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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

For the latest in our series The Hidden World of Girls, produced with the Kitchen Sisters, we go inside the world of the veil.

Throughout history, Islamic scholars have said that Muslim women must cover their hair. There are about one million Muslim women in America, and about half wear the hijab all or some of the time, according to the Pew Research Center. That means the other half don't.

That split between women who've covered and women who've never covered has existed for decades. But now, there's a generation of women who are taking off the hijab. NPR's Asma Khalid explores that emotional decision.

ASMA KHALID: I spoke with dozens of women who chose to wear head scarves, and then later decided to take it off.

LOUISE KELLY: I was nine years old when I started wearing hijab, and...

LOUISE KELLY: I became a focal point. I started fearing for my safety, and with that...

LOUISE KELLY: I got to a point when I was like I'm going to stop doing stuff that I don't understand why I'm doing it.

LOUISE KELLY: ...and I took it off on October 1st, 2007. That was...

LOUISE KELLY: I felt at some point that I wanted to see what life was like without it.

KHALID: Sabra Jafarzadeh, Samia Naseem, Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, Rifk Ebeid and Noorain Khan all took off their hijabs.

So did Rasmieyh Abdelnabi. She grew up going to an Islamic school in Illinois. As Abdelnabi rolls into the parking lot of the local mosque, she bumps into a familiar face.

LOUISE KELLY: Hi, baby.

LOUISE KELLY: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISE KELLY: Hi.

KHALID: Everybody knows everybody here. This is Bridgeview, Illinois, a tiny Arab enclave on the southwest side of Chicago. It's a place where most Muslim women wear hijab.

Abdelnabi wore one for 14 years. Now she has sideswept bangs, the kind that hide part of her face. She's quiet, reflective and sometimes shy.

LOUISE KELLY: I'm the kind of person who likes to walk into a room and be unnoticed. When you wear hijab and you walk into a room, everyone stares at you.

KHALID: People make assumptions about you, she says. They think of all Muslims as a homogeneous bloc.

LOUISE KELLY: When you put the scarf on, you have to understand that you are representing a community. And that is huge. That's a huge responsibility.

KHALID: It's a responsibility she never wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: Abdelnabi takes me to her favorite restaurant. In between bites of falafel, she explains why she stopped wearing hijab.

LOUISE KELLY: I've done my research, and I don't feel its foundation is from Islam. I think it comes from Arab culture.

KHALID: She says Islam teaches modesty, but wearing the hijab is taking it a step too far.

LOUISE KELLY: And when I say something like that, it's like, how dare you question God's will? How dare you? I sometimes feel like talking about hijab is like talking about abortion in mid-America.

KHALID: A couple minutes' drive down the road, I meet Leen Jaber at her parent's house. Jaber also took off the hijab. But for her, that decision wasn't so permanent.

LOUISE KELLY: I started wearing hijab at the age of 14. I think at that time...

KHALID: Jaber wore the scarf for 12 years. But some days, she says it felt mechanical. And as her marriage started to fall apart, she took it off.

LOUISE KELLY: I was going through a lot of difficult things. Perhaps I thought taking it off would just be one less thing to worry about. You know, I never took it off saying, like, it was the right decision. I just took it off because I wanted to do it. I wanted to see if my life would be different, if I would feel any better about the problems I was going through.

KHALID: But Jaber's problems didn't go away. In fact, she says they got worse. She lost her job, got divorced and moved in with her parents. That got her thinking more about God and spirituality. One year and eight months later, Jaber put the scarf back on.

LOUISE KELLY: It was a very different process than I'd gone through when I was 14. When I was 14, it was like, well, everybody's wearing it...

KHALID: Jaber is outgoing and chatty. She writes poetry, blogs, and dreams of the day she'll be on "American Idol."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST")

LOUISE KELLY: (Singing) I would have given you all of my heart...

KHALID: Jaber says it's easy for some women to feel like the scarf strips them of their individuality and turns them into some sort of spokeswoman for the faith. But that's why this time around, Jaber is making sure other parts of her personality, like singing, shine through the scarf.

LOUISE KELLY: How has this discussion changed since 9-11? Well, many women said the terrorist attacks initially strengthened their desire to wear hijab. They, in fact, wanted to represent a positive counter-image to al-Qaida.

But in the years that followed, that fervor waned as anti-Muslim zeal grew. The scarf became a heavy burden to carry, one that affected the way strangers perceived them, the way colleagues treated them, and even the way fellow Muslims expected them to behave.

But for others, the decision simply came down to a choice, as they grew older.

Nadia Shoeb's family is from India. Her mother never wore a hijab. Her grandmother never wore a hijab, either. But Shoeb put one on when she was 17.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER)

KHALID: Shoeb reads from an old journal.

LOUISE KELLY: (Reading) Never could I have imagined when I put it on that five years later, on a day just as random as the day I put it on, I would take it off.

KHALID: She remembers that day clearly, even now, eight years later.

LOUISE KELLY: That feeling is like: I am going out without a shirt on, that sense of feeling exposed. And so I remember I had really long hair, and I actually tucked it into my sweater, because I was feeling so embarrassed that, oh, my God. I'm showing my hair. Am I being immodest somehow? Even though I looked like every girl on the street. You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KHALID: Her decision was as much about religion as it was about her evolving feminine and American identities. Shoeb spent her childhood wearing shorts in Saudi Arabia. It was only when she came to the U.S. as a teenager that she started wearing the hijab. She decided to cover - and eventually uncover - here in the States. And she doesn't think that's surprising.

LOUISE KELLY: The religious landscape of America is one in which it's a very deeply religious nation, but at the same time it's so fluid. You know, people are born into one faith, and then they might still be Christian, but become of a different church. And part of this phenomenon of veiling and then taking off the veil, and then re-veiling, and - it's situated within that context. And we might think that this is something particular to Muslim-Americans, when, in fact, that's the story of our religious landscape in America.

KHALID: For Shoeb, it's that fluid religious experience of unveiling and re-veiling that makes American Islam distinctly American.

Shoeb has no intention of putting the scarf back on for now, but she says she wouldn't be the person she is today if she had never worn it in the first place.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISE KELLY: You'll find photos and extended interviews at our website: npr.org.

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