April 2nd, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Living under the headscarf

Editor’s Note: "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" features the Muslim community of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where sisters Dima and Lema Sbenaty grew up and live. CNN’s Soledad O’Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over the construction of a mosque in the heart of the Bible belt. Watch “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door” airing at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET April 2 on CNN.

By Elizabeth M. Nunez, CNN

Few items of clothing inspire as much controversy as the hijab, or headscarf. To some it represents oppression or radical Islam.

But to American-born Muslim sisters Dima and Lema Sbenaty, the hijab is a source of pride.

“Before I thought it would bother me to wear a scarf in public. I was surprised to feel that I was proud of my religion and all of my friends," says Dima Sbenaty, 20.

"We all go out together and they’re all wearing headscarves as well. It’s nothing that I’m ashamed of, and that’s part of my strength with my religion.”

The sisters have lived most of their lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Now they are students at Middle Tennessee State University. Lema, a chemistry major, wants to become a pediatrician and dreams of tending to children in Ethiopia. Dima, a biology and chemistry double major, is working toward becoming a dentist. Neither has decided if she will permanently wear a hijab, but both cover during daily prayer.

In Arabic, hijab roughly translates as “barrier” or partition. In Islam, it refers to the principle of modesty in behavior and dress, as described in the Quran: "Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments.”

Women raised in the faith like the Sbenaty sisters say the moment to start wearing a hijab is theirs to choose.

For others who convert to Islam, like Ivy Balloul, a blue-eyed American raised as a Methodist, the hijab comes with her adopted faith. “This was part of me converting to Islam," she said. "You can’t divide it up into little pieces and pick and choose what you want. It’s a whole package.”

Ivy, married to the imam of the Murfreesboro mosque, has received negative comments for wearing a hijab. “One man said to me in the post office that I can take off my scarf, that I’m free here. Another woman felt like I was a traitor. A man called to me one day from his car telling me that, uh, I should go back home.”

But these experiences do not discourage her from covering her head.

“I feel like I have more respect. Before, I could be pumping gas in my car and some guy would whistle or make some type of catcall. It was an uncomfortable situation," she said.

"When you put on a scarf ... [you] know that people can’t look at you as a sexual object. The first time I put it on I felt more comfortable in my own skin.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Islam • Muslim

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.