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. SF

    I am a Christian who fully believes in "live and let live." As I've spent lots of times in Muslim countries of varying levels of strictness for Islamic law, I can say that I understand why it shouldn't be such a big deal! Different cultures–religiously-motivated or not–have different standards of decency. For a Muslim woman to go out without her head covered might be like me walking out the door in my underwear. Where I live, I could do it, but I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable. I've been to plenty of perfectly secular countries where even walking around with your shoulders bare is considered indecent. If Muslim women feel more virtuous by covering up, I say, good on ya. I think it's unfortunate some of you narrow-minded individuals make them feel singled out. It would be nice if they–and we–could live in a world where you can wear your religious garb of any type without being judged.

    For the record, covering head to toe where it's hot actually keeps you cooler. It's like walking around with your own sunshade, since your skin isn't baking unprotected in the sun. Try it sometime.

    Muslim does NOT equal terrorism. There are psycho nutcases in every religion. We won't find any level of peace until we try to understand each other. (And that goes both ways.)

    August 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  2. DJ

    One cannot say that wearing the hijab or niqab is a choice or voluntary when the consequences of not doing so in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other countries/tribal areas where Islamic laws are enforced are being buried in sand up to your neck and stoned to death or publicly flogged. Here in the USA we must protect our constitutional right to separation of church and state. Therefore, as in some European countries, this garb should be banned in public institutions such as schools.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  3. Modesty

    I consider myself a modest dresser for many of the same reasons these ladies say they wear what they wear. I don't want people to talk to my chest, I'd rather they talk to me. If people told me I couldn't go out in public unless I was wearing a miniskirt and tube top I'd be really upset and probably wouldn't leave my house. Why is it up to other people to determine MY outfit is TOO MODEST and somehow repressive? If I don't feel comfortable exposing my legs and belly like that, nobody should be able to say otherwise.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
    • SF

      Agreed. Well said. I'm no prude, but I can't believe what some women (and girls!) will wear out of the house. And then they'll be mad when they get immature comments from men. I can't scarcely find a pair of shorts to buy this summer that only barely cover my butt! But I digress...

      August 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
    • Reversal

      If you have seen some of the pictures taken of people shopping at WALMART – I would consider that a good reason for being totally covered up and staying at home. Those pictures could easily cause major eating disorders. But if muslim women are covered up except for their eyes, how is a guy to know whether or not he's getting a "pig" or a beauty queen? I know he doesn't want to marry the wicked witch of OZ. Is there a return policy of some sort?

      August 23, 2010 at 7:37 pm |
    • nina

      nobody really cares for the details. for example you are not allowed to get married unless you see each other. some guy wants to marry her he'd have to see her face first, though that would only happen after serious talks of marriage in which the women's family was probably present.
      and their IDs do have their faces on it, and they do show their faces during ID checks preferably done by women

      August 24, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
  4. dike

    I am sure there is a good explanation for polygamy and suicide bombings too....

    August 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
    • sahar

      o there is...why dont you go and find out. Or you except some muslims to do the explanation for u lol

      August 23, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
  5. Bob

    Men are also required to keep their gaze low ( not pleasing yourself with the sight of any woman, it should be your wife. Marriage is more responsibility thant rights in Islam).
    Men are also required to cover from belly botton to the knees.
    Men are also required to not change in front of others.
    Islam is about total submission of ones nafs (desires, impulses good or bad, weaknesses or strength, drive, anger, hate, greed) for the sake of earning Allah's pleasure & rewards, even legal desires like food & sex during ramadan from early dawn to dusk.
    True islam is all about self discipline.
    There is no compulsion in religion, Allah says.
    When you read the Quran, you look at the whole 23 years mesage in sequence & the authentic life of the prophet (peace be upon hm), you don't pick up one verse, and start ciriticizing. Those desirous of becoming famous do that.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  6. miriam korshak

    This sudden interest in 'covering' is merely an attention-grabbing gambit, like a tatoo or a piercing. If you want to melt into the background and be 'judged' on your intellect and personality, adopt a mainstream wardrobe, like 'normal' women.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  7. Layla

    Here is what I feel: so much of all religions is concern for the superficial. What about just being nice to other people? Someone can go to church on Sunday and be a cruel person or a kind person. Someone can not go to church and be a cruel person or a kind person. Someone can wear a head scarf and be a cruel person or a nice person. Likewise, someone can show their hair and be a cruel or nice person. These are superficial gestures that I doubt the Creator cares about.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  8. Men's Room

    Be careful people ..... they keep wanting more all the time . They tried to invoke Sharia law in Canada and they really wanted to push for it but our Government kept them at bay .... good thing!!!
    Next it will be men can't stand next to them ..... they trie this in Quebec in a class room ..... whats next !!!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
    • David

      Don't confuse Sharia Law with Islam. One is a religion the other is a theocratic government. What separates Christianity from Islam is that "thank God" we don't have them running a theocratic government. But history has shown us when you do have a christian theocratic governement or one with strong influence, watch out because it is going to be just as, if not more brutal than a Sharia Law.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  9. Tyler

    You know what people hate about the burqas and other things that Muslim women wear to cover their faces? They say they want to be respected for their intellect. But how can you have an honest conversation with someone who hides their face? Seriously, how does a person do that? We are humans, not machines. I like to be able to see if a person is smiling or frowning, or if their eyes can meet mine when I ask a question. Body language is important, and these coverings are just masks to hide the truth

    August 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
    • fishkitty


      August 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
    • sahar

      If you really are that human then stop treating others like inhuman, thats the best you can do as ur part SINCE U ADMIT WE AREEE HUMANS. Humans are UNDERSTANDING. and i dont think anyone here understands a hijabi female because we live in a third world country. and O btw if you really hate bukha that much than i dont think you would be talking to someone in a burkha, therefore you dont need to know if that person is smiling or frowning or doing w.e. sounds good to me.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  10. HahaReligion

    Somebody should tell her that there is actually no god.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  11. Pratt

    So KKK people should also be allowed to wear their hoods and Neo's can wear Swastikas. Let's be fair. It's funny how those kids in California were sent home for wearing American Flag tee shirts on Mexican day.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
    • Men's Room


      August 23, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  12. building 7

    to AGeek, now where shall i begin, probably my comment will be censored here, 911 was an orchestrated event, did you know building 7 at WTC came down in 7 secs without being hit by a plane or having significant fires at 5:20 pm on 9/11? it was a detonated implosion, who placed those detonations? for the twin towers themselves, ofcourse there were planes that hit them ...but that was not the cause of how the building came down , showing no sign of deflection or buckling in its structure but simply imploding into dust, tell tale sign of using explosives...now who planted those explosives?..that whole thing is charade and planting the blame on muslims...so that every one benefits , the real estate industry, the defense contactors and industry , the oil companies..every one benefitted from this event..except for the muslims...who, when they try to defend their own lands, are termed as terrorist. People it is all out there , all you have to do is see with your eyes and intellect...look at the video footages of 911.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  13. GAPeachy

    I honestly don't understand why women must wear these garments and cover themselves, while men in Islam often wear shorts and/or short sleeves. However, it's not my religion. What they choose to wear or not wear is their business. It doesn't affect me or my life.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • SF

      I've never seen men in shorts and short sleeves in any Muslim country I've been to. They cover up as much as the women, except for the hair and face.

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

      there is greater covering and more difficult Hijab for men to observe. They must lower there gaze and not look at the women. Covered or not covered. This is the hijab al nafs. Which should be practiced by muslim men.

      Also muslim men are not allowed to wear tight clothing, shorts or t-shirts. They also have restrictions on wearing gold or looking overly ordained.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
    • GAPeachy

      Muslim countries maybe not, but here in the US, i have seen Muslim husbands and sons walking down the street in shorts and t-shirts, while their wives and daughters dutifully followed behind in head-scarves, covered ankle to wrist to neck. Again, i have no issue with Islam – you believe as you do, just as i believe as i do. That is the beauty of freedom of or from religion in America.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  14. Pete Bogs

    They should have addressed the issue of why these rules don't apply to men; that makes the practice suspect right off the bat. You can be modest if you like, but no one in America is turned on by your bare arms. But then faith is not about reason.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  15. jenn

    I fact checked at scripture4all.og and I interpret 1Corinthians 11:15 means that women have HAIR as a covering for their head. I believe it says that women who have long hair – it is a glory because it covers her head. I couldn't find anything in the bible or in common sense that states anyone should cover their whole person – unless it is -20 degrees below zero with clothes. I don't believe that wearing a snow suit year round, especially in the desert is common sense, but maybe these traditions grew out of the lack of suppy of sun screen.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  16. Calvin Bonner

    If we all, humans on the earth would just read what GODwrote on the tablets for us. The second commandment, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, and understand what was being told to us. God new that we would create different religions that will cause what we are faced with today. One would think his is better than the other when there is only one GOD and all the others who follow. For the ladies who wish to cover themselves, so be it but GOD made them from the beauty in heart so we can always see him (GOD) in every woman.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
  17. aroundhere

    I'm so used to women wearing those stuff around their heads/faces way back home. It's nothing new to me. They are admired by men that way, in fact, they can also marry kins –they can marry their cousins too. I always get different answers from different muslim women.
    One girl told me it's part of being a muslim woman to hide your hair, which is she said can become object of lust. To others they would say it's a tradition-a religious culture.
    To me, wearing something on your face isn't a requirement to get salvation from God/Allah. I'm sure the Allah/God that we worship knows the intent of our hearts not the clothes that we wear.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  18. Meaty Portion

    "women are the equal halves of men"

    Odd way to put it.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm |

    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......


    August 23, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  20. toxictown

    I think both sides need to be sensitive to the other. It may be offensive to the practitioners of islam to suggest that they do not cover up in a certain way but muslims also have to be sensitive to to customs and mores of cultures outside of the islamic world. It is considered offensive in western societies to cover your face when interacting with others. I cannot wear a balaclava (a piece of ski-wear that covers the face leaving the eyes exposed) and go out in public and expect to be treated as if nothing was there. In this culture it is rude to not make eye contact and facial expressions when interacting publicly. Sorry, it's just our way. Conversly, I would be expected to dress and act according to the local ways when traveling in the muslim world. You can wear the religious garments all you want but don't be shocked when you are not treated like everybody else.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:21 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.