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. cathy

    I have another thing to say to black women who have adopted this....ladies, you are putting yourselves right back to the days of slavery....you are segregating yourselves once again ....this is so wrong....you are stepping back into time instead of moving forward and upward.....black women have come such a long way....I'll be surprised if there isn't backlash from other black women you are dragging down into the sands and caves of a thousand or more years ago...you are going backwards.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  2. Jayson

    Wearing the niqab or the hijab is simply called slavery and submission. Women are treated like animals under Islam. I'm not sure why anyone would want to live as if it's 400 A.D. in the modern world.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
    • sahar

      so your definition of 2010 is LIVE FREE NAKEDLY... uhmm btw America has just began to change and be carelss about the dress code. Just about 50 60 years ago im sure the nuns would choke the girl if they were walking uncovered, reveling their body parts.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  3. Mike

    Cover yourself and bomb the innocents......MOOOOO-HAHAHAHAH-mad

    August 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
  4. Sergey Stepanov

    I play sax for peace in world.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
    • Nour

      Assalam aleikunnaMes souers,Je voulais juste pre9ciser que l'e9pilation des poils du visage (dont les sourcils) est haram.As-Shaykh Ibn Baz :En ce qui concerne l’e9pilation des sourcils et des poils du visage, cela a e9te9 interdit dans les ahadith qui maudissent la Namisa et la Mutanammisa. Les imams de la langue (arabe) ont dit : ab An-Nams signifie enlever les poils des sourcils et du visage. bb Donc voile0 ce qui a e9te9 interdit, e0 moins que n'apparaisse sur le visage ce qui cause une de9figuration et une laideur, comme la femme ayant une moustache ou la femme ayant une barbe. Dans ce cas il n'y a aucun mal e0 enlever cela (les poils). Cependant, en ce qui concerne les poils du visage normaux, ils ne doivent pas eatre enleve9 parce que le messager (Prie8res et be9ne9diction d’Allah sur lui) a maudit la Namisa (la femme qui e9pile les poils du visage d'autres femmes) et la Mutanammisa (la femme qui e9pile ses propres poils du visage) et ce type d’e9pilation fait partie de An-Nams.En espe9rant que e7a vous ait e9te9 utile inshALlah.Pour e9viter que tes cheveux ne de9passent, je pense que le bonnet et la meilleur solution, ou alors coiffe les en arrie8re avec un peu de laque ou de mousse e0 cheveux avant de mettre ton hijab.Wassala aleikunna

      July 29, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  5. No Fan of Islam


    August 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
    • Michael

      So does Christianity. You're supposed to destroy an entire town, its people, and its livestock if someone does not practice Christianity.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
    • Reversal

      Please enlighten us as to which chapter and verse that says that. In almost seventy years, I don't seem to recall reading such.

      August 23, 2010 at 8:00 pm |
  6. Jewel

    I am a Christian woman and there are so many times I wish I could simply dress like the muslim women, it does not matter in the United States if you dress moderately not procatively and you are pretty with a curvacious shape (cannot be hidden in slacks or skirts and even some dresses). I AM SO TIRED OF MEN that just simply undress you with their eyes, their lustful sexual comments; I as well as my sister have both experienced men that feel it is okay to just grab you. I live in a middle class community always have and it does not matter if I am downtown in the mall wherever~. I have lived in Los Angeles, CA, Washington, D.C. and all of the surrounding suburbs, Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Tx and I have traveled these United States because of the work I do. And it does not matter everywhere I go I have to deal with it. I am confident in who I am and I thank God for making me the creature he has, but it is annoying and disrespectful. So, to not even muster up the lust in men, I would consider covering when out and about. Maybe these young ladies did not have an opportunity to fully express their reasons for their choice to dress the way they do. we have to consider this is journalism, half of what you really say is what is actually printed.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
  7. Kimbiqua

    I understand and respect these 2 women and their choices. However, what I need to point out is that these are free women living in a western country with the most rights and freedoms known on the planet. What we Americans associate the veil with are those countries in which the hijab is mandated by law or tradition, and free thinking women do not have the choice. We've read where in Afghanistan women were beaten in the streets if their dress was not appropriate! We associate the hijab as a symbol of those oppressive cultures. How can we differentiate? What you hold dear as a free showing of your devotion to your faith has been used to hold hostage, separate and not equal in many, many places on the globe. I'm afraid that tarnish will be near impossible to overcome. And perhaps you should look to find a new way to showcase your modesty that has only a positive meaning, and spread that good will around the world on behalf of your faith. Best to you all, and may our sisters worldwide be so blessed with the freedoms we American women enjoy.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
  8. Sergey Stepanov


    August 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
    • The Motherland

      In Soviet Russia, sax plays you.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  9. No Fan of Islam

    ISLAM is NOT a religion – IT IS a murdering CULT

    August 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
  10. Tasha

    There are two different things here. One is dressing modeslty and covering the head – hajib (As someone said,nuns do that) I have NO problem with that at all. The other issue is the veil, niqab or burqa. That I think is a legitimate concern for security / safety / disguise. I wish we could separte the two in discussion. it's always a balancing act- freedom versus the public good (seeing some one's face for security reasons)

    August 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
  11. No Fan of Islam

    ISLAM preaches that IT IS OKAY TO MURDER INFIDELS if THEY DON'T Convert.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
  12. Victory in freedom

    There are a number of issues to do with women and Islam that are disturbing. Let's start with the good Prophet M's vision of Hell. He remarked on that occasion that he noticed that most of hell's inhabitants were women. Then the Koran's specific pointers: A woman's testimony is worth half that of a man; Men can have multiple wives and concubines etc- not so women; a man can beat his wife; the good Prophet endorsed pedophilia by marrying a child aged 6 years. No matter what the writer of the article says Islam is a repressive, reactionary ideology- it's spread must be opposed....

    August 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
    • dddd

      have u actually ever looked deeper into the reasons why all of this was allowed, no u havnt and ur making assumptions. If u look deeper intio these statements ull find out the reason for these actons was anything but violence and whatever else u thought . Im pretty sure if some thing in the bible had said this no one would have attacked christians, NO theyre perfect religion with perfect practicing fmailies. Muslims practice theyre faith everyday, and they live theyre religion, U hardly
      see a christian living there rligion. Some amny comitt the 7 deadly sins, and muslims who decide not to do this and are being pious 24/7 r the ones targeted. Stop judging islam and think of the faults of people in other faiths too.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  13. Jesus Francisco

    This type of dress does not belong in this country. And just like France, the U.S.A. will probably have to spend millions of dollars to outlaw it. My understanding is that it is not religious but a cultural tradition ... but it definitely is not an American tradition.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
    • dddd

      Who cares if its not an american tradition, its called america. u outlaw this dress than every american official is a hypicroite. IT was in the Decleration of independence, and if u cant follow ur own basis for government, how are u supposed to run ur country. Its called Freedom of religion.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
  14. Pratt

    If these dumb women want to hide their faces ... better yet. Isn't the God of Islam a funny character ? ... he gives women a face, then he demands that men should cover it up. What a stupid religion.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  15. No Fan of Islam

    ISLAM teaches that it is okay to murder people who don't convert.

    Saudi Arabia won't allow Christian churches to be built in their country.

    If you convert from Islam to Christianity in Saudi Arabia, you are murdered. Islam is an evil, evil religion. Sick with sick followers.

    They view Jesus as a failure because he died on the cross and did not kill His enemies. Evil War mongers.

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

      Show me where Islam teches that. islam coexisted in asia, europe, africa, the mid east, etc. for hundreds of years with other religions. The church slaughtered countless millions who did not convert, what about that?
      some people today may not practice the religion like they are supposed to, but that doesn't mean you denegrate a religion of over a billion people.
      And muslims don't view Jesus as a failure, infact he is the second most important prophet in the religion. They even believe in the immaculate conception. the only difference is they believe he was a prophet, like muhammad, and not the son of God.
      I think you are confusing muslims with jews, as they are the ones who don't believe he was a messenger from god. you moron.

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

      You apparently don't know much about the history of organized Christianity. Think hot lead poured down your throat or your head cut off if you didn't convert. ALL radical religion is dangerous.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  16. ameryca

    Because of how I look. men have never bothered to find out who I am....they want to either touch me, own me for my looks, or comment on my body. I'm tired of beingseen as a sex object who is expected to have no brain! I'd like an excuse to cover up more. I already wear clothes that are loose and modest. Maybe I will wear a hijab and niqab even though I'm not Muslim.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  17. willylarge

    So will these women be in the front of the line for iris scanning? Since we can not identify them by looking at there face. I have alway heard people need to be held accountable for their actions. How can we do that when we do not know who they are. The one that always come to mind is the lady in Florida who wanted to have her drivers license picture taken with her face covered.lol I mean really the picture is there so an officer can I dentify you and you want to cover your face to be closer to god. Sorry but in this case I say headscarf ok vail not ok.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  18. scott715

    It is a symbol of opression and nothing else. If a woman decides on her own to cover herself it is because she is telling herself that she is less than a man and has accepted it. What a shame. Just the fact that it applies only to women tells you right there it was devised by a man. If you believe in a god or "Allah" or whatever you want to call it you are saying that he made 50% of his creations inferior. I think it speaks more to the mentality of muslim men that they can't control their base inpulses and that is where the requirement came from. I lived in Qatar for a year and will be going to live in Saudi Arabia soon. It was strange for me to see women covered at first, but I got used to it, but when I see it in America I feel threatened. In any case,if you want to dress in such a fashion live in a place where it is accepted. In Saudi Arabia it is mandatory which speaks to the mentality of the people who devised it.

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

      Your statement is absolutely right.
      Covering up your body in westrern society is a slap in
      the face to integration.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
  19. cathy

    IMO they don't know what they are in for. It may be fun to "dress up"....it may be what the husband, father or brother ordered.

    It starts little....she doesn't feel oppressed. Does she realize that there are millions of muslim women who are not allowed an education, not allowed to be treated in many hospitals, not allowed to travel by themselves, can be divorced on any whim of their husband, can be accused of adultry without any proof, can be stoned to death on his say so? Why any woman would walk clear eyed into this kind of existence is beyond comprehension. Being forced into this life is one thing but going into it on your own.....there has to be something wrong with you.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  20. AND

    Wearing the burqa should be banned because it disguises their faces. They can see you but you can see them. And just on a society level, if you can in to a business meeting dressed as a clown you would be asked to leave and more than likely thought of as crazy. so why is it any different with a burqa from the 12th century. This should not be acceptable in America or anywhere in the modern world.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:41 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.