A Tale of Two U.S. Muslim Women: To Cover or Not? The wearing of headscarves by Muslim women has caused turmoil in Europe. In the U.S., too, it remains a difficult and intensely personal decision. In Dearborn, Mich., two women, both devout Muslims, have come to different conclusions about the wearing of hijab.
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A Tale of Two U.S. Muslim Women: To Cover or Not?

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A Tale of Two U.S. Muslim Women: To Cover or Not?

A Tale of Two U.S. Muslim Women: To Cover or Not?

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The cultural clash over how Muslim women should dress in Western countries has been most pronounced in Europe. But there's also tension on this side of the Atlantic. A few weeks ago in Detroit, a judge ordered a Muslim woman to remove her veil to testify in small claims court. She refused and the judge dismissed her complaint.

The decision to wear a veil is a complex one for many Muslim women in America as we're about to hear from Rachel Martin who joins us here in the studio. And, Rachel, you visited with two women in Dearborn, Michigan. Is that correct?

RACHEL MARTIN: It is. I visited with two women who have made different choices about whether or not to wear the hijab, or the Muslim veil.

NORRIS: But before you actually introduce us to these women, why don't you set the scene for us and tell us a little bit about Dearborn?

MARTIN: Sure. Well, first of all, Dearborn does have one of the largest communities of Muslims in the country. And when you drive to the south end of Dearborn, you'll see a lot of women wearing that long, one piece black abaya that covers the whole body. And some wear the small face veil called the niqab that leaves only the eyes exposed. But in other parts of the city, the population is more diverse and some women don't cover at all. But most do wear some version of the hijab, that's the headscarf that covers just the hair and the shoulders.

The first woman I want to introduce you to, though, lives just outside of Dearborn. She goes by the name Joanne Fawaz at work, but to friends and family she's called Lubna and she is a self described clotheshorse.

(Soundbite of closet being opened)

Ms. JOANNE FAWAZ aka LUBNA: And I used to have more dresses, but I gave them away. But these are a few that I kept. This, I kept it because my niece wanted it. It's from Saks Fifth Avenue. It's a Saks Fifth Avenue exclusive.

MARTIN: She pulls out a sleeveless green satin dress and a black and red gown with sequence and capped sleeves. These are the kinds of things Fawaz would have worn to dinner parties with a pair of black heels two years ago. That's when she rediscovered her Islamic faith and her life changed. Fawaz started praying daily, going to mosque more and wearing hijab. But she says that doesn't mean she has to fit into some Islamic stereotype.

Ms. FAWAZ: I shied away from black. I have dark hair, dark features. I look like Darth Vader or a ninja. I don't want to look like that. I don't want to scare people. I don't want them to think I'm miserable because -

MARTIN: Do you think people think you're miserable when you're -

Ms. FAWAZ: Yeah. I think people think if you're Muslim woman and you're wearing a black scarf and a black abaya or you have your face covered in black, you must be mourning or you must be miserable or oppressed.

MARTIN: The 37-year-old has been divorced for about eight years and since then, she's developed a successful career as a pharmaceutical sales rep. She works long days and eats out a lot. After carefully repinning her lavender colored hijab, we hop in her SUV and drive a few blocks to the local Mexican restaurant where she's a regular. Here, Fawaz describes how her choice to wear hijab had changed her life in very practical ways.

Ms. FAWAZ: My first six months, seven months were extremely difficult. I couldn't keep it on my head. It would slip off. I wasn't very happy about it because it did really restrict me.

MARTIN: As in no more sundresses, no more Pilates classes. But more significant was a change in the dynamic between her and some of her customers. Fawaz has a career that takes her outside the cultural bubble of Dearborn and surrounding areas, and into places where a woman walking around in hijab can trigger unwelcome stares. She recalls the reaction of one doctor in particular.

Ms. FAWAZ: You could tell in the way he would look, speak to me. He was very uncomfortable with it, and he felt sorry for me. And he shrugged - it was typical around me when he talked to me. He talked that soon you're less agitated or less aware. They definitely think of you as less American.

MARTIN: And that's exactly why other women here have made a different choice.

Ms. DENISE ABDULLAH: I don't think it's convenient and I have seen the way people look at women with hijab. When I'd be with people wearing hijab and I'm not, I see the looks.

MARTIN: Denise Abdullah is a stay at home mother of two and a devout Muslim. She and Lubna Fawaz are old family friends who grew up together in Dearborn, but they've made different choices about wearing the hijab.

Ms. ABDULLAH: Let me get your coat on.

Mr. AZAM ABDULLAH: Mom, why?

MARTIN: Today, Abdullah's picking up her youngest son, Azam, from preschool.

Ms. ABDULLAH: How was your day today?



MARTIN: Back at their house in the Springwells Park neighborhood, Abdullah says she didn't grow up in a religious household, but her own beliefs have strengthened through motherhood.

Ms. ABDULLAH: Having faith in God has helped me throughout life so much that I want them to have it. If anything, I would like them to be faithful people.

MARTIN: But for this American born Muslim, becoming religious does not mean looking the part.

Did anybody ever put pressure on you to wear hijab?

Ms. ABDULLAH: You know, as far real pressure, no. But I have friends that would ask me why, you know, why don't you wear the hijab and you should.

MARTIN: Three years ago, Abdullah was diagnosed with breast cancer. The curly haired brunette recalls how during chemotherapy she lost all her hair. And a Muslim friend tried to convince her that it was the perfect opportunity to start wearing hijab.

Ms. ABDULLAH: And I told her that I didn't want to be cornered into wearing the hijab. It just didn't feel right. So even now, I'll be in a setting and I'll be the only uncovered woman there. But I'm not going to cover because they all are.

MARTIN: But at the same time, Abdullah says, because of the culture of Dearborn and the subtle but persistent pressure to wear hijab, she can't escape occasional twangs of shame and guilt because of her choice.

Ms. ABDULLAH: You know, it's embarrassing, but I don't have the desire.

Ms. SANDRA BRYAN (ACCESS): I'm not going to lie, there's a lot pressure out there.

MARTIN: Sandra Bryan is a psychologist at an organization called ACCESS, Dearborn's Arab American community center. Sitting at a crowded Lebanese lunch joint, she says the message from many in this community is that if you don't wear hijab, you're not a good Muslim woman.

Ms. BRYAN: I've sat through too many lectures from, frankly, too many religious leaders who have threatened and promised the most dire consequences to women if they don't adopt hijab.

MARTIN: Islamic scholars say there are specific verses in the Quran which require women to cover their heads. But Bryan, who herself wears a headscarf, says she reads no such thing in the Quran and that hijab has become a kind of false Islamic credential.

Ms. BRYAN: Because it doesn't tell you anything about me inside. It doesn't tell you anything about what's inside my heart. It doesn't tell you anything about my intentions.

MARTIN: Lubna Fawaz disagrees. For her, the hijab is a symbol of a new, deeper connection with God and her identity as a Muslim woman. Fawaz says when she told her mom and sister about her decision to start wearing a headscarf, they were shocked and they weren't convinced she was ready.

Ms. FAWAZ: They were like, this is huge, and you have to understand that it's not a costume. You can't put it on and take it off. It's a lifelong change and so they wanted to make sure I was ready. And I was.

MARTIN: Covering this way can be a joy and a burden, and it's not for everyone. But Farwaz says wearing hijab is the most spiritually fulfilling when it's a conscious choice, and for her it was the right one.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Rachel Martin, who still with us here in the studio.

Thank you so much for that report, Rachel. And I'm just curious, is there a generational difference? Are younger women more or less likely to wear a veil?

MARTIN: Well, of course, it varies from woman to woman, but I did notice an age difference. There are different choices that are being made by younger Muslim American women. In Dearborn I talked to women who said that it has to do with families and their expectations and there are first generation immigrant families who came to this country wanting their children to assimilate more than anything.

And these young women who came of age after September 11th are making a decision to wear the veil in a more political way despite reverse pressure from their families, some of whom don't want their daughters to wear the veil. But these women are making their own decisions about whether or not to cover their heads and what that means for them.

NORRIS: When you say this is a political statement, what does that mean? What are they trying to say with that veil?

MARTIN: Well, young women are watching news accounts and they're seeing what's happened in the past few years after September 11th and they're seeing anti-Arab American sentiment and anti-Islamic sentiment. And their reaction for some of them has been to say we are going to embrace this fully. We are going to be Muslim Americans but we are going to be Muslim Americans who choose to wear hijab and who choose to express our spirituality and our religious faith in this way.

NORRIS: So it's political statement, also a statement of pride?

MARTIN: Yes, indeed.

NORRIS: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: You're welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Rachel Martin.

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