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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. Brenda Lamb

    How can any educated woman take seriously some "modesty" laws that devised by an older man who had sex with an 8 year old girl (the prophet's "wife", Aisha)? These sexist laws come from a another time when people (including most women) were uneducated. Isn't it time for a reformation for Muslims? They need to enter the modern instead of living in the past. Don't you think God has other things to do rather than playing fashion police. Modesty & virtue are in the heart & are reflected in your day to day life. Not by what you wear.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  2. !

    This whole modesty thing they talk about is true but it's not the whole story. They wear it so that other men won't look at them and have lustful thoughts; men cannot control themselves. But I feel this is degrading and untrue.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  3. BLITZBURGH

    They have just as much of a right to cover themselves as I have a right not to be comfortable with it. Seeing as how the weapon of choice for Muslim extremists are suicide bombers, it might be a good idea to leave it at home...

    August 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  4. Bob

    One of the challenges I face is shaikng hands with women. I show my humility by keeping my right hand on mychest.
    Men & women shaking hands is part of culture in many countries including america.
    Islam does not allow men and women, not related, to shake hands.
    This is also part of submission.
    When you submit, you hae a drive to do what is right only to earn rewards, forgive & forget to earn rewards, and earn peace inside your soul, as a result.
    Women are requried to dress modeslty, not show their figure & hair, and do it to please the creator.
    I think the earliers followers of earlier prophets like Moses & Jesus also covered themsleves.
    Burqa, shettle cock Burqa of Afghanistan, are culutural variatoins & not that islam commanded the dress.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  5. Bob

    It's complete BS. If the intent is "to show intellect", then the Muslim men would do the same, unless Muslim men has no intellect to show?

    August 23, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  6. Missy

    I recently visited a mosque (as a non-Muslim) and interviewed the 2 guys from 30mosques.com (Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq). Interestingly, I asked them about the role of women in Islam. They had a fabulous response and it became a large part of my recent blog posting. Check out my interview with them and my thoughts on the role of women in Islam – thoughts formed AFTER asking some Muslim women about the subject: http://melibeeglobal.com/2010/08/interview-with-aman-ali-and-bassam-tariq-from-30mosques-com/

    August 23, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
    • JJ

      hats off to you that you took the initiative of atually entering a mosque and trying to learn about the people....

      more people should try and do thid rather than make ignorant comments... Knowledge and dialect go a long way

      August 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      Sorry, if they say their faith is one of true compassion for all people– they lie. That is unless they admit that the majority of Islamic homes around the world are virtual prisons and torture chambers for millions of women and girls. I'd like to see true muslims stand up for their mothers, daughters and sisters and offer them the same access to education, health care and freedom of choice in marriage and reproduction that men are afforded (or take) as part of their religious faith.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  7. DJ

    CNN should remove this offensive, inflamatory image. Stop pushing Islam down our unwilling throats.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
  8. No Fan of Islam

    Islam is the only religion that I know of that tells its members to murder infidels if they don't convert.

    Check around the world for where there is violence – ISLAM is the cause.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
    • David

      lol..you might want to read the following versus in your own bible

      Exodus 22:20
      Deuteronomy 13:6-10
      2 Chronicles 15:12-13
      Deuteronomy 13:13-19
      Deuteronomy 13:7-12
      Deuteronomy 17:2-5
      Numbers 25:1-9

      August 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
    • SR

      @David

      By the way, the new testament is the core of Christianity.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
    • DUDE

      thats a lie. read surah kafiroon and many others in the quran and stop listening to that great authority on islam fox news. islam teaches that there is no compulsion in religion. the quran also teaches that many jews and christians will enter paradise it is all over the quran but read surah al baqarah between the 51-100 iyatts and you will see it plain as day so before you tell a lie about another persons religion you should first research for yourself by simply going on the net and reading the text for yourself. don't be a ditto head for the right wing. also if what you stated was true why wouldn't the more than 1.6 billion muslims on this planet be killing everyone in sight! use your brain for something other than a sponge for right wing ideology

      August 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
    • Kate

      @SR

      Ahh yes, Christians only pick and choose from the Old Testament when it suits them ... usually the bit about men lying down with men as they do with women and doing things to witches.

      Oh, and the bit about wives submitting to their husbands.

      Nice core – messy fringes.

      August 23, 2010 at 8:00 pm |
  9. Comment

    They have just as much of a right to cover themselves as I have a right not to be comfortable with it. Seeing as how the weapon of choice for Muslim extremists is suicide bombers, it might be a good idea to just leave it at home...

    August 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
  10. yikes

    Freedom...means as much ability to choose as possible – in government form it means – as much ability to choose within regulations for the safety of citizens....wearing anything (aside from a string bikini) in public should pretty much be legal. ...if it represents a religion, so what?

    People fear islam...ok, i get it. people fear americans – do you get that? people used to fear more so chrisitans – its any group that seem to be an "enemy". in this country – we have decided – you're cool until you are guilty of doing something harmful – can we really call wearing something different or strange harmful? no. Can we associated it with our notion of what our 'enemy' is – sure.

    People in this country unfortunately associate our culture with our freedom. they associate our country with the chrisitian religion.

    But i would tell anyone who is ready to be critical of someone for their garb (other than the face mask b/c – really, its a security risk and its kinda rude – even though technically, people walking around in the winter with their face warmers on are doing the same thing -(aside, isn't it ironic that something that would be considered a garment for warmth is practically required uniform in countries where it is way too effing hot to have to do that). Most religions really are like cults....its one thing to be very spiriually devoted, which can be a beautiful experience, but be careful you are not actually participating in a cult with your innocent intentions.

    and the reason i point to cults is – pretty much the culture of freedom would say – yeah, its not cool to oppress women – who would do that to others or themselves – oh they must be brainwashed or pulled into a kind of cult – but, cults aren't outlawed., Right in our own backyards we have cults that marry girls off at young ages and separate them in compounds from the rest of the world – do those girls when they become women choose to stay there – yeah, why? b/c they are free too – why? b/c they were raised that way and are thoroughly convinced it is god's will....

    let's all just take a moment to ponder what we think is god's will, maybe ponder our authority – or anyone's – our parents' , our peers', our preachers' authority to tell us what to do, what to wear and what is god's will.

    these girls are simply trying to follow what they think is god's will – that in itself is admirable and hard. are they right? who knows, should we support them in the fact that they are trying to be spiritual, responsible human beings who are willing to stick up for the their beliefs and actions – absolutely -its the American way. it is the root of our very lives and our own convictions....

    should we treat people differently for going against the grain of culture....well, ain't that history....god forbid you be in a minority.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
  11. SRAO

    Don't know if covering made women focussed or not but, it definitely made men focussed on their killing mission.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
  12. SR

    Islam should be banned, the devil came up with this religion to put humanity in misery, death, pain, diseases and everything else that makes this world even worse.
    Muslim wouldn't hesitate to kill infidels which is everyone who isn't Muslim, so why would we let them live among us? These people change their minds in minutes, and they may kill us.
    I was born in an Arab Muslim country, I lived there for 24 years and I know Islam more than Muslims themselves although I'm christian, they were trying to convert me in every possible way, they were calling me an infidel and they abused me whenever possible. They used to break cars that have the Cross hanging on the rear view mirror. They were just harsh and ignorant, that is the devil himself.
    God bless America and the free world. Christians, Jews, non-believers or any one who is not Muslim should be a proud part of this free society. You don't know them until you try them, and hopefully we would never try them, instead, we should take them out of this world, then we can live in peace.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
    • dike

      SR,
      I can understand your frustration, I have lived in a muslim world for 2 years..... the 2 miserable years I'll never forget. I would say to other If you want to know muslims live in their world. Some of the extremist depicted in some movies that you think can only be in movies is really there in this world. The cruel things they can do, and how they treat women.... unbelievable. Honor killings, polyandry, extreme sexual practices sexual mutilation of their wives and kids, death by public stoning ... they are absolutely inhuman. Agreed there are a few good ones.. what's the point if they stand as spectators to this world. Now what they want to live and practice these things here too????

      August 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
    • David

      There are 1.5 Billion Muslims, somehow I find it hard to believe that they have only managed to kill a handful of "infidels" if that was the way they all felt and believed. Let's not forget that Christians have killed way more Muslims both today and in the past.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
    • Sherri

      Sounds like you're just bitter from your own experiences.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
    • dike

      SR,
      I can understand your frustration, I have lived in a muslim world for 2 years..... the 2 miserable years I'll never forget. I would say to other If you want to know muslims live in their world. Some of the extremist depicted in some movies that you think can only be in movies is really there in this world. The cruel things they can do, and how they treat women.... unbelievable. Honor killings, polyandry, mutilation of their wives and kids, death by public stoning ... they are absolutely inhuman. Agreed there are a few good ones.. what's the point if they stand as spectators to this world. Now what they want to live and practice these things here too????

      August 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
    • SR

      @David

      Christians did kill people, and who said this is right? Nothing justifies killings. But wait a minute, are we not living in the 21st century? Haven't Christians given up on these acts? They are regretting it, aren't they?

      When I saw Muslims, I say Muslims who are into their religion, there are 1.5 Billion Muslims, but not all of them are true Muslims. I have Muslim friends, and they are so fine, in fact, they live like me and you, I have great relations with their families including sisters and mothers (females) but those people have the word "Muslim" written down on their ID, nothing more than that. They drink, they have the same western traditions as we do, but those people are minority in the Muslim world, they are a very small minority.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
    • Reversal

      All it takes is one rotten apple to spoil the barrel. I believe that pretty much explains it. We need to find a way to get rid of only the rotten apples. It could happen a lot faster if the Shiites, Sunni, and other Muslims quit their bickering and helped expedite the process. They have their own "racial/radical" divides to overcome first I guess.

      August 23, 2010 at 7:54 pm |
  13. dike

    In the muslim world Men rule... if am man sees a woman and wants her he literally buys her. so if all hid themselves then it gives all women equal opportunities to be bought. Ofcourse a man can buy as many women they want to marry. Thats why you will see the rich have more wives than the poor. Many have 99 wives and marry the next after divorcing one so it does not sound like a big number. look at the so called kings and Sheikhs see how many wives they have. I am sure muslim women feel this is OK too. well not with me or any decent society or culture.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
    • building 7

      dike, what you say is true but you have to have the distinction that what is practiced in saudia arabia is not actual islam...that is wahabisb / salafi-ism. here is news for you ..Islam does not recognise monarchy...the house of Saud uses their version of islam to stay in power...and do all sorts of malpractices in the name of religion. where in the scripture does it mentione women cannot drive? Allah has better things to do...to all the muslims brother and sisters reading this, we have to be critical of our own religion as a lot of malpractice has crept in, and people from out side like Dike sees such and confuses it with the way of the religion....

      August 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
    • dike

      @building 7
      The muslim world known to the non muslim world is what they see and experience. Saudi and its surroundings, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia... etc the US knows muslims more after 911, you read a paper what do you see, muslim terrorist... You see youtube videos of muslims shooting people screaming Alllah o Akbar. Now you see muslims want to be so adamant on building a mosque next to 911 site.... how about showing some tolerance, dont build the mosque now, when you proved muslim= better then what the world knows now then open the debate to building the mosque. USA is the most tolerant country, see what the muslims have done.... divided us too....

      August 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  14. fishkitty

    There is a huge difference between "judging someone on their looks" and "being able to see their face just so you can relate to them as another human being".

    Someone who has a recognizable face I can relate to as another human, I can see their expression, they are not hiding from me. If I cannot see your face, I automatically feel defensive and relate to you more as an object. That is not being mean or judgemental, that is just an automatic HUMAN response.

    So hiding their face, very basically, DE-humanizes them.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  15. Indian111

    To..ItsaJessi
    Are you refeering to Sharia Law or America When you say Killing, Stealing and Destraying. hahahahahah
    And You guys have no problem when Mother Teressa and other nuns wear hijab so why with Muslim women.
    If you want you mother or sister to wear bikinis and you like them its upto you guys, we dont want it.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
    • xlent

      I have sons and brothers and they have never told me what or what not to wear. Works better that way. None or their business, nor yours.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  16. Moi

    It sends the message that Allah made a mistake in creating women to be beautiful and so they must be covered.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  17. Cletus

    If a culture considers the female face profane or obscene, that culture is worthless. This is blatantly sexist, because no men wear them, and in most cases, women are FORCED to wear them. A woman telling you that she wears them of her own free will and to please god is just like hearing a beaten and whipped slave tell you that she wears her shackles of her own free will and to please her master.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  18. 12367

    She says she is from this country as well as her family. Perhaps she should go see what it's like in the country of her ancentry and see if she still feels that a woman is not viewed as a lesser being there or that they arre not forced to wear this traditional covering. This article lets her serve as a spokesperson for all women who wear this garment (most of whom are required to wear it) and by her own admission she hasn't really lived the life of a Muslim woman in a Muslim country.

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

      everyone here has a different background, if we all go back to our ancestry then we all SEE what women were worth back in those days. Dont attack her coz shes a muslim. And O..in America women had to FIGHT a lot to get their rights and still TILL TODAY we face discrimination and we're not equivalent to the men. so Lets try to make America a better place before we try to make other countries livable.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:35 pm |
  19. Uzi

    This all started with the Jewish Greeks in Ephesus, only women who were married did it. Women covered there heads out of respect to God, not men.
    Oh yeah! By the way....Covering your body is one thing, but covering your face another. You get more attention like that, and more men will stare. Women get circumcised in those countries, Abraham never circumcised his wife.
    We live in a world of insecurity, covering your face is a shame.
    P/S: If that Muslim woman wins the sue against Disney, it show us how weak we have gotten as a country. She applied there knowing the regulations and dress codes, she is not complying to their standards.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  20. qotu

    The problem with the hijab is terrorist use it to kill people. If we want to continue to be safe and have body searches at airports, we need to ban clothing that prevents identification. The implication from a religious viewpoint is it's okay for Muslims to wear clothing to represent their faith, but there can be no christian symbols in public. The Islamic faith is misogynistic and needs to take a long look at itself.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:36 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.