Layla Aysheh has heard a lot of questions about her hijab, the scarf she wears to cover her hair when she's around men. But this one was the weirdest:What about male animals, someone asked. Do you have to wear it in front of them, too?
The answer, of course, is no.
She and members of the University of South Florida's Sisters United Muslim Association spent Wednesday answering questions about the hijab, letting people try them on and trying to dispel stereotypes about the traditional head covering.
"We know people are curious," said Ala Gebarin, president of the group, known as SUMA, who organized the event, Hijab 101. "But we also want them to understand why we wear it and to see that it's something we choose to do and it doesn't hold us back."
SUMA was started at USF 16 years ago by a group of Christian and Muslim women who wanted to counter people's negative beliefs about Islam. The group holds regular events, but this was their first one devoted to the hijab.
The word refers to the head covering and the commandment in the Quran that women should avoid displaying their "adornments," said USF student Safia Khawaja. More broadly, the word stands for the idea that both Muslim men and women should behave modestly toward each other, unless they are immediate family members.
Some Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, require women to wear hijabs. Others, such as Turkey, ban them in government buildings.
Khawaja said she and the other SUMA members believe whether or not to wear a hijab is a woman's choice.
"What's important is having a good character," she said. "I've known women of good character who didn't wear it, and I've known women who did wear the hijab who didn't have such good character."
"We don't judge when people don't wear the hijab, but it does take commitment," she said.
Khawaja began wearing hers when she was a junior in an Islamic high school, so it wasn't a hard transition. Aysheh was in eighth grade, in a public junior high school in Ocala.
Some kids teased her. One boy asked her if she was going to a wedding or a bombing.
She continued to wear it, getting moral support from her sister in sixth grade, who started wearing hers at the same time.
By the time Aysheh got to high school, nobody bothered her about it.
And, one by one, more girls started showing up in hijabs, until there were about a dozen.
"It was easier for them, because they weren't alone," she said.