Unveiling Muslim Women at Ohio University

written and photographed by MARYBETH BOGNAR

My latest and final story for the InterActivist:


On Saturday, April 23, the Muslim Student Association at Ohio University held an open house at the Islamic Center. The event encouraged OU students and Athens community members to learn more about Islam through speakers, videos, and presentations that occurred throughout the afternoon, and also offered Middle Eastern cuisine. The open house cleared up misconceptions about many aspects of Islam, one being women’s role in wearing various headscarf apparel.

The controversial topic of Muslim women’s headscarves is common in discussions about women’s rights. Around campus, people who are misinformed often speak about how they feel sorry for women who are “oppressed” or “forced” into these practices. However, this is far from the truth. During the open house, women who wore different types of the headscarf encouraged their guests to ask questions about what headscarves mean to them personally and to their fellow Muslim women.

Muslim WomenOne woman who spoke at the open house was Heather Irwin, an international studies graduate student from Portsmouth, Ohio. Irwin first chose to wear a headscarf with a face covering when she converted to Islam about eight years ago after growing up with a non-religious background. She wears it for different reasons, but decides to always have a scarf over her head and neck as well as being covered down to her wrist and ankles. “It varies on the situation,” Irwin said. “When I’m gardening I’ll wear a top and jeans, but if I’m on campus I’ll always wear the overgarments.” Although Irwin chooses to cover her face, this is not a requirement of Islam. “I like the protection, privacy and freedom,” Irwin explained.

Irwin found herself looking for religion several years ago. She believed in God, but did not belong to a religious community. She was attracted to Islam because of its simple and basic beliefs, prophets, and the community that it brought to her. Once she converted, she tried different apparel to find the most comfortable choice.

A more common scarf worn by Muslim women is the hijab, which is what Maha Alsaeed chooses to wear. Alsaeed is working to receive her Ph.D. in math education at OU. She has been Muslim her entire life and continued the religion when she moved to the United States from Saudi Arabia. “I feel comfortable covering my head and body. I try wearing skirts, but I’m just more comfortable when I have very loose clothing everywhere,” Alsaeed said at the open house. Her husband also encouraged her to do what she felt most comfortable with, which helped her try different styles and find what worked best for her.

These traditions are not just about appearance. Irwin and Alsaeed both feel that they are far from oppressed, and are actually taken more seriously by and get more respect from those around them. “I’m able to practice my right to be judged by character. My hijab helped me do that and caused people to think about what’s in my mind,” Alsaeed said.

Irwin agreed and added, “I receive much more respect in Athens.” She feels like liess of an object because “men won’t often check you out in these loose clothes.” Irwin also found that she pays attention to her behavior more since she is less anonymous and commonly recognized by her appearance.

Unfortunately, Irwin and Alsaeed’s choices in clothing do not come without scrutiny in today’s society. Alsaeed found one form of negative opinions toward Islamic practices in a Parkersburg, W.Va. coffee shop. She said that an elderly woman worker there seemed to dislike her and one day, the woman asked about Alsaeed’s scarf. After hearing why she chooses to wear it, the woman simply replied, “Strange; here is your coffee.”

Irwin had a scarier experience when she spent two years in Indianapolis, Ind. She faced aggressive comments every day. “People would get in my face and call me ‘wrong, evil and bad,'” Irwin said. “It was very frightening.” She sometimes heard comments such as “look at that thing.”

Both Irwin and Alsaeed have found that people in Athens are very accepting, and will even ask questions about their traditions that they are happy and willing to answer.

“More conversation on the subject of Muslim women and headscarves has stemmed from ongoing legislation changes in France, in which certain forms of Muslim overgarments are being banned. President Nicolas Sarkozy has cited resolving security issues and liberating Muslim women as two of the primary goals of the legislation.”

Both Irwin and Alsaeed shared a look and a quick laugh in response to this statement. “People seem to be scared that France will be an Islamic country,” Alsaeed said. Irwin finds the law flawed for many reasons, one of which has to do with procedures in international airports within France. “The law applies to anyone passing through the country, including its airports,” Irwin said. She expressed her concern of having to take off her overgarments and headscarf even if she was just switching planes in the airport. Alsaeed spoke about her experience outside of the U.S. while she was growing up in Saudi Arabia. “You cover your face or people will look at you in Saudi Arabia,” Alsaeed said when talking about smaller towns in the country. However, in larger cities people commonly wear the scarf but do not cover their faces. “It is not required by law, but it is more a social norm,” Alsaeed said. Irwin added, “In Afghanistan it is not legally required, but there is a strong social pressure. In Iran the policy changes a lot.”

Although policies and traditions vary throughout the world, these women show their choice through what they wear for their religion. Alsaeed and Irwin, along with other women at the recent Islamic Center open house, encourage questions and conversation to help create understanding and cooperation within the Athens society and to help these ideals spread throughout other communities in the U.S.