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Boldly modest declaration of faith
For a Fairfax County teenager, middle school represents a major test of her decision to wear a head scarf as a sign of her devotion to Islam

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Smar Abuagla steps out her front doo r at 7:20 a.m., her shoulders slightly hunched, her eyes watchful.

Last year when she made this walk to the bus stop on the first day of school, she was wearing black skinny jeans and a short-sleeved T-shirt; her hair was in braids. But this year she's a different Smar. In addition to looser, more modest clothing, her hair is completely hidden under a head scarf.

It is a look that not only sets her apart from most girls at her Reston middle school but also proclaims her as a Muslim, a religious minority in a country that sometimes associates her faith with terrorism and acts of violence.

Most of Smar's friends and classmates have never seen her in the scarf before. Smar, 13, has no idea how they will react.

It's drizzling as she reaches the bus stop, where she huddles under an umbrella. The eighth-grader is normally chatty with an impish grin, but today when a couple of girls she knows slightly walk up, she mutters, "Hi," and rolls her eyes self-consciously. Omigosh, I probably look horrible. Omigosh, everyone's staring at me.

She closes the umbrella.

"Hey, Smar, if you're not going to use that, can I?" one of the girls says. "My hair's getting wet."

Smar silently hands it over.

At her middle school, plenty of the 960 students are from Muslim families. But only three or four of the girls wear head scarves.

Some of Smar's friends didn't even know she was Muslim until she mentioned one day that she spoke Arabic.

"They're like, 'Why? Only Muslim people do that,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, you don't get it?' "

Today, when she arrives at school in her green and black head scarf, they'll get it.

Badge of faith

Smar hated the scarf when she first put it on.

Hijab was required for Saturday Islam classes at her family's mosque, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS). But the scarf itched. It felt hot. Smar whipped it off as soon as she got outside.

"I was like, 'This is America. You can't make me wear it!' " she recalls.

Although she was born in Sudan, her parents brought her to the United States when she was 3 months old. She speaks fluent Arabic, and her faith is a central part of her life. She follows the requirements for fasting and praying, and she would like to go to Mecca one day.

At the same time, she loves the Jonas Brothers (especially Nick) and vampire books. Her Facebook page declares her admiration for Michael Jackson, fries, her mother and Barack Obama, and it is strewn with pictures of herself, scarfless, hamming for the camera.

For a long time, the question of hijab, worn by many Muslim women to fulfill a religious requirement for modest dress, hovered in the blurry future, along with prom, college and marriage. There is no set time when a girl has to start wearing it. Some start as adolescents; some never do.

Smar's mother, Taysir Ali, who grew up near Khartoum, has always covered her hair. She didn't give it much thought, she says, until after her arranged marriage to Jamal Abuagla, who had been living in the United States since the 1980s. When he brought her here in 1996, she was confronted with all the temptations that Americans face.

"Seeing the kissing, the hugging, I was sweating," says Ali, a vivacious mother of four.

She has never been harassed for covering her hair, she says, not even in the tense days after Sept. 11, 2001, or in the wake of the Nov. 5 shootings at Fort Hood, Tex., where an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, a Muslim, is charged with killing 13 people.

People have always seemed more curious than hostile, Ali says.

But that hasn't been the case for everyone. After the World Trade Center fell and the Pentagon burned, mosques were vandalized, and women in hijab were spit on and cursed at. In a few cases, Muslims were killed.

Eight years later -- even as the Muslim population in the United States has soared to as many as 7 million -- it still can take real courage for a girl to put on a head scarf and venture into a public middle or high school.

"Young boys go to school, and nobody knows they are Muslim, but young girls, with a scarf on their head, it shows clearly that she made a decision to stand out as a Muslim," says Mohamed Magid, the imam at ADAMS. "They suddenly become ambassadors of Islam."

Smar didn't embrace that role until her mother took her and her younger siblings to Egypt this past summer to visit family. Smar noticed immediately that all the women and girls there wore hijab. People stared at Smar's shoulder-length dark hair.

"It felt awkward," she says. "I felt so left out."

She decided to try wearing a head scarf. Her aunt, who lives in Cairo, showed her different styles: double layers of color that frame the face, tight cloth that gathers at the neck or blooms into a floret behind one ear.

Smar returned to Virginia in early September with a rainbow assortment of scarves and a changed attitude.

She had grown used to wearing what she calls "my badge of faith." It was new and exciting, and it made her feel, she says, "modest and confident at the same time."

She knows it makes her parents proud, especially her mother. "She's my rock; she's my base," said Smar, a few days after mother and daughter had returned from Egypt with their fingertips dyed black with matching henna treatments.

In America, the scarf makes her unusual. Smar has never been a follower. "I like being my own person," she says.

Now, with eighth grade starting, she feels ready to show off her new look, regardless of how her classmates might react.

Glad to be green

The long yellow buses pull up to Langston Hughes Middle and deposit hundreds of adolescents. In the sea of uncovered heads, Smar's stands out like an emerald. She hugs friends she hasn't seen all summer.

Eman Kurtu, a skinny Muslim girl with pink braces and frizzy hair, looks at her in amazement, Smar will recall later, and asks, "You're going to wear that for the full year?"

Yes, Smar says.

"Well," Eman says, "at least you can pull it off. I could never do it."

The girls disappear inside the school.

At 3 p.m., Smar bursts back into her family's townhouse. Her mother is stirring a lamb stew that infuses every room with the aroma of cinnamon and cardamom. Smar hasn't eaten today -- she's fasting for Ramadan -- but she doesn't seem to notice the food as she breathlessly reports on the first day.

"For science, I have Miss Love, and I have to write a paper about hurricanes. And you have to sign these papers." She pulls out a sheaf of forms for Ali to fill out.

Only when prompted does Smar recall the effect the head scarf had as she navigated the crowded halls on her first day.

"Oh, yeah, my friend Joey, he saw me, and he had to do a double take." Another boy "actually didn't recognize me, which was kind of shocking. I'm like, 'I was in your second-period Spanish,' and he's kind of like, 'My God, it's Smar. You look really . . . green.' And I'm just like, 'Thank you.' " She got called a leprechaun and a snake charmer, but the teasing was affectionate. Several friends told her she looked great.

Smar is in high spirits as she heads to the bedroom she shares with Smah, her younger sister.

Smah is practicing Beethoven's Ninth on the recorder. Ten years old, she still has a child's body, and when Smar started wearing the scarf, she wrinkled her nose and pronounced herself "out" as Smar's maid of honor.

But now, as Smar sifts through a colorful pile of scarves on her bed, Smah brings out her own outfit, a smock with a matching scarf from Egypt. Soon, Smah declares sassily, she is going to one-up Smar and adopt the hijab in sixth grade.

Smar rolls her eyes. She wishes she could hang out with friends more, but her parents won't allow her go to the mall or to movies unchaperoned. She has never attended a sleepover.

Smar complains that sometimes she feels caged.

"I know I'm going to thank them for this someday," she says gloomily. But for now, "it's kind of bad, like when my friends go to skate night at the mall. I can only go on family outings, which I really hate. At my age, it's not that great because everyone else does their own thing, but I'm stuck being the child that stays at home."

Taunts and tears

The taunts come during the second week of school.

Smar is sitting in her first-period Tech Exploration class, chatting with friends, she will recount later, when she feels something hit her forehead. She looks down and sees an eraser.

"Who did that?" one of her friends demands.

A few seats down, a group of boys snicker. Smar glares at them and flings the eraser back.

"Hey, chill," the guys say.

"No, you don't do that to me," she says.

"Okay, okay, fine," they say, and she lets it go.

But later that day a boy in gym class asks if she is hiding a bomb under her scarf. Another calls her "raghead." Someone throws a pencil at her head; she can't tell who, so she just snaps it in half.

At the end of the day, she comes home and collapses in tears. "I think, like, five things got thrown at me," she says, her voice breaking.

None of it hurt, not even the zucchini hurled at her head by an eighth-grade boy as she got off the bus. But Smar is devastated.

"It's the thought that no one did that to me last year that bothers me," she says. "I don't care if it's a feather or a 50-pound rock; I don't care. No one did this to me last year, and last year I didn't have a head scarf."

If they had tried something like this last year, she says, she would have retaliated. "I can hit just as well as any other boy. My father signed me up for boxing when I was 5."

But this year Smar doesn't know what to do. She doesn't want to tell her closest friends because it will upset them. And if she tells the teachers, she says, "then they'll put out an announcement saying, 'Don't judge people with head scarves,' " which will only make things worse. "I don't want the girls with a head scarf to be hated by everybody."

"My mom said: 'Stick it out. You're going to meet people like this all your life.' But my mom wouldn't know how it is because my mom's been raised in a Muslim country." Smar melts into sobs.

For the first time, she thinks about taking off her head scarf. No one is making her wear it. Her father says he is proud of her decision, but "if today she comes and tells me, 'I'm tired; I just want to be without hijab . . . I'm not going to force her."

Taking it off would offer momentary relief, like sneaking a bite of lamb during Ramadan. "But I know that I'm not going to," Smar says. "I know who I am and I know who I always will be."

Her mother is furious. Tomorrow, when Smar goes to the bus stop, she says, she is going to watch from afar to make sure nothing happens, and if it does, she plans to march over to the school and complain.

But the drama is short-lived: The next day, people are nice to Smar again.

Fear of ridicule

"We're not going to allow skinny jeans this year."

Gasps of horror. A girl jumps up on her chair and points at her denim-clad legs. "See, they're not skinny!"

The ADAMS teachers, young women robed from head to toe in capacious abayas, smile. It's the end of September, and the first day of weekend Islam classes since summer break.

The girls, wearing head scarves along with brightly colored plaids, are asked what they hope to learn about in class. Islamic marriage! The hajj! The Day of Judgment! But the conversation circles quickly back to hijab.

Smar is one of the first girls in the class to become a "full-timer;" the others wear it to the mosque or on special occasions.

"I bring it to school, but I don't wear it," says Rayan Salih, 14.

Shahd Salaheldin, 13, says her older sister was called a terrorist when she put on the scarf. "I was thinking about wearing it, but I heard my friends, people I really do care about, saying, 'There go the ragheads, the towelheads.' I don't have enough self-confidence to do that, you know?"

After class, as the muezzin calls people to prayer, the girls buy a plate of rice and chicken kebab from the mosque's Ramadan holiday bazaar and continue the discussion.

Hijab can't be pushed on a girl, they concur.

"My dad wants me to do it," says Sana Rauf, 14, but her parents are leaving the decision up to her. "They see people who were forced to wear it" and rebelled. "It's like a journey, and a way of life, but you have to find it all by yourself. "

Shahd can only think of a few friends who would accept her in a scarf. "The rest of them would be like, 'I'm not going to talk to you any more because you're Muslim.' I know if I wear it they're going to be like, 'Terrorist! Bombs!' " It's a dilemma. "I know inside that I have to. It's just" -- tears fill her eyes -- "I want to make my parents happy."

Smar tells them about her bad day at school. They are indignant. "You should demand your respect," one tells her. But they don't say how.

Ambassador's burden

On another Saturday at the ADAMS center, Smar hears people talking about how a Muslim man in Texas has done something terrible. The mosque has already denounced his actions, but the news hasn't trickled down to all its youngest members. Smar's mother would like to have kept it that way. The community is horrified by Hasan's actions, Ali says, but she doesn't want Smar to know the details.

No one at school has said anything to her, but the vague information Smar hears at the mosque is upsetting. "Everyone was sad about it," she says. "People lost their lives that day."

She adds: "Islam is a peaceful religion, and it's really sad that people call themselves Muslims" who do such things.

Now, more than ever, she feels the gravitas of her role as an ambassador of her faith.

"It's important for me to be proud of myself and my religion," she says. "It just makes me proud that I get to wear a head scarf and show people."

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