9/11: Muslim women grapple with spotlight after 9/11

Sunday, September 11, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:43 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 11, 2011

COLUMBIA — Samiha Islam, 18, is accustomed to getting suspicious glances from strangers when she’s at the doctor’s office or in the parking lot.

At 13, Islam made the decision to wear the hijab — a head covering worn by many Muslim women to adhere to the Quran’s instructions on modesty.

As the years progressed and Islam took more interest in her religion, the Columbia resident also decided to wear the niqab — a cloth covering everything on the face except the eyes.

“After wearing hijab, I’ll find that people are anxious and look at me strangely,” she said.

Some Muslim women who wear traditional clothing such as the hijab said they have felt like they’ve had more of a spotlight on them since Sept. 11.

Even so, Islam said she hasn’t tried to change her ways to fit in more with society.

“Being a Muslim didn’t mean I needed to be culturally accepted and succumb to conformity,” she said.

Instead, she continues to embrace her religion and tries to change the assumptions other people make about her. When she notices people giving her strange looks, she uses the opportunity to strike up a conversation with them. She opens the doors to social interaction.

MU senior Arwa Mohammad, 20, made a similar decision when she started wearing the hijab in seventh grade. Mohammad said she hasn’t felt any discrimination for being Muslim.

Some younger Muslim women worry about wearing the hijab in their teenage years when they are concerned about fitting into society. But for Mohammad, it strengthened her identity, and she says she’s thankful for that.

Mohammad said that while some people assume Muslim women are oppressed and silenced because of wearing the hijab, or that it's a tradition forced on them by their husbands, her choice to wear it was her own.

“The hijab is more of a free choice and is a liberating one,” she said.

It’s important to Mohammad that people understand the terrorist attacks of 9/11 don’t reflect the Islamic faith. In her eyes, they were not only attacks on Americans, but also on American Muslims, who also lost family members and relatives.

Shahnaz Talukder, a Muslim woman working at a local architecture firm, said she hasn't experienced any racial profiling or prejudice since she moved to Columbia from Bangladesh six years ago.

She doesn’t cover her face or head on a daily basis.

But when she goes to the mosque, she strictly follows the dress code and wears the hijab. She hasn’t had any bad experiences while wearing it in public, she said.

In the future, Talukder said she might wear the hijab on a regular basis and is not too worried about how others will react to the change. But she still has some hesitation.

“I get concerned because of my profession," she said, adding that she fears she might be judged if she wore the hijab while giving a presentation at work.

Islam decided to wear the niqab after she began exploring her religion and establishing an identity for herself. She took a year off of school and started to take interest in religious texts.

“I’m a walking banner of Islam,” she said. “Islam encourages me to be civil and polite. What has to come forward is how I want to represent myself through my actions and words.”

Alisha Sheth reported this story during the Minority Urban Journalism Workshop held this summer at the MU School of Journalism.

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