CAIRO/IOWA CITY, IOWA/JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA: Norhan Mohammed, an 11-year-old student, loved participating in her school s swim team, but not anymore. She left the team in May 2006 after she put on a hijab (headscarf), which did not go with her swimsuit.
Mohammed does not regret her decision to put on the hijab. She still has the same freedom as before, Mohammed says, only she covers her hair and wears long sleeves. Everything is still the same, Mohammed continues.
Mohammed started wearing her hijab as protection when she entered puberty. It s the right thing to do. My mom is wearing it and so do I to please the Prophet Muhammad and Allah, says Mohammed, who learned from her mother how the hijab protects her and saves her identity.
The word hijab in Arabic means barrier or screen. In the verse regarding women s hijab, which is referred to as khimar or cover in the Qur an, An-Nur 24:31 says: And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands fathers, their sons.
Furthermore, the debate about hijab takes many forms among Muslim women. Many women see the hijab as a way to secure personal liberty in a world which they believe turns women into objects. They argue that the hijab allows them freedom of movement and control of their bodies while protecting them from the male gaze at the same time. On the other hand, some women view the hijab in a completely different light. They believe the headscarf only gives the illusion of protection while in reality it gives men the ability to control women s behavior.
Dr. Ahmed Kanna, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Iowa focused on Middle East politics and culture research, claims that the intentions of wearing the hijab may vary from one person to another. There is certainly no agreement on why the hijab is important. It is much more individualistic, he says. In fact, each Muslim is charged with the responsibility of interpreting the Qur an and the traditions of Islam individually and based on their own responsibility. That responsibility, however, may lead some women to live double lives.
Twenty six-year-old Egyptian Muslim Mohammed Hegazy had an unexpected encounter with a veiled woman lately. I was in a taxi when a woman wearing niqab (a veil that covers the face) stepped in. As soon as she closed the door, she started taking off her cloth, under which she had tight jeans and a tube top. I was shocked and I stared at her, but the woman looked at me and said, Do not ask, you do not know my circumstances.
Unlike those women who wear the hijab as an obligation, Mervat Youssef, a PhD student of journalism at the University of Iowa originally from Egypt, wears her hijab by choice. Youssef put on the hijab at 13 despite her parents urging to reconsider.
They said: Why don t you just enjoy? You know if you wear it, you are not going to take it off. Especially since I was very girly long ago. I cared about how my hair looked, about jewelry and clothes. Youssef laughs. But then I got into reading to the point that I became totally disinterested in all that stuff. I decided that if someone wants to know me, this is how they know me.
Thirty-four-year-old Youssef insists that she does not wear the hijab simply to follow the trend. Instead, she sees it as a sign of rejecting the hegemony of fashion designers who decide how much of a woman s body they want to expose this year.
It s a statement of freedom, Youssef says firmly.
For Paula Miller, it was not easy to make the decision to wear her hijab in public. Born and raised in a Christian family in Cedar Rapids, Miller converted to Islam in 2002 when she was 35. At first, she only wore her hijab when she went to the Mosque or prayed at home. I didn t want to show off as if I wanted to show my protest toward the government, says Miller.
But the US support for Israel during the Israel-Lebanon crisis in the summer of 2006 made Miller change her mind. I can t wait any longer. I didn t want to not wear it because I was afraid of how people would look at me. People need to see [Muslims] are part of America. We are normal, we are nice.
When Miller started wearing her hijab in public last fall, there was one place where she would not wear it – the University of Iowa classroom in which she was a teaching assistant. But she soon changed her mind.
Maybe [the students] didn t realize I was a Muslim. Now they do. I m trying to increase that positive influence. Just one person at a time, that still makes a difference, Miller says.
Dina Aliis a student at the American University in Cairo, majoring in Broadcast journalism,Lini Ge is a Masters student in professional journalism at the University of Iowa and winner of the Gazette Foundation Minority Journalism Scholarship, and Lauren Darmis a junior studying journalism at the University of North Florida. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.