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Islam in the Ozarks: Wearing the Headscarf in Missouri

Today, as we continue our series exploring lesser known religious groups in the Ozarks, we ask local Muslim women what it’s like to wear the Islamic headscarf, or “hijab,” in southwest Missouri. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore has this report.

Every day of the year, before Sahar Abu Laela steps outside of her front door in Joplin, she drapes a scarf over her hair and tucks it neatly into place. The mother of three says when she wears her hijab, or Islamic headscarf, in the Ozarks, people sometimes look at her like she’s "from outer space."Abu Laela: People who come and ask me, they are curious if I’m having a skin disease, or chemotherapy, or if somebody is forcing that on me. Moore: And what do you say to them? Abu Laela: I explain that this is part of my religious practice, that I have to put the scarf on.She's also a doctor, and went to medical school in Egypt where she specialized in internal medicine. She says although her hijab makes her stand out here, it is part of her identity as a Muslim woman."It makes me feel precious, and, you know, proud of who I am. I am not scared of anyone, I just tell people who I am," she says.She and others who wear the hijab interpret from the Qur'an, Islam's sacred text, and the Hadith, the sayings of Mohammed, whom Muslims believe was the last prophet, that it is obligatory for women to cover their entire bodies except for the face and hands.Another woman who worships at the Joplin mosque is Mithy Harjo.On this day, Harjo is soothing her toddler son, Ibrahim, at the mosque. Growing up in Indonesia, her parents weren't devout Muslims, so she didn't cover her hair with the hijab.

Harjo: And then I married with my husband, he practices Islam very good, and he asked me to wear it. And of course I obeyed him, and this is not only because I obey my husband but because actually I obey God. God asks the woman, the wife, to obey the husband as long as his rules are according to God’s rules.

Moore: Was it difficult for you to start wearing the hijab?

Harjo: Of course. Yeah. Because usually we like [to be] free, and you know, it’s like very, very hard. At first I tried and I failed. But when I came here, I felt like, I don’t know, like I have a strength to wear it all the time. Because I feel like I’m different with other people. And then it was easier for me. And I feel confident wearing this.She says the Qur'an teaches that women are created more naturally attractive than men, and that's why women are required to dress more modestly. It’s a social responsibility to do so, she believes, and points out that Muslim men are instructed to do their part by “lowering their gaze” when in the presence of an unrelated woman.

When she's around unrelated men, she also tries to keep her voice and body movements from being perceived as attractive, too.Harjo: We cannot shake hands. We cannot touch each other. Talking is okay, as long as we don’t,like, stare at each other, like, to make us attractive, or something like that.Moore: So there’s just a lot of being very careful not to cross any lines.Harjo: Yes, yes.Moore: And do you like that? Do you like abiding by those rules?Harjo: I like that so much. Because I realize that God gave us [those] rules, because he knows us. He knows what he created.To get a man's perspective on all of this, we talked to Dr. Iftikhar Ali, an American physician who's originally from Pakistan. Ali's wife is a Muslim, too, but she chooses not to wear the hijab. He says the idea that Muslim women are pressured into doing things by their husbands doesn't ring true in his home. In fact, he says, the opposite is usually the case.

Ali: She does pressure me for things! Moore: Like what? Ali: Different things, which are good. Any time I sit to the table, she will say “Eat this, and don’t eat that.” Usually, I have to eat salad. [laughs]

In Springfield, Dr. Wafaa Kaf is on the faculty in the audiology department at Missouri State University.

"I got my M.D. from Egypt, then I got my M.A., then I came to the US to get my Ph.D.," she says.She says she wears the hijab because she believes it's a divine commandment. She also says it forces people to evaluate her based on something other than her physical looks, and in that way, she says, it’s actually liberating."You need to judge me based on my thinking. It’s not how pretty I look like, or what is the fashion, what type of clothes. So you need to judge me on my quality of work," she says.She has two daughters, and says while she's heard of some parents forcing girls to wear the headscarf, she doesn't support that.Kaf: Because they have to be convinced to select it as their own choice. Because, you know, it doesn’t help you to put it on and take it off when you are away from your dad. So it has to come from the girl herself. And it is not required unless you are mature, unless you have a woman’s body. Moore: So, how will you and your husband address the issue of hijab when your daughters come of age? Kaf: Um, it’s a great question. You know, since we are here, we did not think about that until last year, when my daughter should wear her hijab. So we have talked with her, [saying] “Maybe it’s time for you to wear your hijab.” She said, okay, I will wear my hijab. But it was very hard with her, because it is a non-Muslim society. Because you know, she was not against the hijab. She was against going to school and hearing any negative words about it. So we took her step by step, and now she is very comfortable wearing the hijab. Even she says “It represents me as a Muslim.” And I felt so good, because this is now her choice, and I’m sure she’ll keep it for good.Moore: Hypothetically, if she came home one day and said she had decided not to wear it, what would be your reaction?

Kaf: I would be disappointed. You know, again, hijab is not a choice. It is part of the religion. So if she believes in her religion, she has to accept every order, every divine order. And it is stated clearly in the Qur’an [that the] woman has to cover the body and the head.

A handful of Saudi Arabian women living and studying in Springfield also wear the "niqab," or face veil, which is an even more conservative form of Islamic dress.Join is tomorrow morning as our series continues; we'll be taking a tour of a local mosque. For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore.