Muslim woman says people friendlier when hat, scarf cover hijab
BY FRANCINE KNOWLES Religion Reporter February 11, 2014 8:47PM
Leena Suleiman wears a knit hat and scarf, which cover her hijab — a head scarf worn by Muslim women — on Tuesday. She found that non-Muslims were friendlier to her when they couldn't see the hijab. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 13, 2014 6:46AM
A Muslim woman’s effort to deal with Chicago’s brutal cold by covering her head with warm winter gear — inadvertently concealing her hijab — produced unanticipated and thought-provoking results.
Leena Suleiman’s online posting about her experience — which included suddenly getting more friendly treatment from non-Muslims and getting the cold shoulder by members of her faith — was among the top stories Monday morning on website Reddit.com’s TrueReddit and Chicago Reddit.
“I didn’t understand what was happening at first,” Suleiman, 25, who works as an architectural designer downtown, said in a post titled “I Took Off My Hijab,” on her blog, Facetruth, at http://bit.ly/1lza4tH.
Non-Muslim “people started talking to me more. Women would speak to me like I knew them since forever. Men looked at me like I was actually approachable. And I was made to feel like I was actually from this planet,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, Muslim taxi drivers, who previously typically greeted her warmly and on occasion wouldn’t even let her pay, were far less friendly.
“I’m used to going in [taxis] with my hijab showing, and immediately they’re smiling and asking me where I’m from . . . if I’m single,” she said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “If it’s an older man, he’s very fatherly, very nice . . . we have like a full conversation.”
Suddenly, she was greeted with cold, dead silence.
As she passed other Muslim women wearing hijabs, they no longer acknowledged her. Typically when one woman wearing a hijab passes another wearing one, one of the women will stare at the other until she notices, and they exchange a traditional Islamic greeting, she said.
Now there was none of that.
Suleiman, who was born in Oak Lawn and resides in Chicago Ridge, realized the change in treatment was because her hijab — a head scarf — was concealed by her knit hat and scarf. Before this winter, she had never previously covered her hijab and hadn’t intentionally meant to do so.
At first, she embraced the warmer treatment she got from non-Muslims.
“It was as if I accidentally walked into the wrong door,” she said. “I felt like I was actually a part of the society here. I belong here. I have a place, and I can be loved and respected and accepted.”
But upon reflection, she said she began to despise the inequality.
In her blog post she asked, “Did that mean that with the hijab I am not as respectable . . . as lovable . . . I cannot be accepted? . . . . Apparently, the type of cloth you place or wrap around your head defines how you will be treated . . . I pray one day . . . that people will be familiar enough with all other cultures and beliefs that the thing that stands out to them is no wrap around my head, but the smile on my face.”
Suleiman told the Sun-Times she was saddened by the realization that when the weather gets nicer and she takes off her winter garb, the old patterns will return.
She hopes Muslims and non-Muslims get this message from her blog post:
“Take steps to learn when you see someone who doesn’t look like you, doesn’t’ act like you, doesn’t believe the same way you do,” she said. “. . . The basic is treating each other well and respecting them . . . be as accepting as they possibly can.”
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Chicago, said his mother and sister have had similar experiences. He said he first began to understand what Muslim women who wear the hijab experience when he walked with his sister in a mall after she started wearing it.
“People would stare at her, and I would stare at them,” he said. “She on the other hand would just look ahead saying, ‘I won’t let it bother me.’ ”
He said the message of Suleiman’s experience is “just like a book, don’t judge a woman by her cover.”