[VIDEO] Why they wear it: UK students raise awareness of Islam

As many young women in college get ready to leave the house, there is a flurry to put together a combination of the right shoes, sweater, earrings or lip gloss. But for one part of the UK population, dressing for class is all about one thing — modesty.

Heba Suleiman is a psychology junior and next year’s Muslim Student Association president. As a Muslim woman, Suleiman wears hijab, something most people tend to misunderstand, she says.

“The head scarf or the Arabic term ‘hijab’ is actually a very vague term,” Suleiman said. “ … in general the hijab would be the modesty or the covering, so the reason we wear it is to be fully covered.”

This week is Islamic Awareness Week, an attempt to inform people about the principles of Islam and break the misconceptions attached to the religion.

The word Islam literally means “peace,” Suleiman said, or losing one’s self for the sake of God, or Allah. Muslim is the word used for people who follow Islam, just like Christians follow Christianity.

While many people may not know the specifics of the religion, they do recognize Muslim women who wear hijab. The tradition of covering one’s self can be seen on campus everyday through Muslim students that stay true to the values Islam preaches.

Suleiman was born and raised in Kentucky, but her parents are from Palestine. She started wearing hijab when she was about 11 years old, so she would be used to it when she made the transition to middle and high school. She said most Muslim girls start wearing hijab during puberty when their bodies begin to develop.

It may be a common misconception that women are forced to cover themselves, but Suleiman said she never felt pressured to wear hijab — her parents gave  her the choice. But living in Elizabethtown, Ky., Suleiman encountered more than just the usual playground taunts of children.

“The reactions I got after I started wearing it were actually pretty intense,” she said. “ … children would make fun of me and call me names like ‘towel head’ or things like that, so it was hard not knowing how to respond or give them a response that would actually stump their reactions, but I got used to it. My parents taught me that this is why you wear it, this is what you should tell them. A lot of people didn’t really know so they were a little bit ignorant about it.”

That ignorance has faded greatly since she came to UK, Suleiman said. Through the mission of the Muslim Student Association, she tries to spread the word of Islam in an open-minded manner.

“We’re not going out there and trying to preach and telling you [that] you need to convert,” she said. “We just want to spread the word (of Islam). If anyone has a question we always encourage them to come ask us or come to our meetings just to hear what we do … ”

Because of the number of Muslim students on campus, Suleiman sees many other girls who wear hijab. She said having a larger, more diverse community made it easier for her to deal with the questions that come with being a Muslim on campus.

“… it makes it a lot easier for me to come to a big university and not have to deal with the ignorance or the stares or the glares just because I think a lot of people know (why we wear hijab),” she said. “And if they don’t … they come and they ask me ‘why do you wear that?’ and ‘what religion are you?’ so I just explain to them what it is.”

Islamic Awareness Week is part of the Cultural Diversity Festival, and Suleiman feels that one of the misconceptions about her culture is the way women are treated in Islam.

“You hear in other third-world countries that men treat women wrong, or they have to cover from head to toe,” she said. “But in our religion it doesn’t say you have to cover from head to toe. It says cover everything but your face. And it doesn’t refrain us from doing stuff like working. It doesn’t say anything about being locked at home … There’s Muslim doctors, lawyers, teachers. There’s every type of career that you have. Women can do anything, whether you wear hijab or not.”

Suleiman feels Muslim women are not limited in life by the hijab, including in the fashion world. Just because she wears hijab doesn’t mean she cannot enjoy her own style.

“There’s so many different ways to wear it,” she said. “From a wedding to just everyday life — for a wedding they have sequins, they have glitter, and you can pin it up to look like a flower … If you’re feeling gloomy you can wear a black one. If you’re feeling bright you can wear a white one. So whatever your style fits, you can wear.”

And no matter what her mood or current style, Suleiman said one thing will remain constant — that she will wear hijab.

“I’d actually feel really naked (without it), like I’m missing something,” she said. “It’s kind of like if I lose my cell phone.”

One reason Suleiman wears hijab is because she sees the way other women present themselves. She says modesty is such a key part of her religion, so she chooses to keep herself covered and avoid situations brought on by revealing too much of themselves.

“I see girls that dress with few clothing on I guess, and the way they get treated and you hear responses from men like ‘why would she wear that if she didn’t want me to look at her?’, so I keep myself away from that because I know if I dress modestly and I know if I’m doing something right, it’s less likely for something like that to happen to me.”