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

soundoff (1,728 Responses)
  1. Reed


    August 23, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  2. iShane

    Hell....I wear t-shirt and jeans....for the same reason. Think about it.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  3. Gaz

    Leaving religion out completely; Western civilization puts enormous worth in face recognition. We use it to judge situations, empathize with others and read daily situations of interaction.
    While tolerant of freedoms, and other cultures there are some things that are simply not compatible with long term residency in Western culture. A covered face is one of them.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  4. Dolores

    What I don't get is, if it's all about modesty then why do many women in NYC who wear hijabs deck theirs out in sparkly, shiny fabrics, sequins, and not to mention the eye makeup! It's all very pretty but it seems to be counterproductive to the modesty cause.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  5. Imonetone

    I read the article and it got me thinking. It seems, according to the author that many muslim women are CHOOSING to wear the hijab and nijab. Therefore, their children will rebel in the next generation and CHOOSE not to cover up. That would be great! That is, if sharia law is NOT implemented in the USA to preserve the fundamental rights of fundamentalist muslims.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  6. verify

    These little fashions could sure come in handy, though.

    Women could wear them when they don't feel like putting on make-up, bad-hair days, or 'fat' days.... or when they want to do some shoplifting.

    Men could wear them when they don't feel like shaving or brushing their teeth, or for blood-shot hangover eyes... or when they want to do some shoplifting.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  7. rich

    Speaks for itself. Quran 4:34 Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  8. N Peters

    This is really about TRUST.
    The NY Muslim center is about trust.
    The reactions from Americans concerning the "required" dress of Muslims is about trust.
    Americans do not trust Muslims.
    Muslims make PC speeches but what is really being said & done.
    Would Muslim law kill or stone men?
    No, they can't cotrol the men so they cover up the women & control them.
    TRUST – some day I really hope, but not yet.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  9. adam

    If one wants to be judged by his or her intellect and personality, then one should not cover the face. I will not have a conversation with nor take seriously anyone who is wearing a scarf, niqab, sunglasses, beekeepers mask or a white hood. To interact with others and not uncover your face is rude and offensive.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  10. Dave

    If it's so important, why don't the men likewise cover themselves completely? Sorry, but no matter how you try to spin it, it's a sexist tradition promoted by men.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  11. LaGryphon

    Iran & Saudia Arabia pass laws for women to wear religious garb but here in America Muslim women have a CHOICE as to what they will wear......pretty amazing don't you think? If they choose to wear it, who cares? Guys are letting their pants hang to the ground, women are wearing cones for breast armor so I say let them wear their religious coverings!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  12. Sean

    I don't know why my blood boils when I see these women....but I do know half the time it is a fashion statement and in your face walking around hoping that someone says something to offend one of them. If you need attention that bad, then don't wear the dang thing. I don't neccessarily go around carrying a battle axe up and down the street in a Viking helmet...and YES, because WE don't do that here. I am a fairly tolerant person but these women either lack self-confidence, self-esteem, or are so starved for pittance that it is an EXCUSE! Sick of what is happening to our identity...to think I served 10 honorable years defending our country and for what? For her to say "I was born here"...yes you where and you no the dang difference between what is acceptable and what is not now don't you!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  13. Joe - Utah

    Wearing a hijab, niqab, headscarf, or burqa is fine if you are in a Muslim country. But in western countries such as France, England, America, etc. they are symbols of a religion that are associated with terrorism, paganism, oppression, extremism, and the dark ages. Wearing them is going to increase anti-Muslim sentiment. In America the choice is yours (currently) and so whether you wear them or not depends on what kind of reaction you are seeking to acheive. Wearing them will not bring harmony and understanding – it will only encourage suspicion, mis-trust, and wariness. It your choice.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  14. J.A. Messenger

    If they carry bags with them, I might be apt to give them candy. Nice costumes!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  15. Joe

    It's really simple.. because their parents and husbands told them its what they are suppose to do for god to "approve." Its called dogma.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  16. Paul

    I would say to the young lady that delusion is powerful. Islam makes women put that on. They also make women into private sexual objects by the husband and the woman can not ever refuse. Legally under the religion he can beat her and deny her food and water as punishment for disobedience. I suppose covering up like that will make for hidden bruises and black eyes. Look up on the internet and see some horrific pictures of what has been done to some women in the name of islam. Lady I would quit it right now if I was you. Have some self respect.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  17. Lat145

    So, let me get this straight, before she began wearing her black hear gear and robe she was wearing low cut blouses and skinny jeans. My diagnosis is that this woman is uncomfortable with her sexuality and therefore will cover up entirely so people will take her seriously. Hey, it's America, whatever works. The only thing is, this sort of disguise makes me uncomfortable. Just the same as anyone wearing a full ski mask (when not in a blizzard) would make me feel. America has "normal" behavior and abnormal behavior, those displaying abnormal behavior will be viewed as different because you are different. And frankly speaking, I don't think I could take anyone seriously who is covered from head to toe. It just doesn't seem right.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  18. Maimonida

    I think she is not closer to God (for that are other ways). She is closer to traffic incident that claim her and other people. Living industrialized country she shall behave correspondingly.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  19. Miss Me

    I have seen many, many women over the years wear the long dresses and head scarves – many are quite lovely. But, full face covering always strikes me as anti-social. Others have no way of identifying these persons. What if there's a hit and run and bystanders can offer no information on the driver? And it is the same for robberies and other crimes. What good is it to ask for someone's i.d. if you can't match the photo to the face? It feels like a deliberate separation from American society by these women. It certainly brings more attention to them in America, which negates the statements about modesty. I do not understand why these women want to stand out in this way. It isn't as if the only options are fully covered or overly exposed. No one is forcing anyone to wear tight pants and low cut tops. Again, I have no issue with the headscarfs, only the full face covering, and I would support a requirement to remove the same prior to entering any public building, airport, train or bus station, or while operating a vehicle. Private business owners should be allowed to refuse service to someone who refuses to show their face.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  20. Mike

    Look, it boils down to this: These women and every person in America are and should be allowed to wear whatever they want. How you are perceived based on what you wear is no one's responsibility but your own. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, where wearing a niqab is normal, maybe it does accomplish the intent of shifting others' attention away from your physical appearance. Here in America, it just draws more attention.

    Its also not our (Americans) fault that any symbol of Islam, including the niqab reminds us of jet planes crashing into skyscrapers full of people. 9/11 happened. The perpetrators were of Islamic persuasion. If you choose to cover in America, be prepared to become a lightning rod for people's anger and frustration about what happened that day almost 10 years ago and how it is affecting our daily life even now.

    If you want people to be nice to you, fit in. Nowhere in the bill of rights does it say that you are entitled to courtesy.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:05 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.