Women with hijabs tell what it’s like to wear the Muslim headscarf
BY NARA SCHOENBERG
Wrapped tightly around her head, with no softly draping fabric to distract her during meetings at her tech startup, Dilara Sayeed’s hijab is American in more ways than one.
Her hijab, or Muslim headscarf, has a sleek, professional profile that is mostly seen in the U.S.
And the spirit with which Sayeed, a former Democratic candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives, wears her hijab is American as well.
When Sayeed’s Indian-born father questioned her decision to cover her hair at age 19, saying, “You’re in America now; you don’t have to do this,” Sayeed’s comeback was the stuff of a high school civics class:
“It’s because I’m American that I can choose to cover, Daddy.”
At a time of fraught debate about immigration and national identity, the hijab has become a flashpoint and a symbol of solidarity, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donning a hijab after the Christchurch mosque shootings, and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro drawing criticism for asking whether U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hijab reflects beliefs “antithetical to the U.S. Constitution.”
Controversy flared locally last year when WGN-TV news anchor Robin Baumgarten told Chicago fashion blogger Hoda Katebi, who wears a hijab, that she didn’t sound like an American when she criticized U.S. policy. Baumgarten later apologized.
Symbol of power
In response to such high-profile incidents, the Tribune interviewed six Chicago-area women about why they wear the hijab, what it means to them, and what kinds of reactions they get. The women interviewed were from families with roots in Syria, India, Africa and Palestine.
They were Black, White and Brown, suburban and urban, immigrant and American-born. They spoke of bigotry and acceptance, of religious devotion and personal identity.
“Hijab is part of me, a part of who I am, something I can call basically home,” said Saeda Sulieman, a college student. “If I don’t wear the hijab, I feel less secure, less powerful.”
While the Muslim holy book, the Quran, does not explicitly require head covering, it does call on Muslims — both men and women — to be modest in speech, action and self-presentation, according to Aminah Al-Deen, a professor emerita of Islamic studies at DePaul University.
Very personal meaning
Some Muslim women believe they are required to wear the hijab, while others do not.
And even beyond religion, the hijab has layers of nuanced and often very personal meaning: It can be a reminder to stay true to one’s own beliefs. It can be a signal to teenage boys that you demand respect. The hijab can be a very American assertion of the right to self-expression. It can be flat-out feminist.
“It’s a big ‘screw you’ to beauty standards, you know?” said graduate student Naima Zaheer, 25.
“Sometimes we buy into the idea that we’re not enough, that we have to do a certain thing a certain way to be considered beautiful, and I feel like this is a way to say, ‘No, I’m just going to be who I am.’ ”
Some women reported overwhelmingly positive reactions to their hijabs; others encountered more hostility. But all recalled at least one stranger who reacted badly.
“I had someone screaming at me, telling me I’m stupid, I can’t drive, to go back to my own country, all of those Islamophobic things, and I’m just looking at them like, what is your problem?” said Dawn Najma Beasley, 39.
“They see me, and they see Desert Storm, they see ISIS, they see the propaganda. I was born and raised in Gary, Ind. My family is from the South Side of Chicago. I live down the street from Obama’s house.”
Growing up Muslim in Chicago in the 1980s, Hannah ElAmin wanted her mom to be like all the other moms at her elementary school, so when her mother started wearing a headscarf, El-Amin wasn’t pleased.
“Why would you want to do that?” she asked.
“I’m sure she explained it to me as her own personal choice, which I respected,” recalled ElAmin, 39. “I just didn’t think it was cool. But then I came to realize that there are different definitions of cool.”
For El-Amin, the hijab is a religious statement: “It definitely attests to my priorities in that I put faith first, period.” But there’s also a reminder to herself to make good choices and do what’s right. Responses, she said, have been overwhelmingly positive, along the lines of “that’s a really beautiful scarf.”
Even the one story she did tell about Islamophobia had a surprising twist. When she worked as a dietitian at a suburban hospital, a man noticed her near the front desk and asked, “Why is she here?” El-Amin asked what he meant. “Well, this is a Catholic institution. Why are you here?” the man said.
El-Amin asked the service representatives at the front desk if they were Catholic. They said no.
o. “Well, it’s not like (they’re) people who people kill people and cut people’s heads off,” the man said.
El-Amin told him that she had never cut anyone’s head off, and that there are some Catholics who do awful things. The man denied that. “So there are no Catholics in jail?” El-Amin asked him. No, the man said.
Minutes later, the patient the man had been waiting for appeared; it was his mother, and as it turned out, El-Amin was her dietitian.
The man watched, stunned, as his mother reached out to hug El-Amin, thanking her for everything she had done for her.
“I guess he was just meant to see that, because the timing was really incredible,” El-Amin said.
DAWN NAJMA BEASLEY
Raised Christian in Gary, Ind., Dawn Beasley converted to Islam nearly four years ago.
“It was a natural conversion; God guided me to a better way of life because I was searching,” said Beasley, 39, who is studying to be a phlebotomist. “I was studying religions. I was looking.”
Islam, which has strong ties to Judaism and Christianity, was familiar to her, and she liked how detailed it is and how much practical information it offers regarding how to live your daily life. Praying five times a day and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan resonated with her, as did the hijab.
In Islam, the word hijab refers narrowly to a screen that shields you from strangers, and more broadly to rules of modesty in behavior, speech and dress that apply to both men and women, according to Al-Deen, the DePaul University professor. In the U.S., the word hijab is widely used to mean headscarf.
After she converted, Beasley, who lives with her husband and children, initially just covered her hair, but as she continued to practice Islam, she began to explore the broader meaning of hijab.
“Modesty looks different for every person,” she said. “I’m a Black woman, so for me, covering may be different from another person covering. You have different cultures, you have different body types, you have different understandings of what modesty is. There are universal rules in our religion, but it’s very personal in its application.”
For her, modesty has increasingly come to mean looser clothing and more layers. She’ll wear an overcoat, a long sweater or a duster. She stopped wearing leggings outside the house, unless they’re covered by other clothing.
“I’m very shapely, and I didn’t necessarily want that to be my ‘hello’ when I walked into a room,” she said. “I wanted to keep it more to just me as a person and make it less about my curves, or glitter, or bedazzling, or even labels. To me, modesty includes not being flashy.”
In seventh grade, Saeda Sulieman felt ready to start wearing a hijab.
“My mom wears the hijab, and she was kind of like a role model,” said Sulieman, now 18 and a freshman at Moraine Valley Community College. “Some people in my family don’t, and that’s their decision, obviously, but I chose to because I felt like it made me closer to God, and it made me feel like a better person.”
When her friends asked her if she felt different now that she was wearing a headscarf, she told them she felt more confident because she was acting on her beliefs. Over time, her friends realized that she hadn’t changed, she said, and her relationships with them actually grew stronger.
There was a difficult time about two months after she started wearing the hijab, when one classmate used the anti-Muslim slur “towelhead” and another called her a terrorist.
Sulieman cried when she told one of her teachers, but the school acted quickly, addressing the issue with the two offending students and their parents, and the comments stopped.
At high school, where Sulieman, who graduated early, is still president of the Muslim Student Association, there are Muslim students whose families hail from Egypt, Sudan and Palestine, said Sulieman, whose parents are Palestinian immigrants.
Last year, the Muslim Student Association held a World Hijab Day event in which students could try on hijabs during lunch and ask questions.
School administrators, she said, have been supportive.
“They love to make sure that we feel comfortable,” she said. “It’s all about comfort, and making sure that we have a voice.”
“Can I be honest with you?” says Dilara Sayeed. “I think God’s got so many more problems to deal with than whether I’ve got a scarf on my head or not.”
And yet, every morning, Sayeed wraps a scarf around her head. She was wearing a hijab in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Muslim headscarf was so rare that people thought she was just expressing her personal sense of style.
She wore a hijab despite the fact that she and her parents immigrated from India, where the hijab wasn’t very common and despite the fact that her mother, a Muslim, did not cover her hair.
“It is my identity,” Sayeed, founder and CEO of the online platform for peer-to-peer mentoring vPeer, said of her scarves, some colorful, some professional and sedate.
“It is the way I see myself as an American Muslim woman. It means something to me: It means I am a woman who is empowered, I am a woman who has integrity, I am a woman who serves.”
In the West, she said, a woman is considered liberated because she can wear a bikini on the beach. But in her view, liberation doesn’t lie in a particular article of clothing; it lies in the free choice to wear it. And unfortunately the misconception persists that women aren’t freely choosing the hijab.
“We need to be real about this: Is putting on this scarf a challenge? I just finished telling you how empowered I am, but hell yeah,” she said. “It’s a challenge every single day. When I put it on, I have to prepare myself that when someone first meets me, they’re going to think, possibly, that I am quiet, reserved, suppressed, not empowered.”
That hurts sometimes, and sometimes it makes her angry, but it also makes her all the more determined to change people’s minds.
“There’s nothing like dialogue,” she said. “Looking each other in the eyes is the cure to prejudice.”
Asma Akhras felt respected and included when she wore a hijab as a college student in the 1990s.
She moved easily through local public schools while working as a supervisor of student teachers.
“I never felt that experience of being unwelcome,” said Akhras, 44. “I’ve always carried myself very confidently and unapologetically: ‘This is who I am.’ But honestly, I feel this has been due more to my racial profile than to my faith profile.”
Akhras, whose parents immigrated from Syria, looks White with blond hair and blue eyes, and she said that her experience has been one of white privilege, in which she’s been spared much of the hostility endured by darker-skinned Muslims.
Only in the past few years, with new restrictions on travelers from Muslim countries and a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, has Akhras’ personal experience as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman grown stressful.
“I started sensing this attitude coming into my field of work, into my neighborhood, into my community,” said Akhras, who is studying to be licensed as a school principal. “There’s this look of ‘you don’t belong here.’ ”
There was a particularly troubling incident at a local Walgreens, where Akhras took one of her daughters to buy school supplies. Akhras was waiting outside the store in her car when a woman became irate, pounding on Akhras’ car window and screaming that she couldn’t stop there.
g that she couldn’t stop there. Concerned for her daughter’s safety, Akhras went inside the store, where the angry woman continued to berate her, yelling, “If you want to fight, let’s fight.”
After the woman found out that Akhras had called the police, she left, Akhras said.
Akhras finds the heightened response to the hijab to be stressful, and she misses the days when she could simply choose to cover her hair without worrying about how people would react.
Sometimes she’ll avoid scrutiny by wearing a baseball cap or a hat instead of a scarf, still covering her hair, but in a manner that’s not recognizably Muslim.
“Other people are hijacking my narrative,” she said. “I’m not being allowed to be me.”
There are times when Naima Zaheer is walking down the street and a stranger smiles so warmly that she gets confused.
“Do I know this person?” Zaheer wonders.
The answer is no — she doesn’t know that smiling person, or for that matter the one who steps forward and says, “You’re welcome here.”
Strangers in the Chicago area are responding to the scarf that Zaheer wears over her hair. Maybe they’re thinking of President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, or a news story about antiMuslim bias, and they want the 25-year-old graduate student to know that they support her decision to express her faith.
“I so appreciate that,” she said of the positive reactions from strangers. And yet, at the same time, she said, the underlying assumptions are interesting.
“I grew up here my whole life. Of course, I’m welcome here,” she said with a laugh. “You know what I mean?”
Zaheer, who is completing her master’s degree in speech pathology at New York University, with a goal of working with elderly stroke and cancer patients, said that the fundamental meaning of her hijab remains constant — “It’s a way for me to show my love for God” — but the nuances fluctuate.
“Sometimes I feel like this is a way for me to privatize my sexuality: who sees me or the way that they see me,” she said.