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|In praise of the veil|
|12/20/01 at 15:29:45|
|CHICAGO TRIBUNE: In praise of the veil |
In praise of the veil
Sister Toni Khatib, mentioned in the article, can be reached at:
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 modesty.
The word comes from the Arabic for hiding or concealing, and, for women,
also encompasses covering the body coipletely with loose clothing. The
head covering itself usually drapes around the neck and covers the bosom
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
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
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
"He is healthy [now]; he has no problems. . . . I just really got closer
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
"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 up.
"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
"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."
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 Chicago.
"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
"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
"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
"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 experiences."
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
"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."
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 Muslim.
"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
"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
"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
"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."
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
"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
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
"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."
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
"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 bosoms.
"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."
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 anything?
"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
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
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.
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