The Hijab Symbolizes Freedom for University Professor

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Women who wear the hijab (Courtesy of Flickr)


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By Brianna Williams

Lila Ghemri, PH.D., an associate professor in the computer science department at Texas Southern University, has worn a hijab for the past 17 years. It is a piece of clothing that adorns her entire head and symbolizes her religious obedience. Because she chooses to wear it, she said she has been the target of a violation to her individual rights as an American citizen.

“The evolution of stereotypes has now taken place,” said Ghemri. “Before 9/11, I was an oppressed and ignorant Muslim woman. Now, I am a terrorist.”

Ghemri said these biases are perplexing and demonstrates why it is important to engage in open and honest discussion about the hijab and women who choose to wear it.

Dr. Lila Ghemri, Texas Southern University Professor

The hijab, according to the Islam holy book, the Quran, gives the meaning of modesty, privacy, and morality. The Quran does not designate veiling or seclusion, but it tends to emphasize the participation of religious responsibility of both men and women in society. The hijab is defined in the Muslim faith as a garment to cover a woman’s hair and full body to provide religious abidance as well as protection from men who could potentially harm them.

When a woman comes of age, she has the choice of wearing this garment to dress as a recognizable woman to their god. Although it is required to be worn by women in some Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Muslim-American women have the choice to wear these head coverings.

“It is a way to honor what God requires of us as believing women, and (also) keeps us from dressing in a way to be at fault if things may happen,” said Ghemri.

Because most Americans viewed 9/11 as a religious attack, all Muslims were deemed dangerous, said Ghemri. Airports began to take more caution, employers turned many Muslims away, and many Americans shunned all of what they saw as foreign. The hijab has sense been a part of this “foreign” desolation.

Ghemri said she is stopped and searched every time she goes to the airport. When attending professional conferences with her students, she often sends them ahead so that they are not held up.

Ghemri said one of the big misnomers about the women who choose to wear the hijab is their intellectual capacity. Ghemri, whose research area is artificial intelligence, said the hijab empowers her and gives her strength.

“The hijab has given me more freedom than anything else,” said Ghemri.

Houston is one of the top 10 cities in the United States in which Muslims live. Among this population, almost a third of Muslim women are concerned about applying for work.
Ghemri recalled the rejection she felt at a job interview a few years ago. She walked into the interview, and was told that the position had already been assigned. Then another employer, oblivious to the fact that she’d been turned away, interviewed her and offered her the job.

After this experience, she said she tends to inform the interviewer of her appearance before she goes in. Ghemri said she holds no malice for the mistreatment she has received because she chooses to wear the hijab. She said the hijab empowers her in several ways.

“It has freed me from how I look to what I can do,” said Ghemri. “My work is judged instead of my appearance.”

As a Muslim woman, Ghemri only wishes that people would set aside stereotypes, and get informed on what the hijab really means. She wants people to put the clothing item in its correct place: a religious commitment that she has made.

“I’m not projecting or forcing what I do on anyone else,” said Ghemri. “It is a personal commitment on my life that allows me to feel closer to God by abiding by what he has asked of me. This is it.”

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