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Backstory: A teen hijabi comes of age

By Cynthia AndersonContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 2006


The dinner rush is on at the Silver City Galleria food court. Behind the counter of Brigham's Grille, 16-year-old Sarah Ismail takes rapid-fire orders. "Fries with that? For here or to go?"

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Customers pay, reach for napkins and straws. Invariably their eyes settle on the head scarf Sarah wears beneath her Brigham's cap. If she notices the glances, she doesn't let on. Older couples, moms with toddlers, boys in baggy pants: She handles them all with the same easy competence. No one else in the neon-lit food court is wearing a hijab, the covering that conceals a Muslim woman's hair, ears, and neck.

It's a sharp contrast from the scene the night before at the mosque the Ismail family attends. There, it was hard to distinguish Sarah from a huddle of other teenage "hijabi," the term she and her friends use for themselves. The girls knelt to pray, and later sold brownies to raise money for the mosque. They also chatted and laughed and checked their cellphones for messages.

As a senior at Sharon High School, just south of Boston, Sarah is both different from her non-Muslim classmates and very much the same. To be sure, the hijab sets her apart, and she intends it to: "It's not just a piece of clothing. It's a lifestyle and a statement about who I am." Accordingly, she doesn't drink alcohol or smoke. She doesn't date, although boys don't go unnoticed (no names, no details). And five times a day she stops whatever she is doing to pray.

She's one of a growing number of Muslim American teens who wear hijabs - a choice that says much in the post-9/11 era of lingering suspicion toward Islam. Yet, many of Sarah's concerns are those of any teenager. Her senior year is full of familiar markers: SATs and college applications and a certain giddiness as the acceptances accumulate. She's still waiting to hear from her top choice, Boston University.

In the meantime, it's life as usual - maintaining a B+ average, volunteering in a third-grade class, working at Brigham's, going to the gym. Friday nights are spent at the mosque, and on weekends she hangs out with her hijabi friends. They might drive into Boston for dinner (her favorite: Italian) or to wander Harvard Square in Cambridge.

Described by her mother, Doha Onsi, as "caring and deep," Sarah is also principled and - by her own admission - stubborn. She's an approachable yet steadfast representative of her religion, capable of weathering the looks and questions - and, more intangibly, the assumptions - about what it means to be a Muslim woman.

The decision to wear a hijab was Sarah's alone. Neither of her sisters does. And her mother, an Egyptian who moved here with Sarah's father in 1981, asked her daughter to consider the choice carefully when Sarah raised the topic last spring.

Sarah spent the summer reading the Koran and Hadith, and by August she was ready. The fact that she was transferring from a private Islamic high school to a public one for her senior year did not deter her. It seemed like an opportunity to make a statement about who she really is.

Islam requires modesty of behavior and dress in all followers. Observant women cover their heads, arms, and legs in public or around men. Wearing a hijab is a constant reminder of her commitment to respect herself and others, Sarah says, and it encourages her to adhere to Muslim principles of charity and obedience. "You always have to have God in your mind, no matter what you're doing," she says. "Every action should please him."

This by no means implies her behavior is completely circumscribed. "You want to set a modest, respectful example, but you have to be yourself," she says. That means coordinating her outfits with stylish hijabs and occasionally falling asleep in math class. "You're still a teenager. You like sports and music, just like everyone else."