Why Do You Dress Like That?

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Nesha Usmani got a lot of questions about Islam while she was growing up, and it was usually because of the clothes she wore.

Usmani said, "I was asked once, 'Is Islam a country?' I was glad she asked me. It was an opportunity to educate her about my culture and religion."

Usmani came to the United States from her native Pakistan when she was 2 years old, so standing out from her friends became second nature over the years, especially in school. The Islamic religion allowed her to wear shorts until she hit puberty, then she was required to wear long sleeves and long pants at all times.

That is the time period when Usmani remembers fielding the most questions from her friends. She admits that even she had questions as she learned to understand and appreciate her religion.

"I was like, I could wear shorts yesterday," Usmani recalled saying to her parents. "There was a point I could not go swimming anymore with my friends, but I was comfortable with that."

So comfortable that now, at the age of 22 and even more devoted to her Muslim roots, Usmani chooses to wear the hijab to signify her deepened spiritual faith.

Standing Up to Standing Out

As thousands of children in Central Ohio head back to school sporting their new clothes, more and more of them will share classrooms with students whose back-to-school wardrobe identifies them with a particular religion or culture.

While those students often stand out from their friends, many of them exude a unique confidence. Because of that, they are respected by their peers.

Nasra Mohamed, a 12th grader at Eastland Career Center, says she has grown accustomed to not only being the only Somali in her classes but, many times, the only female. She says her peers are often curious about the khamar she wears to cover her head.

"I meet people who have never met a Somali," Mohamed said. "It is awkward at first until they know who I am and then they ask questions. Sometimes when I am asked a question, my friends will answer for me because they know the answer."

Since Central Ohio is both home to the second largest population of Somali refugees in the U.S. and is also a cultural melting pot, Mohamed believes there is greater acceptance for those who dress in a way that identifies their religion or cultural heritage.

Mohamed's sister, Kauther Guled, is a ninth grader at Canal Winchester. Guled also adheres to Somali tradition by wearing the khamar and says she gets lots of questions from other students.

"At the beginning it was hard, but it got easier," Guled said. The high-school freshman said her mother often had her listen to CDs that helped her understand the importance of the khamar to Somali culture and become more comfortable wearing it.

Learning Answers Before Fielding Questions

Parents can play a big role in prepping their children for the questions they will encounter when they step out of the comfort of their surroundings and walk through the doors at school.

Yael Levi has six children who all practice Orthodox Judaism and adhere to the religion's modest-clothing requirements. The boys wear the yarmulke and the tzitzit. The girls wear skirts or dresses with high neck lines and hemlines to the knees, and shirts with sleeves that extend to the elbows.

Levi admits that in a society so focused on outward appearance, school can be a tough environment for kids who stand out because of their religious and cultural requirements. She says conviction for their belief is what gives her children confidence in who they are.

"We explained to them that it is important to be modest because you want a person to look at you for who you are and not for what you wear," Levi said. "They have educated their peers and they have been admired for their beliefs."

The opportunity to educate crosses religious and cultural boundaries. Nesha Usmani believes that questions foster understanding.

"There is such a thing as a bad assumption, but there is never a bad question," Usmani said. "If you see a person wearing the hijab or the yarmulke, that is an invitation to learn something.

"Do not be afraid to ask questions. They probably want to answer it or dispel a rumor. I feel like that is an opportunity that cannot be missed."

Ready to Wear

The clothes mentioned in this article

Hijab: a head covering traditionally worn by Muslim women

Khamar: a small colorful head scarf worn by many Somali girls and women

Yarmulke: a skullcap traditionally worn by Orthodox and Conservative Jewish males

Tzitzit: specially knotted fringes that are attached to the corners of a prayer shawl worn by observant Jews