When you put the scarf on, you have to understand that you are representing a community," Abdelnabi says. "And that is huge. That's a huge responsibility. And I don't know if it's for everyone."

Talking over falafel at her favorite restaurant, Abdelnabi explains why she stopped wearing the hijab.

She says that Islam teaches modesty — but wearing the hijab is taking it a step too far.

"I've done my research, and I don't feel its foundation is from Islam," she says. "I think it comes from Arab culture."

The headscarf can be a divisive issue among Muslims.

Abdelnabi describes the response some people have to that idea: "It's like, 'How dare you question God's will. How dare you?' " she says.

And in a tight-knit Muslim community like Bridgeview, Abdlenabi worries about offending fellow Muslims with her opinions — so during most discussions about hijab, she tends to keep silent.

"I sometimes feel like talking about hijab is like talking about abortion in mid-America," she says.

Looking For A Change

Another woman in Bridgeview, Leen Jaber, 29, says that a few years ago, she also decided to unveil.

"I started wearing hijab at the age of 14," she says.

Jaber says she wore the scarf for 12 years. But as her marriage started to fall apart, she took it off.

"I was going through a lot of difficult things. Perhaps I thought taking it off would just be one less thing to worry about," she says.

"I never took it off saying, like, it was the right decision. I just took it off because I wanted to do it. I wanted to see if my life would be different — if I would feel any better about the problems that I was going through."

But Jaber's problems didn't go away — in fact, they got worse. She lost her job, got divorced and moved in with her parents. That got her thinking more about God, and spirituality. One year and eight months later, Jaber put the scarf back on.

"It was a very different process than I had gone through when I was 14," she says. "When I was 14, it was like well, everybody's wearing it."

Jaber is outgoing and chatty. She writes poetry, blogs and dreams of the day she'll be on American Idol.

She says it's easy for some women to feel like the headscarf strips them of their individuality and turns them into a spokeswoman for the faith.

To avoid that, Jaber says, she is making sure other parts of her personality — like her singing — shine through.

Wearing The Scarf, Post-Sept. 11

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are a persistent theme in conversations about how to approach a Muslim tradition in modern America.

For some women, that tragedy had absolutely no effect on their decision to uncover. But for others, it was huge. They spoke of two distinct phases in their hijab life: pre-Sept.11 and post-Sept. 11.

Some of them said the terrorist attacks initially strengthened their desire to wear the hijab. They became diplomats for Islam; they said they wanted to represent a positive Muslim image, to counter that of al-Qaida.

But in the years that followed, that fervor waned, as anti-Muslim zeal grew.

And for some women, the scarf became a heavy burden to carry — one that affected the way strangers perceived them, the way colleagues treated them, and even the way fellow Muslims expected them to behave.

For others, the decision to remove their headscarf simply came down to a choice, as they grew older.

An Evolving Identity

Nadia Shoeb's family is from India. Her mother never wore a hijab. Her grandmother never wore a hijab. But Shoeb put one on when she was 17.

Shoeb, now 31, reads from a journal she kept back then:

"Never could I have imagined when I put it on, that five years later, on a day just as random as the day I put it on, I would take it off."

Eight years later, she still remembers that day clearly.

"That feeling is like, 'I am going out without a shirt on' — that sense of feeling exposed," Shoeb says.

"I had really long hair, and I actually tucked it into my sweater, because I was feeling so embarrassed that, 'Oh my God, I'm showing my hair — am I being immodest somehow?' "

"So that first day was quite difficult, just taking it off," Shoeb says, "even though I looked like every girl on the street."

America's Religious Landscape

Shoeb's decision was as much about religion as it was about her evolving feminine and American identity. She spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia, where she wore shorts.

After arriving in the United States as a teenager, she decided to cover, and eventually uncover, her hair. And Shoeb says she doesn't find that surprising.

"The religious landscape of America is one in which — it's a very deeply religious nation, but at the same time, it's so fluid," she says. "You know, people are born into one faith, and then they might still be Christian — but become of a different sect, or a different church."

The phenomenon of veiling and unveiling — and even re-veiling — is part of that same tradition, Shoeb says.

"We might think that this is something particular to Muslim-Americans," she says, "when in fact, that's the story of our religious landscape in America."

Shoeb has no intention of putting the scarf back on. But she also says she wouldn't be the person she is today if she had never worn it in the first place.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

For the latest in our series The Hidden World of Girls, produced with the Kitchen Sisters, we go inside the world of the veil.

Throughout history, Islamic scholars have said that Muslim women must cover their hair. There are about one million Muslim women in America, and about half wear the hijab all or some of the time, according to the Pew Research Center. That means the other half don't.

That split between women who've covered and women who've never covered has existed for decades. But now, there's a generation of women who are taking off the hijab. NPR's Asma Khalid explores that emotional decision.

ASMA KHALID: I spoke with dozens of women who chose to wear head scarves, and then later decided to take it off.

LOUISE KELLY: I was nine years old when I started wearing hijab, and...

LOUISE KELLY: I became a focal point. I started fearing for my safety, and with that...

LOUISE KELLY: I got to a point when I was like I'm going to stop doing stuff that I don't understand why I'm doing it.

LOUISE KELLY: ...and I took it off on October 1st, 2007. That was...

LOUISE KELLY: I felt at some point that I wanted to see what life was like without it.

KHALID: Sabra Jafarzadeh, Samia Naseem, Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, Rifk Ebeid and Noorain Khan all took off their hijabs.

So did Rasmieyh Abdelnabi. She grew up going to an Islamic school in Illinois. As Abdelnabi rolls into the parking lot of the local mosque, she bumps into a familiar face.

LOUISE KELLY: Hi, baby.

LOUISE KELLY: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISE KELLY: Hi.

KHALID: Everybody knows everybody here. This is Bridgeview, Illinois, a tiny Arab enclave on the southwest side of Chicago. It's a place where most Muslim women wear hijab.

Abdelnabi wore one for 14 years. Now she has sideswept bangs, the kind that hide part of her face. She's quiet, reflective and sometimes shy.

LOUISE KELLY: I'm the kind of person who likes to walk into a room and be unnoticed. When you wear hijab and you walk into a room, everyone stares at you.

KHALID: People make assumptions about you, she says. They think of all Muslims as a homogeneous bloc.

LOUISE KELLY: When you put the scarf on, you have to understand that you are representing a community. And that is huge. That's a huge responsibility.

KHALID: It's a responsibility she never wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: Abdelnabi takes me to her favorite restaurant. In between bites of falafel, she explains why she stopped wearing hijab.

LOUISE KELLY: I've done my research, and I don't feel its foundation is from Islam. I think it comes from Arab culture.

KHALID: She says Islam teaches modesty, but wearing the hijab is taking it a step too far.

LOUISE KELLY: And when I say something like that, it's like, how dare you question God's will? How dare you? I sometimes feel like talking about hijab is like talking about abortion in mid-America.

KHALID: A couple minutes' drive down the road, I meet Leen Jaber at her parent's house. Jaber also took off the hijab. But for her, that decision wasn't so permanent.

LOUISE KELLY: I started wearing hijab at the age of 14. I think at that time...

KHALID: Jaber wore the scarf for 12 years. But some days, she says it felt mechanical. And as her marriage started to fall apart, she took it off.

LOUISE KELLY: I was going through a lot of difficult things. Perhaps I thought taking it off would just be one less thing to worry about. You know, I never took it off saying, like, it was the right decision. I just took it off because I wanted to do it. I wanted to see if my life would be different, if I would feel any better about the problems I was going through.

KHALID: But Jaber's problems didn't go away. In fact, she says they got worse. She lost her job, got divorced and moved in with her parents. That got her thinking more about God and spirituality. One year and eight months later, Jaber put the scarf back on.

LOUISE KELLY: It was a very different process than I'd gone through when I was 14. When I was 14, it was like, well, everybody's wearing it...

KHALID: Jaber is outgoing and chatty. She writes poetry, blogs, and dreams of the day she'll be on "American Idol."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST")

LOUISE KELLY: (Singing) I would have given you all of my heart...

KHALID: Jaber says it's easy for some women to feel like the scarf strips them of their individuality and turns them into some sort of spokeswoman for the faith. But that's why this time around, Jaber is making sure other parts of her personality, like singing, shine through the scarf.

LOUISE KELLY: How has this discussion changed since 9-11? Well, many women said the terrorist attacks initially strengthened their desire to wear hijab. They, in fact, wanted to represent a positive counter-image to al-Qaida.

But in the years that followed, that fervor waned as anti-Muslim zeal grew. The scarf became a heavy burden to carry, one that affected the way strangers perceived them, the way colleagues treated them, and even the way fellow Muslims expected them to behave.

But for others, the decision simply came down to a choice, as they grew older.

Nadia Shoeb's family is from India. Her mother never wore a hijab. Her grandmother never wore a hijab, either. But Shoeb put one on when she was 17.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER)

KHALID: Shoeb reads from an old journal.

LOUISE KELLY: (Reading) Never could I have imagined when I put it on that five years later, on a day just as random as the day I put it on, I would take it off.

KHALID: She remembers that day clearly, even now, eight years later.

LOUISE KELLY: That feeling is like: I am going out without a shirt on, that sense of feeling exposed. And so I remember I had really long hair, and I actually tucked it into my sweater, because I was feeling so embarrassed that, oh, my God. I'm showing my hair. Am I being immodest somehow? Even though I looked like every girl on the street. You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KHALID: Her decision was as much about religion as it was about her evolving feminine and American identities. Shoeb spent her childhood wearing shorts in Saudi Arabia. It was only when she came to the U.S. as a teenager that she started wearing the hijab. She decided to cover - and eventually uncover - here in the States. And she doesn't think that's surprising.

LOUISE KELLY: The religious landscape of America is one in which it's a very deeply religious nation, but at the same time it's so fluid. You know, people are born into one faith, and then they might still be Christian, but become of a different church. And part of this phenomenon of veiling and then taking off the veil, and then re-veiling, and - it's situated within that context. And we might think that this is something particular to Muslim-Americans, when, in fact, that's the story of our religious landscape in America.

KHALID: For Shoeb, it's that fluid religious experience of unveiling and re-veiling that makes American Islam distinctly American.

Shoeb has no intention of putting the scarf back on for now, but she says she wouldn't be the person she is today if she had never worn it in the first place.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISE KELLY: You'll find photos and extended interviews at our website: npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.