'For Covered Girls' documentary explores what headscarf means to Muslim women

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

Even as a 10-year-old growing up in a small Illinois town, Baraa Ktiri knew she wanted to wear a hijab. 

The Muslim headscarf was what her mom wore regularly, many of her friends' moms and her older sister.

"I always knew it meant something to me," Ktiri said. "I kind of grew with it, through middle and high school. It formulated a lot of how I see people and how I see people see me."

Today the 26-year-old Moroccan American artist is creating a documentary series on the hijab and the many meanings the head cloth has to Muslim women across the United States and the world titled "For Covered Girls" . 

Ktiri is an artist-in-residence at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and on Sunday led a discussion with a small group of other Muslim women, which was filmed for her series. 

"I want to help create a greater dialogue for Muslim girls and women ... whether you wear it or not," Ktiri said.

The hijab has often been at the center of Islamophobia and discrimination. Fox News host Jeanine Pirro suggested last year that because Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, wore the Muslim headscarf, her beliefs were "antithetical" to the U.S. Constitution.

More recently, Jasmine Renee Campbell, 23, was indicted on a hate crime, attempted strangulation, harassment and criminal mischief charges in a Nov. 12 attack in Portland, Oregon. She is accused of trying to choke a 24-year-old Muslim student with her headscarf and then, after stripping down at a train station, rubbing the student's hijab on Campbell's breasts and genitals while disparaging Muslims, the Associated Press reported. 

From religious practice to cultural statement, women on Sunday shared their relationship to the hijab, which they said often is complicated. Some, like Ktiri, began wearing it as children as a rite of passage and others as adults. 

Several women recounted periods of time where they stopped wearing it and later returned to the practice, along with the difficult family dynamics in making those decisions. And some described the anxiety and trauma of being harassed for it. 

"Not everybody for whatever reason is going to don the outward symbol of their faith," said Jennifer Kabir, a 48-year-old Troy resident who converted to Islam. "It is a very private personal thing. It could be for a myriad of reasons."

Machhadie Assi, who is Lebanese, said wearing the hijab was at first "about me only, but now it's ... more of a social responsibility."

From left, Machhadie Assi of Dearborn, Masha Almulaiki of Highland Park, Lujine Nasralla of Detroit, Weihan Hi of Farmington Hills, Baraa Ktiri and Mariam Ktiri of Farmington Hills, in white, during a discussion about hijab facilitated by artist in residence Baraa Ktiri at the Arab American National Museum library in Dearborn, Mich. on Jan. 26, 2020.

"It has become this representation of an identity that I am proud of," Assi said.

It is a piece of cloth but it is a "tool to learning who I am," said Rasha Almulaiki, a 28-year-old Highland Park resident, calling it a "cultural marker of our identity."

"We are not going to bow down and take it off and assimilate to the point of erasure of who we are," Almulaiki said. 

She stressed that she is no less vocal in speaking out about injustice because she wears a hijab, which is an assumption she said people have made.  

"People need to get used to seeing women in hijab, all kinds of women," Kabir said. "People need to understand that this is part of our faith and that is not something forced upon us. Yes, there are women who are forced. There are people all over this world forced to do all sorts of things. But many, many women choose to wear a hijab."

Ktiri remains an artist-in-residence at the museum until early February. Besides Metro Detroit, she said she's also filming her series in Urbana, Illinois; New York; France and Morocco. She hopes to distribute it online when finished. 

The museum's "Artists + Residents" program brings in a variety of artists monthly to live and work in Dearborn.