August 23rd, 2010
10:34 AM ET

Muslim women who wear the hijab and niqab explain their choice

Photos by CNN's Angie Lovelace, text by Soraya Salam of CNN's In America unit:

When you look at Aliya Naim or Nadia, they don’t want you to see objects of beauty, nor do they want you to see women constrained by societal standards.

Instead, they say, they want to be judged by their intellect and personalities. They say it’s the reason they don’t show too much more.

Both Muslim American women cover themselves from head to toe in adherence to their faith’s promotion of modesty and humility. Like most Muslim women who cover, they do so only in front of men who are not in their immediate family.

Aliya, a 20-year-old student at the University of Georgia, wears the hijab, or headscarf. She also wears clothes that cover everything but her face and hands, attire that is also referred to as hijab.

“You often see in many societies women being objectified because of how they look or being disrespected,” she says. The hijab, she says, helps “force people who may be otherwise unwilling to take the focus off of our physical appearance.”

Nadia (who asked that her last name not be given) similarly covers most of her body and goes a step further by covering her face—excluding her eyes—with a piece of fabric known as the niqab.

The 25-year-old mother of two doesn’t believe it’s a practice that Islam mandates, but that it draws her closer to God.

“When you love someone, you want to be more pleasing to them,” she says. “…You want to do anything you can and constantly talk to them and know more about them, and that’s how I feel also with my creator.”

While the number of Muslim women in America who wear the hijab or niqab has never been recorded, some suggest that there was an increase in Muslim women covering after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as many wished to express their identities in the wake of anti-Muslim sentiment.

After the attacks, says Georgetown University Professor Yvonne Haddad, more Muslim women became spokespeople for their religion.

“The women have sort of become the banner of Islam,” said Haddad, co-author of Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today. “The little scarf is saying, ‘I am Muslim, and I have a presence here.’”
Aliya, whose Muslim parents taught her that covering was part of Islam, began wearing the hijab when she was 12. But she says it was her choice.

She says it protected her from focusing intensely on her weight and appearance, as her friends did. At her small all-girls middle and high schools, her peers didn’t give her much trouble about it.

It was also shortly after the attacks on 9/11 and she, too, felt a need to express her identity and combat Muslim stereotypes.

Nadia, on the other hand, did not cover for most of her life. She said she first started wearing the hijab in college after studying Islam more closely and growing closer to her faith.

She added the niqab to her wardrobe after about a year. She says the decision came after a conversation with other Muslim women who covered.

“When I actually got to know them [the women], I understood that they were intelligent people still and they were still full of life and had their own character,” she said. “It didn’t take away from them. But what it added to them, to me, was this increased love for the creator.”

She says that, contrary to the common misconception of Muslim women being forced to cover, her husband, who’d converted to Islam, had nothing to do with her decision. In fact, it came as a surprise to him, though he supported the move.

Bans and backlash

Last month, France’s lower house of parliament passed a ban on wearing any veils that cover the face, including the niqab and burqa—a similar covering that additionally conceals the eyes with a mesh panel—in public.
A short time later, Syria’s minister of higher education issued a ruling outlawing the niqab in universities across the Muslim-majority country.

There have also been bans on the hijab over the years.

Turkey first banned the headscarf in universities and public buildings in the 1980’s, however the law was not strictly enforced until 1997.

In 2004, France banned religious symbols, including the wearing of the hijab, in public primary and secondary schools.

Although the United States is not expected to follow suit, Nadia feels she has already begun to experience the effects of anti-covering sentiment spreading in her home of Lilburn, Georgia.

She says she has been denied entry into grocery stores and has been verbally harassed by strangers. Once, when she was at a gas station, she says a man a man pulled off of the road, swerved his truck in front of her pump, and took a close-up picture.

She watched him speed back out of the station and saw a large sign on the side of his vehicle advertising a website called trickledownterrorism.com. “I was so disturbed and I cried, and I couldn’t understand it. I just felt like, why would he do this?” Nadia said.

She often encounters people who tell her that her way of dress is something that Americans don’t do, that she should leave her foreign beliefs behind. As an African-American born and raised in the United States, such statements are often difficult to hear.

“I’ve already told someone in a store, ‘I’m from the nation’s capital, lady. I’m sorry to put it that way but please stop telling me we don’t do that here because I’m from here, and I am here. My family’s raised here, I live here...You might not do it here, but I do it here.’”

While Aliya still experiences frequent stares and often feels misunderstood by the general public, she says that wearing the hijab has also brought positive experiences, including opportunities to explain her religion and answer humorous questions.

“I think the one that always makes me laugh is, ‘Do you shower in that?’ And I always say to that, well, do you shower in your clothes? There’s your answer.”

Once, a young boy at a national park approached her and told her that she looked like the character Padme from Star Wars. She still laughs about that one.


Aliya and Nadia feel that the biggest hardship they face is others’ assumptions about their beliefs.

Both say that the most common misconception about Muslim women is that they are oppressed, and that their religion views them as inferior to men.
For instance, French President Nicolas Sarkozy referred to the burqa as “a sign of subservience… a sign of lowering,” earlier this year.

Nadia disagrees.

“I’ve never seen anybody interview a Muslim woman and ask her if she’s oppressed. Or if she feels oppressed for wearing what she wears, or if she’s oppressed in her home,” said Nadia.

Aliya says that if women are oppressed, it is the fault of people and culture, not Islam.

“There’s a saying by the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, that women are the equal halves of men. And from what I’ve read and studied about Islam, that’s very much how Islam views women,” she added.

Aliya says that she has never met an American Muslim woman who was forced to wear the hijab or niqab.

“I actually know more people who wear it against their parents’ wishes than unwillingly in compliance with their wishes,” she said.

To be sure, there are countries that require women to cover. Iranian law says women have to wear a hijab in public, while Saudi Arabia requires Muslim women to wear the hijab.

Moving forward

Despite some hurtful experiences in public, Nadia is content with her decision to wear niqab and says she feels a distinct difference in how men respect her now as opposed to her earlier days of low-cut shirts and formfitting pants.

Aliya also feels a joy in wearing the hijab, she says.

“And I think that definitely what’s in the heart is most important,” she said. “And your outward appearance should be a manifestation of that, not something to disguise what you really think or feel or believe.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Culture & Science • Islam • Journeys • Women

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    The hijab, she says, helps “force people who may be otherwise unwilling to take the focus off of our physical appearance.” Why FORCE people in North America to do anything?? This is the major fault with such a messed-up and pre-judgemental belief system dictated by religious fanatics. Take that BS BACK to whence it came!

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      This does not even make sense. That quote was taken out of context. They are not literally FORCING anyone to do anything. They simply said that by wearing the hijab it takes the attention off of their looks and by doing so, it leads people to get to know them for their personality and intelligence and not by their physical attributes.

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    Businesses employ plpeoe who best fit into their idea of the mission statement of their business even if they don't have an official statement. The employees represent their business to the public. They have the right during working hours to make the rules. It has pretty much always been that way. That doesn't mean it controls the other 16 hours of their lives. People who work where they practice random drug testing may be limited even in their use of alcohol on the weekends. It is an infringement on their private lives. On the one hand, it will prevent the use of illegal substances because they are detectable for several days. It will also stop plpeoe from eating poppy seed dressing on their salad, keep track of any cold medication, etc, that they may have taken.

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  12. Samruddhi

    I think finding pusopre in our actions is so important, Maha. For those on the east coast who've been listening to some T. Ramadan lectures, this topic fits perfectly in his statement about norms vs. objectives. Sometimes we tend to obsess over the technicalities of hijab (is it long/loose enough?) and then forget the objectives behind hijab. On the other hand, the pendulum can swing the other way where we feel we have achieved the objectives without the hijab, and so disregard it all together. It's good to periodically reevaluate ourselves to see what percent of both we are practicing. On a related note, it's unfortunate that most times girls are taught all the technicalities about how to wear hijab before they are taught about concepts you mention such as modesty, hijab as an act of worship, etc. I think it this must be reversed in order to foster a deeper, more thoughtful type of faith in it. Also, there are some interpretations of what hijab entails, and lots of times that too is lost amid attempts to impart the technicalities.

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  13. Marvin Castro

    I think people have a misconception both forms display here are not Hijab the one wearing the niqab is not wearing hijab and the one with the scarf (khimar) is not wearing hijab, the hijab means covering all, I will ask the sister who is wearing the Khimar one question what is the first thing that a man is attracted to? Face so why do you exposed your face??? I think a lot of muslim women should understand that putting a piece of cloth to hide your hair is not modesty and it is not hijab, today the scarf is equated with hijab but it is not hijab many women put a scarf on top of their head but you can see clear the definition of their bodies some wear very tight there are muslim women who do not put the khimar but are more modest in their dressing then those that cover their and nothing else

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    i'm as well as muslim. I'm 12 years old. My parents are really religious and sorta pressured me to wear a hijab. I know you're suppose to wear it for God..but...?... Well sometimes people take the hijab/scarf to seriously.. I'm in 7th grade now.. And I started in 6th. I have lost many friends from 5th grade... But it's their loss. Not mine right?..Well I sort of did this expirement..May God forgive me, but I decided to take off my hijab for 1 day. And all of a sudden EVERYONE talks to me... Even people I didn't even know about....So I guess my OLD friends to take the hijab overboard. But I really don't care..Because I'm not wearing the hijab for people. I am wearing it for Allah.. AKA God...So basically don't let anyone that turns you down just because you are wearing a hijab.. Those people are stupid and jerks. Good Luck girls that wear the hijab..

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      Assalamu Alaikum This is a reply to: Halema..As a Muslim, we should know what are our rsbsonpieilities Verily, Allah (SWT) has ordered that the good and the bad deeds be written down. Then He explained it clearly how (to write): He who intends to do a good deed but he does not do it, then Allah records it for him as a full good deed, but if he carries out his intention, then Allah the Exalted, writes it down for him as from ten to seven hundred folds, and even more. But if he intends to do an evil act and has not done it, then Allah writes it down with Him as a full good deed, but if he intends it and has done it, Allah writes it down as one bad deed .[Al-Bukhari and Muslim]. Allah knows best!

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      equal rights.of the three the only one i take issue with is the anglo name tags. you don't canghe someone's name for convenience.as to the pin, i have no use for walmart but it is the stated dress code. follow it or find a new job.obviously the woman wearing the hajib would not be right for a trendy store. hajib are not trendy in usa.

      July 31, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
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About this blog

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.