The sixth-grade teacher at Herndon Elementary School has worn a head covering since becoming a Muslim five years ago. "I wear it because I'm supposed to," said Amaarah DeCuir, 27. "I believe my religion states women are to cover their body except for face, hands and feet."

Asma Ramadan, however, stopped wearing her head scarf several years ago. The 26-year-old communications specialist, whose tightly coiled tresses cascade over her shoulders, believes Islam's command for modesty is discharged by a woman's behavior, by "carrying herself as a lady."

DeCuir and Ramadan represent dueling forces tugging at Islam's heartstrings: The call of tradition and the clamor to be modern. Nowhere is that tug of war more evident than in the increasingly robust debate over whether the hijab, the Islamic head covering, is mandatory or not. And though many young Muslims don the scarf and its acceptance in the workplace has grown, the hijab is sometimes a division within the Muslim community.

Today, as an estimated 300,000 Washington area Muslims begin celebrating the holy fasting month of Ramadan, this debate illustrates the diversity of views within Islam--with some local Muslims concerned that there has been a misplaced emphasis on the scarf as an indicator of personal piety and communal identity.

"Any time something physical rather than someone's behavior becomes the basis for judgment there is a lot of danger," said Fairfax resident Manal Omar, 24, who began wearing a head scarf at 16.

"Though I strongly believe it's required, I would hate to see our community overemphasizing this, especially since it's a woman's choice," she added, calling the ongoing debate "a very good sign."

Islam has five fundamental requirements. Besides Ramadan fasting, they include: believing that the only god is Allah and that Prophet Mohammed is Allah's messenger; praying five times a day; giving alms to charity; and, if possible, making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Still, a majority of the largely male Islamic jurists interpret the Koran as mandating a head covering for women even though Islam's holy book does not explicitly state this.

Hijab "is part of the protection of the family and family values," said Taha Jabir Al Alwani, president of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg and chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, an Islamic law body. "We don't like to see in society any woman to show herself in a way that attracts husbands of other wives."

But some Islamic scholars dispute that interpretation. "It's an inference on the part of Islamic jurists to say that because modesty in the Prophet's day meant covering the hair that it is therefore immodest for women today to leave hair uncovered," said Imad ad Dean Ahmad, president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute in Bethesda.

"For some people, if you cover your head you're ignorant and for others if you do not cover your head you are outside Islam," said Sharifa Alkhateeb, vice president of the North American Council for Muslim Women, who wears a head scarf but has not forced her three daughters to follow suit. "We are trying to take women beyond that whole discussion."

DeCuir has some Muslim friends who cover their hair and some who don't. "That's fine. That's between them and Allah," she said. "It's not a point of contention. I'd just say it's a difference."

Apart from the religious obligation, DeCuir and others said they like the hijab because it elicits respect, shows pride for their religion and gives a sense of empowerment.

"It's amazing how different people treat you, especially men," DeCuir said. "There is a sense of respect I get from men, and not just Muslim men. I don't get whistling when I'm walking down the street. I don't get inappropriate comments. . . . People take me seriously, because in this society they know it's a difficult thing to be different."

Even Ramadan, who gave up her head covering, believes it can work to women's advantage. "It's feminist to wear hijab because you are covering your sexual aura," she said. "So men tend to look at you on an equal level."

Ramadan immigrated at age 3 from Libya and wore a scarf through high school and at Georgetown University, where for a while she was the only woman in hijab on campus. But "crude stares" and hostility from non-Muslims made her forgo the scarf.

"I felt it was a shame to keep it on when I didn't have the spiritual commitment," she said. Besides, "I like to blend in. In this society hijab makes you stand out."

Sherri Fawzi, 34, decided to remove her head covering during a 1996 bout with depression. Taking it off, she said, "was a form of therapy for me for awhile [because] it was a burden at certain times."

The mother of two, who runs a preschool in Leesburg and is a covert to Islam, said her religious ardor remains. "Even though now I don't wear a piece of material on my head, I'm very God-conscious and passionate about how I practice my religion," Fawzi said. "I still wear long sleeves. I don't flash any skin. I wear pants or long skirts."

Omar, director of development at the District-based American Muslim Council, said that although her Palestinian-born mother and older sister do not wear hijab, she "felt an inner spirituality that it was the right thing to do."

Her parents "thought it's hard enough as an Arab and a Muslim . . . to succeed in day-to-day activities," she said.

Eight years later, Omar still gets frustrated by the misperceptions her scarf causes, even among Muslims, that she is backward, repressed or an English-challenged foreigner.

"It can be very condescending," she said. "I've had times when people spoke extra slowly to me."

Many young women who regard the hijab as an obligation say they resist making the commitment to wear it because they want to look pretty--natural enough in America's cosmetically conscious, liposucted society.

"It's my weakness. I wake up in the morning and want to dress my hair and put on make-up and nice clothes," sighed Rania Al Mashat, 24, an Egyptian working on her doctorate in economics at the University of Maryland. "When you put a scarf on your head, that subtracts from your beauty a little bit."

Mashat, who prays regularly and dresses modestly, was seriously thinking about committing to the scarf after returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca last spring. But she was barely off the plane when she had second thoughts. "I was walking in Dulles Airport and I saw all these different clothes and colors, and I felt I'm not ready for this commitment," she said.

"I keep on struggling with it. This is one of biggest issues among the younger generation."

CAPTION: A poster celebrating Ramadan hangs in the Adams Center, in Herndon, where scores of Muslims took part in the Welcoming Ramadan Program.

CAPTION: Sherri Fawzi is a Muslim who used to wear a head scarf but no longer does. "I still wear long sleeves. I don't flash any skin," she said.

CAPTION: Above, sixth-grade teacher Amaarah DeCuir wears the traditional Muslim woman's head scarf while she teaches. At left, 9-year-old Hajirah Ishaq, of Alexandria, wears a head scarf. She and Dalia Kubba, 7, of Chantilly, smile at a piece of artwork.