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Prejudice and progress: Women with hijabs talk about what it's like to wear the Muslim headscarf

Nara Schoenberg, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Religious News

Wrapped tightly around her head, with no softly draping fabric to distract her during meetings at her tech startup, Dilara Sayeed's hijab is American in more ways than one.

Her hijab, or Muslim headscarf, has a sleek, professional profile that is mostly seen in the U.S.

And the spirit with which Sayeed, a former Democratic candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives, wears her hijab is American as well. When Sayeed's Indian-born father questioned her decision to cover her hair at age 19, saying, "You're in America now; you don't have to do this," Sayeed's comeback was the stuff of a high school civics class:

"It's because I'm American that I can choose to cover, Daddy."

At a time of fraught debate about immigration and national identity, the hijab has become a flashpoint and a symbol of solidarity, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donning a hijab after the Christchurch mosque shootings, and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro drawing criticism for asking whether U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar's hijab reflects beliefs "antithetical to the U.S. Constitution."

Controversy flared locally last year when WGN-TV news anchor Robin Baumgarten told Chicago fashion blogger Hoda Katebi, who wears a hijab, that she didn't sound like an American when she criticized U.S. policy. Baumgarten later apologized.

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In response to such high-profile incidents, the Tribune interviewed six Chicago-area women about why they wear the hijab, what it means to them, and what kinds of reactions they get. The women interviewed were from families with roots in Syria, India, Africa and Palestine. They were black, white and brown, suburban and urban, immigrant and American-born. They spoke of bigotry and acceptance, of religious devotion and personal identity.

"Hijab is part of me, a part of who I am, something I can call basically home," said Saeda Sulieman, a college student. "If I don't wear the hijab, I feel less secure, less powerful."

While the Muslim holy book, the Quran, does not explicitly require head covering, it does call on Muslims -- both men and women -- to be modest in speech, action and self-presentation, according to Aminah Al-Deen, a professor emerita of Islamic studies at DePaul University. Some Muslim women believe they are required to wear the hijab, while others do not.

And even beyond religion, the hijab has layers of nuanced and often very personal meaning: It can be a reminder to stay true to one's own beliefs. It can be a signal to teenage boys that you demand respect. The hijab can be a very American assertion of the right to self-expression. It can be flat-out feminist.

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