The room is dimly lit and balloons inflate slowly and disperse lazily onto the tile floor. Cupcakes are laced with bubblegum pink frosting and hijabs are left at the door. The energy in the room is happily electric and threatens to burst, like the unfortunate balloons popped by finicky feet as girls quickly decorate the room. It is as if the main gift of Eid, the Islamic holiday that was celebrated on Dec. 22, is the opportunity to open up and get down and girly, not dirty. Eid signifies the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, and the girls of MSU’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) are celebrating. Food concoctions engulf the cramped table, ranging from lasagna to Mexican taco dip to hummus, flan to chocolate cake to cookies – a scrumptious symbol of the range of ethnicities present at the Eid party.
“A lot of the girls have to wear the head scarves [in the presence of men]; this is for the girls to have fun and dress up,” said Asma Hasan, the Sisters’ social coordinator for MSA. Wavy dark hair without head scarves were complimented by manicured outfits, matching pumps that tapped around the room and faces decorated pleasantly with ivory-toned make-up. The divine nature of the hijab requires it to be worn in the presence of males; this all-girl get-together was a bite into the fabled forbidden apple. [muslim11]
The Qu’ran, the Muslim holy book, describes the hijab as a spatial divider that provides privacy to the woman believer. It states in verse 59, “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them. That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed.” In a world that objectifies women, the hijab is the divider from the male gaze and judgment; it provides the opportunity to reflect inner strength and self respect.
“Take it off!” the girls told international relations sophomore Nada Zohdy. Zohdy, the head of MSA’s political action committee, sported an elaborately embroidered black hijab from Egypt, her parents’ country of origin. She removed the pins fastening the draping scarf in modest fashion, while retaining the poise associated with the self-respected Muslim woman. Self-respect, modesty and chastity characterize the hijab, which is often misconceived by Western culture as a form of oppression. To Muslim women, it is not just something covering the head. It represents the acceptance of a modest, virtuous life and the woman’s promise to herself to expose her beauty from within, not superficially with the aid of an Urban Outfitter’s patterned dress (I know it’s cute) and dark makeup. There comes a point in every Muslim woman’s life, usually during adolescence, when she must decide her religious preference in adopting the hijab or not. The decision is hers, a notion that is far from oppressive.
[z3]”The two most pervasive misconceptions are that Islam is inherently violent and oppressive towards women. As a young Muslim woman, I feel it’s so ironic – we view it exactly the opposite. By adopting modesty, it is liberating because you respect yourself,” Zohdy said.
Zohdy started to wear the hijab after high school and her introduction to the chaos of this college town happened in tandem with her recent decision. “I was kind of apprehensive at first because I didn’t know how people would react. The only thing I could say is on occasion I would get a few extra glances on the bus,” she said.
Fortunately, Zohdy has had more positive experiences than negative ones, on and off the bus. In fact, sideways glances from strangers have proved to be an opportunity for education. “More than once I’ve had the experience of a stranger asking about my religion – it’s a really cool thing. The scarf is an open symbol of my identity and it’s good to educate people about it,” Zohdy said.
Education junior Abby Siegel said the veil is intimidating to the dominant culture because the two societies are so different. “We have such a structural, superficial way of what we should be. We automatically think it’s weird,” she said. Classes Siegel has taken at MSU have helped tone down this concept, yet the veil still holds an idea of fear for many. To some, the veil is like the turban is to the stereotypical terrorist.
Finance sophomore Rob Forte also finds the veil catches his eye. “It’s pretty odd to tell you the truth. It’s not normal in our culture and society. I really wouldn’t understand why [a Muslim woman] is wearing it; she is kind of unapproachable,” he said.
A lack of Islamic knowledge typically influences thoughts like these and fashions the slightly intimidating first impression a veil bestows upon the wide-eyed, uninformed person. But the veil is becoming more prominent and a more popular choice. Young Muslim women are choosing to wear the hijab more than their parents did when they went to college, as a response to their interpretations of Sept. 11 and its associated biases. More girls are turning to Islamic identity to show a reclaiming of their faith, according to Zohdy.
But as for availability, the Western hijab market is almost as big as a peanut. Not many retail stores in Michigan sell tunics and kurta tops (long shirts), burqas (entire body cloaks) or hijabs. Close your eyes and imagine good old Meridian Mall or flashy Eastwood Towne Center – is Islam fashion promoted? Finding cute hijabs is difficult, even if this aspect is not important to all Muslim girls. Most have to go to specialty stores, like Houda Fashion of Dearborn, Mich. Houda Fashion imports Lebanese hijabs and Islamic clothes from Italy and supplies a range of hijabs fitting to modest tastes. “It’s better to go to a specialty store,” owner Samaia Covou said. “In all the cities of Michigan, you can’t find them [hijabs]. It depends on demand in the area.”
And it might be a good idea to invest in Islam fashion. JWT, a New York advertising agency, released a major study on Muslim marketing this year and revealed American-Muslim buying power at around $170 billion. That’s a ton of untapped hijabs.
[zohdy2]On her last visit to Egypt, Zohdy stocked up on exotic and modern hijabs, thanks to the country’s more elaborate head scarf market. Wearing the head scarf, however, has nothing to do with fashion that Western icons often symbolize. “Some people are discontent with the overwhelming [Western] dominance because they want to preserve their identity, but I really believe in moving beyond that idea.” In fact, the growing popularity of the hijab among Muslim-Americans can be viewed as a unifying practice, bridging Eastern practices with Western norms. “Muslims in the West can really provide a new outlook – we believe in striking a balance in living in Western society,” Zohdy said.
The divide between the East and West originated in the 18th century, when controversies over determining women’s position in public affairs emerged, said English professor Dr. Steve Rachman. “We still argue about this in our society in a different way. The veil becomes for us the outward sign of difference,” said Rachman.
It is this difference that sparks the initial curiosity toward understanding Islam and its divine traditions. If given the opportunity to tell one truth about the hijab to the unknowing public, said Maweza Razzaq, MSA president and international studies and pre-med senior, “Change your mindset – you have to be open to education. Beliefs and people’s actions are two different things.”[muslim12]
After being serenaded with “Hellos!” and gracious introductions at the Eid party, I learned the women wearing hijabs are just as interested in informing others about their religion as those giving them an inquisitive stare are in determining why they are wearing a scarf in that way. As I zip up my shield from the cold, I leave the gathering humming of a mix of East Asian, Indian and fragments of the latest club scene rap some girls were enjoying at the party. I also leave with a humble swirl of insight. The “haves” of the East do not pertain to having wealth of capital, but wealth of spirituality – a concept that would not hurt for many of us to consider.