University of Oklahoma female Muslim students address incorrect perceptions surrounding hijab and expressions of their religion.
For pre-nursing freshman Rand Salous, God is everything. The Quran asks that she be modest, and so, like millions of Muslim women, she wears a hijab.
The covering brings her peace, she said, but often others see her and feel pity.
“I feel like some people may feel sorry for me. ‘Oh, that poor girl, she probably has to do all these things. She’s probably forced,'” Salous said. “I’m not. It’s my choice. Everything I do is for me.”
In the West, the liberated individual does not cover up or hide, she said, but Salous is not hiding at all. Her modesty makes her stick out from the crowd.
“I think modesty is very empowering,” Salous said. “Every woman’s different. Every woman chooses how they want to express themselves in different ways, and I think everybody should be able to do that.”
Opinions regarding Islam in America are difficult to measure, if recent polls are any indication. A study from the Pew Research Center shows that from June 2014 to January 2017, Americans grew to “feel warmer” toward Muslims with an increase of eight “degrees,” from 40 to 48. Meanwhile, support of President Donald Trump’s attempted temporary travel ban shows a significant portion of Americans may still feel apprehensive toward Muslim-majority countries.
Biology pre-med junior Amanah Fatima does not need polling to tell her that this apprehension exists. Fatima was raised Muslim but never considered herself particularly religious until she came to college. It was through religious studies courses and firsthand analyses of holy texts that she really began to come into her faith, finding God through academia.
She prays five times a day and attends mosque every Friday. She does not wear a hijab herself, but as a Muslim woman, she echoes Salous regarding the garment, the clothing article most symbolic of the perceived female oppression within the religion.
“I don’t wear a hijab because that’s my personal choice. I have friends that do, and that’s also their choice,” Fatima said. “It doesn’t make me less of a Muslim because I don’t wear one, and it doesn’t make them any less Muslim because they do.”
Although never specifically mentioned in the Quran, the hijab has become synonymous with virtue and modesty in Islam, valued traits in all Abrahamic religions.
Fatima said she is unsure which developed first — her Muslim identity or her American one. Both are deeply important to her, and though she has little trouble unifying the two, she said the rest of society often does.
“I really feel as though there’s this idea that exists today that America and Islam are opposites, and that’s not true,” she said. “You can be both.”
Biases about modesty and stereotypes regarding religiously justified abuses toward women are largely to blame for negative views of Islam in the West, she said.
People have trouble seeing the line between Islam and the culture of a given country where it is practiced, she said — trouble seeing where one begins and the other ends.
“When people think of Islam, they immediately jump to places like Saudi Arabia,” Fatima said. “The Middle East and Arabs are so strongly associated with Islam, I think people forget just how big of a religion this is, how many adherents there are. It’s very diverse in how it’s practiced, how it merges with a given culture.”
There is a difference between Islam in America and Islam in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, biology freshman Nabiha Ahmad said. The problem is people have a clearer picture of how the religion is abused overseas than how it is practiced in their own backyards.
“A lot of Muslim countries are very patriarchal and have men in power that abuse it. They do that by making sure women don’t really get a say and then claim it’s under Islam when they can’t really back themselves up,” Ahmad said. “People see that and think, ‘This is Islam,’ when it’s not. It’s just power and greed.”
Ahmad was raised in Edmond, Oklahoma, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, both devout Muslims. In the summer following eighth grade, Ahmad made a pilgrimage to Mecca. There she felt spiritually enlightened, finding a desire to elevate her dedication to God, and chose to begin wearing a hijab in high school.
Though her peers distanced themselves, her close friends stuck by, growing closer still, for which she was grateful. Assumptions would vary, she said, fielded from non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
Eventually she decided to quit wearing the hijab for her own reasons. She was not particularly bothered by the new treatment she was receiving, though she never felt she was the person people expected her to be.
“I don’t exactly pray five times a day or any of that type of stuff. Some people wouldn’t consider me very religious, but I think I am,” Ahmad said.
She has faith, and she follows it. Like many Americans, her religious adherence is not always consistent. There’s nothing wrong with that, she said, and no one has told her otherwise.
“Islam is very simple. People make it out to be very harsh and demanding and cruel, and I just don’t think that’s what it is,” Ahmad said.