Many non-Muslims interpret the headscarves Islamic women wear as a symbol of oppression. But for Itidal Hashif, 17, and other local Muslim youth, covering their heads is a show of faith that can enhance character over physical beauty.
"It's a huge responsibility," said Hashif, a student at South Brunswick's Noor-Ul-Iman school. "It's about behavior and modesty. You're basically representing the religion and everything it embodies."
Most conservative Muslim-American girls wear a headscarf full-time once they reach puberty. In Arabic, the word "hijab" means covering or barrier and describes the concept of modest dress and behavior written about in the Quran and Hadith, sayings and practices of the prophet Muhammed. In Western countries, the word "hijab" has become synonymous with "headscarf."
With scarves that vary in design, shape and size, and with multiple ways of securing them with decorative pins and creative layering and wrapping techniques, hijab is a religious commitment, but it's also an accessory, the girls said.
"You have to match the headscarf with everything you're wearing," said Hashif, who added that scarves become part of a woman's outfit. "Wearing hijab becomes like putting on your shoes," Hashif said. "It feels so normal."
Kholoud Shaheen, 18, a classmate of Hashif's, has worn a headscarf for the last six years. At her Princeton home, Shaheen, whose family is from Egypt, sifts through drawers stuffed with white, black and blue cotton head coverings.
Most days, Shaheen wears white, her favorite hijab color, but on Fridays she'll wear a headscarf with a more intricate design for afternoon prayer. Every Muslim woman has her own preferred style, Shaheen said.
Most Muslim-American schools require girls from around grade four on to wear hijab. This year, administrators at Noor-Ul-Iman held the first-ever hijab party for fourth-grade girls at the start of the school year to celebrate the pupils' coming of age.
Women who wear a headscarf full-time remove it only at home, where male relatives are allowed to see them without the covering. They also go without it at all-female gatherings.