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. Stop the BS

    Picture this... a topless man walking down the street... how many of you would turn their heads?
    Now a topless woman walking down the street.... People wear what makes them feel comfortable.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
  2. Dan

    Head back to your homelands and cover yourselves head to toe there. Its uncomfortable for people here.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
    • Merilyn Horn

      Dan, i couldn't agree more. Why should we have to accomidate ourselves for them? It puts a uneasy feeling in the surrounding environment. To me, America isn't america anymore. By all means they/anyone should express religion. But when i'm talking to someone i want to know their telling me the truth. I'm a ROTC Instructor and when i'm teaching my cadets, the last thing i want them to do, is not actually BE PRESENT in the topic because their somewhere else behind their hijab. SO when these muslim girls come into the program then its off with it all and on with ACU'S and do not complain. You come to OUR country, you will do it OUR way. PERIOD.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  3. diadkinson

    All I can say is I don't want to see a lot of this here! Ugh.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
  4. dddd

    since covering ur face might mean to u guys that they are hiding something, why dont u go ask them since u care so much. I think they can take care of themselves, and i think they probably will know why they decided to where the hijab. Mabye u should stop reading in between the lines and stop looking for a cry of help from these women.AND JUST LISTEN TO WHAT THEY R SAYING, why would they lie about what the hijab really does for them and why they where it.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
  5. Malcom Daniels

    It always amuses me to hear the devout religious struggle to justify their absurd superstitions. Women of Islam, your hijab/niqab have NOTHING to do with you being judged on the merits of your intelligence etc. It has only to do with men in ancient times (and ignorant men today) seeking to quell the only power they believed women have: the power of their sex appeal.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
  6. adam

    Yes it is a sign of her intelligence. It shows us all right away that she is an idiot and we can not waste our time on her

    August 23, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
  7. Derek Hughes

    I don't approve of women being allowed to dress like this in American Society. When I see women like this in a bus I have gotten off. Who knows what they can hide under such attire? Given recent history and their willingness to be suicide bombers in the Middle East I don't trust them and fear what they would do in the name of Allah. If they wish to live in the USA they should don western dress except on feast days for their religion. I don't trust them and I don't think I ever will. I firmly believe and I have read the Koran that it endorses evil towards those who do not accept and buy into it.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  8. Saint Ringo

    I am thinking hot and humid...peeeeeeeeyewwwwwwwwww

    August 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  9. Steven

    Ok. That's it. I'm officially tired of hearing about Islam.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
  10. Dan

    Go back to your homelands and cover yourselves up. Its odd here and makes people feel uncomfortable.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  11. Bob

    As long as the Muslim women ain't hiding explosives under those veils and long black dresses – I really don't care about their modesty and humility. They are being oppressed by a religion which threatens to kill or maim women if they do not cover themselves. These people will never understand real freedom because they've never really had it or choose to live their lives in Old Testament archaic times.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  12. Joey

    Wearing a hijab or yamulke or something similar is not a problem, and people should not be attacked for that. But covering the face is sending the message that you are disconnecting yourself from societal interaction- it can also be perceived as an aggressive/dominant action. Imagine trying to have a conversation with someone in a ski mask- you can't read them at all, so you have no way of knowing if they are smiling or serious or sad- most of our interaction with one another is based on looking at the face and reading the other person's countenance. When someone takes the position "I can see your face, but you can't see mine" it puts the other person at a disadvantage, and it puts them at unease. This is social psych 101. It has nothing to do with men being tempted to make advances or anything gender or even religion related- the face is everything in communication of any sort.

    People in your circle of friends may accept you for doing this, but don't expect society at large to ever be comfortable with this. And remember, this has nothing to do with religion- if you cover your face it is the equivalent of giving the world the middle finger, whether you are doing it consciously or not.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  13. Jim

    If a person wants to be part of the Catholic world they go to the West. If a person wants to go to the Islamic world they go to the Middle East. Go to the Middle East and stop just trying to get attention.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
    • Kate


      I think Protestants might disagree with you somewhere in there.

      Just sayin'

      August 23, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
  14. Khaos

    Who really cares why they where them? I know I don't.. When my family came to America they quit wearing kilts. You're here now, join America. If you don't like it go back to where you came from..

    August 23, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  15. Sam

    Good for her. It takes a strong woman with a lot of will power to cover up like that in todays society with everyone judgeing her and people being so critical of muslims.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  16. Verbatim

    Its 2010 people can we please let go of religion!!! Please. And these girls are idios, dressing like ninjas for a terroist cult!!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  17. Mike

    I once read an interesting comparison: many cultures in warmer climates feel that clothes in general are uncomfortable and are not needed, however when people from a different region come to visit they generally don't strip down to just the loincloth or string that is customarily worn by the indigenous people. Are these foreigners trying to hide something? YES–because they are too modest to run around in so little clothing. Would YOU be trying to hide something? I would! No way you'd catch me in nothing but a string! I have friends who wearthe hijab and to them it's all about modesty. While some American women enjoy running around topless, most do not. These women feel that even their hair and face are also parts to be covered, for modesty. I agree that in secure areas (including something as simple as a bank), the niqab poses a risk and should be restricted in those *secure* areas, but one of our freedoms in this country is to wear what we please. I would much rather see this modest dress over the skanky outfits that show waaaaay to much!

    August 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  18. Maz

    And for all this hoopla about Sharia Law, do not forget that a great degree of Western litigation was influenced by medieval Islamic law. Aspects of U.S. court system mirror early Islamic courts. just sayin'

    August 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  19. dddd

    For all those people out there who dont understand islam and why they actually do this should stop posting commments. Its better then ur american ideology where u have to show every part of ur body to get attention, with islam its ur personality and faith that counts. Women in islam arnt opressed, a nun wheres the same clothing covering the same exact parts as a muslim why isnt she opressed. If they were opressed im pretty sure they would do something about, especially since the religion haas been aroundsince the begining of christianity. If they really wanted ur help tonot be opressed im pretty sure they would have asked u by now.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  20. hillbilleter

    It is against the law in Virginia for anyone over the age of 12 to wear a mask in public, even on Halloween. This is not a religion-based law, but based on the fact that burglars and thieves hide their faces so they cannot be identified. In America, you can be close to God whatever you wear and wherever you are. He doesn't look at your face, like law enforcement need to do.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:54 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.