Muslim Women's Dilemma:
Is It Prudent to Wear Head Scarf?

By: Laurie Goodstein

Broadcasted on BICNews 4 November 1997

Rose Hamid

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rose Hamid is as American as they come. She drives a Ford station wagon, leads a local Girl Scout troop, shops at the Gap and just attended her 20-year high school reunion in Cleveland.

But Mrs. Hamid says that since she began wearing a head scarf two years ago in keeping with her Muslim faith, she has felt like a foreigner fighting for acceptance. Her employer, US Airways, refused to allow Mrs. Hamid to continue working as a flight attendant because, the company said, her head scarf violated the company's rules on uniforms.

Among Muslim women across the country, from the comfortably assimilated to the immigrant newcomer to the enthusiastic convert, a great debate is taking place: is it prudent, safe or necessary to wear the traditional Islamic head scarf in public?

Though some Muslim women who have donned head scarves say that the only price they have paid is in occasional stares or rude questions, others have met with discrimination on the job and harassment from strangers in the streets.

Almost daily, working women phone the Center for American Islamic Relations in Washington saying that they have been suspended, dismissed or barred from employment because they insist on wearing head scarves.

Outside of the workplace, women have reported being spit on, denied service and having their scarves pulled off. Recently, on a highway near Orlando, Fla., one driver in a head scarf was stopped and berated by a state trooper who later formally apologized.

"I had wanted to wear the head scarf for a long time," said Mrs. Hamid, whose Muslim father immigrated from the Middle East. "But I was afraid of how non-Muslims would react and how my employer would react. A lot of Muslim women are afraid of the same thing. What a shame it is to be living in a country founded on religious freedom and be afraid of exercising your religious rights."

As the Muslim population of about 6 million in the United States increases through immigration and conversion, the treatment of women wearing Muslim head scarves is one telling barometer of how the nation tolerates its growing religious diversity. Most Americans are long accustomed to seeing Jews in yarmulkes and Roman Catholic nuns in habits. But for relative religious newcomers like Muslims in head scarves and Sikhs in turbans, the head covering can be a lightning rod for prejudice.

"A lot of times," said Tayyibah Taylor, editorial director of Sisters! A Magazine of Dialogue among Muslim Women, in Seattle, "I've had people try and cheat me out of change. They think I'm a foreigner, and I've been here a long time. I wear American clothes, but I wear a scarf. The scarf changes everything."

Both the Koran and the Hadith, Islam's sacred texts, say Muslim men and women should dress modestly. The Koran says that from the date of their first menstruation, women "should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands" or to close male relatives, servants and children.

Dr. Jamal Badawi, chairman of the Islamic Information Foundation and a professor at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said the accepted teaching was that a woman should cover her entire body except for the face and hands in an opaque, loose garment that does not reveal the body's curves.

The look of the head scarf, referred to in Arabic as "hijab" or "khimar," varies from culture to culture and woman to woman. Some tie scarves tightly under their chins. Others drape fabric loosely over their shoulders, while some use one-piece hood-and-cape combinations. Some believe only black scarves are acceptable, but others flaunt bright patterns with fringes.

In some cultures, women wear a full face veil, or niqab, and a few wear them in the United States, but there is widespread disagreement over its use, Badawi said.

The reasons for covering the body, Badawi said, are to "keep the woman's physical attraction where it belongs -- to her husband," to play down competition between women, and to focus on a woman's intellect and spirit rather than her appearance.

Mrs. Hamid explained: "Wearing the hijab is saying I should be valued for my capabilities and the person that I am. I was trying to explain this to a 10-year-old Boy Scout who is not a Muslim, and he said, 'Oh, so you don't want people to say, 'Yo! Mama!' when you go out.' And I told him, 'That's it exactly.' "

Despite the Koranic teaching, to cover or not to cover is a personal choice even for devout Muslim women in this country, and a matter of heated discussion, not only between employers and employees, but among groups of women in mosques, on campuses and at national meetings.

"It's a big topic," said Sharifa Alkhateeb, vice president of the North American Council for Muslim Women. "Unfortunately you have three groups: one who believe in covering, and about half of these who cover are very negative towards the ones who don't. Then you have the ones who don't cover and half of them are negative towards the ones that do. And the third group are the ones who feel comfortable either way and don't try to
pressure anybody."

One woman who does not wear a head scarf is Dr. Shireen Ahmad, medical director of the operating room at Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago. She dresses modestly, but forgoes the hijab because her family is from Pakistan, where "hijab is not a big issue," she said. "Hijab has nothing to do with Islam," she said.

Mrs. Hamid, the former US Airways flight attendant, says she used to believe that wearing a head scarf was like "extra credit." But reading the Koran in depth while recuperating in bed from a car accident two years ago, she said, she became convinced that it was a requirement.

When Mrs. Hamid returned to work in March wearing a head scarf, her supervisors said she would have to take off the scarf or end her 10-year career as a flight attendant. Mrs. Hamid tried modeling for them a head scarf as tight as a bathing cap, with US Airways' insignia, but the company would not compromise.

At the same time, Anjum Smith, a utility worker for US Airways in Richmond, Va., was also being asked to remove the head scarf she had been wearing for two years on the job. Mrs. Smith said: "I told my boss, 'It took me a lot to get to the point I am in my religion, and asking me to take my head scarf off now is like asking me to take my shirt off. If I have to lose my job, I will.' "

US Airways prohibits its employees in uniform from wearing religious symbols like crucifixes or Stars of David, in the interest of presenting a neutral face to the public. Lawrence M. Nagin, executive vice president and general counsel at US Airways, said head scarves were not allowed for uniformed workers because in an emergency the public might not identify a woman wearing one as an airline employee.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says all employees are entitled to religious "accommodation" on the job when they have notified their employer of a "sincerely held" religious belief. When that religious need conflicts with the employer's requirements, it is the employer's responsibility to provide a "reasonable accommodation," if that can be done without "undue hardship" or serious cost to the employer.

At first, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a petition for a preliminary injunction against US Airways on Mrs. Hamid's behalf, saying the company had violated Title VII by refusing to find a reasonable accommodation for her to practice her religion.

The commission later withdrew its petition when, in September, Mrs. Hamid was allowed to continue working at US Airways in her head scarf. But her new job, training flight attendants, is one that has no public contact and does not require a uniform.

After months of struggle, the airline allowed Mrs. Smith to wear her head scarf, but only while she remains in her current job cleaning airplanes between flights on the midnight shift. She said she was vexed by the whole experience. "In this day and age, everyone is looking for diversity in the workplace, and diversity sensitivity, and yet when you have the diversity, you're stifling it," Mrs. Smith said.

Dozens of other companies have refused to employ women in head scarves, including Taco Bell, Domino's Pizza, Sears, J.C. Penney, Holiday Inn and Office Depot, said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which handles such complaints. In most cases when the women insisted on their religious rights, the managers who resisted eventually capitulated either when informed of the religious purpose for the head scarf or when lawsuits were threatened, Hooper said. But some employers, like US Airways, continued to battle over the issue for months, he said.

Outsiders often assume that women in head scarves are dominated by their husbands and fathers, Hooper said. But the record of workplace disputes "counters the stereotype that women who wear this are docile," he said.

"They are the ones with the strong personalities," he said, "because you have to be a strong person to wear it and put up with the hassles you'll face."

In a shopping mall recently, Mrs. Hamid held up baggy dresses from the rack looking for suitably modest clothing she can wear for her new job in place of her old flight attendant's uniform. From behind a counter, a saleswoman glimpsing Mrs. Hamid's stylish fringed head scarf did a quick double take.

"You're more visible," Mrs. Hamid said later, driving to the Girl Scout center, "and your actions are going to be noticed by people, so you can't be like yelling at your kids in the Kmart. A lot of times when I'm doing things, I think, 'Is this going to make Muslims in general look good?' Maybe this is what the Koran refers to where it says, 'Cover yourself so that you may be known."'

© Copyright 1997 The New York Times

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