September 25, 2010 in Features

Head scarves draw comments

American Muslim women face choice on wearing hijab
Matt O’Brien Contra Costa Times
 

CONCORD, Calif. – Tori Burrell learned to ignore the frequent stares and weather the occasional gawks. But there are times the 23-year-old Muslim can’t help but feel the judgment of strangers.

They see her wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. It happens to be a glittery scarf, but that does not matter. The hijab, be it fashionable or austere, is a magnet for disapproving strangers.

“I’m aware that it’s much better here than other places,” said Burrell, who was born in Vallejo, Calif., and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area all her life.

“But I’ve had ‘go back to your own country’ a lot. More than once, I’ve had the ‘Jesus loves me.’ ”

The Bay Area, known for its multicultural diversity and acceptance, is not immune to the anti-Muslim sentiment that has infected the country. Talking heads argued this summer over a planned Manhattan mosque near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a Christian pastor’s pledge to burn copies of the Quran.

Burrell and her Muslim friends know the sentiments are there because they bear the brunt of them. Usually, they shrug it off.

Take one day in early August, when Burrell was sitting alone at the Peet’s coffee shop in downtown Concord.

With her laptop plugged in and her headphones on, the college student was working on an art history paper while listening to rapper Ludacris. There were many patrons drinking coffee or waiting in line in the busy cafe.

One of them zoomed in on Burrell, gesturing to make it known he had something to say.

“I turned off my music and said, ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Jesus, my Lord and savior, loves you.’ And I was, like, ‘Thank you.’ What do you say to that?”

Jesus, after all, is considered an important prophet in Islam, and the proselytizing was less objectionable to Burrell than other unsolicited comments and slurs she has faced since she decided, as a young adult, to cover her hair every day with a scarf.

“I wanted to be easily recognizable as a Muslim, because I’m proud of it,” she said.

It was a big change for the Vallejo native, who wore swimsuits as a water polo player in high school. Her Muslim family members were happy she did not want to wear miniskirts and tank tops, but they were not so enthused about her embrace of the hijab.

“I’m a little more conservative and – I don’t want to say religious, because they believe – but I’m a little more practicing than them,” Burrell said.

Most interpretations of Islam require Muslim women to dress modestly in the presence of men who are not part of their family. Modest dress usually includes fully covering the hair, though interpretations – and the way Muslim women dress – vary greatly as they do in other religions.

Many women also see the hijab as an expression of their faith and identity, while others opt out of wearing it.

Only about 43 percent of Muslim-American women say they wear a hijab all or most of the time, according to a Pew Research Center poll from 2007.

According to the same poll, more than half of American Muslims are worried that women who wear the hijab will be treated poorly, though women who actually wear it all the time are less worried than those who do not.

“My mom still makes comments like, ‘Will you come to your senses and take that off?’ She wore it in college, but it just wasn’t for her,” Burrell said. “I think they are worried about my safety. I think that’s their biggest concern – my safety.”

“You really do have to be strong, and secure enough with yourself, and your choice of wearing a hijab, to face it,” she said.

Those who judge usually are older than she, Burrell said, which she hopes is a sign that time will bring a more welcoming climate.

“Younger people, most of the time, are more willing to ask questions,” she said. “They realize they’re ignorant about something, so they ask.

“I just feel like people, before they judge, they should (do some) research.”


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