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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.

Misconceptions

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. Janet

    I appreciate what these women claim, but they are forgetting it was MEN who decided that women needed to cover themselves in "humility". If these women must cover themselves so as not to be objectified by the men in their society, then it is the MEN who have the problem that must be controlled. It is the women who are suffering the consequences of the male's objectification. Let's put pinch-rings on the men's private parts so if they have a physical reaction to an uncovered woman it is painful. Perhaps then the women will be allowed to live freely in society and the men will have allowed to respect them as people and not as baby-makers/sex objects.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  2. Bonnie

    Who cares...it is not hurting anyone if it's their culture or religion or whatever to wear these items. There isn't a public outcry over people who have so many tattoos that you can't see their face; or over the people who choose to put a piercing in every inch of skin on their face/body. We need to learn to mind our own business and stop trying to force our "right and wrong" on everyone else. The women who are wearing these have chosen to do so, and if they haven't, then it's up to them to complain and put a stop to it. It's like trying to force people who ride bikes to wear a helmet-it's ridiculous and we need to let people express what they want to express in a way they choose to express it (as long as it is not harming anyone else). If a judge in Missouri can say it is "lawful, free speech" for those wierdos to protest Military funerals, then who is to say that these women shouldn't be allowed to cover themselves? Personally, I'm sick of seeing 8 and 9 year old girls running around showing all their body parts. Maybe covering up and modesty isn't a bad idea after all.

    And NO, I'm not Muslim, not that it matters and YES, I'm an American Airman fighting for this country's freedom-that includes these women's RIGHTS to cover up, if they so choose.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  3. Men's Room

    They ruined the Canadian way of life by invoking their rights instead of following the Canadian life here first .... After all if their country was so great they should have stayed.
    So America .... Hold fast and shut them down...... Period Don't go thru the quagmire Canada is going thru.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  4. Cacl

    If muslims could be trusted not to be carrying explosives under all that fabric, perceptions might be different.

    I also wonder why muslim men aren't covering up – I find the silhouette package that men stuff into their jeans pretty sexy.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  5. Enlightened Western Woman

    Nadia said, "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."
    Aliya said, “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.

    If I ask a covered muslim woman if she is/feels oppressed, with the righteousness of her husband hovering around her, will she tell me the truth anyway? If woman are equal to men according to your view of Islam, then why are muslim women denied employment, a driver's license, and expected to walk behind her husband? That's islamic equality?

    Really, don't make me laugh, Nadia and Aliya. You ask us not to view your islam with the islam of the extremists. I believe you are reading the same, untouched Koran, correct?

    Islamic is contrary to Democracy. Let's not be fooled.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
    • Kate

      @Enlightened Western Woman

      Actually, those drivers license, walking behind her husband, not being allowed out of the house without a male relative, are laws in KSA and other places that are local – It's no different than buses for men or women in Israel not being something the Jewish community in the US enforces. This is America, not KSA – why do people keep saying that but then turn around and treat it like the two are comparable?

      August 23, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  6. Hank

    First, this article makes is seem as if Islam requires the extreme covering. It does not. All the Koran says is that women should dress modestly. It's their own interpretation of "modest" that leads to total covering. Second, their claim that covering avoids problems have with a woman's looks should also apply to men. Attractive men can be just as distracting to woman (and some men) as vice versa. So why is it that only woman should cover themselves? Why doesn't the author address the inherent sexism of only woman having to cover themselves?

    August 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  7. Bill

    And men don't want to be judged by their intellect and personalities???

    August 23, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  8. JJ

    Every women religious figure in all religions through out history and currently shows modesty of dress. The virgin mary, Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Mother Theresa, Saint Bridget of Sweden, St. Calre of Asissi, Mother Cabrini of NY, Mother Theresa, St. Elizabeth Anne Seton, Bibi Fatima, Bibi Khadija, Miriam of the Jews.

    So whats the issue???

    Great women past and present adorn modest clothing to be closer to god. Not to please there husbands or to abide by the rules of man. They did as a form of worship and chastitiy.....

    August 23, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  9. GRrrr

    Wow, I didn't think it would be possible to write a whole story on this issue without using the phrase "security concerns," but once again CNN has risen to the challenge of ignoring the elephant in the room.
    Obviously the only reason anyone could be against these coverings is because they're xenophobic or adhere to some kind of "-ism", not because of legitimate concerns about not being able to see people's faces in certain settings. I'm sure bikers who are forced to remove their full-face helmets in convenience stores will be glad to hear that.
    Not that they would, but I'd love to see one of these ladies try to get into a casino dressed like that.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
    • Kate

      @GRrrr

      I've tried to post a few times about the security concerns but I think one of the words (a nice word to boot) is tripping the blog comment filters, they keep getting flagged for moderation. Given no-one actually goes through the posts to approve them, I can't seem to answer 😦

      August 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  10. Tom Roy

    Iit's a male dominated society and want to keep their women not to be the source of temptation for other men. May be they do not have much faith in their self control .

    August 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  11. Richard

    Muslim women are also supposed to show respect to their families by averting their eyes when a man approaches. It is inappropriate for a muslim woman to even make eye contact with a man not her spouse or father. I didn't read that in a book or from some idiot Internet site. I learned it in Arabia. That's the way it is folks and if you are a non-Muslim woman you had BETTER play by the same rules or you risk a beating.

    Oh man. Talk about demeaning women. Where is the equality in that? Answer: There is no such thing as Muslim equality. Don't like these words? Visit Arabia as I did and learn the real truth.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Max

      It sounds like your point is actually that there's no arabic equality, since your observations are from Arabia.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  12. Dyan, Minneapolis, Minnesota

    I don't buy what these women say either. What they are choosing to wear ARE signs of oppression. Just look at how women are treated in Afganastan under the taliban - the public beatings if womena failed to wear "proper" attire; public executions; forbidding girls to attend school. Look at the Courts sentencing women to death by stoning. Look at Saudi Arbia where wormen aren't allowed to drive and where school girls were forced to burn to death because they were not "properly" dressed and thus not allowed to leave a buring building.

    These women are telling me that they choose to cover their faces, hair and bodies because they want us to focus on their intellictual self and not their physical self. I'll believe it when women in muslim countries are afforded complete equality with men and when they can denounce Sharia law as the backwards and oppressive cult it is without fear of jail, beatings or worse.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • Kate

      @Dyan

      This is America – not Afghanistan, not KSA. Women have the choice. Why are you so set on denying them the choice just as vehomently as any Talib or Saudi Sheikh? Do you truly believe American women to be so weak willed as to not be able to rationally make the choice?

      August 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
    • Dyan

      Kate, I'm not denying them their choice. I didn't advocate passing laws to take away their right to dress or worship how they see fit. So kindly stop with the moral outrage over my opinion.

      If someone chooses to make a public statement even about something as private as religous beliefs, then other people can choose to voice opinions on what was just said. So not only will I not back down or apologize for my opinion, I'll say it again......

      What these women are choosing to wear IS a statement of oppression.

      August 24, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  13. mike

    I think any woman who wears these getups have a mental problem, espeically those raised in the West. The men are allowed to run around in shorts with strips and polka dotted shirts and flip flops. Why any woman would allow herself to become a 2nd class citizen I will never understand

    August 23, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  14. fishkitty

    At least the headscarf allows you to see someone's face....which is what we relate to in another human being. Covering the face actually renders that person less of a human and more of merely an object in the eyes of others, as if they are not worthy of being seen as a human. But then, that's how Islam treats their women.

    Imagine being that child and never being allowed to see your mom's face....at least not outside the confines of your house. No wonder Muslims have no respect for women as human beings.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  15. RZ

    Men in Islam also have certain laws that they must follow with regards to clothing:

    1) A man must cover between the navel and knees minimum always
    2) Clothes cannot be too tight
    3) Clothes cannot be see through
    4) Clothes cannot immitate the opposite sex
    5) Clothes cannot be of pure silk
    6) Cannot wear jewlery which is pure gold

    So both men and women have limitations in Islam.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  16. SomeoneElse

    Why do our women wear shirts? There is really no need to and many places don't have any laws against it. In Ontario, Canada, it's not illegal, yet women always wear shirts? Why, could it be something cultural, possibly due to religious influence...

    August 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  17. jenn

    I am only somewhat familiar with the bible and I fact checked at http://www.scripture4all.org. My interpretation of 1Corintians 11:15 is that HAIR was given to women as a covering.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  18. Superman

    If it's to promotion of modesty and humility in accordence with the Muslim faith, then why don't the men wear that crap? Muslim men don't need to be modest? The real reason is to keep them surpressed because they are considered nothing more than property and the two women in this artical bought into that crap.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
    • Kate

      @Superman

      Why can a man go topless in the US but a woman doing the same will be arrested or fined?

      August 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
    • Kate

      @Superman

      Why can a man go top less in the US but a woman doing the same will be arrested or fined?

      August 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  19. John Wayne23

    I love reading all of these comments about Islam's oppression against women, etc. Puhlease. The American male is the one that is oppressed. All your women get d1cked down all through high school and college and have their "sex and the city" lifestyle before you come along as the last guy to get her a ring and a house. On top of that she can do anything she wants. On the drop of a hat she can divorce you, take your kids, your house, money and everything else. So let's start writing some articles about America's oppression of the American male and how he has been emasculated and ridiculed. Just watch an episode of Everybody loves Raymond.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  20. OO

    You would think that if that they weren't being objectified, that Muslim women would be treated better (stoning, honour killing anyone?) not to mention rapes wouldn't happen as often as it does (rape is not about a woman's (lack) of clothes! it's about control) Sorry but I prefer my way of life, I don't cover myself yet I don't feel objectified even when I am wearing a mini. Because I know I have rights – I have the right to be safe and to do what I want. If I am sexually assaulted I don't have to worry about my family feeling "shamed" nor do I need male witnesses to validate my claim.

    If you want to live that way, then that is your choice, but don't start telling us non muslim western ladies, how we somehow have it worse. If it's racist for us to criticize your values then the same applies when you criticize ours!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
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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.