Muslim women uncover myths about the hijab


August 12, 2009

John Blake, CNN

Rowaida Abdelaziz says wearing the hijab sometimes interferes with usual U.S. teenager activities, but that it's worth it to her faith

(CNN) — Rowaida Abdelaziz doesn’t want your pity.  She doesn’t want your frosty public stares; the whispers behind her back; the lament that she’s been degraded by her father.

What the Muslim high school senior wants you to understand is that she doesn’t wear the hijab, the head scarf worn by Muslim women, because she is submissive.

“It represents beauty to me,” says Abdelaziz, the 17-year-old daughter of two Egyptian parents living in Old Bridge, New Jersey.

“My mom says a girl is like a jewel,” Abdelaziz says. “When you have something precious, you usually hide it. You want to make sure you keep it safe until that treasure is ready to be found.”

The nation has heard plenty of debate over racial profiling. But there’s a form of religious profiling that some young Muslim women in America say they endure whenever they voluntarily wear the hijab.

The hijab, also known as the veil, is the headscarf worn by Muslim women around the globe. It’s a simple piece of cloth, but it can place young Muslim women in Western countries in difficult situations.

Some hijab-wearers say that strangers treat them as if they’re terrorists. Others ask them if they’re a nun — or even allergic to the sun. In some cases, their worst critics are not Americans, but fellow Muslim Americans.

The pressure on Muslim teenagers in the U.S. who wear the hijab may be even more acute. Their challenge: How do I fit in when I wear something that makes me stand out?

Randa Abdel-Fattah, who has written two novels about this question, says wearing the hijab can “exhaust” some young Muslim women in the West.

“You can sometimes feel like you’re in a zoo: locked in the cage of other people’s stereotypes, prejudices and judgments, on parade to be analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed,” says Abdel-Fattah, a Muslim who has Palestinian and Egyptian parents but was born in Australia.

Abdel-Fattah says people should not assume that Muslim women who wear the hijab are being controlled by men. She, too, struggled with the choice of wearing a hijab when she was a teenager.

“When it comes to the hijab — why to wear it, whether to wear it, how to wear it — there is theology and then there is practice and there is huge diversity in both,” says Abdel-Fattah, author of “Does My Head Look Big in This?”

The surprising history behind the hijab

Some women say the hijab makes them feel like they’re locked in a cage. But others say it leads to personal freedom.

Sarah Hekmati first wore the hijab at age 15 growing up in Detroit, Michigan. She is the daughter of Iranian parents who left Iran in 1979 during the Islamic revolution.

Hekmati says the hijab liberated her from some teenage angst: Does my hair look good? Am I cute enough? Should I lose weight?

“It gave me a sense of identity,” she says. “I really liked the purpose behind the hijab — a woman covering herself so that a man should know her for her mind, not her body.”

That purpose can be traced back to the Quran, Islam’s holy text, which encourages women to dress modestly, says Faegheh Shirazi, author of “The Veil Unveiled.”

Some Muslims take the Quran’s advice as a command for women to wear the hijab, while others disagree, she says.

“The Quran is very ambiguous about whether you have to wear the veil or not,” Shirazi says.

The hijab, however, actually predates Islam, Shirazi explains. The first known reference to veiling (Shirazi uses the term hijab and veil interchangeably) was made in an Assyrian legal text in the 13th century B.C., Shirazi says.

In the Assyrian, and later, the Roman and Byzantine empires, the veil was a symbol of prestige and status, she says. By the 12th century, the veil had been imposed on women in the Muslim world to exclude them from public life, Shirazi says.

“A sign of distinction had been transformed into a sign of exclusion,” she writes in her book.

People are still debating the meaning of the hijab today.

In 2007, British Muslim groups protested when schools were given the right to ban students from wearing full-face veils. In 2008, Turkey’s top court upheld a ban on wearing Muslim headscarves at the country’s universities. That same year, a Muslim woman was briefly jailed at a suburban Atlanta, Georgia, courthouse after refusing to remove her hijab in court.

Some moms against hijab wearing

The debate over the hijab can literally hit home for some young Muslim women. Those that wear the hijab in the United States can befuddle their mothers, who often immigrated to the West so they could be free from wearing the hijab and other rules imposed on women.

That’s what happened to Hekmati, the Muslim-American from Detroit. Her mother, Behnaz, was puzzled by her daughter’s decision to wear the hijab. Behnaz Hekmati grew up in Iran, where she did not wear the hijab. Young women who attended college in Iran like she did generally didn’t wear the hijab, she says.

Behnaz Hekmati warned her daughter that wearing the hijab would arouse the suspicion of Americans.

“I said Sarah, when you cover your head here the people think you are political — they see you differently,” Behnaz Hekmati says.

Most of the trouble, though, came from Iranian-Americans, who came to the United States to escape the Islamic fundamentalists who seized power in 1979, she says.

“The Iranians here bother her more than Americans,” Behnaz Hekmati says. “They say, ‘We got rid of you guys. We came here because we didn’t want to see you guys anymore.'”

Hekmati says she voluntarily wears the head scarf and it helped liberate her from some teenage angst: Does my hair look good? Am I cute enough? Should I lose weight?

Hekmati says she voluntarily wears the head scarf and it helped liberate her from some teenage angst: Does my hair look good? Am I cute enough? Should I lose weight?

 Hekmati was more concerned as a teenager about more personal issues, like her relations with boys. The hijab made it more difficult, she says. Few asked her on dates. Guys always seemed to put her in the “friend category.” She wondered if she was attractive.

“I wondered at times: Am I always going to be a guy’s friend and nothing more.”

Strangers in public saw her as something else — a subjugated woman.

They looked at her with pity, she says. Some were just baffled.

“One guy asked me if I was allergic to the sun,” Hekmati says.
Abdelaziz, the New Jersey high school senior, also had her tense public encounters: angry looks, people feeling sorry for her or assuming her father ordered her to wear the hijab.

“It’s not oppression; it’s not that I’m accepting degradation — it’s about self-respect,” she says.

But it’s more about faith as well. She says the hijab affirms “Islam in the most respectful and purified way.”

“When you actually wear it, it opens your eyes,” she says. “It makes you want to explore your religious faith.”

At times, Abdelaziz says she wonders what it would be like to attend her prom, get a tan at the beach and have a boyfriend.

But she says her decision to honor her faith is already paying off.

“It really feels good,” she says. “It felt like I was missing something and now I’m complete. I finally understand my purpose.”


Georgia Courts Change Hijab Policy

Gary Franklin

ATLANTA (AP) — The Justice Department has ended its review of how Georgia courts handle the wearing of religious head coverings after court officials changed their policy.

The Judicial Council of Georgia voted in July to allow religious
and medical headgear into Georgia courtrooms after last year’s
arrest of a Muslim woman who refused to remove her headscarf in a Douglasville courthouse.

Merrily Friedlander of the Justice Department’s civil rights
division sent a letter this week saying that the new policy
“resolves the issues.”

The department began investigating Georgia courts in January
after allegations of discrimination involving Muslim women and

One involved the December 2008 arrest of Lisa Valentine, who was ordered to serve 10 days in jail for contempt of court after she refused to remove her hijab. She was released in less than a day.

Associated Press

Michigan judge sued over removal of hijab in court!

2009-08-28 ( – General Litigation, Justice News Flash)

Legal news for Michigan general litigation attorneys. Muslim woman sues Michigan judge and Wayne County for insisting she removed her hijab.

Michigan lawyers alert- Muslim woman sues Michigan Judge after being asked to remove hijab.

Detroit, MI—a Muslim woman and the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a lawsuit against the 3rd Circuit Court of Michigan Judge, William Callahan, and Wayne County on Wednesday, August 26, 2009. The lawsuit alleges the judge ordered the Muslim woman, who is a naturalized citizen, to remove her hijab, or religious head covering during a court hearing on June 16, as reported by CNN.

The plaintiff Raneen Albaghdady, an Iraq native, claims while petitioning for a name change in June, Callahan asked Albaghdady to take off her hijab during the court proceedings. The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court of Michigan, alleges Callahan denied her request for a name change, and citied technical reasons for the ruling. The Michigan CAIR released a 30-second video on YouTube of the June court proceedings where you can hear the judge saying, “The head piece? No hats allowed in the courtroom.” Judge Callahan and the 3rd Circuit Court released a statement, which said the YouTube video is “missing critical footage”, like Albaghdady’s reply to the judge’s instructions in which she said, “Okay, it doesn’t matter, and removed her hijab without protest or explanation of its religious significance.” Albaghdady further alleges she feared she would be arrested if she didn’t follow the judge’s orders, because in her country you don’t say “no” to a judge in a courtroom.

In the written statement release by Callahan and the 3rd Circuit Court, they also stated, “Judge Callahan and the court have the greatest respect for spiritual practices and all religious preferences. Had he been informed that the head covering had some religious significance, the judge would have permitted Ms. Albaghdady to continue wearing in court.” The lawsuit is asking the practice of “forcing Muslim women to remove their hijab as a precondition to appearing in court” to be deemed unconstitutional and illegal. In addition, the lawsuit asks the judge and Wayne County required to not implement “similar unconstitutional actions.”

Legal News Reporter: Nicole Howley-Legal news for general litigation lawyers located in Michigan

It’s not a hat, Judge; it’s a hijab


August 27, 2009

The Honorable Judge William Callahan
Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan
County of Wayne, Family Division

Dear Sir:

I am writing on behalf of Muslim women in America concerning your requirement that Raneen Albaghdady remove her hijab on June 16 before you would hear her case. If you recall, you told her “no hats allowed in the courtroom.”

I suspect that you are familiar with the incident in question as Raneen Albaghdady and CAIR-MI reportedly filed suit against you and Wayne County yesterday in federal court, alleging violations of the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, and 42 U.S.C. §1983.

According to the complaint, Wayne County has “the highest population of Arabs outside of the Middle East, and one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States.”

Perhaps, you were not aware of these statistics at the time. But it seems that with such a large Muslim population in your area, you likely have seen many Muslim women wearing headscarves. It also is a reasonable assumption that you knew or suspected that they did so for religious reasons.

Additionally, I assume a learned man like you is aware of President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4. It was widely reported and the video and transcript are available on the official White House website. Among his many remarks intended to promote interfaith cooperation and understanding, President Obama stated:

Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That’s why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it. (emphasis supplied)

With this and other recent media coverage of Islamic head coverings, your statement –“no hats allowed in the courtroom”–is somewhat baffling. But in the event that you truly did or do not know the difference, I would like to state now: It’s not a hat, Judge; it’s a hijab!

A hijab is a popular name for the headscarf that a Muslim woman wears to cover her hair and neck. Many Muslim women do not consider a hijab optional attire, nor do they wear it as adornment. Imagine if you were told to undress before you could present your case to a judge. That is exactly what you asked Raneen Albaghdady to do on June 16.

Your action sets a dangerous precedent. Recently, the Michigan Supreme Court approved by a 5-2 decision an amendment to Rule 611 of the Michigan Rules of Evidence. The amendment states:

(b) Appearance of Parties and Witnesses. The court shall exercise reasonable control over the appearance of parties and witnesses so as to (1) ensure that the demeanor of such persons may be observed and assessed by the fact-finder, and (2) to ensure the accurate identification of such persons.”

As you undoubtedly are aware, the amendment was proposed in response to a case where another Muslim woman refused to remove her niqab in court and that judge dismissed her case. A niqab is different than a hijab as it covers the hair, neck and face, leaving only the eyes exposed. The judge there claimed that he needed to see the woman’s face to assess her credibility.

Concerned that many Muslim women would be denied their day in court and with other potentially devastating consequences, the ACLU of Michigan submitted a comment to the proposed amendment. The comment largely addressed the ability to assess credibility without seeing a person’s face.

By stark contrast, Raneen Albaghdady’s face was visible to you. You could observe her demeanor and assess her credibility. There was no question of a false identification.

Quite simply, you did not exhibit “reasonable control over the appearance” of a party in your courtroom. In fact, demanding that she remove her hijab was unreasonable and violates the spirit of related Rule 611(a), which states that the court should protect witnesses from “undue embarrassment”.

Now that the difference between a hat and a hijab has been clarified and that your demand on June 16 cannot be justified under Rule 611(b), the honorable course of action would be to send a letter of apology to Raneen Albaghdady for the unfortunate misunderstanding and never again require a woman to undress in your courtroom.

Such a conciliatory gesture would set a shining example for other Michigan judges who may confuse a hat with religiously-mandated attire.


J. Samia Mair
Baltimore Muslim Examiner

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