Muslims discuss significance of hijabs, cultural attitudes toward Islam

Thursday, October 28, 2010 | 11:27 p.m. CDT; updated 5:57 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 18, 2010

COLUMBIA — Fatten Elkomy, 50; Leona Greer, 45; and Farah Naz, 26; all have stories about the questions, comments and misconceptions they face each day because of their hijabs.

The three women discussed their experiences this week as part of Islam Awareness Week, sponsored by MU's Muslim Student Organization.

Greer converted from Christianity to Islam when she was in graduate school at MU. Having been a member of "both sides," she offered a unique perspective on the hijab. She shared an experience she had in a grocery store with her brother. To explain her scarf, Leona said her brother lamented theatrically, "Oh, Leona. I'm so sorry. The cancer will heal up."

“Being Muslim wasn’t difficult, but for (my family) to actually have to go out and be near someone who’s wearing hijab — you know, somebody’s standing out," she said.

Greer said her family grew to respect her decision even though it was difficult for them at first.

Naz and Elkomy both spoke of times they had been stopped in public and asked about their scarves. For Naz, it was at an airport on her way home to Albuquerque.

When asked by a woman where she was from, Naz said she was going home to Albuquerque, but said the woman was skeptical because she was wearing her hijab.

"'I’m so amazed,'" Naz recalled the woman telling her. "'When you sat down next to me and I heard you talking on the phone, I pictured in my head this little blonde Valley Girl talking to her friends. I don’t understand.'"

For Elkomy, the encounter happened on the subway. While making her way to school, Elkomy said she was confronted by a stranger.

“'I can’t believe it,'" Elkomy said the woman told her. "'I can’t believe that you’re putting this on and you want us to go back to the slavery ages.'”

Elkomy said she thanked the woman for her concern and apologized for not being able to explain her choice more clearly, but she suggested that the woman do some research on the hijab.

Years later, Elkomy was at an Islamic center when a woman approached her.

"She said, 'Please forgive me,' and I said, 'I don’t know you; I don’t know what you’re talking about,'" Elkomy recalled.

After identifying herself as the woman on the subway, Elkomy remembered the incident.

"She told me, 'The way I was aggressive toward you made me feel shame, and this made me go and review the sources you told me. I found that it’s true, it’s not a costume that you’re trying to support, but an actual recommendation by God,'" Elkomy said.

All three women agreed that wearing the hijab was a matter of personal devotion to which a woman commits herself. Elkomy explained that contrary to submission and oppression, the hijab represents equality and pride to her.

"I fought for this," she said. "I’m just presenting myself as human, and I’m asking to be in a position where I’m only judged on my actions and my intelligence and not on my being female."

Naz said the misconceptions give her an opportunity to educate people.

"I actually really like to break a lot of those stereotypes that people have," she said. "I do try to be more outspoken when I’m around people because I know that that stereotype of being oppressed as a woman is so rampant that I feel like I have more of a responsibility to voice my opinion."

Imam Suhaib Webb, the week-long event's keynote speaker, discussed the leniency built into Islamic, or Sharia, law that allows Muslims to modify its guidelines according to their personal situations.

“One of the five major axioms of Sharia says custom can lay precedence to law,” Webb said.

This means Islam can be interpreted many ways in different places and cultures.

"This whole hijab thing is an attitude," Elkomy said. "It’s not only a piece of clothing. It’s not as simple as that. It means so much. It means a character. It means a Muslim presentation. It means security and safety and protection. It means presenting yourself in relation to god and presenting myself as a human."

Webb said a big problem for American converts to Islam is “cultural emptiness.” He said when some converts accept Islam as a religion, they feel they need to accept what they believe is the culture of Islam. But Webb said the problem with this practice is that there isn't an unanimous culture of Islam that converts can adopt.

Webb said communication among Muslims needs to be made more relevant to contemporary issues.

"In Chaucerizing the language of Arabic in English, what we've done is push our young people away from it," he said.

But Webb also reminded the audience that “Islam encourages us to engage in learning about each other” — a process that requires both Muslims and non-Muslims to participate. 

MU sophomore Mahir Khan, spokesman for the event, said Islam Awareness Week, usually held in the spring, was moved to the fall because of the current "climate" involving the debate over a proposed Islamic Center near ground zero in New York.

He said the event had a much greater turnout than last year's.

"All four events had more than last year," he said. "(The keynote speaker) had more than all events combined last year."

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