Hijabi women seek to show the person behind the veil

New York – Silky and colorful, warm and cozy. No, it’s not a blanket. It’s a hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women to conceal their hair and neck. Yet what is behind the headscarf is what these women truly want to show the world. Muslim “scarfies” want to be seen as strong, educated, and independent women.

“Wearing it has just become part of a routine, part of my outfit,” said Pakistani Afira Suri, 27. “It’s not something I even think about anymore. It feels natural and part of who I am. It’s my image. Some people dress preppy, some people dress thug, some dress Goth. I dress hijabi.”

The women want to clarify that it is their personal decision to wear the headscarf, and that the hijab itself does not represent submissiveness or oppression. As an increasing number of young women choose to wear a hijab, many Islamic associations on college campuses are raising awareness about the headscarves to eliminate misconceptions.

The Muslim Student Association (MSA) at Hunter College in Manhattan held an event on Oct. 1 called “The Veil Unveiled.” A guest speaker addressed the wisdom behind Islamic Laws and the important status of women in hijab within the Muslim community.

According to the Quran, women should be modest in their actions as well as their attire. “Say to the believing women,” the Quran dictates, “that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers… And O you Believers turn you all together towards Allah, that you may attain Bliss.”

Soumia Elghouass, 19, Vice President of the MSA at Hunter College, wears the hijab. “In fact, I have been wearing it since the age of five, and it was all by choice,” Elghouass said. “Many people these days go by listening to the media, which tells them Muslim women are oppressed and forced into wearing the veil. However, in reality that is not true; it’s only a negative stereotype.”

Elghouass’ parents did not force her into wearing the veil, yet they did play a major role in explaining to her why Allah recommends the practice. They gave her a religious education, and because of her understanding of Allah and the Quran, she chose to accept the veil.

Additional universities also hold events celebrating the hijab, striving to shed light on the issues surrounding Muslim women in headscarves. Last year The Islamic Center (IC) at New York University hosted an event entitled “Hijabi Monologues.” The event allowed women who wear the hijab to tell their stories and experiences, said Asad Baig, President of The Islamic Center (IC) at New York University.

“One important thing to note is that while we celebrate, admire, and applaud those who choose to wear hijab, we do not belittle those who do not,” said Baig. “With the same token, we don’t automatically assume that women who wear hijab are more religious than those who do not.”

Just as Elghouass is struggling to eliminate stereotypes about the hijab, other women affirm that many perceive them as oppressed, with absolutely no free will to choose whether to wear the veil or not. This is not the case.

“I am the youngest one in my family,” said Suri. “No one wears it [the headscarf] in my family except my mom, who just covers up. One day I just felt like wearing it. The main stereotype is about being oppressed. Even when I was younger, I saw it just the opposite.”

Suri also independently chose to wear the headscarf when she was 13 years old, because she wanted to form her own identity. “I am a very indecisive person, but when it came to that [the veil], I was very decisive,” said Suri. “It gave me a sense of strength. I took the first step to being someone different.”

Even though some are intolerant of such differences, others greatly appreciate it. “I have a great amount of respect for women who choose to wear the hijab,” said Baig. “It is pretty much putting yourself out there. It’s like wearing your faith on your sleeves. It is encouraging and uplifting, especially in the city where it’s always about the sexy chick. It’s nice to see a girl in a hijab.”

The hijab is more than just a cover up. It is a code of conduct in relationships and friendships. “It means that I demand respect,” said Suri. “And the attention that I get is based on me and not on how I look.”

These young women want to be seen for their personalities, and show that they are as “normal” as everyone else. They want to demonstrate that they are neither oppressed nor submissive. Moreover, they want to be seen exactly as they are underneath the veil.

“I want them not to see my headscarf, “said Turkish-American Fatma Altintas, 23. “ I want them to see my brain. I am smart.” Altintas is working towards a master’s degree in Theology, and feels that some people cannot see who she truly is beyond the hijab. Altintas feels that people look at her differently, and fail to notice that she is smart and educated.

In the meantime, young women in New York who are proudly wearing the headscarf will continue to fight the stereotypes. “I snowboard and rock climb,” said Suri. “You’re not the ‘typical hijabi,’ people tell me.” The diverse community of hijabi women would argue that is exactly what she is.

Photo Caption: Afira Suri, a Pakistani woman, at a Muslim-Egyptian wedding wearing the headscarf paired with a modern dress.