New York – On the night of the California shootings, 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, and amid an anti-Muslim furor stoked by comments of Donald Trump, Quraishi-Landes, an Islamic law specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wanted to send a message.
“To all my Muslim sisters who wear hijab,” she 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 intensely debating the duty and risks related to wearing their head-coverings as usual.
Sites for Muslim women have posted guidance on how to stay safe. Hosai Mojaddidi, co-founder of the educational group MentalHealth4Muslims, drew nearly 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, a New York native attending the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, 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 years old.
“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.
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 most visible representatives of Islam, in a way that men with beards aren’t. 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.
Now, 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.
Suehaila Amen, a community activist in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, said that was the reaction from women she knows around Detroit. Amen said she would never take off her headscarf, but said she has the advantage of living in an area with one of the largest concentrations of Arabs and Muslims in the country. Still, she and her sister plan to take a self-defense class this weekend because of the furor. Amen regularly travels to give public talks.
“I wasn’t this concerned about my safety after 9/11. This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever said I worry when I leave the house,” Amen said. “Yes, there are people who need to be concerned or modify the way they wrap their scarf so that it’s not as visible.”
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 last Sunday underscoring that Muslims can take steps to protect themselves, such as wearing a hat instead of a hijab or not praying 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 that God would punish her. The video has been viewed nearly 39,000 times.
“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 Brooklyn, 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.
Last Sunday, 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 last week’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. She said she’s experienced an outpouring of support, especially from people of other faiths since the rampage by husband-and-wife shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Still, one of Hill’s friends has stopped wearing her scarf when she goes out.
“Being a Muslim woman — it makes you this symbol of the faith,” said Hill, who has worn a hijab for 17 years. “I think it’s very important for Muslim women to be smart during this time.”