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The Many Meanings of Hijab

Young Salt Lake City refugees in their colorful hijabs

Young Salt Lake City refugees in their colorful hijabs

When asked why she wears hijab, Baidaa is quick to answer. “I wear it because I like to.” The twenty-something woman smiles as she demonstrates how to wrap her hijab. She first puts her hair up into a bun, pulls what looks like a tube hat over her hair, then drapes her scarf around her head and pins it so it flows gracefully around her face and neck. She exudes beauty and confidence as she turns her head from side to side, the scarf falling lightly on her shoulders. Baidaa, her mother Iman, and her aunt Wafaa — Iraqi refugees living in Salt Lake — wear hijab, but for different reasons.

Iman began wearing hijab when her family fled to Jordan. “I didn’t wear it before (we left Iraq),” explains Iman. “But we lived outside the city when we came to Jordan. Many of the women were farmers, and they wore hijab for (mostly) cultural reasons. Since it was part of my religion, I decided I would wear it, too.” Hijab is the Arabic word for “cover”. It’s often used generically to describe a range of headscarves or cloaks worn by Muslim women to show their devotion to God or support their cultural identity. While the Quran instructs both men and women to dress modestly, women are specifically encouraged to cover their bodies in a manner that protects their modesty and prevents harassment. Muslims in different countries interpret these instructions differently, which is why you may see Muslim women wearing everything from hijabs that only cover the head and neck to burquas that cover all but a fine mesh across the eyes. Most girls begin to wear hijab when they reach puberty, but Baidaa waited until she was 22. “At my school in Jordan, many of the girls wore hijab and asked me why I didn’t,” Baidaa says. “These same girls would take off their hijabs and go to the mall in dresses that showed their bodies. I didn’t want to be associated with girls like that. They would shame me for not wearing hijab, then behave like that.” When Baidaa chose — and she is very clear that it was a choice — to wear hijab, it was to show her respect for God and her religion. She and her aunts agreed that women shouldn’t be forced to wear hijab, that they should choose to wear it.“ The Quran doesn’t specifically say that women have to wear hijab,” explains Samira Harnish, executive director of Women of the World. “I am a good Muslim woman, and I chose to not wear hijab. Of course, all women, Muslim or not, must cover their heads when they are in shrines out of respect. But I believe I can be a good Muslim whether or not I wear hijab.”

While some countries such as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan require Muslim women to wear black chadors or burquas that cover most, if not all, of their bodies, other countries offer Muslim women more choices. One look at the hijabs available in online stores makes it clear that they don’t have to be plain OR boring. All three women laughed as they described “Dubai style” hijabs, covered in glittering beads and oversized jewels on turban-like headwraps. But the talk turned serious when the women began discussing the harassment that can happen to women who choose to wear hijab in the U.S. After enduring unspeakable hardships to escape the war and destruction in their native land, some female refugees find unexpected comfort in veiling. Beyond the religious significance, hijab can offer a feeling of privacy and a sense of identity.

Unfortunately, in these charged times, it can also draw unwanted attention or even hostility. “The people I work with will come up to me and tell me how beautiful I look in my hijab,” says Baidaa. “But I have a friend who works as a cashier who had a customer say, “I don’t want to go to you because you wear hijab, I will wait for another cashier.” There are other stories: a Somali woman who was spat on for wearing hijab, two Syrian children whose elementary-school teacher yanked off their headscarves and told them not to return until they could come without their veils. Are Baidaa, Iman, and Wafaa afraid to wear hijab, knowing this? “We don’t go out much,” says Iman. But Wafaa adds, “I am not worried because God will save me. I won’t stop wearing hijab.” Fear can blind people into thinking that a simple headscarf symbolizes violence. Iman hopes that people will move past that fear and understand that refugees aren’t here to cause trouble, they are simply trying to live their lives the best they can. “I wish everything is going to be peace and happiness and for people to love people. Bad things happened in our country. We started from zero here, and we have come here to build our future.” “We wish the country, like the day we enter America, will be peaceful and secure.”

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