THE BALANCING ACT

THE BALANCING ACT

Tom Hausman/The Diamondback

Published on May 11, 2016

When Amina Mazhar gets dressed in the morning, looks are a priority.

“I love clothes,” the sophomore biology major laughed. “I don’t think I could ever give up fashion.”

You’ll often find her in high heels and the occasional smack of red lipstick for special occasions. She loves jewelry and has two nose piercings. Even as summer approaches, she wears long, dark-wash jeans, accented by colorful sleeved shirts. And every day before she heads off to class, she wraps her head in a scarf that perfectly matches her outfit.

Like many others on the University of Maryland campus, Mazhar is a first-generation American college student experiencing America in a way her parents haven’t. Her family moved from Pakistan when Mazhar was still a baby, and as they began to navigate an entirely new culture, they held tightly to their religion.

The Mazhar family is Muslim, and to show their devotion to God, Mazhar’s dad asked the family to observe hijab while creating a new life in a far more secular country. While the word refers to overall modesty, it’s also used for the type of headscarf Mazhar wears when she’s around men who aren’t in her family.

“I’m basically American — I grew up here,” she said. “I guess the hardest transition was when I actually started wearing a hijab.”

When she began to wear one in the sixth grade, she was excited. But even though her school had a diverse student population, it quickly became clear she wouldn’t find any hijabis at the other desks.

“Whenever the teachers would be like ‘Oh, no hats in the class,’ people would just look at me,” she said. “But eventually I got used to it, and I’m glad I started when I was young.”

The religion says that women should cover their head and neck with a hijab when they reach puberty, but not every girl’s experience is the same. Cultural background, family history and a girl’s perceptions of the hijab all influence the way she decides to practice wearing a scarf, if she even decides to wear it at all.

“It’s not really part of my parents’ culture,” Lamiya Ahmed said. “They never pushed it on me. My mom doesn’t wear it.”

The senior kinesiology major hopes to one day wear it, but there’s no rush. In Bengali culture, women don’t wear the hijab until after they’re married — sometimes even after having children.

“I practice my faith enough and I feel comfortable with it,” Ahmed said. “I feel connected to God in my own way so it doesn’t seem like something I need to do right now.”

But most women in this university’s roughly 200-strong Muslim Students Association do wear the hijab. Some wrap their heads, leaving their necks exposed. Others drape scarves loosely over the back of their hair. They also cover their arms and legs in clothes that are neither too tight nor transparent.

But within the rules, there’s also plenty of room for expression. A glance around any of the MSA’s multiple weekly events will find heads topped with floral designs, plaid, bright blues and greens, even the British flag. Some are tied in bows or braided for extra flair. Others are clipped with shiny pins.

FASHION STATEMENT

ABOVE:  With bare feet, Samiha Ahmed rolls up the mat she uses when the MSA comes together for Friday prayer, called Jumu’ah. (Anna Muckerman/The Diamondback)

Tanjila Rahman often wears fleece-lined leggings and a long cardigan topped with a dark hijab that sweeps under her neck and gathers in a little knot. But she wasn’t always such a pro.

“When you’re a little kid, you don’t care how you appear to others. I had no fashion sense,” the sophomore public health science major said. “When you go through puberty, your face starts changing weird, and the scarf didn’t fit on me.”

In 6th grade, Rahman realized her style of hijab just wasn’t working anymore, so she copied the way her mom wore it. As she progressed through high school, however, she decided that her symbol of religious devotion could also express her growing fashion sense.

“I started looking up YouTube tutorials on how to wear a hijab, like, a really pretty style,” she said. “Because these pictures online, these girls look so beautiful, I was like ‘I want to look like them too.'”

Any scarf can be a hijab. Rahman has a cheetah print one from Forever 21 (someone once asked her if it had religious significance. It doesn’t.). She shops around for the prettiest patterns and colors, frequenting the usual suspects where a college girl might go to find something that keeps her neck warm.

There are special hijabs made with stretchy material and sewn with a hole for the face that are simply meant to be pulled over. Square hijabs are folded in half then pinned under the neck and wrapped around in a step-by-step process. But Rahman said a rectangle is most versatile.

“Eventually I started wearing it how a lot of fashion bloggers wear,” she said. “And that kind of style, you would use a rectangular hijab, which most people, especially college students, use these days.”

When freshman Lubna Barakat visits Egypt, she can’t help but come back with a number of wardrobe updates.

“When I went over the summer, I came back with 20 new ones — solid colors, patterns, everything,” the biology major said. “We need different colors to match [our] different clothes.

It’s like shirts and pants, Barakat said. A fashionable woman of any religion simply does not wear the same thing everyday — so it is with scarves. And fashion companies are finally starting to notice the huge population of women willing to spend money on clothes that keep them cute and covered.

“We call it modest fashion,” Mazhar said. “We don’t need to show anything.”

Indonesia and other south Asian countries control the hijab fashion market, but international companies like DNKY, H&M and Dolce and Gabbana have started creating clothes that make a statement without showing skin. One line from Dolce and Gabbana includes bedazzled hijabs and long sweeping gowns, making the Muslim women who model them look like royalty.

“Even in Islam you’re not supposed to look like a blob, you’re supposed to look presentable,” Mazhar said. “We’re going to wear American clothes, and obviously you want to look good but in a modest way.”

Rahman’s eyeliner is fierce. It curves above her brown eyes and ends in neat little wings above her eyelashes coated in mascara. She also enjoys dark lipstick. Makeup is not off limits, although sometimes more traditional parents, like Mazhar’s, are opposed.

“I don’t wear red lips in front of them,” she said. “A lot of people, especially parents, don’t like makeup, but it is what it is.”

She said it’s just not that big of a deal. She’ll wear it at school and adjust her style for weekends at home. After all, there’s no rule against feeling pretty for yourself.

“If you feel a little bit more beautiful, it’s easier to wear a hijab,” she said. “I feel like wearing makeup, being fashionable makes it easier to wear.”

There’s a recurring theme in these stories: Hijabi fashion falls on a spectrum. Some don’t wear the hijab at all but keep their arms and legs covered. Others wear a scarf but see no harm in a little foundation and mascara. Still, others believe they should show their devotion to God in their purest, most natural form.

“There are people who take it really seriously and practice it really well, and props to them because it’s really hard and there are girls who try their best,” Rahman said. “And in Islam, no one’s expected to reach that level of perfection.”

NAVIGATING STEREOTYPES

ABOVE: Areege Jendi wraps her scarf funny and does her best Syrian grandmother impression to the delight of Tanjila Rahman and Safia Kim. (Anna Muckerman/The Diamondback)

There’s an air of confidence about sisters of the MSA. Sure, they’ll talk about other girls who may have struggled with wearing the hijab, but none suggest they’ve ever doubted their own conviction. The hijab is so natural for them, as are Muslim values, that meeting them for the first time, one might never know that they live in a world where stories about xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim sentiment appear on TVs at the gym and Stamp Student Union. While pundits and politicians flash on screens above their heads, they’re focused on conquering exams and eating ice cream with friends.

Vivian Zohery is not unaware ­— she simply doesn’t worry about people’s stereotypes of her religion. The junior physiology and neurobiology major said trying to fight preconceived notions about Muslims being violent terrorists would be a waste of time.

“Clearly, they don’t use common sense to see that there are over two billion Muslims in the world,” Zohery said. “If we were all violent, no one would have survived. The media focuses on very few people. I don’t let things like that bother me because I know that it’s not me.”

On the campus, Muslim students find support in each other. And at a university that prides itself on tolerance and diversity, it’s easy to go about the typical cycle of late-night studying and Netflix breaks without facing large-scale discrimination. But it’s the smaller stuff: the little questions, the condescending looks that come from wearing a representation of devotion that can’t be hidden.

“At school, some people say a few comments like, ‘Do you even have hair? Are you bald?’” Barakat said.

They ask her if she sleeps with it on or if she wears it in the shower. Sometimes, she finds these questions amusingly ridiculous: How does she wash her hair if there’s a scarf on it? Then again, some people don’t even realize she washes her hair in the first place.

“It’s not like because I wear a scarf that means my hair is nasty,” Barakat said. “I’m a neat freak … I always get my hair cut. We can get our hair dyed. It’s just something that you keep for yourself or your girlfriends.”

It seems, however, there’s one stereotype that’s so hard to escape, they answer the question before it’s asked.

“Really, I don’t know anybody who’s been forced to wear it,” Mazhar said.

More specifically, people ask if their dad made them wear it. The girls are quick to say the hijab is their own choosing.

“I feel like if I wanted to take it off, I could tell my parents,” Mazhar said. “But I want to wear it.”

In fact, Zohery couldn’t wait to be a hijabi, wearing it occasionally in second grade before keeping it on permanently by the end of elementary school.

“I was that type of girl who really wanted to be like her mom, and whenever my mom went out, she would always wear the hijab,” Zohery said. “You know, it’s that little girl that wanted to be a big girl.”

But after the attacks of September 11, her father was apprehensive.

“I did have some moments when my dad feared for me,” she said. “He did not want me to go to school wearing it.”

A teacher, who didn’t wear a hijab, encouraged Zohery to keep it on, helping shape her identity.

“I never consider it something oppressive,” she said. “I never consider it something I would want to take off. It’s become a part of me.”

The stereotype that parents of Muslim girls drag them kicking and screaming to the store and throw a scarf on their heads simply isn’t true, at least not for these girls. They’re proud of the hijab and what it represents, and as Americans, they live far from the idea of the oppressed Muslim woman forced to cover herself. But their decision was also shaped by their childhood. They grew up surrounded by mothers, aunts and sisters who practice hijab, so it’s natural that they decided to put it on — it’s what their families and cultures do.

“My parents expected me to wear it,” Mazhar said. “They never were out front about it, but my sister wore it which is why I did.”

THE DATING GAME, OR LACK THEREOF

ABOVE: Khaled Nurhssien laughs with Noha Elansary after she hunted down free Maryland ice cream on a cold and rainy Friday(Anna Muckerman/The Diamondback)

Mazhar said she believes parents of first generation American-Muslim students are more strict than those who have lived here for a few generations. She said perceptions about what’s modest and pure are changing, and although it doesn’t mean the hijab is losing popularity, secular American ideas and Muslim values are beginning to merge.

“Once these children grow up, like our generation, then we’re going to have a different view on what our children should be going through,” she said.

They’re merging specifically when it comes to dating. The stereotype of the American date night includes words like dinner, movie and first kiss. The same idea in Islamic culture encompasses parents, blessing and marriage. In fact, for Muslim children of traditional families, there is no “dating” the way boy-crazy teen girls imagine it to be. No dinner dates, no hand-holding and certainly no making out in the back seat. Zohery said Muslims take intimate relationships very seriously.

“We don’t date the way it’s normally done in society,” Zohery said. “When a man and a woman fall for each other, there’s a lot at stake. God really wants to make sure that we’re not just saying words without real, true emotions.”

To make sure the feelings aren’t temporary, a guy goes to the parents of the girl he’s interested in. The process is called Halal dating. Once the parents give him their blessing to get to know their daughter, the two are allowed to hang out, but never alone.

“The family is there to make sure that their intentions are pure; that they are looking to get married,” she said.

Once the couple is engaged, they can start doing more traditionally date-like activities and can call off a marriage or even an engagement if they aren’t compatible. But above all, it can never be intimate before marriage. That definition, of course, varies from person to person: Some consider prolonged eye contact or a hug too far.

“Premarital intercourse is absolutely intimate — you should not be able to do that,” said Tajuddin Ingram, a sophomore enrolled in letters and sciences.

Ingram’s Jewish and Christian American parents converted to Islam when he was young. He grew up in an unusual hybrid of American cultural values and adopted Muslim ones, including how to treat women.

“You can look at them in the eye, you can talk to them, you can respect them,” he said.

Mazhar said she doesn’t think she would hold hands until she’s tied the knot. But Mazhar also said if friends introduced her to someone she was interested in, she might hang out one-on-one, as long as she maintains modesty and doesn’t have any physical contact. In Pakistan, many of her family members had arranged marriages. Here, she’ll be able to choose who she ends up with, but parent involvement still plays a big role.

Zohery said the family’s blessing is important, especially for women.

“If he knows he’s getting into something serious he’s going to think three times before breaking your heart,” Zohery said. “We have more emotion. It’s something we should be proud of because God … instilled that naturally inside us.”

Ingram said it can be hard for Muslims to find the balance between what their religion teaches and what’s common practice for college students.

“When it comes down to physical and intimate relationships, a lot of times what happens is you’ll have rules set when you’re around Muslims and rules set when you’re around non-Muslims,” Ingram said.

He’ll shake a non-Muslim woman’s hands, or if one goes for a hug, he’ll try to get it over with as quickly as possible. But that exchange would never happen between two Muslim students. Rahman said she’ll shake a non-Muslim guy’s hand because it’s easier than explaining.

When Ingram’s roommate has his girlfriend over, he said he asks his roommate to give him a week’s notice so he can give the two space and doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable. Above all, it’s about showing respect, both for the opposite sex and for God. In prayer and religious events, men and women sit on separate sides of the room.

“When it comes to a time when you want to focus on God, you want to separate the genders just so you can actually focus,” Zohery said.

But casually, guys and girls can converse as long as nothing connotes sexual desire.

“We have a very important rule of what is the difference between attraction and lust,” Ingram said.

There’s an emphasis on marrying for personality first and foremost because beauty will fade. Zohery said marrying for the right reasons and not for physical ones is they key to a happy and successful union.

“People think it’s old fashioned — I mean, look at the number of divorces that occur, the breakups, the number of children without families, without fathers,” Zohery said. “These are all outcomes of not being genuine in the first place.”

DEDICATED MUSLIMS

ABOVE: Tanjila and her friends Laila Abujama and Areeba Mushtaq often hang out in the first floor lobby of Stamp, which they fondly call “The Green Room.” (Anna Muckerman/The Diamondback)

The binge-drinking, bar-hopping, crop-top-wearing crowd pours out of weekend hotspots and onto Route 1. They stumble home with friends or lean on the arm of someone they just met. But the shots and late-night hookups that have come to represent the “typical” college experience are far from all-encompassing.

For Muslims, alcohol is strictly off limits. Revealing clothes and suggestive behavior are almost comically the antithesis of Islamic standards.

“For a man to look at a woman, just checking her out — that is considered a sin,” Zohery said.

Rahman wonders how one can attempt to define “American college” because America is so diverse. It’s an important point, too. Plenty of non-Muslim students choose not to drink or dress provocative for a variety of reasons. And no one would argue that they’re rejecting American values. Although Rahman’s choice is based on a specific religious background, she’s adamant that it doesn’t inhibit her experience or place as an American college student.

“I literally bonded with this Hispanic Catholic girl yesterday about a TV show we both love,” she said. “It’s so easy to connect with people who are not from the same faith as you in America.”

Muslim students find plenty of ways to have fun within the guidelines of their religion. The MSA’s Sisters’ Committee helps Muslim girls find a community on the campus to ease the transition into college life.

“It can be pretty tough, especially if you’re wearing a hijab or even if … you have a Muslim-sounding name,” Rahman said.

In April, she and the committee organized the MSA Sister’s Ball. The ‘girls only’ night gave them a chance to eat, dress up and celebrate their friendship with plenty of chocolate. They nominated each other for quirky superlatives and held a talent show complete with singing, instruments and stand-up comedy. Some acts were more polished than others, but a spirit of support and unity pervaded Stamp’s Charles Carroll decorated in rich jewel tones to match the royal garden theme.

“We had great food, the decor was on point, everyone loved it, everyone enjoyed it,” she said.

Music from Bollywood movies, Arab pop songs and Billboard Top 40 hits — right down to American trap — swirled around purple-clothed tables topped with bouquets and non-alcoholic, sparkling cider.

“I got broads in Atlanta,” rapper Desiigner yelled over the speakers as the room of high-heeled girlfriends dipped giant strawberries into a fondue fountain. To the girls, there’s no harm in listening to party music with messages they would never dream of living out.

“We have normal-sounding songs — we definitely use American music, and not like some weird music,” Rahman said.

But the diversity in music choice was also representative of the diversity of the MSA.

“Even though we don’t know each other’s songs from each other’s country, what unites us is the American music because that’s something we’re all familiar with,” she said.

The MSA includes cultures from countries across the globe including Nigeria, Egypt, India and China, said Hui Amatullah, who converted to Islam and changed her last name when she came to the U.S. to study agriculture and resource economics at this university.

“The meaning of my name is the servant of Allah for the women, for the girls,” Amatullah said. “I like it so I pick up this name.”

They’re united by a common religion, but each culture expresses its Muslim values differently.

It’s not always such a pretty picture. Within Islam, there is racism and nationalism.

“When you don’t understand the people, when you’ve never spent time with them, certain stereotypes form,” Rahman said. “It’s our duty, and it’s part of Islam, to get out of your way and know people from different nations.”

It’s not accurate to discuss “American” as the opposite of “Muslim” because these students are balancing the equally influential, yet sometimes competing values of both. Feminism, for example, is heavily rooted in the younger generation, but some Islamic cultures are far more patriarchal than what American-Muslims experience.

As a religion, Rahman said Islam actually advocates for women’s rights. In ancient times, Islam ended the practice of burying baby girls alive and changed the dowry system to a gift the husband’s family provides. Women could also inherit property and had the right to divorce in times when Christian women could not.

However, in Mazhar’s Pakistani family, the man traditionally takes control of the household while the woman cleans and cooks. She doesn’t agree with that idea and said it’s more culture-based than religious.

“It’s not like the woman should be doing specific things,” Mazhar said. “Here, if I got married, I wouldn’t be expected to do everything like cook, clean, take care of kids — we’d both have jobs.”

She’s describing the way American culture shifts perspectives. As these students graduate, find jobs and start families, they’ll be navigating a society built on Christian tradition and rushing toward full secularity. Mazhar embraces the types of new decisions she’ll make as an American woman, while still remembering her religious values.

“Since I grew up in America, I’m going to be changing with everyone else,” she said. “You can still be a powerful woman and wear a hijab.”

Anna Muckerman  is a Diversions writer for The Diamondback. She can be reached at diversionsdbk@gmail.com and at @annamuckerman on Twitter.

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