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Climate of fear has some Muslim women making difficult decisions about wearing hijab

Maria Ahmed, left, Hosai Mojaddidi and Shahzia Rahman founded a co-op preschool together and are good friends. Ahmed and Mojaddidi have long worn hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. Rahman is a practicing Muslim but did not wear hijab - until recent weeks. She decided to begin wearing it in hopes of doing her part to counter anti-Muslim prejudice. But some women have decided not to wear hijab lately because they fear for their safety. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Some Muslim women have been on edge in the wake of the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, and before then, the terror attacks in Paris last month.

After enduring stares, dirty looks and harsh words in recent weeks, some women who wear hijab, the traditional headscarf, are now making difficult choices about whether or not to wear it.

One of them is Sidra, a 23-year-old Cal State L.A. student who was born and raised in Southern California. Not long ago, she and her aunt were on their way to their local Wal-Mart when someone pulled up alongside their car.

“This lady pulled down her window, and she spat at my car, and then she drove away," said Sidra, who didn't want her last name used. "I can’t imagine why she would do that, unless she had something against me. And the clear and obvious answer was my scarf."

The hijab is used by many Muslim women around the world to cover their hair, as a sign of modesty. But with Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslims on the rise, some outsiders have zeroed in on those scarves as an obvious sign of otherness.

Locally, a Muslim woman had a knife pulled on her recently by a man at a Chino Hills car wash. Last month, police in San Diego investigated an incident the same night as the Paris terror attacks in which someone shoved a pregnant Muslim woman with her stroller. A student at San Diego State University reported being shoved by a man in a parking lot, who pulled at her headscarf
 
After the San Bernardino shooting, Sidra wound up at the center of a difficult family discussion about her hijab.
 
"My mom and dad both were on board – they wanted me to remove it, because they thought it was unsafe, and they didn’t want me to be targeted by anyone," she said.
 
Sidra had worn her hijab since her late teens; many Muslim girls make the decision whether or not to wear hijab as teenagers. Sidra said she embraced it as a badge of both her faith and identity. But with parents and other relatives weighing in, she complied and took it off.
 
“At first, I felt like someone removed my security blanket from me," Sidra said. "I felt uncomfortable. It was really weird. But at the same time, I noticed that no one was staring at me.”
 
Her decision is one of many difficult ones local Muslim women are making these days about their hijab - whether to keep it on, whether to take it off, and in some cases, whether to start wearing one for the first time.

Shortly after the San Bernardino shooting, Irvine blogger and community activist Hosai Mojaddidi received a text from a friend whose husband was pleading with her to remove her hijab, for her own safety. In response, Mojaddidi posted some advice.

"I decided that I basically needed to put out something to give our women some hope, and also some practical steps on how they could safeguards themselves," Mojaddidi said.

This included alternatives for covering up, like hats or hooded sweatshirts, and safety tips like avoiding staying out late, and relying on the buddy system when walking to one's car.

Muslim women who wear hijab stand out, unlike Muslim men, some of whom wear beards but still blend in. Mojaddidi, who wears hijab herself, says this makes the women standard-bearers of sorts for their faith - and places them under a microscope.

“I think the pressure is there, that we have to be the advocates of the entire community," Mojaddidi said. "So we have to smile more, and have to go out of our way, and it’s almost an apologetic sort of position - that's what it has become since 9/11 -  that I find myself, and I think a lot of Muslim women feeling that in a way. We have to go out of our way to show people that we are good, nice people."

But this pressure has pushed some Muslim women to take it a step further. Just a few weeks ago, Shahzia Rahman, a mother of two from Irvine, decided to start wearing hijab.

“I’m from a practicing religious family, but covering is not something that either side of my family does," she said.

Rahman had never worn hijab regularly. She'd worn a headscarf on occasion when, a few years ago, she helped set up preschool at her mosque. She liked how it felt, and she'd thought about wearing one, but the last few weeks sealed her decision.
 
"When the Paris attacks happened, it sort of hit me that there’s a lot of negativity and a lot of stereotypes about what Muslims must be like," Rahman said. "And I felt like, I wonder if my neighbors even know I’m Muslim? We have wonderful relationships.

"I’m a social person, and I meet people at my kids’ schools, and I wondered: Do they even know that I’m Muslim? And that’s what propelled me into accepting the hijab, to wear it, to show people that I’m a Muslim, but that I’m just a normal person, like you are," she said.

The other evening, Rahman grabbed coffee at a Fullerton cafe with Mojaddidi and Maria Ahmed, another hijabi. As she was getting up to leave, Rahman's hijab became stuck on her purse strap.

"This is what happens when you’ve only worn it a few weeks!" Rahman laughed, as her friends giggled. "Unlike the pros right here."

Kidding aside, Rahman knows the decision she’s made is a serious one. She said she hasn’t been harassed yet, but things are tangibly different now.

"The way people react to you is different," Rahman said. "There is sort of an awkwardness, where people don’t know what to expect from you.”

Her parents are worried about her, she said. She has two young children, three and five. Relatives fear she might be targeted.
 
"I completely understand their perspective, and where they are coming from," Rahman said. "But I feel like if I don’t do something in my community, who will?”

There’s also this: Both her children are daughters. Rahman said she wants to set an example, because one day, she'll have to talk with them about hijab - and the decisions they will make.

This is one reason why Maria Ahmed has decided to keep her hijab on, in spite of some brushes with strangers that have left her rattled. After the Paris attacks, a woman accosted her at the grocery store; more recently, she said, someone cursed at her from a car while outside her children's school. The other day, she decided to explain what's happening to her daughter, a fourth-grader.

"She told me, don't worry, I don't wear hijab, so no one recognizes if I'm Muslim or not," Ahmed said. "It kind of made me sad." 

Ahmed has decided to stop wearing her abaya - a long dress that some Muslim women wear - but not her hijab.

"I want them to know not to be afraid," Ahmed said, talking about her children. "I want them to know to stay strong, remember who they are, know in their hearts that they're not doing anything wrong. And if some people choose to judge you, then that is their loss, that they don't get to know you. You still do your best, you still do your part."

Doing her part was one of the reasons that Sidra, the Cal State L.A. student, decided to wear hijab in the first place. When she was a teenager, she decided to wear it even though her mother does not. One of her goals, she said, was to help counter prejudice.
 
"Some of the most beautiful people I have ever met are Muslim, and I know that a lot of people have prejudice against them," Sidra said. "And I figured that if someone saw me wearing it and I tried to be such a good human, or such a good person, that I’d want them to change their minds.”
 
These days, Sidra's dark brown hair hangs loose and shoulder-length. She wears sneakers, leggings and a sweatshirt – just your average college kid.
 
As much as she likes blending in – and as relieved as her parents might feel – Sidra said she  feels a little disappointed in her decision. But right now, she sees it as the safest option.
 
“I want it to be temporary, because I really do love wearing it," she said. "But the honest truth is that I love not being stared at, too. I don’t get stared at at all now, and that is so amazing.  I guess one day I hope I can wear it where I won’t get stared at, too."