Who wears head scarves?

Bahiraa Abdul Rasheed is folding tall piles of scarves into perfect rectangles, preparing them to hang on a thousand hangers around The Islamic Place, a shop in West Philadelphia.

She’s wearing a scarf – a Muslim head covering called a hijab – in a blend of greens, yellows and tans.

Hijab means to protect or cover, and it relates to far more than clothing. Hijab is personal, says Aleem Choudhary, the Pakistani native who manages the store. It’s about one’s personal relationship with God, he says. “In Muslim culture, women have very high status. They are considered sacred. They represent the honor of society. Hijab is about protecting that honor.

“Some societies turn that ‘protection’ into a method of suppression,” he says, and non-Muslim people often look at women in hijab and think of them as repressed. But that’s often not the case. In the Pakistani town where Choudhary’s wife grew up, the women jointly decided to wear hijab. “My wife has a master’s degree, so no one is suppressing her, but she prefers to wear hijab.”

Rasheed, born Christian in the USA, explains how she began wearing. (“Wearing” is short for “wearing hijab.”) “I was working at Rite Aid,” she says, and I wanted to know why I saw sisters covering up. So I asked one sister, and she told me about the Muslim religion. I asked more questions, and she said she would help me.”

Rasheed’s journey began. “I feel Muslim in my heart,” she says. “I want to know more about Islam. As I submit to Muslim law, one condition is covering my hair.”

The hijabs most popular among Western women are square scarves that cover the head and neck but leave the face clear. Although women wear hijab to maintain modesty, available colors range from somber black, brown and burgundy to fashionable lime, hot pink, brilliant florals and tailored geometrics.

Aaliyah Hamid, shopping at The Islamic Place, grew up singing in the choir in her grandmother’s Catholic church. “Now my family are all Muslims, but we are not strict,” she says. “As my faith has increased, I cover my entire body.” She wears a khimar, too, which covers the head and neck, and a jilbab, a neck-to-shoes over-garment.

Mohamed Elcheikhadi, of a Philadelphia suburb, is a single, practicing Muslim man. His mother and sister, who remain in his native Lebanon, wear hijab, but his Philadelphia sister does not. “My family does not restrict our women. Our values do not require that women cover themselves. But a woman who covers is not at risk of getting negative attention from strange men, which would be bad.”

Before visiting this store, I asked a dozen women wearing traditional head coverings if I could talk with them. On a bus, I met two women wearing hijab: one, wearing pastel pink, teaching her mom, all in black, to navigate Philadelphia on her cell-phone map. Daughter said that some veiled women tend to wear a lot of makeup, “And if they have money, they get nose jobs, too.”

But she never returned my phone calls. Half the women I approached said no and turned away. Half said yes – and then failed to respond on the phones or e-mail addresses they had shared. The consensus in The Islamic Place was that that was not surprising, that the women were maintaining their privacy, their cover, their hijab, by refusing to talk.

A study guide accompanying a PBS show called “Suppression or Liberation: Islam, Hijab and Modern Society,” says that countries vary in defining women’s garb. Iranian women must wear a hijab, and Saudi Arabian women must veil their face. In Turkey, the government outlawed women from wearing hijab in public places.

Aleem Choudhary’s sister Wajeeha describes herself as “A 25-year-old hijab-observant Muslim woman born and raised in the Philadelphia area. My parents are immigrants from Pakistan who came to the U.S. 26 years ago.” She is a PhD candidate, writing her dissertation on the visual representation of South Asian Muslim women in American mass media.

“At age 14 I started wearing hijab,” she says. “My mother does, but she questioned me, wanting to make sure I was doing it of my own volition. I was. Wearing helped me grow with my friends, and I am glad I did it early. I grew comfortable and confident in it. If you’re looking for a job in your early 20s, you wonder if hijab will get in the way. Women who are denied employment because of wearing hijab can always go get another job.”

Choudhary is focusing on Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old, scarf-wearing Pakistani who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. “She wears the garb that is local to her community, but she is the opposite of how Muslim women have been represented. There seems to be a tendency to exceptionalize her, to say she is a celebrity, that she is not like other Muslim women.”

Choudhary finds Philadelphia “a very Muslim-friendly city. I don’t see any Muslim hatred here.”

Elcheikhadi says, “If I marry, I could ask my wife to cover herself, but I would not demand it.” In fact, he has never dated a woman wearing hijab, and a woman who covers all but her eyes would seem “too strict” for him. “To Americans she looks old-fashioned, even like an outcast. But an educated woman with hijab is a plus. You know she will care deeply about her husband and that she will be faithful.”

Local resident Hakima Ewida, a native of Morocco, has a different, perhaps unique, perspective on covering. Her father was an imam, a leader of prayer in mosques. His lesson guides her daily behavior: “Cover your heart with good deeds. God sees your heart.” She has never worn hijab, but she considers herself fully wrapped.

This article appeared November 24, 2015, on Huffington Post.