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In praise of the veil

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    In praise of the veil

    By Barbara Brotman
    Tribune staff reporter

    December 19, 2001

    It is a lightning rod for both devotion and hostility. Banned in
    government offices in secular Turkey, mandated in its most severe
    form by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Muslim head covering for
    women has been used as a weapon in battles for and against modernity.

    The head scarf is part of observing hijab, the Muslim practice of
    The word comes from the Arabic for hiding or concealing, and, for
    women, also encompasses covering the body completely with loose
    clothing. The head covering itself usually drapes around the neck and
    covers the bosom too.

    Hijab is also a state of mind, its practitioners say, a public
    modesty that requires both men and women to lower their gaze if
    confronted by an inappropriate sight.

    Women who wear the head scarf say the Koran requires it whenever they
    are in public or around men who are not in their family. But there
    are Muslim women who believe the Koran does not require it and do not
    wear it, including Queen Rania of Jordan. There are Muslim women who
    find the covering deeply upsetting.

    "We have an almost physical aversion to the hijab," says an Arab
    feminist in the Canadian documentary "Under One Sky: Arab Women in
    North America Talk About the Hijab," shown recently at the University
    of Chicago Oriental Institute Museum. Other women in the film
    defended the head scarf as a religious requirement, an statement of
    cultural identity, or a symbol of defiance of Western imperialism.

    These Chicago-area women choose to wear the head scarf, and here
    explain why.

    Toni Khatib

    Khatib, 38, of the western suburbs, designed and maintains the Web
    site for the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park. Khatib, who is of
    mixed African-American and white parentage, was raised Muslim on the
    South Side, attending a mosque where she sat behind Muhammad Ali's
    family. A former information technology network manager, she is now
    at home; she and her husband, born in Syria, have three children.

    "I've been wearing the hijab three years now. For me, it's been very
    liberating. To tell you the truth, it allows you to be a person, and
    not just a woman/thing to be looked at. People listen to you. I used
    to be very heavy. ... When I lost the weight again, I noticed those
    looks and things, where ... someone is talking to you, but they're
    looking at your chest. With the hijab, I notice it's gone away.

    "My son was born premature in 1992, at one pound three ounces, after
    I had three miscarriages.. I was told he wouldn't live, and if he
    did, there was a 95 percent chance of cerebral palsy or being deaf,
    dumb and blind.

    "One night I called [the hospital]. They said, `Oh, my goodness, both
    his lungs have collapsed.' He was 2 or 3 months old. I ran and took a
    shower and prayed. Don't think I'm crazy, but I got the warmest
    feeling of peace, as if God hugged me. . . . I have constantly been
    very spiritual because of that.

    "He is healthy [now]; he has no problems. . . . I just really got
    closer to God."

    Salma Vhora

    Vhora, 21, moved to the U.S. from her native India six years ago. Now
    a U.S. citizen, she is a fourth-year student at the University of
    Illinois at Chicago majoring in math education, and lives with her
    family in Park Ridge.

    "I wear niqaab. This is a cover or veil with a hole in it for the
    eyes. . . . Covering your hair is an obligation, but covering your
    face is optional; it's an individual choice. . . . We have to wear a
    scarf properly in order to wear niqaab. If you wear it too tight,
    it's hard for you to breathe.

    "I prefer to do niqaab in front of strange men to avoid any mischief,
    when there is fear of temptation. I think it's obligatory to cover
    all of a woman's beauty and adornment and not to display any part of
    that before strangers except for what appears unintentionally, in
    which case there will be no sin on them if they hasten to cover it

    "It's so common-sense for me. If a stranger comes to me, he would
    have to look at my face first, then make a decision whether I am
    ugly, pretty or whether he is interested in me, by judging my face,
    how I look. I think that's not right. Outer beauty is not as
    important as your good deeds and your actions.

    "I covered my hair when I was 15, when I came from India. But I
    started wearing niqaab last year. I had been approached by so many
    men, strange men. I see more men than women in my math classes. They
    would always come up to me, try to give me high-fives, try to give me
    a hug. They acted like I should be in that group, doing what the guy
    should be doing. I didn't feel comfortable doing that.

    "When I started doing the niqaab, I announced in every single class,
    `This is the reason I am doing this.' They were very, very
    understanding, very supportive, very proud of me."

    Uzma Hussain

    Hussain, 20, lives in Darien, where she grew up with her parents, who
    were born in India. She is a student at the University of Illinois at

    "It's sort of a personal thing. You don't tell anyone you're going to
    do it; you just feel it. I started in my freshman year of high
    school, when I was 14. I didn't tell anyone I was going to do it; I
    just did it one day.

    "I brought the hijab with me every day for a week. It was, like,
    every day, `I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it.' Then on Friday,
    I did it. I put it on during school. I just stood by my locker. We
    had gone to get our lunches. Everyone was gone. And I just did it.

    "And then I went to lunch. And people--I don't know, they were
    confused. They didn't really know what to say. My sister was
    completely shocked. And my mom was really shocked, too. She was a
    little concerned that I started too early, but it's not her choice;
    it's not anyone's choice. It's something you have to do.

    "I can be who I am, and not worry about being judged. It's sort of
    like protection. And it's a lot of responsibility. When you go out in
    public, people will recognize, `This is a Muslim.' Everything you do
    will be noticed.

    "I don't sit in a corner and be, `Oh, I cover my hair, I can't
    participate.' I was captain of the varsity badminton team in high
    school; we won the state championship. And I covered my hair. That,
    to me, is really cool.

    "Sometimes you feel like you missed out on [dressing up] a little
    bit. My mom sometimes says she wants her daughters to dress up and
    whatnot. But I'm happier that I'm covered now. . . . I've had good

    Nada Rifai

    Rifai, 24, of the North Side, was born in Syria and lived there with
    her family until a year ago. She began covering her head when she was
    20. She works as an office clerk at the Institute of Islamic
    Information and Education, a North Side organization that
    disseminates information about Islam throughout North America.

    "I don't come from a really religious family. Even my mother doesn't

    "But the more I grew up, I thought of it more and more. The more you
    know you have this contact with God, the more you get emotional with
    God, you want to do something for God. I had this vision that I, 100
    percent, want to do it. I was the first to do it. Two years later, my
    sister did.

    "It was a little bit hard; it changed some things in my lifestyle.
    We're an open family. We go to clubs, we have dinners where you
    dance, we go to swimming pools. I don't go anymore to clubs. I don't
    swim anymore. But it didn't change my relationships with people
    around me.

    "My father was so happy. But my mother--it's not her way or
    lifestyle. She wanted me to take it off, especially in summer. Every
    weekend or every three or four days, we would go somewhere to eat and
    have parties. Even our wedding parties were mixed; we never had the
    wedding party where the men are one place and the women another. She
    wanted me to have all these things.

    "But when you think of it deeply and truly, you think that your life
    would be with your God more than your life on earth."

    Dina Ramadan

    Ramadan, 26, of Oak Park, grew up in Florida. Her parents are
    Egyptian; her mother designs women's dressy clothing, American style,
    and until recently owned a tony dress shop in Florida. Ramadan is
    married and has two children, 19 months and 2 months.

    "When I was growing up, I was not really the best Muslim; I was a
    little bit more involved with my friends and going out. But when I
    got to college, I started to read more in the Koran, and started to
    learn more about my religion and why it was a privilege to be a

    "I went to an Islamic convention in Atlanta. I was sitting in a
    seminar, and what one of the scholars said hit me: `We're not going
    to live forever.' On the car ride home I announced to my family that
    I was going to wear the hijab.

    "It was a little scary. Everyone [at Jacksonville University] knew
    me; it was a very small campus. A lot of my friends had no idea what
    it meant. I got asked whether I was in a cult. ... One of my
    professors asked me if I was ill.

    "I used to work at the mall, at a clothing store. I had a wardrobe
    full of Ann Taylor. I still wear nice clothes under loose outer
    clothes, the gilbab [a loose full-length coat]. But I don't really
    miss it. In fact, every time I put [the hijab] on, I'm in a way aware
    of what a great blessing it is to wear it. You just feel liberated.
    You feel like, `Why didn't I do this a long time ago? Why did I spend
    all those hours in front of a mirror when it's really not important?'

    "It is a physical reminder to myself that what you do is for the sake
    of God and Islam. It reminds you to pray on time; it reminds you to
    be kind to everybody.

    "It does get to be hot in the heat of summer. But as a Muslim, you
    know that everything you do for the sake of Allah, you get rewards
    for it. The more good you do in your life, the more chance you'll
    have of being in heaven.

    "I don't need men to tell me I'm pretty; I don't need that
    validation. I want to look nice for my husband, and that, for me, is
    more important than a million people telling me I'm beautiful."

    Mary Ali

    Ali, 62, is secretary and board member of the Institute of Islamic
    Information and Education; her husband is the institute's managing
    director. She grew up Protestant in Iowa, met her husband in
    graduate school and converted to Islam in her early 30s.

    "I've been wearing it [the head scarf] for 30 years. I've grown so
    accustomed to wearing it; when I don't wear it and I go outside, I
    feel naked.

    "I came into it very gradually. After I went to Islam, I didn't
    change the kind of clothing I was wearing at all. Then gradually, the
    dresses were longer-sleeved; the neckline went up; I put pants on
    under skirts. After a time, I started putting a scarf on. I think for
    an individual, it takes some acceptance of yourself, and courage to
    put it on and walk outside.

    "It felt strange in the beginning. It still feels hot. ... I forced
    myself to get used to it. For a while, everyone would ask me, `Why
    are you wearing that on your head?' Then I discovered it gave me an
    opportunity to talk about Islam.

    "Wearing it makes me feel like when people look at me, they're
    looking at me not for what my body looks like, but more for what I do
    and what I contribute."

    Dalia Hassaballa

    Hassaballa, 20, of Villa Park, the daughter of Egyptian parents, is
    in her last year studying elementary education at the University of
    Illinois at Chicago. She was married in June.

    "I grew up in Schaumburg. When I was 11, I went and lived overseas in
    Korea; my dad had business over there. So I started to put the hijab
    on when I was 11, because I knew I was starting a new life over
    there. For a lot of girls, it's very difficult. They put it on in the
    middle of the school year. All of a sudden, you'll lose friends, and
    you'll gain some friends.

    "It was a given. ... Once you get your period, you have to decide
    when to put your scarf on.

    "I do it because that's what God has ordained. . . . I also wear it
    as a form of modesty. ... And it protects us from sexual harassment.
    I saw a woman wearing a short skirt, and I saw these men just looking
    at her, talking and smiling, and I'm like, `They don't even respect
    women.' I'm thankful that in my religion, women are respected.

    "It really isn't uncomfortable [to wear the head scarf]. In olden
    times, people used to have umbrellas in the sun. I kind of look at it
    like that."

    Saba Ahmed

    Ahmed, 25, of Villa Park, was born in India. She has been in this
    country two years, and is a market research analyst.

    "According to Islam, a woman is a very precious gem. If you consider
    a diamond or a very precious gem, you wouldn't just keep it outside
    to be touched and seen by anybody and everybody. It is a very
    precious thing.

    "A husband, when he comes home, when he finds a thing that is hidden
    from society, he finds it is more attractive. A husband sees his wife
    and says, `Oh, God has given this beautiful person to me.' He finds
    satisfaction. And if there is satisfaction with the husband, the
    family is secure. And once the family is secure, the society is
    secure; and once the society is secure, the whole nation is secure.

    "Men are also not supposed to reveal themselves in public. They are
    supposed to lower their gaze if they see something they are not
    supposed to see.

    "There are girls who think, `Oh, we won't be so comfortable [wearing
    the hijab] because we are working with non-Muslims.' They don't tie
    it around their heads; they don't really bring it in front of their

    "That is not enough. Hijab means from head to toe you are covered,
    but your face, hands and feet could be open. And ... it should be
    loose; the shape of your body should not be revealed. That is the
    true veil. And if you have all the women covering their bosoms, then
    women won't run in the race of going for those silicone implants."

    Manal el-Hrisse

    El-Hrisse, 21, of Cicero, is general secretary of the Islamic
    Association for Palestine, in Palos Hills. A graduate of Dominican
    University who majored in political science and criminology, she
    lives in Cicero. She was born in the United Arab Emirates.

    "We're saying, `Take us for who we are, as people, as humans.' One
    day, I'm going to grow older; my skin is going to be all wrinkly; I'm
    not going to be as attractive as someone in her 20s. Does that mean
    people should start treating me differently? That I'm not worth

    "Funny, I never see anybody who is half-naked and say, `Oh, she's
    oppressed.' But I think she is oppressed. There is so much pressure
    on women to look good. We should have a contest and see how many
    women are willing to go out without makeup. And look at all these
    teenage girls in school saying, `Oh, my gosh, I have a pimple.'

    "I rebel against that. I say, `I'm going to be whoever I'm going to
    be. God made me this way. If you like it, you like it. Otherwise, too
    bad.' That's the freedom for me; it's freedom to choose. I don't want
    my society to pressure me.

    "People think the scarf is the image of oppression. But it's an image
    of liberation."

    The U.S. government appears to be investigating the relationship of
    the IAP, where El-Hrisse has worked for two months, with Islamic
    terrorist groups. The IAP, which promotes the Palestinian cause in
    Israel, denies any such links.

    A glossary of garments

    Hijab: From the Arab word meaning "to hide or conceal," hijab is the
    practice of women covering their heads, and often their bodies with
    loose clothing, when out in public. Hijab also commonly refers to the
    head scarf itself.

    Niqaab: A face veil that leaves only the eyes visible.

    Gilbab: An ankle-length coat worn in public, covering any style of
    clothing beneath it, worn in Jordan, Lebanon and by Palestinians.

    Abaya: A full-length black silk dress worn in Saudi Arabia, often
    with a matching head scarf.

    Chador: A head-to-toe cloak, which exposes the face, worn in Iran.

    Burqa: The head-to-toe covering with a mesh opening for the eyes that
    was mandated by the Taliban, and is worn by some in the Persian Gulf
    and by Bedouin women in Egypt.

    --Barbara Brotman

    "I put my trust in Allah, my Lord and your Lord! There is not a moving creature, but He has a grasp of its forelock. Verily, my Lord is on the straight path. (The truth)"