Muslim pupils diverge on hijab

It's an individual decision that can make a girl a target.

By SHERRI DAY, Times Staff Writer
Published November 15, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- Manar Khalil's sister and mother proudly wear the hijab.

But the 12-year-old, who is obsessed with Disney's Hannah Montana and High School Musical, is not ready to put on the head scarf worn by many Muslim females.

And the controversy swirling around another Azalea Middle school student who wears the hijab has worried her.

"I feel so bad for her right now," said Manar, a seventh-grader. "I think 'What if that were me?' I'd be scared to show my face."

Last week, 11-year-old Hannah Chehab alleged that a boy at Azalea ripped off her hijab and threatened to kill her. Pinellas County school officials said this week that they are investigating the complaint and how administrators responded amid contradictory details.

The incident underscores the delicate, often complex decision Muslim women make in deciding whether to don the hijab. Hannah's plight has many bay area Muslim women and their daughters talking about the hijab. Ultimately, they say, it is an individual decision.

They realize it can make them targets.

"I just can't see myself pumping gas down here at Lithia Pinecrest Road wearing the scarf," said Joan Zaki, 46, an East Hillsborough County mother of three daughters.

"I have a friend who does that, and people shout out 'Look at Osama's wife!' Do I have thick enough skin to handle that? I don't," said Zaki, who became a Muslim 18 years ago.

But her eldest daughter, Nora, ponders wearing the hijab by the time she enters college.

"I want to be a role model for students," said Nora, 16, a junior at Newsome High School in Lithia. "It's always in my heart to one day wear it. I'm hoping that I will be able to follow my dream."

Strength is needed

For now, incidents like Hannah's remind Nora she is not yet strong enough.

School officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough County have no record of any incidents involving Muslims girls and hijabs. Both counties also say they have cultural sensitivity training for teachers and employees.

The national office of the Council on American and Islamic Relations says hijab-related complaints are among the highest it gets from its constituents. Still, last year the group recorded 143 complaints, a 14 percent decrease from 2005. The group says it has focused education efforts on businesses and schools.

Other incidents

This is not the first time bay area girls have dealt with discrimination because of their head scarfs. In 2005, tournament officials in Orlando booted Briana Canty, then a Tampa sixth-grader, out of a basketball game for refusing to remove her hijab.

And earlier this year, a referee sidelined Iman Khalil, a 15-year-old soccer player from Spring Hill, for declining to take off her hijab. Both girls eventually were allowed to play.

Although Islam does not require girls to begin covering themselves before they reach puberty, many choose to embrace the practice early.

Canty, now 14, started when she was in the sixth grade. Though teased, she does not regret her decision.

"People say things like 'Why do you have a bedspread on your head or a pillowcase?'" Canty said. "They just make ignorant comments, but I don't lower myself to their level."

Religious scholars say the hijab is a religiously mandated sign of modesty. But some feminists argue the decision to wear it draws its roots from cultural or political alliances.

Adherence to the practice varies widely. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, women are required to cover themselves. Many Moroccan women forgo wearing it, but still consider themselves good Muslims.

In the United States, some Muslim women are well into their 20s and 30s before they decide to wear the hijab. Some don it for religious reasons. Others are seeking to reconnect with their cultures, scholars said.

Regardless of why and when women chose to wear the hijab, having it forcibly removed is unacceptable, scholars said.

"For somebody who is adamant about covering the head, this is a real direct insult," said Faegheh S. Shirazi, an associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas in Austin and the author of The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture. "It is just like exposing my bosoms or ripping my shirt off my back."

Started wearing at 10

Hannah Chehab, the Azalea student, started wearing the hijab when she was 10. The first time she showed up at Bear Creek Elementary with it, a boy ripped it off thinking it was a joke, she said. The boy later apologized, and Hannah finished the school year without incident.

At Azalea, the teasing started again, but her recent experience has made Hannah more determined to wear the hijab. "We don't hurt people, and not all Muslims are bad people," she said.

As she continues to explore whether to wear the hijab, Manar says her friend has inspired her.

"She makes me want to put it on even more," Manar said. "I tell myself, 'Look at her. She's wearing it. She has her head held up high. She's not afraid. She's just strong.'"

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.