My hijab, my self

Local Muslim women gather to counteract American myths about Islamic customs

Sawsan Morrar, one of four panelists at a Women’s Resources & Research Center of UC Davis discussion, said non-Muslims have assumed she can’t speak English because of her covered head.

Sawsan Morrar, one of four panelists at a Women’s Resources & Research Center of UC Davis discussion, said non-Muslims have assumed she can’t speak English because of her covered head.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Muslim women are viewed in one of two ways, said a panelist at UC Davis’ Muslim Women’s Panel: They’re considered oppressed and depressed, she said, or they’re considered, especially by men in the West, to be sexually exotic, “hiding unusual, bizarre sexual fantasies.”

Neither assessment, argued the panelist, is accurate, and yet both persist.

Dina El-Nakhal, a UC Davis graduate with degrees in civil engineering, gave an example she thought would illustrate all that is wrong with the way Americans still view Muslim women who choose to cover their hair, their necks and their chests with scarves, known as “hijabs,” as a sign of modesty.

In a political cartoon (responding to the photographs showing American abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib), a bearded Muslim man sat on his couch reading a newspaper that had on its front page a picture of a female American soldier dragging a male Iraqi prisoner. The Muslim reading the newspaper rested his feet on the back of a veiled woman on all fours before him. A thought bubble over this woman’s head showed that she was imagining herself holding the leash and dragging her husband.

This, said El-Nakhal, herself veiled in a white hijab, was wrong in many ways. The cartoon assumed that Muslim men treated their women “like doormats,” said El-Nakhal. “Not true.” Secondly, the cartoon assumed that Western women had the freedom to dominate men, a position the cartoonist assumed Muslim women would like to emulate. El-Nakhal found this arrogant. Finally, the cartoon seemed to suggest that it was OK to abuse Muslim men because they abused their women. That was dangerous.

El-Nakhal was tired of being misrepresented in the media and had joined other Muslim college students in a crowded classroom to make yet another in a long series of attempts to educate the population around them.

As an example of the true relationship of the sexes under Islam, El-Nakhal referred to a supposed conversation between a man and the wife of the prophet Mohammed. How is Mohammed at home, the woman was asked. She responded, “He is always in the service of his family.” El-Nakhal said that, in gender relations, separate still could be equal.

Though the panelists insisted that they feel respected and equal to men under Islam, El-Nakhal said that her religion does recognize physical and psychological differences between genders. Motherhood produces feelings of mercy and nurturing in women, according to Islam, and it obligates men to take care of the needs of their families. Still, El-Nakhal does believe that taking care of someone can translate into having power over them. In some cultures, she said, chivalry has crossed over into chauvinism. The same happens here in the West, she said.

When cultures have oppressed women, as under the Taliban, such rules have tended to be cultural, not religious, the panelists agreed. The distinction, important to Muslims in America, seems lost on non-Muslim Americans, who equate being Muslim with being Middle-Eastern and find that perception reinforced by media reports.

Panelists also blamed the “Muslim terrorist” stereotype on the media, which have included Muslim faith in their descriptions of criminals as if that were a cause for criminality. How come when Caucasians commit acts of violence, panelists wondered, those crimes are reported without any reference to the criminal’s religion?

El-Nakhal said so many people get the majority of their education from popular media that stereotypes determine how Muslims are treated on the streets or in the mall.

Who has seen the movie The Siege, asked El-Nakhal, or Three Kings and listened to the terminology regarding Muslims?

“Camel jockey,” she said, and “sand nigger.” Out of the mouth of a personable woman in glasses and yards of loose fabric from head to toe, the terms sounded especially grotesque.

The panelists found such name-calling similar to some of the terms used to describe Muslim groups in the press: “radical, extremist, fundamentalist Islamic.”

The insulting terms that El-Nakhal quoted no longer are found just in the media; they also have made their way into popular usage as a form of hate speech. This became clear recently in West Sacramento, where a female high-school student taunted another female student with names like “raghead” before attacking her. The incident was reported in a newsletter distributed by the local office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Sacramento has not been a hotspot for violence against Muslims, but Principal Mort Geivett of River City High School confirmed that one female student, after taunting another with insults, did shove the other student, who was wearing her hijab, to the ground. Though he couldn’t confirm the details of the attack, CAIR’s Tamer Ahmed said the attacker then tried to choke the Muslim student with her own hijab.

CAIR was notified of the event, and Ahmed accompanied the victim’s family into meetings with Geivett. The school responded to the incident by deciding to design sensitivity training for teachers and students. This was the first incident of its kind on the River City campus, said Geivett.

Neither girl’s name was released to SN&R. Geivett said he did not know of anything that precipitated the attack.

With taunting and name-calling, as in the West Sacramento incident, it’s obvious that religion is a basis for the attack, but local Muslim women find other cases sometimes difficult to interpret. One panelist, Sawsan Morrar, a current UC Davis student dressed in a light-brown hijab, said she wants people to ignore her head covering. If she cuts someone off on the freeway, she said, it is a comfort to know that the resulting dirty look has nothing to do with her head covering.

Morrar’s mother, however, decides that salespeople are racist when they won’t take back items she tries to return. But Morrar added that her mother feels the same way even when she’s trying to return something past the 30-day period printed on the receipt.

The CAIR-California office recently released a report called “The Status of Muslim Civil Rights in California 2004,” which claimed there were 221 complaints of discrimination against Muslims in California in 2003, a 233-percent increase over the previous year. The report included “improved reporting by community members” as a reason for the increase, along with the Iraq war and a “noticeable increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric.”

Though few incidents were reported to the newly established Sacramento office of CAIR, a list of representative incidents statewide included a case from the Bay Area in which a school coach reportedly barred a young woman from a badminton team for wearing a hijab. Other incidents include a Muslim man who was severely beaten, threats to shoot Muslims scrawled on college campus walls, hate speech and vandalism.

The veil is such a dramatic and visible identifier that when young women decide to wear it for the first time, they realize what kind of effect it has on non-Muslims. Morrar has gotten used to people assuming that she doesn’t speak English, she said. At lunch counters, cashiers very slowly count out her change for her.

The only truly negative incident she remembers happened while she boarded a bus for the California State Fair. As she explained to the audience, a very old man told her to “get to the back of the bus,” she quoted, “where you belong.”

“I didn’t have to say much,” she continued, smiling. There were lots of African-American students on board, she said, “and they couldn’t hold it. They told him off.” When the man got off the bus, said Morrar, they even went with him, following him to his car (presumably lecturing him on the finer points of the civil-rights movement). Another panelist, Basma Marmosh, who had just graduated from California State University, Sacramento, explained that misunderstandings are often humorous. When she was young, she said, she attended St. Francis High School—St. Francis is a Catholic all-girls school. Because she was the only hijab-wearing Muslim on campus, people would misinterpret her head covering.

“People thought I was a little junior nun,” said Marmosh. They would walk by and make the sign of the cross.

El-Nakhal also said she had gotten surprising responses. A co-worker once told her that the loose gowns and head coverings set women back 200 years, back to the original garb of early Puritan women. Another said that Muslim women would stand a chance of equality if they changed the way they dressed, as if women were inherently oppressed by Islam.

In contrast, El-Nakhal believes that covered Muslim women are freer than Western women; the hijab forces men to respect them. Muslim women find the Western culture’s idea of beauty leads to bare bodies, countless dollars and hours spent on adorning the hair and face, and billboards that use twins standing breast to breast to sell beer.

In actuality, the panelists explained, the hijab is something one wears as a representation of something internal, a way of talking and walking with modesty. Even Muslim men are ordered to keep covered, but because men usually wear pants and shirts, their modesty is harder to detect. Some Muslim men can be seen with the beard popularized by Mohammed, however, and with a specific cap that since has become a popular accessory for non-Muslims, as well.

The panelists said that often a hijab is assumed to be a choice made by someone else, parents or spiritual leaders. But each woman on the panel chose whether to wear a hijab when she was ready, and more than one panelist explained that she had to go against her parents’ wishes.

“I’m not going to obey my parents to disobey God,” said Morrar.

Along with myths about their exoticism, their reasons for wearing hijabs and their oppression, panelists wanted to dispel one more stereotype about Muslim women.

Non-Muslims often assume that Islam limits the education of women. El-Nakhal said that on the contrary, though a culture may limit women, Islam encourages all people to pursue knowledge and education. Women even are encouraged to study the sciences. El-Nakhal found herself the only woman in some of her engineering courses, and she’s Muslim.

Panelist Sana Ali put it simply: "You see so many women on campus wearing hijab. What does that tell you?"