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U.S. Muslim women debate safety of hijab amid backlash

Muslim women are intensely debating the duty and risks related to wearing their head-coverings as usual

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On the night of the California shootings, Asifa Quraishi-Landes sat on her couch, her face in her hands, and thought about what was ahead for her and other Muslim women who wear a scarf or veil in public.

The covering, or hijab, often draws unwanted attention even in the best of times. But after the one-two punch of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks by extremists, and amid an anti-Muslim furor stoked by comments of Donald Trump, Quraishi-Landes, an Islamic law specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wanted to send a message.

“To all my Muslim sisters who wear hijab,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “If you feel your life or safety is threatened in any way because of your dress, you have an Islamic allowance (darura/necessity) to adjust your clothing accordingly. Your life is more important than your dress.”

Amid a reported spike in harassment, threats and vandalism directed at American Muslims and at mosques, Muslim women are intensely debating the duty and risks related to wearing their head-coverings as usual.

Sites for Muslim women have posted guidance on how to stay safe. Hosai Mojaddidi, co-founder of the educational group MentalHealth4Muslims, drew nearly 4,000 likes for her Facebook post advising women to “pull out those hooded sweatshirts, beanies, hats and wraps for a while until the dust settles.”

Muslimgirl.net posted a “Crisis Safety Manual for Muslim Women,” with tips such as wearing a turban instead of a longer more obviously religious scarf and carrying a rape whistle.

Muslim women in several cities are organizing or taking self-defense classes. The ad for one such class in New York features a drawing of a covered woman in a karate stance.

“We’re getting so many calls,” said Rana Abdelhamid, 22, founder of the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment, which offers self-defense and empowerment classes in several cities for young Muslim and Jewish women who face harassment.

Abdelhamid, a New York native attending the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said she had studied karate since childhood and started offering self-defense classes for women after a man tried to pull off her headscarf when she was 16 years old.

“Even now when I think about that moment — I have a lot of anxiety moving through the streets to this day — especially with all of the hateful rhetoric because, I don’t know, is it going to happen again?” she said.

The question of whether to wear the hijab is already deeply sensitive for Muslim women. Scholars have debated for years whether women have a religious obligation to dress a particular way.