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Wearing the Muslim veil in America: What it's like

Wearing the Muslim veil in America may cause awkward moments, but this hijabi finds more positive than negative in her choice.

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Then, 19 Muslim hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center, and I knew my world had fundamentally changed. I was as angered by the senseless, indiscriminate violence as any American, but I realized my hijab placed me in a precarious position. My parents cautioned me to be careful, worried about the backlash. And although I did field a small share of abuse (“If you people don’t like America,” I heard more than once, “get the **** out!”), and read daily about mosque burnings and Muslim beatings, I also witnessed the generous spirit of fellow Americans. An interfaith group formed a human chain around our Syracuse, N.Y., mosque, expressing their solidarity. My sociology professor advised her students to reach out to Muslims on campus, who were probably scared. As a freshman in my second week of college, I was scared, and her words provided me enormous comfort.

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In spite of my fear, I never considered removing my hijab. I wasn’t especially brave, and I certainly didn’t enjoy the extra attention. But something had happened during the previous four years – my hijab became a part of me, as intrinsic to my identity as my name. As uncomfortable as life became after 9/11, it would be hard to imagine without hijab.

I learned to live with the stares and suspicious looks and to compensate with warmth and smiles to set others at ease. I amassed a collection of hijabs in different colors and patterns to wear according to my mood. I never had bad hair days – and even if I had, nobody would have known.

Proudly, timidly, self-consciously, I wore hijab to class, to graduation, to job interviews, and to my first job in Washington, D.C. As a young single woman in a city of young singles, I occasionally got hit on.

But hijab is more than a piece of cloth. It is modesty in dress and behavior. As an observant Muslim, I didn’t date, didn’t go to bars or clubs, and tried not to invite advances. As a friend remarked, “No man will whistle at a hijabi covered head to toe.”

But hijab is not, as many believe, a suppression of sexuality – it distinguishes between public life and private life. Cognizant of the potentially intrusive, debasing power of the gaze, God instructs men and women to lower their eyes and dress modestly in public. (In Islam, men must also dress conservatively, wearing loose clothing that covers their bodies.)

Feminist Naomi Wolf wrote in her 2008 essay, “Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality,” that Islam and its injunction of modesty channels sexuality into marriage and family life: “When sexuality is kept private and directed in ways seen as sacred – and when one’s husband isn’t seeing his wife (or other women) half-naked all day long – one can feel great power and intensity when the headscarf or the chador comes off in the home.”

Unlike other religious traditions, which portray sexuality as sinful, Islam sanctions, even celebrates, sexuality in the context of marriage.

In fact, the Koran and hadith, or traditions of Muhammad, give women the right to sexual satisfaction in marriage, as well as the right to vote, to education, to work if they wish, to keep any money they earn for their own use, and the right to own property – truly revolutionary when the Koran was revealed in the 7th century. Of course, not every Muslim – or Muslim country – respects these rights. That’s a plain abuse of Islam.

A year and a half ago I married a man who loves me in hijab. He supports my choice to wear it – I wore it for our wedding – and he says that in hijab I am beautiful and empowered.

Not everyone thinks so. A few years ago a hairdresser shepherded me into a backroom for a private cut, away from public view.

“You’re in America now, honey,” she confided, trying to help me. “You don’t have to wear that thing on your head.”

My hairdresser was trying to liberate me from hijab. But for me, hijab is liberation. It is the freedom to assert my identity and live according to my values.

Another train ride

I live in a country where I can do just that. And where, for every discouraging encounter I experience, I have 10 positive ones.

Like another time on the D-line train in Boston on my way home after a long day of classes. It was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and I was hungry and tired and had no place to sit.

“You’re fasting, right?” asked a man, standing and offering me his place.

I smiled and gratefully took his seat.