To protect themselves, more American Muslim women give up hijab

'I’m sad about what it means about our religious freedoms in general in our country; I’m sad that I had to give it up,' says Nassrene Elmadhun, a Boston surgeon who stopped wearing her headscarf after a man threatened her and her toddler.

Ben Torres/The Dallas Morning News/AP
Aysha Khan, a Muslim woman who rides the DART from Arapaho Center Station to the University of Texas at Dallas, is photographed wearing her hijab at the station on Nov. 12 in Richardson, Texas. Her parents asked her to start driving to school after the election. Other Muslim women, fearing for their personal safety, have stopped wearing hijab.

Three and a half years ago, when Nassrene Elmadhun was 8-1/2 months pregnant with her first child, she never dreamed she would ever go out without wearing hijab.

Since her early teens in Colorado, Dr. Elmadhun has worn a headscarf, both as an expression of her traditional Muslim faith and her commitment to its requirements for public modesty. She wore it throughout her years as a doctor in Boston, where she became the chief surgical resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a top trauma center and affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

She was wearing it on April 15, 2013, when her husband texted her. There had been an explosion near him at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. “I got my scrubs on and waddled into the hospital and did my best to aid the victims,” says Elmadhun. “I still have my fleece with ‘Boston Strong.’ It’s something that will be forever burned into my memory.”

That day marked a turning point, however. Though she had been acutely aware of the fact that her headscarf made her stand out, Elmadhun says, she always felt confident and strong wearing hijab, both as a Muslim and as an American who felt, in a deeply personal way, her country’s promise of liberty and religious freedom – even after the difficult days following Sept. 11, 2001.

Instead of second glances, she became the object of angry stares. Instead of folks assuming she’s from another country, or expressing surprise she speaks without an accent, they began to openly associate her with the Tsarnaev brothers, who perpetrated the Boston bombings, or other Muslim extremists.

“Over the last several years, there’s been this growing unease, feeling uncomfortable in my own skin,” the surgeon says. “And that is something that’s new.... I was feeling less and less welcome in my own community, and more and more like there was a target on my back.”

 And so, like a number of Muslim women this year, Elmadhun made the wrenching personal decision to stop wearing her headscarf.

“You feel fear, it’s human nature,” says Mariana Aguilera, who converted to Islam 10 years ago and now runs The Demureist, a Queens-based website for women of all faiths looking for fashion that embraces a conservative lifestyle, including Muslim women wearing hijab.

“But this is more than about our fear,” says Ms. Aguilera, who has decided to keep wearing her headscarf, despite receiving verbal threats this month. “There’s a reason why we have this religious freedom in our country, and if we don’t do something – this climate is destroying our values, and that’s dangerous.”

Indeed, if Muslim women wearing hijab across the country have been feeling especially vulnerable during the current political climate in which few can recall such open hostility, for many of them harassment and violence has also cut to the core of their faith – a chill on their freedom to remain true to their visible acts of worship and what they see as a theology of modesty.

It’s a theology that is shared by some Orthodox Jewish women, who often wear wigs to cover their heads in public. In some Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions, too, women are sometimes required to cover their heads in places of worship – a practice common in the United States just decades ago.

Hiding one's faith

“It would be a tragedy to us here in the United States if Muslims felt like they had to hide their faith, if Muslim women felt like they had to take off their hijabs, or Sikh men their turbans, or anyone who felt they could not identify who they are in public,” says Imam Omar Suleiman, president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research in Irving, Texas.

“So I think that it’s important that we collectively challenge these attacks on people that are identifiably Muslim,” he continues. “It’s important for us to challenge all of that, and to stand tall and firm, because at the end of the day, bigotry is not something that can be reasoned with. And bigotry should not force us to change the way we live our lives.”

Elmadhun and Aguilera point to 2015, when armed protesters were marching in front of mosques and candidate Donald Trump was calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country. That year, hate crimes against Muslims were becoming more and more common – up 67 percent, according to the FBI. That also was the year Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted and sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombings. During the trial, Elmadhun says she was walking her son in a stroller in Brookline when a man stopped his car, got out, and yelled, “Go back to your [expletive] country, you [expletive] terrorist!”

Earlier this month, a man at Grand Central Terminal in New York pushed a New York City transit worker down a staircase, yelling “You’re a terrorist, go back to your own country!” In Brooklyn, another man threatened an off-duty police officer with his pit bull, also telling her and her son to “go back to your country.”

On the steps of a municipal court in New Jersey, too, a man spit in the face of an advocate with the Muslim American Society’s Immigrant Justice Center, after she testified in a domestic violence case, according to the Religious News Service.

Self-defense classes

Such incidents led Aguilera, the daughter of a former professional boxer, to organize a number of self-defense classes over the past year for women who wear hijab. She and her colleagues were then invited to speak at another self-defense class offered by New York’s Muslim Community Network. Posted on Facebook, the nonprofit network's self-defense class got about 2,700 people expressing interest for a class accommodating only 40.

The class includes a time for women to share their experiences and fears and discuss how to respond, both physically and emotionally.

“Our knowledge about how to manage that fear is very vital,” says Aguilera. “Eventually these are going to take a toll, because once you start denying who you are, that takes a toll on your personality, and that’s not healthy.”

The attack Monday on the Christmas market in Berlin that killed 12 brings more unease. Both women say that anytime a Muslim terror attack occurs, they feel they are being held personally responsible for actions occurring hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away – and which they emphatically deny represents the religion they hold dear.

“Last year, after the Paris attacks, it was like every time something like that happens, there’s the aftermath, and people who have nothing to do with it, we have to take the heat for that,” says Aguilera. “And the first people targeted, the most vulnerable, are Muslim women.”

At the same time, however, many advocates have been frustrated by recent fabrications. In November, police discovered a student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette lied about having her hijab ripped off. And in New York, a young woman who lied to police and the media, alleging that two white Trump supporters attacked her on the subway, was arrested and charged with filing a false report. In the young woman’s court appearance, she was uncovered, and her head had been shaved.

For Elmadhun, wearing hijab for most of her life was “a positive and powerful message, allowing me to recognize that I am not just what I appear to be, but I’m a human being who should be valued for who I am and what I have to offer.”

And though she does feel relieved in many ways, and feels safer with her son outside, “I’m also sad that I was driven to this,” she says. “I’m sad about what it means about our religious freedoms in general in our country, I’m sad that I had to give it up. I was kind of forced into this. It wasn’t really a choice.”

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the location of the Demureist website in Queens. It also has been changed to clarify who organized the self-defense class at which Aguilera spoke.]

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