Proud to wear the hijab, wary of others' reaction

Contra Costa TimesOctober 7, 2010 

— Tori Burrell learned to ignore the stares and weather the occasional gawks. But there are times the 23-year-old Muslim can't help but feel the judgment of strangers.

They see her wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. It happens to be a glittery scarf she bought at H&M, but that does not matter. The hijab, be it fashionable or austere, is a magnet for disapproving strangers.

"I'm aware that it's much better here than other places," said Burrell, who was born in Vallejo, Calif., and has lived in the San Francisco Bay area all her life. "But I've had 'Go back to your own country' a lot. More than once, I've had the 'Jesus loves me.'"

The Bay Area, known for its diversity and acceptance, is not immune to the anti-Muslim sentiment that has infected the country. Talking heads argued this summer over a planned Islamic community center in Manhattan near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a Christian pastor's pledge to burn copies of the Quran. Burrell and her Muslim friends know the sentiments are there because they feel the effects of them. Usually, they shrug it off.

Take one day in early August, when Burrell was sitting alone at the Peet's coffee shop in downtown Concord, Calif.

With her laptop plugged in and her headphones on, the college student was working on an art history paper while listening to rapper Ludacris. There were many patrons drinking coffee or waiting in line in the busy cafe. One of them zoomed in on Burrell, gesturing to make it known he had something to say.

"I turned off my music and said, 'Excuse me?' And he said, 'Jesus, my Lord and savior, loves you.' And I was, like, 'Thank you.' What do you say to that?"

'I'm proud of it'

Jesus is considered an important prophet in Islam, and the proselytizing was less objectionable to Burrell than other comments and slurs she has faced since she decided, as a young adult, to cover her hair every day with a scarf. "I wanted to be easily recognizable as a Muslim, because I'm proud of it," she said.

It was a big change for the Vallejo native, who wore swimsuits as a high school water polo player. Muslim family members were happy she did not want to wear miniskirts and tank tops, but they were not so enthused about her embrace of the hijab.

"I'm a little more conservative and - I don't want to say religious, because they believe - but I'm a little more practicing than them," Burrell said.

Most interpretations of Islam require Muslim women to dress modestly in the presence of men who are not part of their family. Modest dress usually includes covering the hair, though interpretations - and the ways Muslim women dress - vary greatly, as they do in other religions. Many women see the hijab as an expression of their faith and identity; others don't wear it.

Only about 43 percent of Muslim-American women say they wear a hijab all or most of the time, according to a Pew Research Center poll from 2007. According to the same poll, more than half of American Muslims are worried that women who wear the hijab will be treated poorly, though women who actually wear it all the time are less worried than those who do not.

"My mom still makes comments like, 'Will you come to your senses and take that off?' She wore it in college, but it just wasn't for her," Burrell said. "I think they are worried about my safety." "

The police incident

Some strangers can be unkind. One recent example was the local police officer who pulled her over for driving in the wrong lane.

"Next time," she said the officer told her after handing her a citation, "you should have an American teach you how to drive."

Burrell, who is African-American, was offended and upset. She is as American as he. So are her parents, who helped teach her to drive.

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