SIGN OF FAITH
Devotion leads women to wear hijab
Muslim clothing sees cultural acceptance
Saturday, April 28, 2007
Insherah Odeh did not mind being stared at.
She knew when she started wearing the hijab – the head scarf worn by Muslim women – in 1990 her decision would stir different emotions in people.
Some friends were angered by her decision until Odeh explained her reasons. Strangers would stare while she stood in line at the grocery store with her children. A few even came up to her and asked about the “rag” covering her head.
“I didn’t get mad or anything, because anytime you see something different than your culture, of course you’re going to react that way,” said Odeh, who has lived in the United States for 40 years, the last 23 in Rocky Mount.
Then, as now, Odeh’s response to the curious, concerned and even the angered is the same: The hijab is part of her religion, and wearing it a decision she made. Most people accept this, and through the years, the fascination has waned.
“I don’t have any problem with it today. They’ve gotten to see more people wearing it,” said Odeh, 56.
In a society in which fashion has seen skirts get shorter, necklines lower and everything tighter, the sight of a woman in a hijab stands out, said Khalilah Sabra, executive director of the state’s chapter of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. They become, in many cases, the most visible sign of Islam.
What many people fail to realize is that wearing the hijab is a choice Muslim women make, Sabra said. She converted from Catholicism to Islam in high school in California and immediately began wearing the hijab, a garment similar to the habits she was used to seeing nuns wear.
“Other people have defined it as a way that Muslim women are suppressed, but they are not suppressed by hijab. It is looked at as an honor, a religious symbol by which we distinguish ourselves from other people,” Sabra said.
The decision to wear the hijab should not be forced, said Odeh, who was born in the West Bank. It has to come from a woman’s heart.
“If it’s not from your heart, you probably put it on a year or two and take it off. That’s nonsense. If you’re going to put it on for a year or two and take it off, it’s better for you not to put it on. When it comes from your heart, because you want to, you want to get closer to God, you put it on and you’ll never take it off,” Odeh said.
The hijab is meant to be a religious statement, but in recent years it has become a political tool, Sabra said. People point to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran where hijabs or burqas, garments that cloak the entire body, are compulsory. But that is a form of cultural domination and is not in accordance with Islam.
“There is no religion by compulsion. That is one of the verses in the Quran,” Sabra said.
Hijabs have been hotly debated in European countries in the last few years, and France banned the wearing of the garment and other religious symbols in public schools, Sabra said.
“Now Muslim women can’t even have a college education unless they take off their scarves. They can’t go to any type of public university in Paris,” Sabra said. “There is a real fear that eventually, there might be attempts to suppress religious wardrobe here in America, even though the Constitution clearly says that practice of religion is your constitutional right.”
While growing up in Jordan, Fazyeh Shehadeh, 44, was not close to her religion. It was only after she came to the United States in 1984 that she more fully embraced Islam, and another six years passed before she put on the hijab.
“A lot of girls say it is hard, but when I took the first step, I just did it,” said Shehadeh, a teacher at Masjid Al-Huda Islamic Center on Memory Lane.
There is no one style or design for hijabs, Shehadeh said. They can be different colors or designs to match an outfit, but they should not draw attention to the wearer or incite lust.
Arwa Zughbi, a student at Edgecombe Community College, made the decision to wait and wear the hijab after she graduated from high school to avoid any pressure. In the three years she has worn it, no one has been disrespectful to her because of it.
“I wear it because I feel like it does protect me from any harm. I feel like I present Islam,” said Zughbi, 21.
Though she covers her head, Zughbi wears jeans and long-sleeve shirts. She said she is not ready to wear the long, completely concealing garments yet.
The criteria regarding women’s clothes mostly apply when they are in public, Odeh said. A woman can wear anything she wants in her home, and – as long as she remains decently dressed – she can forego the hijab in the company of select male relatives, women and children 10 and younger.
“You are free to do whatever you want in the house, but if someone knocks on the door, they can’t see you like that. You have to run and put on the hijab,” Odeh said.