After San Bernardino shooting, Muslim women in hijab getting 'comments, looks and whispers'

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In the past few days, photos of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the husband and wife who shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino last week, have been widely circulated in the media.

Photos show Malik wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf. As anti-Muslim sentiment and political rhetoric have escalated since last week, some Muslim women who wear hijab say they're afraid of attracting unwanted attention.

Like Maria Ahmed, an Orange County mother of three who in recent days has decided to lay low, avoiding unnecessary outings.

 “I haven’t gone grocery shopping,” Ahmed said. “I ask my husband to pick up groceries during the day, or after work, whenever he gets a chance. I just don’t feel safe going out.”

Ahmed wears hijab, as she has all her adult life. She considers it part of her identity as a Muslim woman. But she gets unnerved by the stares she’s received lately, and worse.

Last month, she said, after the terror attacks in Paris, a woman in a grocery store near Ahmed’s home in Orange County accosted her.

“She said, ‘Why are you even here? Why can’t you just go back?’” Ahmed said.

She said the woman kept trying to engage her, following her around the store and eventually to her car. Ahmed drove around in circles for a while before heading home, afraid she might be followed.

Another day, she said, someone shouted insults at her from a vehicle while she was in the pickup line at her kids’ school. In the past week, she’s decided to stop wearing her abaya, a traditional long dress.

“Dropping my kids off in the morning, I’ve started to wear dresses and cardigans, instead of the longer dresses I used to wear before, because I’m afraid of being shouted at or pushed or something,” Ahmed said.

She’s also been reluctant to tell people that she was born in Pakistan, because it’s the same country that Malik, the female shooter, emigrated from last year.

Ahmed is not the only hijabi who is feeling self-conscious, said Rani Hussain, who leads a group called the Muslim Women’s Council in Orange County. Unlike most Muslim men, Muslim women who wear hijab stand out.

“Many Muslim women who wear the hijab, or the abaya, feel that they are more conspicuous than the Muslim men who just wear regular clothing," Hussain said. “And therefore they feel that they are more likely to be the recipient of hate speech, or possible hate crimes.”

With a widely circulated photo of a female crime suspect in hijab now seemingly everywhere, “many women have been the recipients of comments, and looks, and whispers,” she said.

Not all Muslim women wear hijab; Hussain, who does not, said it’s a personal choice. She said she’s heard from some women who are contemplating no longer wearing one, so as not feel like targets.

Ahmed said she plans to keep wearing her hijab, in part because she wants to be a good example to her kids for standing up for one’s beliefs. But these days, she mostly keeps her kids home, too, for fear they’ll witness exchanges like she has.

“I used to take my kids out to the park every day after school," Ahmed said. Now, “I just let them play in the backyard.”

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