Every morning before walking out the door, Business junior Aisha Jukaku looks in the mirror, skillfully pinning her scarf to make sure her hair, ears and neck are carefully tucked away. Like millions of Muslim women across the world, Jukaku’s colorful scarf is part of her daily wardrobe.
Jukaku’s scarves, along with her long-sleeved shirts and long pants, are part of her hijab, — the Islamic dress code for women — which she wears in observance of the Islamic law of modesty. Her faith requires that she cover every part of her body except her feet, face and hands. There is also a separate law of modesty for men, although this law is not as noticeable because it only requires them to be covered from the navel to the knee, she said.
Nadine Naber, a professor of women’s studies and anthropology, said there has been a lot of discussion about hijab in western society, and images of women in hijab have been used to demonstrate the so-called backwardness of Muslim culture.
“ … We are constantly bombarded with images of the veil in the U.S. media as a sign of Muslim women’s oppression, covered from head to toe in long black garbs as if they were faceless and nameless.” she said.
Jukaku, who is the vice president of Muslim Students’ Association, voiced similar concerns, worrying that non-Muslims may “see a Muslim woman with a hijab on the street (and) think that some man in their life — be it their husband or their father — is controlling them and that they don’t have a mind of their own.”
In reality, many Muslim women in the United States make the very important decision for themselves. For LSA junior Lubna Grewal, the decision to wear hijab came in high school, after she decided to give Islam a more prominent role in her life. Grewal’s sister, who is 8 years older than she, does not wear hijab, and thus Grewal was the first woman in her family to observe the modesty laws. Despite this, she said, her family has always fully supported her.
“It was completely my decision,” she said. “My family didn’t know, but they supported me. I’ve never regretted it.”
For both Grewal and Jukaku, the decision to wear hijab is deeply rooted in their faith.
“I think that it’s my religious duty to wear it,” said Grewal, adding that the vast majority of interpretations of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, dictate that women wear hijab.
Jukaku agreed. “I want to follow what God has told me to do,” she said, adding that wearing hijab also has practical benefits, as her modesty allows her to be appreciated for her intelligence rather than her physical appearance.
Grewal said she feels wearing hijab is actually an empowerment.
“A lot of times women are judged first on how they look and then how they think,” she said, adding that hijab “makes me a person before it makes me an object.”
Like any religious practice, Grewal said wearing hijab is easy at times and hard at others. “Around Sept. 11 it was extremely difficult (to wear hijab) because there was so much negative association with Muslims and especially with women who wear hijab,” she said, adding that it is easier for people to discriminate against Muslim women than anyone else, because “the second they see me they know I’m Muslim.”
Scholars have voiced this opinion too, saying that anti-Muslim sentiments are a reality in the United States. The veil has become “a visible marker for Muslim identity,” said Naber. She went on to describe various ways hijab has been falsely linked to stereotypes of Muslim women. “People assume that women who wear the veil are foreign,” she said. “Women in my research have said that people are surprised they speak English without an accent.”
Another, perhaps more dangerous stereotype placed upon “women in the veil,” is that by wearing the veil and being Muslim, they are associated with terrorism. Since Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, Naber said women wearing hijab were “impacted by hate crimes and harassment on the street more than any other group of people,” adding that young Muslim girls reported being called “Sister of Saddam,” or “Daughter of Osama” in their classrooms.
This discrimination exists against women in the adult world as well. Grewal said she knew of a friend who was not hired for a teaching job in metro-Detroit because of her hijab. “Someone on the board (of education) didn’t want a Muslim teaching their children,” she said.
Jukaku said she had similar concerns when interviewing for business internships this past winter. “I was actually scared that I would be discriminated (against),” she said. “I have had numerous interviews, but I actually have an internship over the summer in conservative corporate America. I was actually very pleased by that,” she said, adding that it was encouraging to see some employers could look past her clothing and value her abilities. “At least the places I interviewed at, wearing hijab is not issue,” she said.
While wearing hijab may present some obstacles for Grewal and Jukaku, they still choose to make it a part of their live, and reject the falsehood that it is a decision made for them. “Its kind of disheartening that there is an image of Muslim women not being able to think for themselves,” Grewal said. “Why can’t I be the one making the decision, why does it have to be someone else?”