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‘It’s a fight for respect’: North Florida hijabis speak on the right to dress themselves

Muntaha Islam, 20, sits in the University of Florida's Plaza of the Americas before a "Sisters Painting Picnic" with members of Islam on Campus. (Paris Coughlin/WUFT News)
Muntaha Islam, 20, sits in the University of Florida's Plaza of the Americas before a "Sisters Painting Picnic" with members of Islam on Campus. (Paris Coughlin/WUFT News)

While women in Iran protest national religious mandates to wear a headscarf, Florida women who wear a hijab worry they may face backlash for their decision to wear the veil. 

Religious and state law in Iran has required women to veil since the late-20th century following the Iranian revolution in 1979. The mandates have been a point of tension for decades, but recent protests broke out following the murder of Mahsa Amini in September for not wearing the hijab. 

Third-year University of Florida student Muntaha Islam, who said she “full-heartedly” supports the riots, said non-Muslims who oppose the hijab may use the protests as an opportunity to say Islam oppresses women. She said the claim would be inaccurate on several fronts. 

“Islam says women should be free,” she said. “It’s what the patriarchy is doing, and how much power (men) have. It’s honestly just objectification of women’s bodies.” 

Sarah Rifqi, who practices at the Islamic Community Center of Gainesville, immigrated to the U.S. four years ago. She said she can empathize with the situation in Iran from her own experiences with morality police and compulsory veiling in Saudi Arabia, though the situation in Iran is far more aggressive. 

Rifqi said she doesn’t speak for all hijabis – the term for Muslim women who wear a hijab, a scarf that covers their face and neck – and while she continues to wear her hijab for both religious and cultural reasons, having the freedom to choose the veil is a personal choice. Many of her Iranian and Saudi friends who wear the hijab in their home countries don’t in the U.S.

“For them, maybe it’s not religious,” she said. “It’s just something that they have to do because they have to follow the rules. So now there’s no rules, they can take it off.”  

Islam agreed that the concept of modesty and what is haram, literally meaning “forbidden” and indicates behaviors that are outside of religious purity, is closely tied to culture. 

“With the concept of the hijab,” she said, “in Arabic, it basically just means ‘veil,’ A veil of humility, of just honor. It’s for both men and women.” 

Often, she said, the meaning of the hijab and haram is interpreted by male patriarchs and impressed upon women in both the U.S. and abroad. 

Aniqa Ahmed, a fourth-year UF student, said “In the Qur’an, it says ‘religion must have no compulsion.’”

To force a woman to cover herself, said Ahmed, who is Bangladeshi American, is haram. 

Islam said that Westerners tend to associate the hijab with oppression and often assume hijabis are less self-aware or lack the same level of education. Those who would ban the hijab in the West don’t give themselves or other hijabis enough credit or respect to make their own decisions. 

“They equate you with: ‘Oh, you’re wearing a hijab,’” she said, “‘that means you’re OK with being oppressed.’”

“I’ve had professors talk about this,” Ahmed said. “They were like, ‘Oh, there’s a huge discrepancy between what I thought you were and what you actually are.’ And their first thought of me came from me wearing the headscarf.”  

She said she feels the need to overcompensate and “work harder at being friendly” because of people’s assumptions. If a stranger smiles at her, she always smiles back. 

She started wearing the hijab in third grade and said there’s sometimes a barrier between her and other Muslim women who do not veil because of the immediacy people connect her with Islam. Her hijab is the first thing people notice about her. 

Growing up in South Florida, she said she rarely faced overt islamophobia. She has, however, become accustomed to comments about her modest dress, particularly on hot days. 

She worries that one day things may progress beyond microaggressions. She has a constant fear that if she were ever to cross a street without a crosswalk, and if the person behind the wheel were islamophobic, she would get run over. 

A 2018 article from New America ranked Florida No.4 in most anti-Muslim activities from 2012 to 2018, behind California, Texas and New York. Of the 46 total reports, 17 were of “hate incidents against mosques and Islamic centers” and 11 were “media reports of anti-Muslim violence and crimes.” 

In a 2022 ranking by World Population Review of Muslims per capita, Florida ranked No.7.  

Despite her fear and knowledge of people who would potentially do her harm because of her hijab, Ahmed said she’s cultivated a community at UF of people who respect her expression of religion. She’s found campus relatively accepting, even if it’s because students aren’t worried about others’ personal choices rather than an understanding of Islam. 

“At UF, people know that bodily autonomy is number one,” Ahmed said.

Islam expects UF’s culture to shift in the coming months as Ben Sasse transitions into his position as university president. Knowing his politics, she worries what it might mean for her as a visibly Muslim woman. 

“It will be more a political environment rather than an educational environment,” she said.

Paris is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.