Flowered or fringed, striped or dotted, shaped into a turban, a twist or a simple drape, head scarves worn by Muslim women – hijabs – speak more of faith than fashion.
A group of teens and women representing the group WNY Muslims gathered Sunday afternoon around a scarf-stacked table outside Sears in the Walden Galleria to share the look and feel, as well as the meaning, of the hijab with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
“The reason that I wear it is that it’s a commandment of Allah, that women be modest,” said Rose Salley of Buffalo, who converted to Islam in 2011. “My family is not Muslim, the man who is now my fiance did not tell me to put it on.”
The women say they are often asked whether they are forced to wear the hijab, a veil or scarf that means “cover” in Arabic.
“People will say, ‘You don’t seem oppressed,’ ” said Salley, who accented her long black and gray printed scarf with a lace-edged underwrap and a sparkling headband.
Event organizer Julie Boody, assistant executive director of WNY Muslims, who wore a turquoise hijab, said, “We’re not being forced to do this. This is a choice we make, every day. We’re looking for people to understand that this is not oppression, this is our freedom.”
At the mall, Salley said, she was speaking with a woman when the man behind her on the escalator leaned in and said, “They’re trash, don’t get involved with them!” before walking away.
Although both Salley and the women were surprised by the stranger’s comment, Salley was not rattled. “If I had to worry what people say about me, I’d never get out of bed,” she said.
Boody said the event had to be moved from its original location in front of Dick’s Sporting Goods to a spot closer to the security office as a result of threats. The security office at Galleria referred questions about the incident to the main office, which was closed on Sunday; a Cheektowaga Police spokesman said his department had not been notified of a threat.
Muslim women wear the hijab in response to verses in the Qur’an that require modest dress for both males and females after puberty. Women must wear the hijab in public and also in front of any man they could potentially marry, which excludes close relatives, as well as male children and elderly men.
Men may choose traditional loose cotton clothing and a kufi cap, but may also obey the requirement for modesty with appropriate Western clothing.
On Sunday, the level of coverage varied among women. While most had the long scarves carefully pinned to cover every strand of hair, several women chose more loosely draped scarves that covered most but not all of their hair.
QueeNia AsheeMa’at of Buffalo covered most of her hair with two scarves twisted around each other and rolled and tucked into a spiraling crown. “This is the way I wear it – a lot of people don’t wear it this way,” she said.
For AsheeMa’at, the hijab is not only a statement of faith, but a protection, she said. At an out-of-town restaurant, when a homeless man harassed her, a man she didn’t know defended her, she said. “A Muslim will recognize another Muslim wherever we go,” by dress and the exchange of traditional religious greetings, she said. “We have friends in all corners of the world, and I feel good about that.”
Salley has found that she gets more respect while wearing the hijab. A young man reciting vulgar song lyrics spotted her and quickly apologized, she said.
A group of lively girls, including Zayneb Algawani, 15, Ghuzlan Alhaddad, 16, Maryem Almraisi, 14, Mariam Alberri, 16, and Nofa Alawdi, 14, all from Lackawanna, fanned out through the mall to hand out fliers for the event. They returned to the table with Daemen College student Erin MacAllister, who was willing to try on a hijab. The girls quickly covered MacAllister’s long blond hair with a bright blue underscarf to match her blue lipstick, then topped it with a flowing, snow-white hijab. “It feels comfortable; I like it,” said MacAllister.
Aqmera Williams, of Buffalo, handed over her own skull-and-crossbones scarf with fringe to AsheeMa’at, who wrapped and tucked it into a rounded crown. “It makes me feel more confident,” Williams said. “It might attract somebody to ask questions, and then they can know me for me.”
That was the exact point of the event, said Boody, who would prefer to wear a niqab, which covers all of a woman’s face except her eyes. “Stop judging people by how they look, say hello and get to know them. We want people to talk. The more conversations that happen, the better. We’re looking for dialogue at all times.”