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. No God, No Religion

    The people who commit terrorist acts are the fringe elements in almost any society, not the common person and not the common Muslim person. People wearing strange costumes for their beliefs is not worth so much attention.

    Personally, I hope that improvements in global education will diminish the grip that religions have on our planet, but I expect that will require a few more centuries. Until then, let's build on what we have in common, try not to get hung up on the differences, and learn to get along as we move toward a peaceful future. A little tolerance goes a long ways....

    August 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  2. Dan

    No matter what...its an odd thing where in a religion the women must cover theirselves like that.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  3. Jun Camus

    Growing up, I was impressed that only crooks and thieves wear mask and/or cover their faces to prevent identification. And I believe this is true even in this case.
    I totally believe in the freedom of religion but I also believe that public safety and well-being is paramount. What is the guaranty that one of these covered women is a crook or a thief pretending to be a religious woman? I remember old movies (eg Some Like It Hot) where men wore nun's clothing to prevent identification or to mask their appearance. It was funny then but now with thieves and robbers all over the place, this is no longer a laughing matter. And public safety should trump a person's personal choice for modesty.

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

      @Jun Camus

      What is the reasoning that someone not covered up isn't a thief or a crook hiding their identity? One of the Weathermen went for something like 20 years masquerading as a housewife before she was discovered – she was a terrorist and she didn't wear a veil.

      You can't tell a crook or a thief or a murderer or a child molester just by looking at their faces – been to a Catholic Church lately?

      August 23, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
    • Kate

      @Jun Camus

      What is the reasoning that someone not covered up isn't a thief or a crook hiding their ident|ty? One of the Weathermen went for something like 20 years masquerading as a housewife before she was discovered – she was a terrorist and she didn't wear a veil.

      You can't tell a crook or a thief or a murderer or a child molester just by looking at their faces – been to a Catholic Church lately?

      August 23, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  4. jenn

    I would never ask this woman to remove her clothes. Western women also cover their faces, except it is always make-up. I say if you want to cover your face whether in clothes or in make-up, it is your choice.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  5. Brnadon

    comments like the ones displayed piss me off.

    Sure we don't make women cover themselves up. Instead we give them inferiority complexes and eating disorders. We make them cut themselves and take diet pills. We pay them less money for the same labor and sexually abuse one in three of them.

    When we as americans figure out how to raise our daughters, THEN we can start telling other people how they should raise theirs.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  6. Jim

    OK, if Nadia wants to dress like she is in the Middle East so be it. Nadia...get yourself over to the Middle East or Indonesia, or even Nigeria, and become part of that culture. In the meantime, don't complain when you are treated poorly according to the customs of the culture you wish to become a part of. Here in America we tend to move forward in time. But if you wish to go back in time 1300 years then pop yourself to the nearest airport and have at it. Bye Nadia!!!!!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
    • Kate


      This is America, if someone wanted to dress up like they were from Mars they could do so.

      Oh wait, some people do – Comic Con.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  7. EuroMash

    men stare at and lust after women all the time in this country because their a$$ and t!tties are hanging out. the way my friends talk about every second woman that walks by, i'm glad a i don't have a duaghter that random strangers are lusting after. if they want to cover their heads out of modesty so be it. you can't say that they get less respect than a lady walking around with a tube top and daisy dukes on.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  8. MAVVV

    Heard once that Muslim men can get erection from seeing womens nose holes or lips exposed. They cant control themselves in public. To win the war...all we have to do is UNVEIL the women....shoot the men with boners and stop the breeding. Muslim men even stone women for causing erections that are not his immediate family. These people are from the 3-5th century....C U all in heaven with 72 virgins with wings ! (couldnt they make it even 80-100 ?)

    August 23, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  9. Maz

    Although I don't agree with the niqab, I respect a woman's decision to wear one especially in the U.S. i am deeply disturbed by some of these posts, honestly, muslim, christian, jewish, hindu, atheist, whatever-we are all people and there at least should be some respect for each others beliefs. Learn about Islam, dont just look at the news and claim that all muslim women are oppressed and all muslim men are extremists. there are 1.4 billion of us on this globe and 99.9% live normal lives like everyone else.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
  10. Kerry

    Sorry but you are going to draw more attention to yourself in America by wearing that ridiculous get-up. Don't worry we won't stone you because you show your face or your ankles!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  11. Kevin E

    Satan's plan: Create all these religions like Islam to deceive people away from the blood of Jesus. No wonder Muslims believe Jesus Christ didn't die for our sins! Satan, the master of deception had a plan to steal the souls of men away from God. And after the rapture, when the antichrist is walking here on earth, who is going to be deceived by the antichrist??? The Muslims!

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

      Satan wouldn't waste his time. Christian's don't need Islam to sin; they do just fine on their own.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
    • Kate

      @Kevin E

      Muslims also don't believe in using a Prophet as a glorified outsourced call center for God.

      Just sayin'

      August 23, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
    • AGA

      @ Kevin If Satan did come up with the beautiful religion of Islam then why does the Holy Quran begin with the following saying: "I seek refuge from Satan in the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful" ?

      August 24, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
  12. Tommy

    Hey, if your butt ugley, I can why you cover up – this religion and the practices I have seen so far are just plain wrong, to hell with them all

    August 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  13. Lee Z

    For a religion that is preaches tolerance, how can the niqab be anything but a discriminatory to the deaf population. UNLESS, if you are deaf you are below normal and therefore should not be communicated too? Someone deaf reads lips, and the niqab will prevent you from being able to communicate without have to write everything for them to read. Maybe deafness only happens to infidels who don't follow Islam?

    August 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
    • Kate


      Do you know how many deaf people can lip read? Do you know how many can sign? You might want to rethink this.

      In fact, going back to signing – how many hearing people know sign language? Deaf people use it to talk to deaf people, not hearing people – isn't that exclusionary on their part? Why aren't they being forced to learn a way of communicating that hearing people feel comfortable with?

      Just sayin'

      August 23, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  14. paul

    Oh my! She is looks so smart!! Look at those drapes and the eye slits. We might have another Einstein here!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
  15. Beth

    I find it interesting that, in our society, people are disturbed by women who put on MORE clothing, yet we encourage, idolize and even PAY women who wear less or nothing at all.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  16. Byrd

    The problem with the veil is that intelligence doesn't always shine through the opaque covering. However, these women have been raised in a societies that accepts the veil and enforce strict regulations concerning their behavior – in Saudi Arabia a woman has to be declared an honorary amn to either drive a car or be a doctor. The main argument we have against the veil in America is that it is insulting to most Western women, and men as well, who see it as a symbol of female subservience to men.

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


      Which is more them projecting their fears onto niqabis – did they ever ask the niqabi if she feels objectified? From the responses on these forums, even when she says no, they'll ignore her and go on with their own ideas anyways.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  17. Toney

    Isn't it funny that christian and muslim men practically dresses the same from head to toe. But, on the other hand the women dress completely on the opposite end of the spectrum.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  18. texaslady2

    If wearing a covering over your face or body makes you feel "closer to God", then why don't the men do the same? Even the imams leave their faces uncovered, unless you count the beards as coverings. It just seems to me that it is all irrelevant: if there is a god, I seriously doubt that he/she cares what we wear and is more interested in how we treat each other.

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

      Actually they do it so they can cover themselves from other males. Muslim females only expose themselves to their husbands, which makes sense to me. and living in America guys take their freedom of hitting on girls checking them out, Muslim females are only avoiding that.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
  19. Pratt

    The head bandage was made to protect women from Arab men...not Americans. It should be banned for hurting the dignity of all American women. It's a disgusting practice. Hasidim women's fashion should also be banned. It too is degrading.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  20. Mattwm

    I don't mind if they wear that crap, as long as it's not in a bank, while they drive a car or get their driver's license picture, or anywhere that would require full disclosure, ie, an airport or train station. as for what people think? I would have more respect for a beautiful woman who show's her face than one that hides behind a vail.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:48 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.