Issues & Ideas

Muslim women who wear the hijab are increasingly concerned about being targeted

MORE CAUTIOUS: Salwa Raza, 18, is a high school student in Miami Lakes who decided to wear a head scarf when she was in the seventh grade.
MORE CAUTIOUS: Salwa Raza, 18, is a high school student in Miami Lakes who decided to wear a head scarf when she was in the seventh grade. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Three days a week Batoul Takch puts on her sneakers, strolls across the street to her neighbor’s house and waits for her to get ready for their walk.

“Usually, I’m out in five minutes,” laughs Takch’s workout buddy, Tehsin Siddiqui, 32, who has been known to don flip-flops during their morning constitutional.

They may not agree on footwear, but with headwear they have common ground. Takch and Siddiqui are Muslim, and each sport the hijab — a headscarf worn by some Muslim women.

In recent weeks, safety has become a growing concern for them and other women who wear the hijab, given that three Muslim students — two of them sisters who wore the head covering — were shot dead Feb. 10 in their apartment in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Takch, 27, and Siddiqui considered changing their walking route, which takes them from their Davie neighborhood to nearby Vista View Park, in light of the incident. Ultimately, they didn’t change their path, but they did take safety precautions.

“The first day we went walking I didn’t bring my cellphone because I wanted the quiet time,” said Siddiqui. “The second time we went walking I took my phone with me, and that was after the shooting. You’d rather be safe than sorry.”

The shootings of the three young people — Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, a second-year dental student at the University of North Carolina; his 21-year-old wife of less than two months, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, who had been accepted to UNC-Chapel Hill’s dental program and was set to begin classes in the fall; and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who was visiting them and was a student at North Carolina State in Raleigh — has outraged many and raised concerns about a growing anti-Islamic mood in the country.

“It has become a common household topic. We’ve talked about what this means to us and our safety,” said Mahira Khan, 27, a lawyer from Deerfield Beach, who wears the hijab. “I look over my shoulder a lot more, and I’m more cautious than before.”

Two weeks ago, a North Carolina grand jury indicted Craig Hicks, 46, a self-described “gun-toting’’' atheist, on three counts of first-degree murder in the shootings and one count of discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.

Police have said the shootings were sparked by a long-standing dispute over a parking space, although others have called for the killings to be classified as a hate crime.

When Donia Sharifeh learned of the tragedy, she immediately identified with the victims, especially the two women who wore the headscarf.

“They were two girls who looked just like me,” said Sharifeh, 25, of Miramar, who works in Publix and is a tutor. “Regular American girls, who wear the hijab and are active in their community — that could have been me.”

About 14 percent of the hate crimes motivated by religious bias reported in 2013 were against Muslims, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, some American Muslims feel as if they have been wrongly blamed for the actions of groups they’re not afflicted with.

“Sometimes I am sick of defending and apologizing,” said Nadine Aly, 21, of Boca Raton, who wears the hijab. “I am sick of condemning and having to apologize for things I didn’t do.”

Aly said she and other Muslim women recently met to discuss safety measures they can adopt to defend themselves in public, such as carrying pepper-spray.

Daniel Alvarez, interim director of the Muslim World Studies Center Initiative at Florida International University, believes that Muslim women who wear the hijab have a legitimate safety concern because their scarves are an easily recognizable symbol of their faith.

“Now it’s going to be tough for Muslim women to wear a symbol of Islam that conveys to many ignorant people — there is an extremist here, and if she’s not an extremist, she’s an extremist in the making and she certainly sympathizes with that evil ideology,” Alvarez said.

Sharifeh, the Miramar woman, toyed with wearing the hijab for years. She started wearing one about a year and a half ago.

By then, Sharifeh’s safety concerns had taken a backseat to her desire to “do what will make me happy.”

“It was freeing for me,” said Sharifeh. “It’s a way to protect my modesty, so I am not looked at as a slab of meat, but as an individual with a mind.”

Sharifeh said that she has faced discrimination and bigotry because of her hijab —everything from being stared at to people passing by and uttering hateful comments.

But Siddiqui says a man punched a dent in her vehicle and called her a terrorist in a Home Depot parking lot in Weston about two years ago.

Salwa Raza, 18, a senior at Miami Lakes Educational Center who wears the hijab, was sent hate-filled tweets when she posted a comment about the Chapel Hill incident.

“After those tweets, I realized it’s more than just being stereotyped or discriminated against, it’s being persecuted for what I believe in,” Raza said. “Those tweets made me realize that it’s more than just people thinking these things, it’s a hatred for no reason.”

Still, Raza said the incidents when she has been harassed or feels discriminated are isolated cases, and she generally feels safe in her community.

The hijab made headlines last week when the Supreme Court heard a case in which Abercrombie & Fitch, the retailer, didn’t hire Samantha Elauf, who received high marks in her interview, because her headscarf didn’t go with the company’s Look Policy. The policy details what its employees can wear on the sales floor.

The case, whose origins date to 2008, is centered on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal to refuse to hire someone based on an individual’s “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.’’ (In 2013, the company changed its policy to allow employees to wear hijabs after it settled two other cases involving women and headscarves.)

Local human rights advocates see parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and raising awareness of the Islamophobia that has developed since the Sept. 11 attacks. As such, they’re taking a page from the Rev. Martin Luther King and teaching people about grassroots organizing and other non-violent ways to fight discrimination.

“We are in the process of putting together forums across the state,” said Muhammed Malik, who is active in the South Florida Muslim community.

He said the forums will take place in four cities in Florida — Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and Miami — and both men and women will lead the groups. The forums will teach “youth of color’’ about non-violent direct action training and organizing practices to combat Islamic prejudice, he said.

“It’s important because it provides people the opportunity to come together and address the root causes of Islamophobia,’’ he said. “We’re really inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, and how it used community organizing to address racism. That’s the inspiration behind this.”

After the Chapel Hill slayings, Malik organized a candlelight vigil at the Torch of Friendship near Bayside Marketplace where about 100 people paid their respects to the three slain students.

Meanwhile, Nour Samra has adapted her own approach to fighting prejudice.

“The best thing you can do is be kind,” said Samra, 24, a pharmacy student from Miramar who wears the hijab. “Most minorities feel the pressure to expel misconceptions that people have of them.”

Khan, the lawyer from Deerfield Beach, takes a similar approach.

“I try to chat more with strangers,” she said. “It’s just small chat, which shows them the normality of being an American-Muslim. It shows we are peaceful people.”

History of the Hijab

The first reference to veiling dates to an Assyrian text in 13 B.C. In the text, the practice of veiling was described as reserved for elite, “respectable” women; prostitutes and women of lower-classes were forbidden from veiling.

Likewise, elite women in ancient Greco-Roman, pre-Islamic Iranian, and Byzantine societies practiced veiling.

It was not until the reign of the Safavids in the Ottoman Empire, an area that extends through the Middle East and North Africa, in the 16th century that the veil emerged as a symbol of social status among Muslims.

Since the 19th century, Muslims have embraced veiling as a cultural practice rather than simply an Islamic practice.

Muslim women are encouraged to draw their hijab around them in public, as a means of distinguishing them from others and as a way of avoiding harassment.

Source: University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Arabs in America project