When Hawa Shidad, a Muslim student studying sociology with a minor in peacebuilding, was 5 years old, she was attracted to the big, colorful hijab she saw a woman outside of her home wearing. She called to her mother to show her the Somali Bantu – or Ogi – woman’s beautiful hijab. Shidad was excited because she had never seen anyone in her culture wearing a big, long hijab. Her mother looked at the woman’s hijab and went to the store to purchase Shidad her own green, decorated hijab.
“I was so happy that Ogi people wore the big hijab,” Shidad said. “And that’s when I started wearing hijab. I loved the way it looked. Inshallah (if God wills it), I will continue to wear it.”
Born into Islam in Kenya, Shidad grew up in a refugee camp in Dadaab. Like Shidad, many women of faith identify with a religion that prompts them to make a decision to cover or not, whether that be with a hijab, a veil, a headscarf or other head covering. Additionally, every religion has its own historical context and rules, suggested or implied, about the appearance of women.
“Each faith has a group that believes that the head covering is a religious symbol, but not everyone from that faith necessarily follows that tradition,” said Helga Kisler, a theology professor at Mount Mary University. “It is influenced by the culture. More than that, it is up to the woman to cover or not.”
Kisler explained that in the Catholic tradition, women were expected to cover their heads in church until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, when this requirement was repealed. Kisler grew up covering during church services, but stopped when it was no longer required.
“I had worn the head covering until I was 10,” Kisler said. “I was never taught why we wore the head covering. It was something that you did when you went to church. You covered your head.”
Kisler believes that it is not up to outsiders to decide whether a woman should cover her head.
“I don’t think it should matter in the society or in the culture,” Kisler said. “I think it should matter to her. I don’t think outside society should have any influence on that decision.”
Sister Georgeann Krzyzanowski is an alumna of Mount Mary and a School Sister of Notre Dame.“It is what I wanted to be,” Krzyzanowski said of her early decision to become a school sister.
“I left home after grade school, so my parents never said no,” Krzyzanowski said. “There was a school in Prairie du Chien for young women who wanted to become sisters. All the sisters went to Mount Mary.”
Like Kisler, Krzyzanowski chose whether she wanted to cover.
Krzyzanowski said that in the beginning, the sisters were required to wear the veil and wimple. With time, they were given the power to make the choice. She made the decision to wear the veil, as it made her feel more comfortable, and she wanted to be easily recognized as a sister.
Heather Gilvary-Hamad, the international program coordinator for undergraduate admissions at Mount Mary, is an American-born Muslim whose journey to Islam took 10 years.
“It was during this time that I came to appreciate the similarities between Islam and Christianity,” Gilvary-Hamad said. “It was through these friendships that I was introduced to the Qur’an and visited a mosque for the first time.”
These interactions gave Gilvary-Hamad even more reasons to learn about Islam. Her husband started a mosque in Sheboygan, which created an interesting situation for Gilvary-Hamad. She had become an imam’s wife while still Catholic.
Eventually, she made shahada (profession of faith). It wasn’t until six years after her conversion that Gilvary-Hamad started wearing the hijab. She knew the hijab was sup-posed to be a symbol of modesty, but that was not her reason for wearing it. She felt she dressed modestly enough and wore the hijab at the mosque. Instead, her choice to wear the hijab daily had to do with identity and taking a stand.
“The choice to wear the hijab was largely a decision of a sense of identity, a sense of responsibility, a political statement,” Gilvary-Hamad said. “If our new president wants to make a registry, here I am. I’m not going to hide anymore. This is who I am and I don’t know what the future holds, but I found that when I speak truth, even in scary situations, God is there for me and he is protecting me.”
She also believes that her unique path to Islam could help fight negative connotations of Islamic culture.
“I am born in the United States and English is my first language, so it is an opportunity for me to start dialogues that I haven’t had in the past,” Gilvary-Hamad said. “Introducing people to something positive, I hope, about Islam.”
Misconceptions of Head Covering
The media plays a large role in how many women of faith are portrayed. The media often accentuates misconceptions about the Muslim faith in particular.
When some people see Muslim women covered, they assume they are hiding something, Gilvary-Hamad said. She finds the media’s sudden interest in Muslim women interesting. Her sister, who is a devout Catholic, covers and wants to cover when she prays. Covering isn’t a Muslim thing many women from various faiths cover.
“Traditionally women all across the world across cultures covered,” Gilvary-Hamad said.
Shidad believes the media changes people’s perceptions and creates a misconception of what a devout Muslim looks or acts like.
“The media wants to make people afraid of Muslims,” Shidad said. “Since 9/11 things just got worse. That is the way the media is portraying us. You can choose whether you cover or not cover.”
To Kisler, not all media is biased; it depends on which media outlet you are viewing.
“There are some that seem to perpetuate the idea that women that cover their hair are oppressed, while others are trying to educate us about this,” Kisler said.
Kisler said she once led a discussion with a woman from the Islamic center who read a news article about a group of dark-skinned newcomers in America. Their religion was different and their religious leader was from a foreign country. Immediately people made assumptions about who they believed the group of newcomers might be.
“The audience drew stereotypes that the news had perpetuated, but she was actually reading an article that was written in the early 1900s about Catholics – Italian Catholics that were coming to this country,” Kisler said.
Kisler said stereotypes are developed because people fail to understand people and cultures that are different from their own.
“More often than not, antagonism happens to people that are new immigrants to this country because there is a lack of understanding about their culture or religion,” Kisler said. “We need to educate ourselves more about one another.”
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