Students come and go quickly, North Face backpacks loaded with the day’s studies. Hands cautiously handle the freshly made burgers, pizza, and Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, as people eagerly make their way to pay and settle down at tables to eat. Cashiers exchange pleasantries as they swipe cards up and down the register. It’s mealtime at Elon University, a liberal arts college in North Carolina.
At a table near the entrance of the hectic food court, a young woman’s slender fingers hold a plastic cup full of pre-cut strawberries, her ruby fingernails nearly blending in with the fruit. As she chews, her green eyes scan her best friend, Nada, who is making sure that the grease from her Chick-Fil-A sandwich avoids contact with her luxurious Paolo Bongia watch. The two Muslim women are easy to miss.
Emigrating from Syria to Elon in 2010, Nada Azem is a blonde haired, blue eyed, Muslim woman. An Elon Tour Guide, a sister of the Alpha Omicron Pi Sorority, and an active member of the Muslim Student Association, Nada is well-known on campus. Because she chooses to not wear a headscarf, she easily blends in with the mostly Caucasian American population at Elon, and is often only identified as Middle Eastern once her fluent Arabic is heard. Everyday she unintentionally proves that looks can be deceiving.
Although Nada does not wear the headscarf on a daily basis, she certainly isn’t always without it. She explains, “When I pray, I wear it - but I didn’t ever have to wear the headscarf.” Nada was born in New York, but she grew up in Syria from age 3 to 16 with her single mother, who always chose to cover her hair. For women of any age, the headscarf was never enforced - “In Syria, we don’t [all wear the scarf]. They cancelled that rule. Long ago, you had to.” Free to choose whether to cover her hair or not, Nada has been able to live out her religion in her own way.
Wearing a veil first took on religious significance when Jewish women began covering their heads in observance of Jewish law. According to Rabbi Dr. Menachem Brayer, a professor of biblical literature at Yeshiva University, the headscarf was also a symbol of modesty, elevating the status of Jewish women.
In Islamic contexts, the Qu’ran reads, “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the women of the faithful, to draw their wraps a little over them. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them. God is forgiving and kind” (Sura 33:59). Today, the veil is not required by law in any Islamic country, but it is still very prevalent. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, where strict societal laws strongly encourage the headscarf, almost all women cover their hair. According to the Pew Research Center, 48% of Muslim women in America do not cover their hair, while 43% wear headscarves daily. The other 9% wear the headscarf intermittently - they don’t wear it everyday, but they wear it more often than just at prayer. The decision to wear the scarf is more than just religious – emotional, political, and personal reasons come into play when Muslim women decide whether they want to cover themselves.
Discovering her faith through her personal experiences, family, school and peers, Nada welcomes any perspective in order to learn more about her religion. She explains, “Both my parents had the idea that you are the only one who can teach yourself your own religion and faith – they did their part, you know, they taught me about Islam all my life. And now, it’s my choice to follow through this way or that way.”
In December 2007, two months after her 16th birthday, Nada walks into her Syrian religion class, her head uncovered, eager to further her understanding of Islam. Standing out as the only student in the class without a headscarf on, she feels outnumbered, and has ever since the course started in June. Even though her instructor is a family friend, she can’t help but feel like an outcast. As she brushes her blonde hair out of her face, she notices the stark contrast between her classmates’ real lives and their in-class cover up. Not afraid to admit to her religious offenses, Nada consistently feels like the only honest person in the class. As the minutes pass, her classmates do a good job quoting the Qu’ran from memory while denying moral wrongdoing; they know how to effectively cater to their instructor’s expectations, hiding their true life under their scarves.
While the instructor lectures on, Nada’s mind wanders, recalling her peers’ actions on Thursday and Friday nights - with their hair unveiled in the bars and clubs of Beirut, they become drunk and promiscuous, defiling the religious rules that had so meticulously inscribed into their memory. Nada struggled to ever see herself doing something similar – never drinking and always being loyal to her boyfriend, her actions were much the opposite of these seemingly holy girls. The thought of her boyfriend brought her back to the topic of conversation – she was now aware of her instructor’s focus on the topic of romantic relationships.
No one in the class was surprised as Nada spoke up – she was unable to restrain herself. “I have a boyfriend… how bad is that in our religion?” Not afraid to confess her faults and sins, Nada was hoping that the instructor would offer an answer that would allow her to more fully understand the implications of her relationship and actions in regards to Islamic law. The instructor’s response, however, was for her to not come back; “Please, you’re being disruptive to the rest of the class. I think you should have a one on one session with someone else, maybe a Sheikh (elder male Islamic scholar).” Exiled by a family friend, Nada left, upset and threatened. As her blonde hair flowed behind her, she couldn’t help but be bitter towards her peers and the instructor, whose unquestioning nature was questionable at best.
As October 2011 came to a close, most Elon students began to bundle up, adding more layers to their daily ensemble. One young woman, however, had dropped one seemingly essential item from her wardrobe – Ronda Ataalla, a Junior, was no longer wearing a headscarf. Previously, she had accounted for half of the veil-wearing Muslim student population at Elon – consequently, only one young woman at Elon is left covering her hair. The presence her curly dark brown hair is truly the only thing that is any different about Ronda now that she does not wear the scarf. She still has the same brown eyes, the same light brown skin, the same bright smile. She is still a Broadcast Journalism major, is still an Elon Tour Guide, she is still an avid Tweeter. She is still Ronda. Now, she’s just easier to miss.
Deciding to stop wearing the headscarf that she had worn for two years and ten months was not easy. Contrary to what many may assume, however, it wasn’t negative interactions with Americans, racial or religious slurs, or a change in religious belief that made her stop wearing the scarf. It was her future - “You’re not going to get a job if you wear a headscarf in the United States – and overseas, they’d prefer you without a headscarf. Why? Not because you’re a Muslim, but because when you wear a scarf, you’re branding yourself, and you’re giving yourself a bias automatically… In ten years, I can’t envision myself where I want to be, with my scarf on. And that’s just the sad reality of it.”
Born in New York City, Ronda grew up just like any other American kid – her father owned and operated a small business in Manhattan and her mother served as the omnipresent caretaker for her daughters. A part of the diverse melting pot that is New York City, the Ataalla family did not stand out, especially as none of the women in the family covered their hair. Unfortunately, this all changed on September 11th.
Only 9 years old, Ronda did not understand the long-term implications of the attacks at first, but their effects became apparent soon enough. She recalls the undeniable change from acceptance to outright disassociation: “The people who would say hello to me and my parents while we were walking down to school would no longer say hello to us anymore... We had to move out two months later.”
The months preceding the move were some of the hardest for the Ataalla family. Stereotyped daily by the residents of their beloved home city, they were unable to escape the accusatory glare of their fellow New Yorkers. Constantly judged and stereotyped, the Ataallas were unable to live a normal life in New York. As a result, they decided to move to North Carolina. Ronda explains, “Why North Carolina? Because we had close friends who we grew up with… who moved down here. They were like, ‘it’s a good state, it’s very easy to live in, very affordable’ - so much better than New York. So, my dad came down here a couple times by himself, we bought a house, and we all moved in December.”
The drone of the sirens rang through the frigid winter air. Bright blue flashes transformed entire sides of homes into holiday lights, as police lights illuminated the night. The Ataalla family had just moved into their new neighborhood in Farmington, North Carolina. Hours earlier, the family was welcomed to their home by fellow Muslims, as per Islamic tradition. As dusk faded into darkness, friends and family unloaded the trucks that had carried all of the family’s belongings from New York City to rural North Carolina. Bands of Muslims traversed in and out of the house, some wearing American clothes while others adorned head scarves and Arab attire. To the Ataalla’s disillusioned neighbors, an obvious terrorist meeting was occurring.
As the police welcomed the Ataallas with interrogative questions on the night of their move in, the upcoming difficulties facing the peaceful Muslim family became more apparent than ever. The December move-in was even colder than expected. “They didn’t even give us a chance.” A celebratory gathering of covered and uncovered Muslims could apparently only mean one thing. Six months later, the Ataalla’s were packing up their things again, in hopes of finding a community of acceptance.
The family’s hopes were realized in the town of Lexington, only 45 minutes southeast of Farmington. “I loved Lexington. That’s where my close friends were, I never faced any kind of discrimination, and people were always nice to me.” The Ataalla’s only lived in Lexington for six years, however, as they relocated one last time when Ronda’s father found a new job in Yadkinville, North Carolina. As a whole, the family’s experience in Yadkinville was very positive, just as it was in Lexington - but Ronda’s personal experience was about to take a drastic turn.
On January 11, 2009, Ronda decided to start wearing a headscarf everyday. She elaborates, “I wore the headscarf because, you know, I felt like it was my time to wear it - it was just like a religious thing that just happened. I was just like… I’m modest, I don’t do anything wrong. Why not just make it official and show that I’m Muslim?” Ronda never had any issues with her scarf wearing in school – as a Junior, she was already well-known at school, and she didn’t act any differently once she started wearing the scarf. Her friends fully supported her, and she felt completely comfortable with the change - at least within the walls of her school.
As the automatic doors welcomed Ronda and her two younger sisters into the mall, they were blasted by a refreshing gust of air conditioning. Enjoying the respite from the heat of a North Carolina’s summer day, the trio began to walk around, with no specific shopping goals in mind. Her last summer before Elon, Ronda was glad to be able to watch over her younger sisters, neither of who covered their hair like Ronda did. As they began walking, Ronda’s sister Sarah blurted out, “Ronda, I really want to go to Claires!” Ronda replied, “Sarah, what are you going to buy?” “I don’t know…” she quickly responded. “Alright,” Ronda thought, “we’ll just go because she wants to and we have free time.” As her sisters rushed into the store, Ronda calmly followed, not eager to buy anything in a store that typically catered to girls younger than herself.
As she was browsing, Ronda couldn’t help but notice the stare from the clerk behind the counter. Ronda tried to ignore it, telling herself, “You know Ronda… you might be over-analyzing this. This might not be happening right now, just pretend that she’s not doing this, move on with your day.” As the minutes passed, however, the clerk’s glare did not change. Ronda knew that the only way to tell if she was being watched was if she moved to another area in the store – the clerk’s eyes followed her intently as Ronda repositioned herself. Still ignoring the discriminatory gaze, Ronda picked out something that she liked, and was immediately affronted by the clerk. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the woman said, threateningly. “Wouldn’t do what, exactly?” Ronda responded, with honest confusion. “We don’t have cameras in this store, which is why I’m watching you…” she said, her accusatory tone undeniable. “So… you think I’m going to steal this?” Ronda calmly asked. “I’m calling security,” the clerk said, clearly lacking any evidence of wrongdoing. Ronda lost it.
“You’re a bitch!” Ronda exclaimed. The disrespect was indisputable, and she hated the fact that her sisters had to see such blatant discrimination. “My parents own businesses, I work and I save my money… please!” Ronda told her, hoping for some reconsideration on the part of the clerk. Her efforts, sadly, were ineffective. As the security guard came in, things only got worse – as he tried to understand the situation, tension between Ronda and the clerk became even more heated, intensifying the scene as they angrily shouted at one another. He was forced to call his boss, who, upon entering the store, commanded Ronda to simply “get out of the store.” No questions, no report, no search, nothing. Extremely upset, Ronda left, unable to hold back her tears and absolutely appalled. Knowing that retaliating would only exacerbate the state of affairs, Ronda attempted to calm herself by remembering what she had at stake - Her future, her potential career, her image. It wasn’t worth it. She couldn’t risk it all, simply because of one ignorant woman. Feeling helpless, she and her sisters left; Ronda couldn’t leave behind the feeling of the clerk’s eyes, which were undoubtedly following her exit - glaring at the back of Ronda’s head, right at the scarf that had caused it all.
Misconceptions about those who choose to wear scarves and those that do not are prevalent, and often very impactful. Arguably the most obvious and apparent symbol of religious faith, the headscarf immediately triggers stereotypes, prejudice, and unconscious thought in all who see it. It doesn’t signify radicalism, it doesn’t symbolize perfection, it doesn’t indicate negativity. It simply displays the choice of a Muslim woman.
Fooled by appearances, many would assume that the headscarf-wearing, dark featured woman was the Middle Eastern citizen, the devout Muslim, the foreigner. In the same respect, at first glance, the fair skinned, blonde haired, blue-eyed woman would appear to be just another regular American citizen. But there is so much more than what meets the eye.
Ronda recalls the first day that she decided to stop wearing her scarf: “Oh! Why aren’t you Muslim anymore?” some people asked. She was shocked, thinking to herself, “Really? Ok, the one day that you don’t wear your cross, I’m going to ask you why you aren’t a Christian anymore.” “That scarf was almost like a veil; you couldn’t see past it. It was just there.” It wasn’t easy to miss.