Editor's note: Staff writer Mona Shadia has gotten used to fielding questions about Islam and Middle Eastern culture in our newsroom. Whether it's fasting during Ramadan, Eid, hijabs in the workplace, the Irvine 11 or the Arab Spring, Mona has educated her co-workers (and bosses) about her faith and experiences. Those conversations led us to realize how little some Americans understand about Islam and the Middle Easterners who live among us in this era of Islamophobia in America. My hope is Mona can pass along her perspective and insights to our readers. This is the first of her new weekly column, Unveiled: A Muslim Girl in O.C.

I grew up in Cairo, raised by my mom and her six brothers.

Uncle Gamal, whom I call "Uncle Beautiful" because his name means beauty in Arabic, had the greatest influence on me. On one of Cairo's warm and sunny days, when I was maybe 6 or 7, my uncle gave me a blue hijab to cover my hair and upper body every time I went outside.

Growing up in a Muslim country, I saw many women wearing hijabs. But my mom, Shadia, whose first name I have taken as my last, was curiously not one of them.

My sister, Marwa, and I would walk fully covered next to our mom while she showed her hair, but we never really understood why her hair flowed freely and ours did not.

It was easy for Uncle Beautiful, who practiced a conservative form of Islam, to make me and my sister hide our locks from public view, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't make our strong-willed mom do so.

When I was about 12 and became more aware of my surroundings and my developing sense of fashion, I grew to resent covering my long, dark brown hair. I imagined what it would be like to walk outside showing it.

By that time, my mom had decided to cover her own hair. She said it was her decision, not her brother's, which didn't help my case.

When I asked why women have to cover, Uncle Beautiful said because your hair is part of your beauty, and Muslim women and girls must show modesty.

Then he startled me by comparing uncovered women to slaughtered animals hanging in a butcher's shop and covered women to beautiful diamonds.

With each day, I grew more resentful of having to hide my hair and of my uncle, to whom I would not speak to for a decade.

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Unveiled in America

Fast-forward a few years. About two weeks shy of my 15th birthday, I moved to Southern California with my mom and sister to join my grandma, three of my mom's brothers, her sister and their families.

The first thing I did was remove the hijab, but I couldn't let go of my anger toward it. Until recently.

Although there is no specific mention of a woman's hair in the Koran, there are at least two verses where God commands women to cover their heads, according to Mohammed Ibn Faqih, imam and religious director at the Anaheim-based Islamic Institute of Orange County.

These versus are also clarified through one of Prophet Muhammad's prophetic traditions.

But here's why the hijab is such a controversy.

In recent history, as with many other religious and nonreligious expressions, the hijab became politicized.

Covering became associated with oppression when, in fact, the basic purpose of the hijab was to liberate women and protect their dignity and beauty, Faqih said.

One of the purposes of the hijab is also to identify Muslim women, he said.

It used to really bother me when I saw a woman covering her hair in America; I assumed she's oppressed by her husband, family or tradition.

But then I realized something: Hijabis in America have it completely different from those in Iran, who are forced by the government; in Saudi Arabia, where covering is the norm; in Turkey, where the hijab is actually discouraged; or in Egypt, where many women cover because of social pressures. In America, women cover their hair, or not cover, because they have the freedom to make that choice.

Are there situations here where the woman is actually being forced by her family or obligated to cover? Yes.

Are there Western women here who feel the need to dress in a certain way or get surgically enhanced to fit in? Sure.

Now when I see a woman in a hijab, I think she could take it off, but she chooses not to, just like my mom. I respect that choice.

So when you come across a hijabi in America, remember that, more likely than not, she's covering her hair as part of her faith and she's doing it freely because this country gives her choices that Muslim countries will not.

As for me and Uncle Beautiful, we made peace last summer when I visited Cairo. He wishes I would cover, but I know he never saw me as hanging meat in a metaphorical butcher shop.

He has always thought of me as a diamond.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America.

Twitter: @MonaShadia