Muslim women in Colorado Springs and nationwide debate safety of hijab amid backlash
On the night of the California mass shooting, Asifa Quraishi-Landes sat on her couch, her face in her hands, and thought about what was ahead for her and other Muslim women who wear a scarf or veil in public.
The covering, or hijab, often draws unwanted attention even in the best of times. But after the one-two punch of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks by Islamic militants, Quraishi-Landes wanted to send a message.
"To all my Muslim sisters who wear hijab," Quraishi-Landes, an Islamic law specialist at the University of Wisconsin, wrote on her Facebook page. "If you feel your life or safety is threatened in any way because of your dress, you have an Islamic allowance (darura/necessity) to adjust your clothing accordingly. Your life is more important than your dress."
Amid a reported spike in harassment, threats and vandalism directed at American Muslims and at mosques, Muslim women are debating the duty and risks related to wearing their head coverings.
"It's definitely weighing heavily on our minds. Not just with me, but among all of the Muslim women within our community," said Feda Elwazeir, a member of the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs. "For me the hijab represents my personal relationship with God, but when you're hit below the waist - twice, in a matter of weeks - it weighs on you so heavily that you start to question yourself and think, 'Do I take a different direction? What is my next step?'"
Sites for Muslim women have posted guidance on how to stay safe. Hosai Mojaddidi, co-founder of the educational group MentalHealth4Muslims, drew more than 4,000 likes for her Facebook post advising women to "pull out those hooded sweatshirts, beanies, hats and wraps for a while until the dust settles."
Muslimgirl.net posted a "Crisis Safety Manual for Muslim Women," with tips such as wearing a turban instead of a longer, more obviously religious scarf and carrying a rape whistle. Muslim women in several cities are organizing or taking self-defense classes. The ad for one such class in New York features a drawing of a covered woman in a karate stance.
"We're getting so many calls," said Rana Abdelhamid, 22, founder of the Women's Initiative for Self-Empowerment, which offers self-defense and empowerment classes in several cities for young Muslim and Jewish women who face harassment.
Abdelhamid said she had studied karate since childhood and started offering self-defense classes for women after a man tried to pull off her headscarf when she was 16.
"Even now when I think about that moment - I have a lot of anxiety moving through the streets to this day - especially with all of the hateful rhetoric because, I don't know, is it going to happen again?" she said.
A sensitive subject
The question of whether to wear the hijab is already deeply sensitive for Muslim women. Scholars have debated for years whether women have a religious obligation to dress a particular way. And Muslims disagree over whether the hijab is a symbol of piety or oppression.
Women who wear a scarf or veil say they have many motivations for doing so, including demonstrating devotion to their faith and showing pride in their religious heritage.
Their decision makes them among the more visible representatives of Islam, in a way that men with beards are not. Well before the latest uproar, it was common for American Muslim women wearing the hijab to be stared or cursed at, or have strangers tug at their scarves.
But the worries faced by today's Muslim women are on a new level, Elwazeir said.
"There's a fear that's been instilled in us in the last few weeks, the last month and a half. I've been genuinely afraid to leave the house. Lots of my friends have been harassed verbally," Elwazeir said. "After 9/11, we never felt this kind of harassment or retaliation or this threatened."
Many Muslim women say this is the exact moment when they need to make their presence known by wearing the hijab without any modification, as an act of defiance. For Elwazeir, dress is not a statement to the outside world so adjusting in response to current events - even in the name of safety - is a complicated emotional and spiritual proposition.
Wearing the hijab is "not about being a rebel or making a point to anyone. This is between a woman and God," she said. "It is heartbreaking and heart-wrenching for a Muslim woman to stand in the mirror and say, 'I'm walking out without my hijab today due to what's going on around us.'"
Women face harassment
Generally, Islamic law allows people who face persecution over their faith to alter their behavior or even "renounce faith itself" if necessary to survive, said Mohammad Fadel, an Islamic law specialist at the University of Toronto. Each person can determine what constitutes a credible threat.
Omar Suleiman, resident scholar at the Valley Ranch Islamic Center in Irving, Texas, posted a YouTube video this month underscoring that Muslims can take steps to protect themselves, such as wearing a hat instead of a hijab or not praying in public. But he cautioned against assuming there's a risk without examining the circumstances.
Suleiman said he posted the video in response to a Muslim woman he said came to him crying because she took off her veil for the first time out of concern for her safety and was worried God would punish her.
"I'm not going to judge anyone's individual standing," Suleiman said, but "you don't have to resort to completely abandoning your obligation."
The Council on American- Islamic Relations, the civil rights group that most closely tracks bias against Muslims, said it does not have a breakdown of harassment by gender. But "the vast majority" of cases of discrimination and harassment against Muslim women at work, in school and in the public in general are from women who wear the hijab, said Jenifer Wicks, the organization's litigation director.
Since the Paris attacks last month, a New York man was charged with spitting on and shouting anti-Muslim slurs at a woman wearing a hijab after she accidentally bumped him with a baby stroller; a New York pharmacist who wears a headscarf said a customer called her a terrorist and told her to get out of the country; and a San Diego State University student said a man ripped off her headscarf and began yelling racist slurs at her.
Recently, two young Muslim American women who wear headscarves went to an Austin, Texas, restaurant where a male customer harassed them and told them to go back to Saudi Arabia. They said when they asked other customers to help them, no one did, and the man was seated at a table even though the women alerted the host. The owner of the restaurant, Kerbey Lane Cafe, has apologized repeatedly to the women and the public.
Margari Hill, co-founder of The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative who lives in San Bernardino County near the site of this month's shootings, said it was important for bystanders to help stop any harassment they witness.
"Just standing there and looking, that's the worst thing that anybody who is being subject to harassment and violent threats can experience. You just feel so alone," Hill said.
Hill said she and most of her friends aren't changing anything about their daily lives.
Elwazeir, as well, has no plans to adjust how she wears hijab, but she understands why some Muslim women in the Springs area, and nationwide, have chosen to do so in recent weeks. "You could put on a hoodie or wear a hat for a while, but my personal reaction to that is where do you draw the fine line?" she said. "I have never questioned or thought, 'Let me take it off so I can blend in.' The most I've ever done is I wore hijab with a hood up over my head, but it was really cold. It's not going to be cold forever."
The Gazette's Stephanie Earls and The Associated Press' Wilson Ring contributed to this story.