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Ramsey: A symbol of faith, freedom

15 July 2011 General 8 Comments Email This Post Email This Post
Roula Allouch's hijab

Roula Allouch's hijab "is the last thing I put on before I cross the threshold of my home," she says. / The Enquirer/Michael E. Keating

It happens so often Roula Allouch is almost used to it.

Strangers walk up, point to her hijab – the headscarf some Muslim women wear – and tell her she’s in America now, has rights and can’t be forced to wear the covering.

She thanks them. Then she tells them that she’s American-born, Kentucky-raised and understands her rights quite well since she’s an attorney.

And she assures them she wears the hijab out of choice, not coercion.

“It’s the last thing I put on before I cross the threshold of my home,” says Allouch, who is president of the Cincinnati chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Once it’s on my head, it’s a symbol of my commitment to my faith – my own individual commitment, not what someone else told me it should be. When I walk out that door, I choose to represent being an American-born, Muslim woman.”

But the headscarf that is seen by Allouch as a personal symbol of faith has become a matter of controversy, even penalty, for some Muslim women.

The Iranian women’s soccer team was banned from Olympic qualifying rounds last month because players wear a head covering. A California woman is suing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch after being fired for wearing a hijab – which, she points out, she also wore at her job interview.

The cases, along with recent news specials about Saudi Arabian women driving – which is forbidden – have intensified interest in the beliefs and practices of Muslim women.

And shown, many of them would say, that non-Muslims not only have a poor understanding of what goes on a Muslim woman’s head, but what goes on inside it.

The hijab is an obvious example. Westerners often view it as an accessory, as easily left off as an earring.

Muslims see it is an act of personal obedience, following verses in the Quran that exhort both men and women to modesty.

Rather than being an object of oppression, the hijab is viewed as “liberating” by women like Allouch.

Instead of leaving their identity to fashion designers and retailers, Muslim women make choices about how their body will be viewed and how they will physically express who they are, she says.

“Some people see the hijab as a requirement on women,” she says. “I see it as just the reverse. I get to control it. I get to decide what people’s perception of me is.”

Only in a handful of countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, are women required to wear the hijab. American Muslim women decide the matter for themselves.

Many are particularly irritated by the thought that males dictate that decision, or any other.

“Of all the things that frustrate us, one is the thought that other people need to speak on our behalf when we’re very capable of speaking for ourselves,” says Allouch, who practices law in Kentucky and Ohio.

To the perception they need to be freed from oppression, some wonder if the statement isn’t more fitting for females pressured to wear revealing clothing or to aspire to unachievable standards of beauty.

In contrast, Allouch says the hijab isn’t part of her wardrobe, it is part of herself.

Growing up, she sometimes saw it as a complexity. Now she sees it as clarifying.

“It’s another benefit of wearing the hijab,” she says. “Not only is it about me showing who I am, but it also gives me insight into who other people are. It shows me the truth of people.”

Krista Ramsey’s column appears Friday and Sunday. Email her at

Written by
Krista Ramsey


  1. Would anyone think of walking up to an observant Jewish man and saying “You’re in America now, it’s a free country, no one can force you to wear a kippah”? Why is it assumed that when a mean wears a signifier of faith, he does so freely, but when a woman does the same, she is somehow being coerced? This is America, and it is a free country, and that is why we have the freedom believe what we want and express that faith as we see fit.

  2. You’re right; no one would ever think of approaching a man and saying that. Whereas people come up to me all the time trying to “enlighten” me of my rights.

    It’s socially unacceptable to go up to a Catholic nun who has choosen pious modesty and tell her that she’s been brainwashed. It’s seen as a beautiful act of faith and chastity. But for me, and other hijabis, it can’t be my own decision. My husband MUST be forcing me.

    This might be a bit contraversial, but I think it stems from women in the US being coerced into wearing succesively more and more revealing clothing by society, as well as being held up to an unatainable beauty standard. When another woman decides to forgo this rat race it’s seen as the ultimate taboo, and these women are so terrified of breaking the rules they assume that any other woman who chooses not to follow them is having her arm twisted behind the scenes. Whenever someone asks me why I let my husband control what I wear, I ask them something along the lines of the above.

    Live and let live, God made us all so lets just love one another and help make each other’s passage on this world as pleasant as possible, kay? 🙂

  3. What I find more interesting, is even after putting on Hijab often decide what we will wear based on other peoples perceptions. It is seen as a major taboo in the Muslim Ammerican Community to wear black abaya, or niquab. There’s quite a lot of thought given to looking conservative, but not too conservative, because that might be just too much for our non-Mulsim friends and family to handle. We say we don’t really care, but we still try to work just enough colour into our wardrobe so as not to seem too conservative. I remeber when I realized that I did this, it was a shock. I’ve also come to notice that I have just as many Muslims telling me to lighten up, as non-Muslims. It is not my responsibility to prove to anyone that I am free, make my own choices, or that I have fun. If a black abaya is easiest and most comfortable, I’m going to wear it, even if it freaks people out. Sorry it’s about me and my freedoms, not your judgment.

  4. I think the hijab actually accentuates her beauty. I see women in stores wearing them and I think no more of it than Capn’ Crunch is on sale. It’s just there. It’s a piece of clothing, nothing more, nothing less.

  5. Unfortunately, too many assume that a woman who covers (her head) must naturally be more religious or conservative than one who does not. According to popular opinion, the Muslim woman who does not cover her hair (even if she is otherwise dressed modestly) has not quite arrived at the perceived goal of all righteous believing women. The scarf, an article of clothing, has sadly become a litmus test for a Muslim woman’s faith and devotion to God. Indeed, the importance which some Muslims have attached to hijab has made some sarcastically refer to it as the “Sixth Pillar” of Islam, on par with prayer, fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage and bearing witness to the oneness of God.

  6. Kaatib, thanks, you said it way better than I could have.

  7. Kaatib, i don’t know you cut and paste from a site, but you are making a fallacious argument. Wearing hijab is following a clear direction of the Quran. Quite like eating good food or not wearing shorts for a man. Someone who practices organic Halal food eating or doesn’t wear shorts or even sleeveless t-shirt in public is not making these habits 6th pillar of Islam. He is only acting on the fundamental premise that he must obey God or must avoid forbIdden things in life. Someone judges a woman based on her wearing hijab is not any different from someone judging man based on his eating habits or how much time he spends watching naked girls on Internet. Why do you insist on Enlightening Muslim women? It is too much white talk!

  8. The difference between a nun’s habit, a jew’s kippah, and a muslim woman’s hijab is that there aren’t any parts of the world (to my knowledge) where people are forced to wear a habit or a kippah. But women in some parts of the middle east have little choice about their hijab. I teach international students, the majority of which are Saudi Arabian, and the women tell me that while in some parts of the country hijab is optional, in other parts a woman would utterly disgrace her family if she were to allow a man to see her without it. In the US, women’s equality is valued so much that we are automatically alarmed by anything that we view as oppressing women, and since many female rights are, in our eyes, oppressed in the countries where the hijab is worn, we are concerned for women who wear it. If people are coming up to you and explaining that you don’t have to wear it here, it’s because they are concerned for you and want you to have the freedom to choose. They are doing it to be nice, not to be mean. Most Americans know about as much about culture in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where hijab is customary as you probably know about the cultural customs of Malawi. So please, have a little patience with us. I’m sure it’s annoying, but we are only trying to help.

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