For Lubna Hussein, wearing traditional Muslim garb is a statement of faith.
But in the Western world, where the fashion of the day calls for bare midriffs, and the culture doesn’t always understand Muslim tradition, it also can be a statement of courage.
“I admire the women who wear the head scarf, especially in a country that is not Muslim,” said Fatima Khan, an Omaha artist who is Muslim. “I personally don’t have the strength yet.”
In the Muslim faith, men and women are required to dress modestly in public. Women who follow this tradition in America, however, sometimes risk suspicion, misunderstanding and outright discrimination.
Hussein, an Omaha Public Schools teacher’s aide, was barred from a city pool because employees considered her outfit – jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and head scarf – street clothes. Earlier this month, she filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Omaha, which has prompted the city to allow exceptions to its dress code for city pools.
Some Muslim women elsewhere have been ordered to remove their head scarves for driver’s license photos, school or work.
“It’s the most common form of discrimination American Muslims have faced in the last decade,” said Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C.
The tradition for modest dress among Muslims is rooted in faith. The Koran says that “believing women should lower their gaze and guard their modesty.” It instructs women to keep their beauty hidden except from their husbands and fathers.
“The majority of scholars have interpreted this as covering your hair as well as your neck and ears and your whole body except your hands and feet,” Ahmed said.
Some women take the modesty directive a step further and wear a veil.
Men, too, must dress modestly and simply, avoiding such things as flashy colors, silk and gold chains, she said.
Wearing the head scarf, or hijab, is a matter of choice for Muslim women in many countries and cultures, though not in all.
Hussein, who moved from Egypt three years ago, chooses to wear a colorful hijab, long-sleeved shirts and floor-length skirts because she believes her faith requires it.
She feels it offers protection, too.
“We put a high premium on honor. She feels protected from unwanted sexual attention,” said Bassel El-Kasaby, an attorney representing Hussein in the lawsuit. El-Kasaby translated for Hussein during an interview.
Hussein, who spoke in English and Arabic, said the loose-fitting clothing and scarf protect men, too, by removing temptation from a man with a roving eye.
Khan, the artist, usually doesn’t wear the scarf but dresses conservatively. She said her Muslim friends who wear the scarf say it’s liberating.
“People don’t tend to judge you for how you look,” she said. “They judge you for you. They aren’t judging you for how you’re dressed or how your hair is done.”
Though liberating in that sense, Khan believes that the hijab can attract some unwanted attention. The Wisconsin native noticed that when she put on the scarf to speak to students about Islam.
“People cannot see past the scarf,” she said. “Instinctively, they always ask where am I from, what languages do I speak. They don’t understand I’m American, too.”
Hussein experienced that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. She noticed that other Americans sometimes look at her and her friends with a sense of fear.
Tehmina Zeb, a northwest Omaha mom who has lived in America most of her life, started wearing the hijab a few weeks ago to help fight stereotypes about Muslim women.
Those stereotypes reduce Muslims to foreigners and terrorists, she said, and reduce Muslim women to an oppressed sex.
“For me it is very important to let the rest of America know that we are among you, and we’re no different,” she said.
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