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American Muslim Women Feeling Vulnerable - 2001-10-09

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, hundreds of hate crimes have been reported to Arab and Muslim watchdog organizations across the country. One group that feels particularly vulnerable is Muslim women, especially those who wear the traditional hijab or head covering.

The day terrorists attacked New York and Washington, I got a phone call - as I knew I would - from my mother, begging me not to leave the house wearing my hijab. I assured her I would be wrapping my headscarf a little bit differently at least for now so as not to be mistaken for a Muslim which I am. The questions surrounding safety are the same for other Muslim women. Despite our sorrow and revulsion at what has happened, despite the fact that suicide and the killing of innocent people are explicitly condemned in Islam, we are suddenly living in fear. Women wearing the headscarf are easy targets. Do we stay in our homes or go out? And if we do go out should we leave our scarves on, take them off, or simply wear them differently?

Those were some of the questions being discussed after Friday prayers last week at the Ar-Razzaq mosque in Durham, a fairly cosmopolitan city in the middle of North Carolina. An African American woman who wears her scarf in the traditional way, pinned under the chin with only the face exposed, described something that happened to her at a local store two days after the attacks. A Caucasian man who was ahead of her in line gave her some nasty looks before making his way out the door. When she walked out, he was still in the parking lot. Like other women interviewed for this story, she doesn't want her name used. "When I went out I walked alongside his truck to go to my car he looked he and looked and like rolled his eyes and eased his truck back alongside of me as if he was going to hit me," she said.

That incident, which this woman sees as part of a larger backlash against Muslims, did not interrupt her way of life. She says she has no plans to wear her hijab any other way. But according to some teachings, women may remove their headscarves or change the way they veil if they feel their personal safety is at stake. So there are women who are being strategic about how and when they wear their hijabs. "I needed to get a prescription for my daughter so I figured this was the time for me to try the 'no-hijab' so I figured since I really needed the medication and I did want them to be helpful and you know if there is some kind of resentment or something against hijab well this wasn't the time for it," she said. "So I took it off and went and asked the lady and she was very helpful and everything was fine and I was feeling okay until I went into the next aisle and I saw an Arab lady wearing the full hijab and I just realized - you know, I don't want to be thought of as a non Muslim."

This woman, who is Indian, says many people assume she's Hindu when she's not covered. But going out hijab-free may not offer any protection for Arabs and others who look middle eastern. African American and white women like myself can modify the way we wear our headscarves and probably pass as non-Muslims. The other day while strolling with my daughter, I was wearing my hijab tied back behind my head sort of like a bandana. Down the street, two elderly women were discussing the attacks. There was something comforting about being around them. They'd lived through national tragedies before. I joined the conversation and expressed some of my concerns about being identified as a Muslim. One of the women looked at me in surprise and politely responded, "Well, at some point, you have to choose sides."

But some officials at the highest level of government say there are no sides to choose. President Bush has repeatedly reminded the American public that Muslims are not the target of the campaign against terrorism and should not be the target of hate crimes. This sentiment is also evident in the attitudes of ordinary American citizens. Muslims across the country have received all kinds of support from neighbors, strangers, friends, and family members. But still, there are concerns about those who are not getting the message.

For some Muslim women, the act of removing or modifying the hijab for safety reasons is at odds with a religious desire to leave it on. For others, it's simpler than that. After Sunday school this past weekend, a group of Muslim women, including myself, discussed the current backlash. One Caucasian mother of three said the situation has actually firmed up her position on covering. "I don't wear hijab and I'm a Muslim woman but all that's been going on has made me feel like I want to wear the hijab just to show my support to my Muslim sisters," she said.

Another woman, an African American nurse training coordinator at a local hospital, described the backlash as an extension of the "us versus them" mentality that she says has always, to varying degrees, characterized race relations in the United States. She said. "I had a patient who asked me what my name was. When I told him he said where are you from? And I says I'm from Durham and he says that name you have, that's not American is it? And so what I said to him, I said unless you are a native American, any name that we have aren't really American names. All of us have come from somewhere else."

We also discussed the impending curb on civil liberties. Will these changes be directed at Muslims? Will our children be safe at school? Will we be asked to prove our Americaness?

Some of my friends whose families recently immigrated to America did so for the same reasons many families did generations ago: to escape poverty, dictatorships, and religious persecution. To find a better life, she said. "You're free to be a Muslim here. And I've always thought that that is the grandest thing. Now the whole idea of being a free Muslim here is being questioned."

In the past week there were times when I wore the full hijab and times when I modified the look. I've never taken my headscarf off completely in public and today I tried to imagine what it would be like to walk down the street without it. The thought made me feel naked and exposed. For me, the hijab is like a sanctuary, a safe and comfortable place from which I can interact with the world. It's a sad and ironic thing that suddenly, I feel it's a dangerous place to be.