A rite of passage

BY DAVE MEKELBURG
Daily News Editor
Published October 22, 2007

When LSA sophomore Iman Sediqe stopped at a rural Wisconsin gas station during a family road trip, the two people working the counter openly stared at and talked about her as if she wasn't standing there. They talked about the headscarf, or hijab, that she wears as part of her Muslim faith.

Some Muslim women begin covering their hair and much of their body when they reach maturity. When exactly that is, however, is up to interpretation. For some, this means reaching puberty. For others, it means waiting until they're finally comfortable making a decision that may make them stand out.

What might be a much easier decision in a predominantly Muslim area or country is a much larger undertaking in Ann Arbor.

Yet, in Ann Arbor, while Sediqe says she might get the occasional lengthy glance, the University population is much more accepting of her choice to wear something that openly declares her a Muslim than many other parts of the country or the world.

"People are so much more excited when they see diversity," she said.

Sediqe has been wearing a headscarf since she was 11 years old. Growing up in Sylvania, Ohio, outside Toledo, she was the only Muslim girl in her junior high and high schools. Coming to the University was refreshing and surprising.

"I was never really used to having that many Muslims around me all the time," she said.

Because she's been wearing a headscarf for so long, she said she doesn't always notice, but it's something that makes her feel like a much bigger part of her community.

"It's something that - you know - when I'm walking outside and down the street or whatever, it kind of forces me to become more conscious of the fact that I'm a Muslim," Sediqe said.

LSA sophomore Raya Abu-Zahra didn't start wearing a headscarf until just a week and a half before this school year. She said she was worried her friends from her first year at school wouldn't recognize her.

"I thought I looked a lot different, but apparently I look the same to everyone," she said.

For Abu-Zahra, reaching the point at which she was comfortable wearing her headscarf meant spending a year getting to know herself and other cultures at the University. After that, she was ready to take the next step in her relationship with her faith.

She said she was a little nervous about wearing it out on her first day, but her friends were there to support her and took her to see "Superbad."

Michael Bonner, a professor of medieval Islamic history in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, said wearing hijab is as old as Islam itself. In the distant past, headscarves were an unquestioned way of life - no different than someone living in a house or eating food. This is not the case today.

"In our society, it's different," he said. "There's a choice. Or it's forced on them, according to some."

Some feel that headscarves are a form of oppression, placed on women as a method of control, he said.

Both Abu-Zahra and Sediqe said that notion is preposterous.

When Sediqe started wearing her headscarf at 11, she had to spend months convincing her mother she was mature enough, she said. It took her grandmother's intervention - and a lot of begging - for her mother to allow her to begin wearing a headscarf.

Abu-Zahra said wearing a headscarf is a decision that she made almost entirely on her own.

"This is for your religion; this is for yourself; this is not for anyone else," she said.

For her, wearing a hijab is a symbol of strength and individuality that keeps women from being objectified, she said.

"Don't try being the girl that every guy likes - be the girl that guys call strong and open-minded, not beautiful," she said.

She said she doesn't receive the stares from men in public that she used to.

Although it's a relatively uncontroversial issue at the University, wearing headscarves has come under fire in many other places, Bonner said.

"For France especially, and in Europe, there's a lot of controversy around it," he said.

In America, however, "if people decide to wear the veil, people don't usually get a lot of grief for it."

Abu-Zahra said her mother encountered a similar ban while in Myrtle Beach, S.C. She said her mother was in a mosque when a member of the mosque's congregation approached her and told her how lucky she was she hadn't been caught by the police and forced to remove her headscarf.

Abu-Zahra said that being Muslim - and especially Palestinian - occasionally makes her life difficult. She said that the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks was "probably the worst time for me."

"I felt targeted a lot, especially by my teachers, which was strange," she said.

Aside from a few extended stares on the street, she said she has never encountered anything similar at the University. She said that's the way she likes it - she doesn't want to be stereotyped by her decision to wear a headscarf.

"I'm Raya," she said. "I'm not the girl who wears a scarf in class."