Religious expression: 8th grader wears Muslim head scarf
For eighth-grader, head scarf is badge of faith, burden

Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009 2:00 PM

Smar Abuagla, 13, an 8th grader at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, started wearing the hijab, a head scarf worn by Muslim women to fulfill a religious requirement for modest dress, this summer. Back at school in the fall, reactions from her peers ranged from compliments to affectionate teasing and even derogatory taunts.

Boldly modest declaration of faith (Post, Nov. 15)

Washington Post staff writer Tara Bahrampour will be online Monday, Nov. 16, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss Abuagla's story.


Tara Bahrampour: Hi everyone, I'm looking forward to your questions and comments about the headscarf story.


Washington, D.C.: I thought this was a great story -- one that was nice for the Post to profile. But, I think it leaves out a very important point: that the U.S. is one of the BEST places to be a Muslim expressing one's faith in the Western world.

The wearing of head scarves is COMMON in most major urban areas in the U.S. Middle school is a tough time for MOST people, and SADLY anything that makes one stand out could incite teasing, and in some cases bullying.

I also thought the one sentence insinuating that Muslims have been killed in the U.S. (presumably for just being Muslims) was left hanging in the article. To say something that serious without backing it up calls into question the entire article. If there are people who have been murdered in the wake of the 9/11 attacks for their faith, and for their faith alone, I would expect a paper like the Washington Post to report on these hate crimes and make sure its readership knows details about such awful events the way European papers have reported on the murders of Muslims in their countries.

Tara Bahrampour: Hi Washington, thank you for your comments, and I'm glad you liked Smar's story. I'll start with your last point first, about incidents of Muslims being killed and/or harassed after 9/11. There were some incidents around the country of people being killed and these were classified as hate crimes - they were either Muslim or in a couple of cases they were Sikhs, wearing turbans, who were mistaken for Muslims. The major presses reported on them at the time, and Muslim organizations have lists of the incidents.

However, you make a good point that it is much easier to be Muslim, wear headscarves, etc in the US than in many other predominantly non-Muslim/Western countries. Smar and others like her can usually wear headscarves, pray, and show their faith in other ways at school without problems.


Durham, N.C.: Thank you so much for your wonderful article. My granddaughters, ages 12 and 14, both wear hijab and scarf. Like Smar, they are very bright and engaged with the world around them. How did you happen upon writing about her story?

Tara Bahrampour: Thank you - I'm glad you liked it. I came upon Smar with the help of her mosque, the ADAMS center - I had worked with them before on other stories so I told them I would like to follow the journey of a young woman making the decision to wear the scarf for the first time. Luckily for me, they came up with the perfect subject for my story, and she and her family agreed to participate.


Olney, Md.: Smar seems like a very nice young woman who believes in an Islam that is a religion of peace. However, what does she think about a religion that forces women to wear not just a head scarf but to be fully veiled with only her eyes and hands visible? I once saw a little girl maybe 6-8 dressed that way, and it broke my heart. It's just not right.

And what about the "honor" killings that are still so prevalent not just in Muslim countries? In a related article in the Post, a man in Toronto killed his 16-year-old daughter for dressing like a normal Canadian teenager. How can anyone feel anything but horror over that?

Tara Bahrampour: Smar and her friends, as well as her family, were in agreement that the hijab was something a woman needs to decide on her own, without being forced to, and at an age where she is old enough to make the decision for herself. However, I know there are some women who are forced to wear it, either by their government or their families, and when I talked with them, they found this troubling. One of them commented that if the hijab is pushed too hard on someone who doesn't want to wear it, the pressure could backfire and the person might be pushed away from religion in general. I think Smar's family was careful to let her make the decision, though they were also clear that they would like it if she wore it. So yes, there is some pressure in that, but it is not force.

As for honor killings, in my years reporting on Muslims I have never met anyone who has condoned them.


Tampa, Fla.: In his book, No God But God, Reza Arslan argues that Islam does not require women to cover their hair. He argues that the language in the Koran, as understood in the 7th century, says women should cover their hips.

Has this issue arisen in the U.S. Muslim community? Are they sure they're not really following Arab social customs instead of the Koran?

Tara Bahrampour: Thanks for your question, Tampa. And this echoes a couple of other questions, so I'll address the topic here. There is disagreement among Muslims as to whether or not the Koran actually requires women to cover their heads. I have met very religious Muslim women who don't cover, and I have met others who feel they are not following their faith completely if they don't. There are also many different degrees of covering, from head-to-toe to a light scarf that reveals much of the hair. As I think you were pointing out, some of the differences are cultural. And there are many different Islamic traditions in the world, and they themselves go through many phases. So it's hard to say definitively what Islam ordains regarding hijab because it can vary.


Reston, Va.: I enjoyed your article very much. My daughter is also an 8th grader at Langston Hughes. I was surprised you didn't include any statement from our Principal, Aimee Monticchio. Did you contact anyone from the school for your article? Thanks.

Tara Bahrampour: Hi Reston. Thank you so much, and how wonderful for your daughter to attend LHMS - it is a very diverse and open place. Of course I talked with Aimee as well as others from the school, and we were there with their blessing. But the story was about Smar, and aside from giving us some statistics I think the school administration preferred to have her be our main focus.


20037: What struck you as the most unusual about the choice that this young girl made?

Tara Bahrampour: I don't know if unusual is the term I would use, but what struck me particularly about Smar is that she is very consciously on a journey - on many fronts. She's at an age where people start seeing the world beyond their immediate family, and start making more decisions for themselves, and I think she will continue to refine her decisions about who she is as she gets older. She has to balance between very different worlds - her parents' world and the old country, and her own journey through the new country. What struck me most was her ability to balance between the two - to speak English and Arabic, to be interested in Islam and pop music, etc. I think it is a testament to her parents that they brought her up to embrace the old culture and also allow her to explore the new one.


Olney, Md.: Actually I was talking more about the burqa than the hijab.

And if no one condones the "honor killings," who are the people like the Toronto father who are doing them? Or the ones who attended the stoning of the woman that Shohreh Aghdashloo made the film about?

Tara Bahrampour: Ah well, I didn't say no-one condones them; I said I've never met anyone who does, so anything I said about their mindset would be pure speculation.

The burqa was mandated by the government of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It may also be decreed by individual families, or it may be the choice of a woman.

I do know from having spent a lot of time in Iran, where hijab is enforced by law, that many, many women there resent having to wear it.


Bethesda, Md.: There seems to be a disconnect between this young lady's faith in Allah and her penchant for celebrities who cross the line in morality. In what other ways does she practice her faith besides wearing a scarf on her head? Is she doing it to be different or because of aesthetics (i.e., she doesn't like her hair so she covers it)?

Tara Bahrampour: Hi Bethesda, thanks for your question. As I said earlier, I think that Smar strikes a comfortable balance between American teen life and religious faith. As far as I know she does not particularly follow celebrities who cross moral lines, but I suppose it depends on what lines you have in mind.

As for her motives, I think she likes her hair very much (she used to get it done in different styles). It's more that she wanted to try this thing that other women in her family and religious community do. And yes, it is different from the kids at school, and sometimes that is a hardship, but it also makes her feel special. And in her case she's made it into a fashionable statement - she's got many different colors and styles, and they're carefully put together each day.


Lewistown, Pa.: It seems to me that there is far too much immodesty in schools and elsewhere today -- that we should applaud a young woman who chooses to present herself modestly. The question seems to have more to do with a non-traditional expression of modesty -- the head covering. I don't understand why that should be a problem. Dress that does not interfere with the learning problem should not be subject to regulation by schools. More troubling to me is the experience I recently had of going into a department store and seeing bras advertized for grade school children -- since when do first and second-graders need bras? This young woman's choice -- to not be a sex object, should be applauded.

Tara Bahrampour: Hi Lewistown, thanks for your comment. I hadn't heard of the bras for first-graders - I sure hope they don't need them.

As for the schools, in my experience public schools in the US generally tend to allow headscarves. Private or parochial schools may have different rules. For Smar I saw no indication that it interfered with her ability to learn - probably the opposite, since if it were forbidden she'd surely be putting a lot of energy into protesting that rule!


Anonymous: From what I understand about the Muslim faith, wearing a head scarf is not a religious requirement (maybe a cultural one). So it's a choice. What's the real reason she wants to wear it since it's not a religious requirement?

Tara Bahrampour: Thanks for this question - I hope I answered it in the earlier responses.


Wilmington, N.C.: Well Smar is one smart girl, her mom deserves an enormous amount of credit. One thing I had to say, it's funny almost like she's wearing goth clothing only in a different color. She is in one way showing the appropriate rebellion that kids start to show, but doing in a way that's sanctioned (her mosque and family) by group and not in another(school). It's good for her that the learning institution is not interfering in any way.

Do women who wear those also wear them at home with their families or only when going out? Thank you for this important chat especially while issues with Hasan are at the forefront of the West's mind.

Tara Bahrampour: Hi Wilmington, thanks for commenting. I agree that Smar's mom is very smart, and she is also a huge influence on Smar. Smar is also lucky to have both a school and a religious institution that are very understanding and tolerant of different points of view. Her school has many students from different countries and faiths, and the ADAMS center has congregants from many different countries, many of whom take different approaches to religion.

In the Muslim homes I have been in, women who cover when they go out generally take the scarf off at home -- unless a male who is not a close relative visits.

Thanks also for your comment about Hasan. It's definitely important to talk about the many different faces of Islam - not just the most troubling/violent individuals or groups. When something like Fort Hood or 9-11 happens, the vast majority of Muslims are horrified that such a thing might be done in the name of Islam, and many mosques and religious organizations swiftly and clearly condemn such acts.


NE Washington, D.C. : Wow. This young woman is amazing! I found it interesting that the impetus for her decision was her summer trip to Egypt. After spending some weeks in Cairo, I (as an American, black woman) noticed the side-glances and usually unwelcomed comments of the men on the streets. I at times inquired with women, both at work and strangers about the decision to wear and not wear a hijab. They all told me the same's between me and my God and my decision. I must say it was very cool to see the 'full face' of women in the restrooms around town as they freshened up on the privacy of the women's room, kind of like an exclusive society. Again, Bravo to Smara and her family for giving her the space to make up her own mind.

Tara Bahrampour: Thanks so much, NE Washington. How interesting that you had a similar experience to Smar when you were in Egypt. It is indeed a personal decision, but, like most sartorial decisions, it is also driven by trends. In many countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, fewer women wore hijab 30 years ago than they do today. When fewer women wear it, the pressure on those who don't becomes stronger.

And you're right, in countries where women cover in public there is definitely a rich "inner world" among women in private spaces.


Bethesda, Again: If you don't mind, if you look at her Facebook page she has listed celebrities who indeed cross (way over) the moral line. Which is why I wish you had chosen a more conservative young lady who follows Allah more intently. She doesn't represent the Muslim faith honorably.

Tara Bahrampour: Again, it depends on your definition of where the moral line is. For Smar and her family, her decisions have been comfortably within the moral line. For others, the moral line may be elsewhere. As for following Allah intently, again, there are many different ideas of how to do this, just as there are many different interpretations of how to follow Christ intently. The different versions aren't always in accord. The good thing about the US is that Muslims and followers of other religions are each free to decide what it means to them personally to follow their faith honorably.


Manassas Park, Va.: Tara, does your own early upbringing in Iran help you see this story more clearly? Is it addressed in your memoir?

Tara Bahrampour: Hi Manassas Park! My own early upbringing in Iran (till age 11) and subsequent move to the US might contribute to my ability to see or look for these stories. I can certainly identify with people who grow up between two cultures, and know it can be hard especially in the teenage years when one is trying to fit in with peers, forge an identity apart from the family, etc. But as for the particular issue of headscarf, it's not something I ever had to confront because we left Iran before the hijab was mandated there, and most of the women in my family did not cover.

_______________________ Boldly modest declaration of faith (Post, Nov. 15)


Herndon, Va.: I have a question about the scarf in general. If the goal is modesty why are the colors not mute tones? I see pink and other colors that would not usually be considered modest. Thank you so much for taking time to answer questions.

Tara Bahrampour: Again, the idea of modesty is really subjective. Is it color, pattern, tightness, length? There are so many interpretations of what is modest that it would be impossible to give a blanket answer to the question. I think in general teenagers tend to test a lot of different ways of being, including dress. The colors might be more muted if Smar were 30.


Columbia, Md.: Having grown up in Philadelphia which has a large Muslim population, seeing a child in elementary, middle or high school wearing their hair covered was never a big deal. If anything it sparked questions as to why but never anything discriminatory. Since Islam is constantly getting a bad reap from the media and many people who choose not to understand its true meaning, its good to see an article that displays Islam in a good light and also from a child's perspective. Hopefully this will help shine a good light on Islam and also educate others who know nothing about the religion.

Tara Bahrampour: Thank you, Columbia, I appreciate your comment. I do agree that Smar is a good "ambassador" because she is at the same time very passionate about her faith and also very much like any 13-yr-old in the US, regardless of faith. And she is happy to talk about her beliefs in an upfront way, which goes far in helping explain what she's doing to her peers and others.


Anonymous: First I would like to say I loved the article and impressed by Smar's faith and independence. Your article covered Smar and the topic thoughtfully.

As a woman who wears a hijab -- I willingly came to wearing the hijab as did all of the women I know who are "Covergirls". Through western eyes the hijab may seem oppressive but as for myself I found it liberating, I wish I had been as smart in the 8th grade.

Tara Bahrampour: Thank you so much for your comment. Smar is indeed ahead of many of her peers in coming to this on her own. I'm glad you had a good experience with it.


Anonymous: If I were to visit her home, would I be required to cover my head?

Tara Bahrampour: I can't answer that since I don't know if you are male or female.


Tara Bahrampour: Thank you all so much for your comments and insights - it's been great to have this discussion. I really appreciate you participating in this, and hope we'll be able to do more on similar subjects in the future. - Tara


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