There's a new fashion on college campuses, but it's not one you'll find at Abercrombie any time soon. It's the higab, the traditional Muslim headscarf that denotes modesty and reverence to God, and it's being worn by increasing numbers of young Muslim American women. By most accounts, they are the American-born children of the estimated 4 million Muslims who immigrated to the United States over the last 40 years. The irony: many of those parents abandoned their Islamic cultural identities to assimilate into American society. "We're seeing more young women wearing the higab whose mothers don't wear it," says Hadia Mubarak, former president of the Muslim Students Association. Mubarak says that young Muslim Americans who grew up here are not facing the kinds of identity crises their parents did. "These kids are comfortable in their American identity because that's the only culture they've known, so it's easier for them to embrace the outward manifestations of Islam."
Spurred by a desire to express solidarity in the face of post-9/11 discrimination, young Muslim Americans are connecting with their Islamic heritage and embracing a religious culture many of them had known only secondhand. Henna Khan, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan and Kashmir in the 1970s, began wearing a higab just before her freshman year at UC, Berkeley, in 2003. "It's easier to put it on when you see other girls putting it on," says Khan, 21. "I was inspired by this whole American Muslim movement."
The trend comes amid a historic spike in anti-Muslim discrimination in the United States, and the higab has been the magnet for much of it. Since 9/11, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed over the right to wear higabs in the workplace and in photo IDs. "The higab is the walking symbol of Islam," says Council on American-Islamic Relations legal director Arsalan Iftikhar, who authored a report documenting nearly 2,000 cases of anti-Muslim discrimination in 2006.
The issue isn't limited to the United States. Tensions over head coverings are mounting across the Western world. In the U.K., former foreign secretary Jack Straw set off a firestorm when he said recently that veils are a statement of difference and set people apart. Khan doesn't see it that way. "Being an American and Muslim aren't two separate identities--we can be both at the same time," she says.