The Qur'an calls for both Muslim women and men to dress modestly
in public. Although Islam doesn't specify a style or form of
dress, Suzanne Haneef writes in her book "What Everyone
Should Know About Islam and Muslims" that a woman is
required to "be completely covered except for her hands
and face and that her dress should conceal her form, be loose
and nontransparent, and not of a kind to attract attention by
"Many non-Muslim women might think of such dress as restrictive
or even oppressive -- a sign of submission to men -- but those
who have adopted hijab find it nothing less than liberating.
"People gauge who you are by what you wear and what you
look like; you can't get away from that," says Tarazi, who
lives in Worthington and edits the IQRA! newsletter of the Islamic
Society of Greater Columbus. "I used to feel uncomfortable
(trying to keep up with) styles and looks. I was an intellectual
type with glasses; I didn't go to the prom. Hijab frees you from
trends and trying to keep up with appearances."
Dr. Asma Mobin-Uddin, a local pediatrician who is vice president
of the Ohio Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations,
finds irony in the perception that hijab somehow represents a
woman's submission to her husband.
"It's the total opposite of subordination," she
says. "We wear it because we choose to; we refuse to let
ourselves be sex objects. We're saying: 'Value us for what we
are, our character, not how we look. We're not going to play
the game of trying to look good for you. We won't let you hire
us because you like our legs, or we'll look good around the office.'
"In the West, I don't think women really see or realize
how much you're tied to fashion, how much time you spend -- or
waste, I should say -- dressing 'appropriately' and following
fashion," Mobin-Uddin said.
Hijab is an Arabic word meaning "curtain."
Some use it to refer to the headdress many Islamic women wear;
others use it to describe modest dress in general -- loose, unrestrictive
clothing that covers the body, including Western-style blazers
and long skirts.
As religious and cultural groups unfamiliar with one another's
practices begin to work and live together, misperceptions can
arise, said Alam Payind, director of the Middle East Studies
Center at Ohio State University.
Sometimes these misperceptions have led to clashes. The city
of Portsmouth, Va., for example, recently agreed to pay $100,000
each to two Muslim women who were arrested in 1996 for wearing
veils in public. They were charged with violating a state law
prohibiting the wearing of masks. The law, aimed at exposing
Ku Klux Klan members, exempted people who cover their faces for
In France, where Islam is the second-largest faith after Roman
Catholicism, Muslim students often are expelled from schools
for wearing Islamic attire. Last year, France's highest administrative
court reaffirmed a ban on wearing hijab in public schools.
"That's an ethnocentric mentality," Payind said.
"You have women in the Middle East thinking they are more
free than women here. Who is more free, they ask: Women who buy
lipstick, are slaves to fashion, need new clothing every season
and try to make themselves appealing to men? Somehow we all have
the view that when others do things differently they are oppressed."
Payind theorizes that misperceptions about hijab might be
rooted in media reports about oppression of women in some Islamic
nations, such as Afghanistan, ruled by the restrictive Taliban
regime. But he notes that of the world's 56 Muslim countries,
most don't require women to dress in any certain way; indeed,
headscarves and other hijab coverings are discouraged in some,
such as Turkey.
The religious mandate of modest dress is hardly limited to
Islam, he says; observant Jewish women, for example, are urged
to cover their hair and bodies to hide their beauty in public.
Nuns' habits are rooted in a religious call for modesty, as well.
"What seems to be overlooked or misunderstood in the
West," says Margaret Mills, chairwoman of OSU's Near Eastern
Languages and Cultures Department, "is that hijab in a society
often can be looked at as a way to 'decommercialize' women by
looks, sexuality and fashion."
Jennifer Halperin is a Dispatch editorial writer.