A handful of other girls in hijab and jeans or hijab and long skirts dot the playground, some laughing out loud, some whispering quietly among friends. They are free. It’s recess time.
∗ ∗ ∗
The five teenage girls gathered around the oval table in a conference room at Hoover High represent a range of Muslimah (female Muslim) styles. Habiba (the only one of the five who chooses not to reveal her real name) wears a lavender masar, a black long-sleeved shirt, and a full lavender skirt. She says there’s no real reason her scarf isn’t tucked under her chin like Safiya’s across the table, except that, without a pin to hold in place, it’s annoying to keep tucking and retucking it all day long.
The sleeves of Safiyah’s brown (and slightly snug) button-up top reach only to her elbows. By most standards, she’s covered and clearly modest, but when I ask if her bare forearms are considered risqué, she grins with embarrassment and pulls at the sleeves, as if to will them longer. Only Hanifo, the quiet freshman in the dusky-blue waist-length hijab and the pale-blue skirt, would likely meet with the full approval of her mother.
“We have to cover our neck, our arms, everything from head to toe,” says Amina. “No skin.”
Amina is the one girl in the room whose head is not covered. She’s the dramatic type, dominating most of the conversation with stories about her sisters and various cousins and occasional attempts to one-up Safiya’s clear intellectualism with confusing explanations of the hows and whys of Islam for girls. Though she claims to love answering the questions of strangers about why Muslim women wear hijab, she struggles with that answer here and now.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she says after a fumbled attempt at clarity. “It’s because of my religion.” This confusion might explain why so much of what she says she’s “supposed” to do is exactly the opposite of what she’s doing now.
“I’m not supposed to dress like this,” she says, indicating the plaid shirt with the top button secured just above her cleavage and the almost form-fitting, long, satiny skirt. “I’m supposed to wear clothes that don’t show my body shape. Because of the guys. So I don’t get the guys’ attention. That’s what we believe.”
Later, she remembers a play she saw at San Diego State University where a woman made the point that covering one’s head is not mandatory for Muslim women.
“She said it’s a choice,” Amina says incredulously. “But I believe it’s a ‘have-to’ even though I’m not wearing it.”
Safiya agrees. “It is a ‘have-to.’”
“Yeah,” says Habiba at the same time that Fadumo says, “It is.”
Although these girls believe that covering their hair is mandatory, each of the five remembers making the decision to wear the hijab on their own. Habiba wanted to wear one because her friends at Birney Elementary did. Fadumo said she was envious that her big sister wore one, so she asked her mother to buy her one too.
Safiya says she was proud to wear hers “because it’s part of who I am.” The only problem she had with other children at school was once when two girls ganged up on her, and one told the other to pull off Safiyah’s hijab. Neither girl dared to.
Amina pipes in, “When I was seven years old, people used to say, ‘Why do you have that?’ They used to question me. They’d say, ‘Take that towel off your head’ and stuff like that.”
The girls agree that despite a minor incident or insult here and there, kids in elementary school were mostly curious. In middle school, however, they became cruel.
“Middle-schoolers are the worst,” says Safiya.
“Ignorant,” says Habiba.
“Middle school was definitely the hardest,” confirms Fadumo.
The worst of it, they say, was the daily questions they had to answer, such as “Do you wear that in the shower?” and “Is that a tablecloth on your head?” Insults disguised as ignorance.
And then there was “Aren’t you hot?” mocks Safiya.
Every one of them groans. Two roll their eyes.
“It’s super thin,” says Habiba, clearly over the whole thing. Duh.
I don’t tell them that nearly every non-Muslim I’ve spoken to about hijab has wondered the same thing.
High-schoolers “don’t ask dumb questions,” says Amina. “They’re way more mature.”
Not always, though. During freshman year, a friend pulled off Fadumo’s hijab in the middle of class, in front of a bunch of boys.
“They were, like, ‘Can I see your hair?’ and I was, like, ‘No, you can’t see it. It’s against my religion to show you my hair.’ And there were a lot of guys in the class,” Fadumo says. “I was, like, ‘I can’t show you my hair,’ so she came behind my back and she pulled [my hijab] off.”
The rest of the girls give their full attention to this story, and when Fadumo stops there, Amina asks, “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do nothing because she was my friend.”
The teacher called Fadumo out of the class and said she could have the girl suspended. Fadumo said not to worry about it and accepted an apology from the friend instead.
Somewhere in the middle of our discussion, Fadumo and Habiba begin a side conversation about celebrities who are rumored to have converted to Islam. Chris Tucker’s name comes up. Former bad-boy rapper Loon is mentioned as well.
And this takes us off into a new direction. From this point on, they don’t care so much for my questions about hijab. There are more pressing matters at hand, such as why it’s supposed to be a sin to talk or text with a member of the opposite sex. None of these girls like the idea of arranged marriage, and they can’t comprehend how they’re supposed to fall in love when they can’t even get to know someone first.
They break down some of the rules they’re supposed to follow: no sex before marriage and no alcohol; no nail polish unless you have your period because you can’t pray then anyway; no perfume, at least not so much that boys will be attracted to you; no holding a grudge for more than three days.