This Leawood Physician Is An 'Ambassador For Her Faith' — And An Envoy For Hijabi Fashion
Despite her lifelong Muslim faith, Sofia Khan didn't always wear a head scarf. She was a spiritual person but considered herself a moderate practitioner of Islam, wearing a head scarf on certain occasions.
That changed after the 9/11 terror attacks.
"I realized a negative image was coming on my faith," Khan says. "I wanted to make a statement and show people this not what Islam is. There are so many Muslims living around you, you just don’t know who they are."
But actually wearing one wasn't easy. It took her three months to work up the courage. Hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. were increasing — as they are now — and she knew it would make her a visible target. None of the women in her family wore one, and friends and relatives worried about her safety.
Her husband had additional concerns.
"He might not have agreed with it because he's a very stylish guy," she says, "always worried about the looks and everything."
He needn't have worried, because hijabi women have plenty of style options.
That's obvious in an alcove of the family's Leawood home, where a special rack displays a hundred scarves in various colors, patterns and materials.
"There are special websites you can go to," Khan says. "There are special designers, ladies who are known among the Muslims to be the divas, and 100 styles to wear your head scarf."
A mother of five daughters, she says the three of them who are old enough and have chosen to cover their heads are always watching hijabi fashion tutorials on YouTube.
"These girls sit there, memorize those steps and practice them, and then the next party they go to, you'll see the new styles. So I have fun watching my three teenagers."
Dressed for success
Khan and her husband met in medical school in Pakistan; she finished her medical training in New York, and they moved to Kansas City more than 20 years ago for his residency.
"We came here thinking we were not going to say more than a year, but this place is so beautiful, the people are so amazing, the more time we spent here, we realized this is exactly the kind of city where we wanted to raise our kids," she says.
Now, she says she considers herself "an ambassador" of her faith.
It's something she does while treating patients of all faiths at the long-term acute-care hospital where she's a physician; at the free clinic she's just started for refugees; at the educational and support organization she runs called KC for Refugees, among many other activities.
When Khan talks to community groups about the myths surrounding hijabi women, she talks about fashion because she's into it. But also, everyone can relate to getting dressed and wanting to look good.
As Khan points out, Muslim women are not required to wear a head scarf — it's every woman's choice, she says. For her part, she agrees with the scholars who say it's the Muslim dress code for women.
"Men have a modest dress code prescribed for them, too," she notes. The modest lifestyle is also about demeanor, she explains, "but part of it is to make sure we are covered properly. So my arms are covered, my legs are always covered, clothing has to be loose, never see-through or (clingy). And part of it is to cover your head."
Khan has heard people say they think Muslim women are forced by men to wear scarves, which is clearly not true in her case.
She understood that her decision would change her life in one significant way.
"I knew this was going to become my identity, and it was going to be a big burden because suddenly I wasn’t going to be Sofia — I was going to be that Muslim woman, that Muslim doctor."
What she didn't anticipate was how it would strengthen her faith.
"I still remember that day," she says of the first time she left her house with her head covered. "I was very nervous. I wasn’t sure how people were going to look at me. I felt the whole day like there was someone hugging me tightly and was there with me. I felt the arms of God, arms of an angel, I don't know what it was, telling me, 'It’ll be OK, don’t worry, it’ll be OK.'"
She's felt that way ever since.
Khan imagines it might be the same feelings Christians get from wearing a cross, touching it when they need a spiritual strength. It keeps her connected with God, which is one reason her husband came around to the idea. There's another reason, too.
"I became a role model for my daughters," she says.
"They took into same modest, respectable lifestyle, in which they honor and dignify their character, and do not depend on their sexuality or physical looks to get where they want to go in life. And I think that’s an honor for any parent."
Like mother, like daughter
Manahil Khan, a freshman at the University of Kansas, and Inaya Khan, a freshman at Notre Dame de Sion, appear to have as much fun with their scarves as their mother does.
"I think a lot about choosing a scarf is just choosing what matches, but it's also about comfort. A lot of times, I'll just wear a sweatshirt and a scarf," Manahil says. "The fancier scarves require more time putting on, so we'll use straight pins or safety pins because the material is slippery or shiny. So if it’s for day-to-day going to school, I'll just wear a cotton scarf because it doesn’t require anything else."
"Mostly in the morning, when you're in a hurry going to school, you can just choose any scarf and throw it on when you’re in the car."
"But it also allows us to express ourselves," Manahil says, referring to another sister who "always wears a turban scarf and has big earrings on. So a lot of it is about doing what is specific to you as individual, making sure you look good and want to feel good about yourself."
If that conversation sounds like teenagers of any faith getting dressed for different occasions, that's basically Khan's point. "We pretty much live a life like every other women," she says.
"My daughters have always been in all kinds of sports, they go out with friends to the mall, they go out to the movies, they go to the prom. So all of their activities are pretty much the same. They have the makeup, the jewelry, they have tons and tons of things — I should know," she says with a laugh. "I pay for it."
Along with her own accessories.
"Shopping for head scarves is one of our favorite things, but also organizing them and picking out the scarf of the day is a pretty fun time for us."
With all those choices, Sofia Khan does have her own go-to.
"Always the red one," she says. "Red's always been my favorite color and everyone says it looks good on me, so tend to pick the red pashmina first."
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.