By Fariba Nawa
Since the all-enveloping burqa began appearing on television during the war in Afghanistan, Americans became curious, even obsessed, with understanding why Muslim women cover their hair and body.
Worn in dozens of styles, the veil or hijab in Arabic has had different meanings at various times in its history, ranging from a symbol of oppression to a tool for power. As Americans grasp the complexities and symbolism of the veil, they need to look no further than the US where among the millions of Muslim women, thousands wear the headscarf. Their motivations are just as varied as the women in Muslim countries but the primary difference is that Muslim Americans choose to cover despite the glares and racist comments hurled at them.
They commit to the veil after a spiritual voyage through Islam. They say their headscarf epitomizes their dedication to an introspective life devoted to God. But each woman has an individual way of interpreting Islam and hijab — exemplifying the diversity of thought among practicing Muslims. Here are stories of three women.
Nargis Nusraty with her hair neatly wrapped in a green headscarf sat fidgeting and eyeing a roomful of New York University graduate students to see who was looking at her bare neck – a part of her body that she had been hiding for nearly two years. It was shortly after September 11 and the Middle Eastern Studies department where Nusraty studies Islamic law had called a meeting to discuss the impact of the terrorist attacks on the students. The outgoing 24-year-old with an infectious laugh was the first student to speak up.
Nusraty said she had gone to play tennis in Long Island in her usual gear of headscarf and sweats. A little girl began screaming as soon as she saw Nusraty walk on the court. Nusraty thought the girl had hurt herself so she approached her mother. “Her mother told me she’s crying because she’s scared of me,” Nusraty said breaking into tears herself.
Nusraty began veiling two years ago after years of studying Islam, praying, and conviction. She forsook the tank tops and short skirts that defined her style, the outings in New York’s hot spots and her management job at Hugo Boss because it wasn’t kosher to take men’s measurements anymore — a lifestyle change her parents didn’t think she could uphold. Her father thought it was a phase when she first pinned on the scarves he had brought her from Dubai. Her mother, who took pride in her daughter’s hip style and sleek brunette hair, still doesn’t agree with her daughter’s transformation.
Nusraty was a year old when her family of four fled the Soviet invasion in Kabul and made New York their second home. Her parents come from the urban elite in Afghanistan and are more relaxed about being Muslims. Her mother doesn’t veil.
When Nusraty was a teen-ager, she fought for Western freedoms taboo in traditional Afghan culture – being able to wear revealing clothes, swim at the beach, stay out late with friends – but she didn’t want them anymore.
Nusraty was looking for structure and a spiritual outlet. “I explored existentialism but it wasn’t for me. So I embraced Islam. It’s democratic, liberal and spiritually uplifting.”
She found more important freedoms in religion. In Afghan culture, parents generally arrange their children’s marriages but Nusraty chose her fiancée Waseem, who she got to know during Friday prayers.
Her lifestyle change was a process. She began going to prayers at the university Islamic center at 19. Then she changed her major from pre-med to study religions and finally during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, donned the veil.
The veil defined a way of life, the cloth identified her as a Muslim in public and became an integral part of who she is. And she loved it — the salaam-o-alaikum greetings other Muslims bestowed upon her on the street, the respect of her Muslim peers and her freedom from a material-focused life.
The suicide hijackings by Muslim men suddenly hijacked her freedom of expression and identity. And the war with Iraq has made the unpleasant stares worse. Her mother pleads with Nusraty to show her hair for safety reasons. Nusraty couldn’t imagine it. She would feel naked without it but to allay her mother’s fears, she left her neck bare for a few days after September 11 straying from the traditional Arab headdress that also drapes around the neck and chest.
At the graduate meeting, Nusraty put her face in her hands as she wept. “I have to wear my hijab this way now,” she told the silent audience, pointing to her bare neck. Fears of backlash had compromised her cherished modesty.
Two years after that meeting, Nusraty with her full veil on has her smile back. She could be the fashion diva of veiled women with her designer long skirts, high-heeled, skin-colored boots and color-coordinated headcovers. Appearance is still important, Nusraty said, repeatedly tucking imaginary hair strands under her veil.
Her view of religion is educated and quasi-scientific. She’s orthodox on certain issues like veiling, and radical on other norms. Her family is from the minority sect of Shi’a Islam but Nusraty doesn’t adhere to sectarian divisions. She consults the scriptures and books on Islamic law for answers on how to live, such as when is it proper to wear nail polish and perfume. She read a passage about a woman being scolded for wearing musk on her way to mosque so Nusraty only uses her collection of designer perfumes at home. “It all makes so much sense, doesn’t it?” she asked rhetorically in the tone of an evangelical preacher determined to convert the ignorant.
A poster of Malcolm X, Koranic verses and an embroidered Pakistani tapestry covered the white walls of the downtown Manhattan bedroom just a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. The wall in Hana Siddiqi’s bedroom symbolized her multi-faceted identity. Siddiqi, 22, grew up in a traditional Muslim household in San Jose, Calif. But she explored beyond conventional Islam, fusing her artistic and political inspirations to become a Muslim activist – one that other Muslims might shun.
Siddiqi lives alone across the country from her parents, interacts with male friends and stays out late socializing – activities that traditionalists deem inappropriate for a Muslim woman. She covers her hair but not in the Arab style. She binds multi-colored rectangular cloths around her waist-long dark hair, twisting her locks back, framing her face and leaving her neck bare. In the same spirit, she prays five times a day and fasts on required holy days.
“Nobody’s a perfect Muslim,” Siddiqi said. “There are so many debates, so many ways and interpretations of being a Muslim. There are fundamentals and those are what I try to stick to.”
Religion to her is about tolerance, peace and spirituality. She committed to the veil gradually, wearing it at Muslim events and Friday prayers at first and then in the year 2000, decided to keep it on. But her lifestyle wasn’t altered much. “It was just an extension of my faith and the more I got into Sufism, the more I wanted to disappear physically.”
Her liberal style has raised eyebrows among conservatives. Her cynical comeback: “It’s practical. I do marshal arts. I can’t be flapping around with all that fabric.”
Siddiqi’s goal is to teach those ignorant about the true tenets of the religion both to Westerners and to extremist Muslims who she feels have lost touch with the meaning of Islam. She is a writer, a poet and a graduate student in the same department as Nusraty. And her most recent project is heading a New York branch of an organization she founded in her hometown San Jose.
Muslims Engaged in Creating Consciousness in America or MECCA, aptly named after the holy Muslim city in Saudi Arabia, is made up of Muslim artists who plan events where people can have fun in an environment free of alcohol.
On a Sunday during the holy Muslim month of Muharram, Siddiqi gathered the New York group at Galaxy Café in the heart of the Arab neighborhood on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Notebook and a pen with an engraving of Eid Mubarak in hand, Siddiqi held court in front of three men and two women.
Siddiqi had no visible makeup on her face and wore a black, yellow and red headscarf, nose stud, plaid slacks, sneakers and a black sweatshirt with red lettering “Peace be with you” written in five different languages. She was fasting in honor of Muharram, the month when Prophet Mohammed’s grandsons were slain. She laid out the plans for their latest gig – a poetry slam complete with a deejay and food in Manhattan. She was soft-spoken, listening to what her committee members had to say.
Siddiqi’s strong beliefs and confidence emerged after a fraught adolescence. When Siddiqi was a teen-ager, her parents wouldn’t let her join after-school activities. She couldn’t stay out after dark, attend school dances or go to slumber parties. “It was a big deal that I could do stuff – like go out.”
Siddiqi was born in London to Pakistani parents. Her family moved to the Bay Area when she was five years old. Her father, who is her mentor, is an Islamic scholar and her mother is a homemaker. She is the youngest of three siblings and the only daughter. The pressures of maintaining the family name and honor weighed heavily in Siddiqi’s life. She rebelled in small ways against her overprotective parents. Siddiqi pierced her nose ignoring her mother’s warnings that only married Pakistani girls can decorate their nose. “When my mother argued with me, I said it’s a tribal tradition that women should wait until they’re married. And we’re Muslims so why do we have to follow that.”
Siddiqi stopped using the cell phone her parents had given her and bought her own so that her father couldn’t keep tabs on her calls. When her father found out, Siddiqi, then 19, told him she needed more space.
Now on her own, she appreciates the freedoms – no curfew, no guardians to watch over her and no Pakistani community to criticize her alternative lifestyle.
Siddiqi is focusing on MECCA and writing her thesis, which she plans to turn into a book. Its title — Muslim Culture, Identity, Politics and Hip Hop in America — is a testament of her multicultural identity and her continuing probe to redefine Islam.
“I have an ongoing debate with others and myself about how I need to become a better a Muslim but it’s what’s in your heart that matters. Ultimately, God is the judge.”
Hanaa Arafat took off the veil after seven years of wearing it.
Then she felt awkward and uncomfortable, conscious of her bare head that had been concealed since she was 16. Muslims didn’t greet her in public anymore. She lost a part of her identity.
“I was sad. It made me feel like people don’t know who I am,” Arafat said.
She’s Egyptian, American and above all, a Muslim.
Arafat unveiled two weeks after September 11 when her 19-year-old sister, who does not veil, was physically attacked on a subway train for having dark hair and dark skin. Arafat’s veil, chestnut brown eyes, full lips and olive skin, made her more vulnerable to be the next victim of rage. God would understand the circumstances, she thought. Taking her border-embroidered scarf was the practical thing to do but it still felt awful. The veil is meant to be a lifetime commitment to God akin to marriage to a husband A week later, she put it back on with a sigh of relief.
But Arafat doesn’t feel any safer now. “My last name is Arafat, who could look more Egyptian than me and I cover my head. I wouldn’t be surprised if the FBI is after me,” she joked over coffee recently. It doesn’t help that the two masterminds of the September 11 hijackings were Egyptians. Since the war with Iraq, she is finding humorous ways and words to respond to the stares and slurs. She told an old woman, who told her to go back to her country, to buy a better wig.
It was “too weird” not to wear the veil for that week two years ago. The veil gives her a tangible recognition of being a Muslim and it conveys her modesty.
“If a man asks (a veiled woman) out, he’ll say I’m interested in you. He won’t say let’s go out for coffee. The hijab sets boundaries.”
Arafat, also a graduate student at NYU, doesn’t study Islam with a fine-tooth comb or a mystic zeal. She takes a more practical, matter-of-fact approach. Islam is the answer to the universal question of existence for her. “Religion gives life meaning. A lot of people don’t think they have a purpose but this is it. That’s why it’s useful.”
By the same virtue, it’s flexible, she said. She’s not afraid to voice questions. Why does Islam give rights to communities over individuals? Why are women’s responsibilities more stressed than men’s?
Arafat cloaks her explanations in academic language. Most of her time is spent reading books and attending activities on the Middle East conflict. She knows her Koranic verses, the rules of orthodoxy, the Egyptian cultural interpretation of Islam but she doesn’t necessarily live by any of them.
And it irks her that because she veils, Muslims expect her to be “holier than thou.” The veil does not characterize her entire identity and she struggles with the perception that it should. It’s the problem with a monolithic understanding of culture and identity, she said.
Arafat often wears tight-fitted clothes complementing her white headscarves, which she wears covering her neck and hair. But sometimes a patch of black hair escapes above her forehead. She pulls the fabric over the patch if it’s noticed. When her friends go to bars, she occasionally joins them but doesn’t drink alcohol. Often other Muslims in the bar admonish her for being there.
“Do you know how many of them come up to me and say ‘you’re not supposed to drink.’ I say thank you and keep enjoying my Sprite with grenadine.”
Yet since she veiled, she makes more of an effort to pray on time and wants to memorize the Koran. Arafat said she should stop wearing tight clothes but it’s a struggle for her to achieve that level of modesty.
Arafat was born to middle-class, pious parents near St. Paul, Minn. Most of her friends in her rural hometown were non-Muslims but at home, she woke to her father’s morning recitations of the Koran. She didn’t embrace or rediscover Islam because praying, fasting and charity were rituals of her upbringing. Her family went on vacations to Egypt in the summers. But she evolved and grasped a deeper sense of the religion with age.
Arafat tussled more with her national identity, feeling pressured to choose between Egyptian and American. So she chose religion over ethnic culture. She chose Islam.
“I can identify with people on a broader scale. Religion is more universal.”