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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. Karen Saucedo

    Aliya wants to be recognized for her personality and intellect. Yet, she maintains a tradition which was created by men to isolate and control women. Additionally, body language is a natural part of human communication and it's very difficult to discern when someone is covered head-to-toe.

    Aliya has one life to live. I think if she were really intellectual, she would leave this tradition at the door and live her life to the fullest.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  2. Linda M

    OMG take that thing off....god made you! he didn't make you to cover you up! if anything some of the ugly men I've seen need to be wearing those things...you can preach and protest all day long, but at the end of the day you are subservient to the men in the world and that is sending a crappy message out to the young women in society.....and i would not let you in my place of business either with your face all covered up like that.....you just want attention or your husband is controlling you! look at me!!! and you are basically saying that the way women dress here is sinful and wrong! my god burn those things! show your face and your hair, unless it's horrid and you are just using that to cover your flaws!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  3. Angela Moore

    "Because women are objectified ... " Not all men objectify women – women also do the same. Not all men view women as only relevant to sex and child birth – nor have all women achieved what they have by looks or their sexuality. So in them stating as such THEY objectify women and rather than help bring change to womens rights and change the perception of women in the workplace and etc – they help further the idea women get 'ahead' by giving good head... They cater to the wrong rather than work for the right. Also the covering they wear have no way impacted Islamic societies and brought an end to rape and sexual mistreatment in their societies.

    Believe it or not- their are decent men out there with mothers, sisters and daughters – men who demand equality and mutual respect of mind and body . To say otherwise is sexist and dishonest .

    If they want to wear the gear – then be honest as to why – don't hang it on excuses – it's strictly religious / psychological. They also have no respect for males – they obviously think very little of a males ability to control themselves . Besides – I want them to cover up – I've seen where they get stoned to death , have their noses and ears sliced off ... Acid attacked ... all for not wearing one. If the veil keeps them from being harmed by their families – by all means wear them , wear them to please your God ( which is ridiculous- why would a God need such a thing from it's creation? Silly – you make God such a silly concept.)

    August 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  4. See Novak

    I am tired of people coming to this country and demanding that accommodate them so they can act the way people do in the country they RAN AWAY FROM. People in this country that bend over backward to accommodate this ilk are even worse....

    August 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  5. citizenUSA

    It's OK to wear the garments that want. People just don't want you to be forced into it.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  6. Noor

    @ Kate,
    you make some very polite points and its very nice to see the nice-ness. however problem i, s its always NOT thier chioce.
    It may appears to be sometimes, BUT its forced by mostly Fear of Men and fear of Faith and punishment.

    You maybe correct in regards to, that no one question their right and freedom when girls show more skin ..... however those girls who show more skin are not doing on the name of faith or rightous-ness, meaning its NOT done on the name of religion. When society says , Nudity is okay, you can say its a brainwash too. However its not a religious brainwash.
    and when its done on When for such brainwashing a relgion is used, ONLY to opperesd women than its verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry sad.

    btw, there may NOT be stonning upon women here in america, BUT Muslim american girls are getting killed here in america by thier fathers, brothers etc for such petty dress code issues. Trust me GOD did not want those girls to wear such and such or be ready to die., ONLY their MEN did. Let me know if you need to look at those cases.

    So maybe these two women are not wearing those by force, okay lets believe that. However HERE in USA, YES even today many in america who are forced by "family" and painful pressure by family members of honor". And not too forget millions muslim women in the world who are forced to, to the point that coverd or "get killed" ( thats where pros or the concept of their choice and freedom of such covering does not seem fair, because its NOT true in actuality.

    And how do I know all that? lets say, I had to protect my daughter from her father, he wanted to enforce such dress code. I chose to leave him, because I could . Now how many in the Muslim women world are allowed to do that.?

    are you a muslim? just asking.....

    August 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      Noor you are very brave. CNN should be interviewing women like you who are prepared to stand up for what is right and discuss what is really going on behind closed doors in North American Muslim homes. I believe a good many people who see covering strictly as a freedom of choice issue for women are missing the point entirely and do not understand the implications for women and girls in Islam. We need to lift the veil on religious practices that keep women around the world trapped in the dark ages.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
    • Kate

      @Noor

      I know there are still who are 1st or 2nd generation who still hold to the culture they came from.

      I also know that there are men who do things in the name of honor, proving they have none but are simply cowards hiding behind the shield of religion – quite a few different ones, in fact.

      It's not a perfect world. But this is America, and that's a reason for people to say "enough" and to say "I am going to do this because *I* choose to" – not because of culture, not because of family, but because they want to themselves, whether it be to wear niqab or not, to wear hijab or not, to listen to music or not, to do anything and everything – or not.

      That's worth fighting for. And having the freedom to make choices in your life here doesn't mean you're ignoring those who don't have the ability to make choices. How can demonstrating what choice can give you ever be supporting a lack of choice? The fact we *can* choose is its own message to help those who can't.

      To be honest, how can we stand as a symbol of freedom to choose when there are people here who would like to do exactly the same, enforce *their* choice on us, no different than the Taliban or KSA.

      Change comes from within, whether it be personal or a society or a culture or a country or even a religion. It starts with people making a choice as to what they believe in (not necessarily religion) and saying "I choose to ..."

      I'm reminded of a story a friend told me once, a protestant. She was getting married, but the preacher insisted on changing the agreed upon wording of the ceremony and included the old form where the bride promised to submit to her husband. She didn't bother repeating that section, and it almost derailed the ceremony.

      It starts with one.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  7. abbydelabbey

    it's very simple - the women have been totally brain-washed - Islam is NOT a religion - it is a patriarchal, tyrannical system of oppression that condones and encourages the physical and sexual abuse of women and girls.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  8. Tom

    What a condescending view point to have about God. Do people really believe that god feels closer to human beings due to apparel choices? I will tolerate people wearing what ever they want but please don't ask for my respect. I figured out a long time ago suffering fools is a waste of time! If you want to dress like a Ninja go for it but don't for second expect more than annoyance to your foolishness.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  9. BABAK

    I was born and raised in Iran. Interesting spin on the whole "cover-up" thing. I never heard about what these ladies are talking about. My mother never wore one, but many others did. My understaning is simple; They have to cover up so no man can see them other than their husbands. It seems like they are trying to glorify it here, not the case.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  10. toughenup

    This style of dress offered protection from the sun and sands of the desert for both men and women long before it became an expression of modesty or religion for women only. You still see this style of dress for both men and women in Muslim desert countries but it puzzles me as to why anyone would want to continue the dress code in the U.S.A. Or, in the case of the woman born in the U.S.A. to take up this kind of dress as a way of life. You know the saying "When in Rome ..." The custom of the U.S. has, for the most part always been to Westernize. Those who don't will always be treated like outsiders. Most Americans carry their religion in their hearts and minds and sometimes wear a small religious symbol in the form of jewelry. To choose to look like you are from the old world seems like a lot of work. To expect special treatment in spite of the separation of church and state in this country is not going to work. I think there is something to be said about melting into the melting pot as we all have over the centuries. It's tough enough just being an immigrant but to hold onto all of your old world traditions so blatantly isn't going to make your transition into American culture any easier for you.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  11. Sherri

    If a woman wants to cover herself up then who are you to tell her it's wrong? If they're being forced to, that's another matter and obviously wrong.

    But this woman wants to wear it, it's part of who she is and she feels that it brings her closer to God. What's the issue? Stop being afraid of little things like this that don't fit into your idea of normal. THIS IS AMERICA!

    It seems that the majority of the haters on here are just angry and fearful, ignorantly lumping groups of people together without even stopping to think where these individuals are coming from.

    If a woman has a right to wear a short skirt and heels, then she sure has the right to cover her face if she wants!

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

      You would be the first one to be killed and executed if you fall in the hands of Muslims. No she's not free. She has to identify herself to the public, if she wants to wear that, she can go to Saudi Arabia and live there. Or she can wear it at home.
      Your freedom ends when you step on other people's toes.

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

      @SR
      The hands of Muslims? What Muslims? Are you speaking generally or just about Al-Queda and other extremist groups? Because I have Muslims friends and last time I checked I was still alive.

      As I said, THIS IS AMERICA. I'll wear whatever I want and not judge anyone else for wearing what they feel comfortable in.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • SR

      I'm talking about Muslims that follow their religion to the word.

      This is America, but that doesn't mean you take advantage of the freedom offered in this country. You can dress anything you want unless you restrict other people's freedom. Seeing a fully covered woman in front of me, makes me feel unsafe. This could be a man carrying a bomb? or perhaps a woman, so how would I know? Or maybe someone who wants to rob a bank?
      If you want to hide yourself, don't get out of your home, do your shopping online and hide yourself in a bag and let someone else carry you, but don't make suspicious.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  12. Cletus

    Because it's cheaper than plastic surgery.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  13. cf+sj

    Absolutely ridiculous.

    These woman are oppressed-period. Their religion TEACHES THEM that they need to be covered to be judged on the intellect and personalities. That is the dumbest thing ever.

    What's wrong with Brains & Beauty? Why hide?

    Wake up Islam Women of the world.

    You're being taken for a ride.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  14. David

    Live and let live. Personally I think it is ridiculous that woman in the US and Most of Europe (exception being Spain) give up their last name for that of their husbands. You could make all the same arguments about losing identity, being the property of the man etc. So while I understand that this may not be the same case, it does point out how difficult it is to break with tradition and how the woman that accept these requirements don't see them as degrading or inhibiting. Society makes them feel that it is their choice when in reality it isn't but for the most determined and strong willed.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  15. imadome

    This is America. You can wear what you want to wear. Prostitues wear very little clothes .. goths wear alot of black.. some religions like to be conservitive in their attire.. some religions women only wear dresses .... i mean stop judging people by what they like to wear on the outside and take time to get to know them or just dont judge them.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  16. slb1113

    Remember the Hari Krishna's in the airport? Just give them a tamborine and raise money for Allah!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  17. biff

    I think the biggest reason why people have problems with Muslim women concealing themselves these days is because that's the key identifier that somebody is a Muslim. I don't think is was such a big deal until after 9/11. After 9/11 everyone became fearful the terrorists could be anywhere and since the acts of terrorism were by fanatical Muslims, we identified Islam as the enemy. And the easiest way to identify the enemy is if they are wearing a uniform. And the only uniform people know is the hijab, niqab or burkha.

    I really could care less if somebody wants to cover up from head to toe. I understand the concept. But unfortunately since 9/11 happened, seeing somebody like that always reminds me of what happened. And I don't like that.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
    • whistleblower

      Thats unfortunate since our own government was responsible for 9/11. Do your research.

      July 22, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  18. angelfire

    I am just wondering why people who want to practice strict Islamic rules do not go somewhere else eg UAE.

    Why to suffer in this society where this type of bedoin dress code will never be accepted.

    Ok You will say – no this is my country – so if US/Europe you consider as your country please show
    some respect to our tradition.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
    • cirus101

      ur traditions will get u to the FIRE

      August 23, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
  19. gwats

    I'm okay with the headscarf, but anything that covers the face is a no-no, epsecially in public. You have to draw the line somewhere.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  20. arizona

    It's funny how when a nun covers her hair, everyone praises her for her piety....but when a Muslim woman covers hers, she is oppressed. Interesting.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:30 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.