The clothes do not make the woman, but they can make an impact during a job interview. Self-expression is a typical explanation for low-riding jeans and funky shoes as much as it is for body piercings and hair color. Yet Islamic women who choose to make an unconventional statement with their attire typically encounter prejudice, unfair treatment and even fear. This is common for Muslim women who wear "hejab," a headscarf tied under their chin, and loose fitting clothing to cover everything but their face, hands and feet.
"My heart is not ready ... for the burden of interacting with people in public places with hejab on," says Paige Robbins, a Woodlawn resident and local music therapist. "I have to be ready for people looking at me like I'm a terrorist. They'll look at me like they're afraid of me. I might lose clients at work. I'll have to stand up for my beliefs — vocally. Right now, people don't know I'm Muslim."
Robbins converted to Islam earlier this year, but her perspective isn't unique to converts.
Iman Bedawi, from West Chester, was born to Egyptian parents and was educated in the American public school system. She attended Islamic religious classes on the weekends, where she learned that hejab was obligatory according to Islam, but there was never any imposition of the rules. Bedawi's mother didn't don the Islamic headscarf until Bedawi was 7 or 8 years old.
"A lot of women don't understand that, when they're interviewing, their physical appearance has a lot of bearing and that is really demeaning," Bedawi says. "It's none of their business how I dress if I have the right qualifications (for a job)."
Obedience not terrorism
In the Quran, God commands the "believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty" to anyone other than immediate family members. God also commands, "O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad)."
Because of these two verses, Muslim women believe modesty is a highly spiritual act that's a direct command from God.
The decision to follow this direction is a personal one, Bedawi explains.
"It really has to do with the development of the person wearing it," she says. "Hejab is symbolic of a woman's devotion to God, of her deep desire to be close to him and prefer his pleasure over the judgment of everyone else.
"In high school, my parents never mentioned it in a pressuring way. Once my mother asked me if I would like to wear it. My full-hearted answer was 'Yes,' but I didn't have an idea when. Before the beginning of my last year of high school, it was my decision completely to start wearing it."
Ingrid Ascencio, who grew up Catholic in Mexico and converted to Islam six years ago, agrees that wearing the hejab is simply "being obedient to Allah."
"It really comes down to that," she says. "I didn't grow up with that. It's something that Allah wants me to do."
Concern of being feared is a big obstacle for many Islamic women. The decision to choose traditional Islamic feminine dress means dealing with the suspicion and scorn by those who don't understand the religious and personal implications of a non-Western style.
Ascencio, a mechanical engineer for GE, is not afraid. She wore hejab when she interviewed for her position three years ago and continues to do so with confidence and pride.
"The environment of the company is very professional," she explains. "There is a lot of diversity. They want to include women and minorities, and I'm triple in one. My personality repels criticism. I come across very strong, especially at work. I don't look down, I don't speak softly and I'm straight to the point. I think people can read that. If you have convictions, people don't mess with you."
That confidence took some time to develop.
"It took me two years to get the strength to put it on," Ascensio says. "I don't do things halfway. I didn't want to put it on, and then take it off. First, my wardrobe had to slowly change. I stopped wearing shorts and only (wore) pants, then (from) no sleeves to some sleeves, then full sleeves, etc. Then I went a size bigger than my fitting size. Slowly but surely I changed it.
"Finally I took off for work one morning and I just put it on. I didn't tell anyone. I just did it."
'An obstacle to what?'
The women agree that, although the primary reason they cover is spiritual, there is a secondary benefit to wearing the hejab. Robbins doesn't cover her hair, but she maintains modest dress because she feels protected. She wants to be known for her personality, not for her appearance.
"I dress more conservatively than the average American woman," she says. "I feel more comfortable with my arms, chest and legs covered. I also wear loose-fitting clothing. It gives me comfort to be able to interact with others a little more openly. We can interact with the opposite sex and not worry."
Bedawi says she's often confronted by feminists who take issue with her choice.
"Their argument is ... that this scarf is an obstacle to us," she says. "Sometimes I wonder: an obstacle to what? To my body being admired by whoever wants to admire it? An obstacle to getting boyfriends? ... Yes, it is an obstacle to preventing the woman from being susceptible to the evils that the women of western society are prone to.
"This is a very biased view that hejab is an obstacle. They think it's an obstacle to freedom. We don't believe in unrestricted freedom. Freedom has to be within the will of God."
Moving beyond the personal decision to wear a specific kind of clothing, Bedawi says American culture has a dramatic impact on the lack of equality afforded to Islamic woman in this country.
"Most Muslims the world over hold America as the hope, as a place where we can practice our religion wholly, because of the constitution and the Bill of Rights," she says. "We'd like the greater community to understand us and what we're all about, not to convert anyone but to help them respect our beliefs so we can practice.
"We'd like the freedom to practice without discrimination. American foreign policies are the main obstacle to that dream. The propaganda coming out from the current administration isn't giving a clear picture to the greater American community as to what Muslims in the U.S. and all over the world are really all about." ©