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Duke's 'Hijabis' defy stereotypes

Lena Sharma (left) and Nusaibah Kofar-Naisa (right).
Lena Sharma (left) and Nusaibah Kofar-Naisa (right).

Call it a hijab. A veil. A headscarf. A convenient cover for a bad hair day.

Sophomore Nusaibah Kofar-Naisa doesn’t care what name you use for the piece of cloth on her head, as long as you don’t think you understand her because of it.

“People might realize there’s diversity among Muslims, but then as soon as a girl puts on a hijab, they automatically have a certain sense of her,” she said.

Not that she cares.

For Kofar-Naisa and her fellow “hijabis”—as they call themselves—a few stares in the library or an awkward question on the C-1 are simply the price of admission into a religious practice that forms a central part of their connection to their faith. There are approximately 25 Blue Devil women, including 10 undergraduates, who don the traditional Muslim headscarf, according to estimates provided by Muslim Life at Duke.

In a community dominated by people of other faiths, the hijab becomes a sort of golden arches for Islam, a telltale sign that someone is a practicing Muslim.

In terms of religious significance, Muslim Chaplain Abdullah Antepli said the hijab is not a central tenet of Islam. But he added that it forms a part of one of the religion’s most essential practices, modesty, which he calls “a part of the Muslim soul,” for both men and women.

But when you’re 21 years old, just trying to scrape together those T-Reqs and scrounge tickets to Duke basketball games, sporting an extremely visible symbol of your faith can exert an incredible amount of pressure, said junior Nabila Haque, co-president of the Muslim Student Association.

“Everyone is very accepting, but I might be the only Muslim that someone knows,” she said. “So then everything I do becomes an impression of how Muslims are, not just how Nabila is, and that’s kind of scary.”

 This is all new for Haque, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, where headscarves were like Ugg boots or economics majors at Duke—so ubiquitous they went essentially unnoticed.

That all changed when her family moved to Canada before her third year of high school. In a country of uncovered heads for the first time, Haque and her hijab suddenly became the center of attention, she said. One day as she stepped onto the subway, she was stopped by a fellow commuter.

“He told me, ‘You’re free in this country, you don’t have to wear that here,’” she remembered. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, I am free, so that means that I can wear it if I want to.’”

On the other hand, for Kofar-Naisa, being the lone “hijabi” in a crowd has been a lifelong phenomenon, from her childhood in Tallahassee, Florida to the Crowell hallway she shares with her fellow Baldwin Scholars on West Campus. And she is certainly the only one on the Duke equestrian team who tucks a headscarf into her riding hat before saddling her horse.

The hijab is hardly the only unique thing about Kofar-Naisa, but it is an element of her life that has profoundly shaped how she interacts with the world.

“When I first started wearing it in middle school, everyone around me was trying to be like everyone else,” she said. “Because of the hijab I couldn’t even pretend, so it set me apart and let me not worry about a lot of the things that were bothering my friends.”

This is a far cry from the image of a subjugated or backwards woman that a headscarf conjures for many Westerners, Antepli said.

“People keep asking about this ‘oppressed Muslim woman,’ but I have yet to meet one,” he said. “They are usually very good at putting you in your place.”

Haque said the idea that the hijab is just a scarf you throw on to “make you Muslim” is one of the biggest misconceptions others have of her scarf.

“It has to be a whole attitude,” she said. “When you think about what Islam is really about, the hijab is so peripheral in terms of a headscarf, but it’s so important in terms of values like modesty and privacy.”

In addition to the hijab, Haque also regularly wears a jilbab—a loose-fitting, shoulder-to-toe garment favored in the Arab world—over her other clothes. It adds to her modest appearance she said, and also­ unexpectedly feeds straight into the college lifestyle.

“It’s really great if you’re in your pajamas and have to hurry off to class,” she said.

Concerns of convenience aside, Duke’s hijab-wearers say the scarf gives them an instant connection to other Islamic women who wear it, and a powerful sense of comfort.

The first day sophomore Lena Sharma met Kofar-Naisa in the awkward space that is a freshman dorm Resident Assistant meeting, she said she already knew they had something in common.

“I was just thinking, ‘Oh yes, thank you, there’s another hijabi here,’” she said. “It was just an instant connection.”

But even among their Muslim friends, these women are the minority, and Antepli said the reasons not to wear the hijab are just as varied as the choice to do it.

 “I haven’t started wearing it yet because I’m waiting for my life to be pure enough Islamically to where I’m ready to make that decision and not go back on it,” said junior Sobia Shariff, the other co-president of MSA.

One concern for Muslim women in post-9/11 America is if they will be treated differently—if not on campus, then when they leave it—for covering their heads, Antepli said.

Sharma, who grew up in Palestine, vividly remembers the painful experience of flying home from Duke for winter break her freshman year.

“Everyone stared, everyone asked questions—not to get to know me but because they thought they already did,” she said.

But for now, the women said they are glad to have the safe space of Duke’s campus to wear their hijab. Sophomore Youmna Sherif said her scarf-wearing days in Durham have only reaffirmed her commitment to the practice.

“It allows people to judge me by my mind and not my body, and because of it I’m very forward with putting out my thoughts and ideas,” she said. “I just don’t worry about what other people think.”


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