Muslim women's hijab is proud expression of their faith

Mercury News

Bandannas. Hats. Short scarves. Turtleneck sweaters.

Sumiya Khan had plenty of time to experiment with them all before her flight back to Seattle from the Bay Area on Sunday. Since Sept. 11, she had stayed close to her parents' San Jose home, not going out, not visiting with her friends.

The new get-up would be just for the flight, a temporary adjustment. Another precaution. You never know, after all.

``It's really strange,'' said the 22-year-old graduate student, who settled on a woolen cap and high-collared shirt. ``I tried tying it in different ways. I tried smaller scarves. I tried head wraps instead of pinning it under my chin.''

``It,'' of course, is the hijab, the head scarf that Muslim women wear to practice modesty.

Across our country, in the face of misplaced anger over the Sept. 11 attack, some Muslim women -- from immigrants to American-born-and-bred college students -- have experienced harassment and physical abuse.

While tensions are high, families have counseled their female members to refrain from unnecessary trips in public. Some scholars of the Koran, to whom many look for interpretation and guidance, have issued a fatwa that it is OK for women to alter the hijab if they feel their lives might be in danger.

The hijab has a meaning beyond that piece of cloth that we call the head scarf. Hijab is the entire expression of Islamic modesty: covered hair, ears and neck. It can be a flowing robe, a tunic and pants, or simply a long-sleeve shirt with pants or skirt.

It is the full embrace of your faith and the emblem of your beliefs.

Whether to wear it remains, however, a deeply personal and religious question that can only be answered by each woman depending on her circumstances. If your livelihood is at a mom and pop convenience store with long hours and lots of exposure, or if you have to travel, or you fear for your dependents, you have more to consider.

Schoolteacher Abbake Omeira has a friend who is nine months pregnant and has tied her hijab so it looks almost like a hat, she said. No one can fault a mother for taking steps to protect the life growing within her. If she weren't pregnant, she'd wear a traditional hijab, she confided.

A defiant spirit

When I talk to women with office jobs or college classes, however, the spirit is of defiance. The hijab is part of your identity. Why change who you are?

Indeed, why?

``I think about the Japanese people and what happened to them,'' said Zaynab Abdelqader, a 20-year-old San Francisco State student, referring to the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. ``They couldn't change their eyes.''

``If I get questioned about what faith I practice, am I supposed to hide it?'' asked Abdelqader, who is of Vietnamese descent. ``It's like hiding who you really are.''

So bravo to the women who will brook none of that in their daily lives.

Because once you've made that compromise with your very identity, there is no guarantee it will change anything.

I'm thinking of Fred Korematsu, a San Leandro resident who fought being sent to the internment camps and paid a price for how he did it. First, he tried to alter his eyes through plastic surgery. But he was interned anyway and suffered the ostracism of his contemporaries, who felt he tried to deny his heritage. Korematsu's lasting impact on history, instead, came from his remarkable court fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court . . . which is where our next tests may lie on the civil liberties front.

Faith trumps fear

``You can't live your life in terror and be scared,'' said Malika Khan, Sumiya's mother and a 53-year-old lab scientist who wears her hijab at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose. ``No, I'm not going to be intimidated by people who don't understand. Thank God I am strong in my commitment to my religion.''

For those women who grew up here -- participating in contemporary American life with their classmates, going to the same high school football games, debate classes and even Catholic school religion classes, in some cases -- the act of wearing a hijab came after serious consideration.

Which is why taking it off is not done lightly.

``I was born in L.A.,'' said Omeira, a 23-year-old Santa Clara schoolteacher. ``I'm an American, and I'm just practicing what's in the Constitution: freedom of religion.''

Never forget it. It's called the First Amendment.

L.A. Chung appears Tuesdays and Saturdays and wants you to share your stories with her. Contact her at or (415) 394-6881


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