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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. mgolam

    Does anyone in this blog aware of the fact "Hijab is not a quranic injunction"! "Hijab" as a word used in Quran but but not a single time referring to Dress. Isn't that interesting? Hijab/Niqab/Borqua are inventions of men to sujugate women but made them think it's from God and it's holy. People need to study the Quran rather than listening to religious scholars.

    Quran dictates to covers boosoms with cover and wear long dress to avoid sexual harasement by SOME men – pure and simple. God asks men and women to lower their gaze be modest. Covering oneself with clothes from head to toe doesnt' serve any purpose except confusion.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  2. swest

    We should have a law here against the hijab.
    Like the French are doing. Which I'm actually amazed at. The first sign of backbone shown by them since they killed all the smart people in their country during the revolution.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  3. Fuyuko

    Men don't wear the hijab and niqab, because if they had to the rule would've been done away with a long time ago.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
  4. Miria

    These women are FROM here. Hello. Get over your so-called "American: ideals that state only *white, straight, christian republicans* can thrive in this nation.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
    • andysault

      And how do we determine who (under these robes) are American born and who just got off the plane and are picking up bombs to terrorized our country. Perhaps a compromise can be made and those that are born here can where one in the red, white, and blue.............just so we're clear!!!!!!

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

      In Arab countries, it would be impolite at the very least to show the bottom of the foot or to give a "thumb up" gesture. Arabs in America can do so at will and no one cares. The same with other cultural mores. Why should Muslim women arrogantly bring the masked bandit look to a culture that distrusts and fears masked bandits when Westerners are supposed to be careful about offending Muslims in Arab countries? Tit for tat.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      Born here true but obviously ignorant about what their sisters face in their countries of origin and hence what covering represents. If I was beaten in my home country and escaped to freedom, I would not walk around with a lash around my neck to symbolize my faith.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
  5. moxievibe

    I guess for me it is something bigger. I believe that secular laws should rule before religious laws, in America. While I understand this is not always true and that Christians will have my head for saying so (I am Christian by the way). Secular law starts with our Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. The greatest law that our democracy has to offer is that all people are created equal. When a woman is covered (and I grant there are degrees to this), she cannot participate equally in our democracy. She cannot hear as well, cannot see as well, cannot speak as well if she were not veiled. She is muffled and made invisible. I really do believe that equality trumps religion. And, unfortunately, safety also trumps religion. If the law of this country dictacts that not seeing the face is a threat to the Country's safety, than that is a higher law. I'm confused that people do not understand this. Finally, and then I'll move on, women in American and Europe have fought for 100's to 1,000's of years to be treated equally in their respective countries. To be seen, heard, to not be servants of any other, to be visible. It is so disrespectful to those women to shun their fight.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
  6. Jim Bob

    People who wear bizarre costumes should expect to be stared at, no differently than if she wore a space-suit or a clown-suit in public. In her own mind it may mean something religious, but to others it looks like she's disguised hidden inside a sack.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
    • swest

      Yeah! What Jom Bon said!!

      August 23, 2010 at 4:10 pm |
  7. Jason

    [Quote]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.”[/Quote]
    I say Ludricrous. Yes, women are much more admired in America and yes we do enjoy looking at them, the more skin the better. But, I was stationed in Naval Air Station Pensacola, and when I was there, they had Saudi Air force training there, and there wives accompanied. Their wives would walk 10 feet behind them in Florida heat, lugging 5 bags og groceries and I saw the man carrying just 1 loaf of bread. Muslim men are the ones treating their wives like objects, not American men, can you say hand truck or dolley? You cannot compare a 5% muslim in America vs the whole of islam in the middle east.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
  8. Dave

    Two thoughts:
    1) Why should only women not be judged on their appearance? Men too then would benefit from being covered and not being judged based on their looks
    2) I find the notion that women need to be covered so that men don't "look" at them (sexually I think is the notion at play here,) as presumptuous since it assumes that all men are interested in any and all women. In fact, as a gay man, I have absolutely no interest in looking at any woman. So, by Muslim women covering themselves, they are making gross generalizations about all men, and clearly are incorrect in the base case.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
  9. C

    I think head coverings should be simply encouraged and not forced for Muslim ladies. I know a few Muslim women and I don't think they have been forced to wear hijab. It was a personal choice and they feel strongly about their right to wear it. I don't support the idea of complete face and body coverings, though. I wouldn't fight against it, but it's best for security reasons anywhere. I like hijab, I think some are beautiful. I In the past, many Western, Christian women covered their heads. It was for modesty and I suspect for practical reasons as well. I am a non-religious Caucasian and I have actually ordered a hijab for times when my very long hair might get in the way while doing some kinds of work. My hair is long enough that it takes a while to get it in place. Sometimes I only wear a part of the set, sometimes all. It's good mosquito protection too! Amish, Mennonite, Nuns may wear head coverings. Why is no one so upset with them? They don't get accused of being passive towards sexist ideas nearly as much.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
  10. andysault

    My personal belief is that if you want to cover your body go ahead but in light of 9/11 I feel that a country is within their rights to pass laws so that a face cannot be covered. I respect their relegion, but given that it was their faith that turned on the world, they should respect our fear.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
  11. srjsac

    There are also folks who believe in self flagellation as a way to honor their religion. Odd religious beliefs have existed throughout history. This is just another one. They want to be judged by their "intellect and personalities", well ladies you are judged and found lacking in common sense. Apparently you believe men would be unable to control themselves in your presences unless you cover your body. This makes me question your choice of friends. In addition why subject yourselves to heat in the summer and calling attention to yourselves by adopting a mode of dress that stands out and encourages negative reaction. This is somewhat akin to self flagellation. It also sends a strong message that you are open to degrading and humiliating relationships within your family.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
    • DUDE

      i feel it is you who humiliate yourself by worrying about what someone else is wearing especially when said garments are not obscene. i'm sure you would rather your mother wore a midriff bearing form fitting strapless halter and completed her look with a bellyring and a tramp stamp on her back while showing us all her cameltoe, before you would see her in a muslim womans garb, but i would rather see the opposite. my point is a person who dresses modestly in american society is looked at unfavorably but a person with two inches of makeup on her face, fake hair and the "hooker clothes" that are so popular these days are not. to me that is crazy

      August 23, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
  12. xlent

    She's covered up so she won't attract other men and hubby will know the kids are his. We have DNA testing now, folks. Throw off the blankey!! It looks hot and uncomfortable.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
  13. Neil

    Is the Christian nun costume any different from the Muslim hijab?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
    • xlent

      No, but most nuns wear street clothes these days.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
    • Jim Bob

      Nuns generally wear street clothes in public. Only in the church bldg do they wear full habit.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
    • andysault

      Actually JB your wrong, I was just in London and nuns in full habit were walking down the streets, not that there's anything wrong with that.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
    • Gwain52

      I believe that there is a very real difference. I am not aware of any nun who has blown herself up or, for that matter, anyone professing the Catholic faith who has advocated suicide bombings.

      I am just glad I live in small-town America where it is very uncommon to see anyone dressed in this way. Since the numbers are exceedingly small here, it is easier to avoid any proximity with individuals wearing this kind of clothing than it might be in urban areas. I would just take another route or leave the vicinity completely.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
    • hillbilleter

      Nuns do not cover their faces in order to not be identified. You can see who they are and they can communicate with their expressions. Also, most sects allow nuns to wear street clothes, and have for decades. The nuns where I live wear saris, though. You can sure pick them out in a crowd when they're in their habits.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
    • Kate

      @Hillbelleter

      Nuns in saris, really? I didn't know they could wear those. That's two new things I learned today, cheers!

      August 23, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
  14. Saint Ringo

    I'd really like to see a muslim contingent with a float, march in our 4th of July parade.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
  15. Hamke

    Three one way tickets to Saudi, Afghanistan or Somalia pls.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
  16. rajbhanu

    My only question to people covering up like this is "have you ever gone swimming ? If yes, do you swim with your body covered as such or you wear bikini ? "

    August 23, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
    • Jim Bob

      Muslim swimsuits also cover head to toe.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
  17. lenny

    WAKE UP LADIES! you only live once. Don't be scared to LIVE.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
    • me

      Unfortunately they don't know that they only live once, because they are brainwashed to believe in heaven.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
  18. Miria

    Btw, men in Islam have laws about covering as well.

    And you cannot deny how subjugated women are in western society - has anyone heard of Playboy? They'd like to take a different step by covering their beauty, not flaunting it as you are taught here. Sure, niqab may be a stretch, but covering the body - *modesty* - is the main point here, whether you cover your hair or not.

    And judging someone's intelligence by the heat outside? Uh, why are you wearing nothing then? You'd like to get sunburn or contract skin cancer? Or do you just like being naked in front of the whole world? (What's the point of wearing clothes daily then, during the warm weather?)

    And no one says you have to wear ALL BLACK. You can wear whatever the hell you want as long as you cover up.

    No one tells these people do to it. They choose to do so on their own.

    WHY DO NUNS COVER?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
    • lenny

      nuns cover because they're afraid of insignificance too. and the playboy girls too. It's all the same. hiding or flaunting are both ways in which women try to escape and forget about their own insignificance. That they're only one amongst billions of other people, in a world of endless time and space and soon will vansih and be forgotten for all eternity. God doesn't want any of you.

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

      Nuns don't have to cover any more.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
    • Jim Bob

      Bizarre costumes are not modest, they make themselves a spectacle.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
    • hillbilleter

      Nuns cover to separate themselves from society. Their dress sets them apart and makes them different. As far as I can understand, they are also ill-tempered. That's always been my take on the matter.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      Please stop using this ridiculous analogy of a nun's habit and a burqa. I am not a big nun fan, but there are some major differences that young Muslims who support covering should understand.

      No-one forces a woman to become a nun any more, western society has progressed. It is truly a free choice. Nuns rarely wear habits today. They are not subjected to barbaric practices, such as female circumcision using a sharp rock. While they are still usually subservient to men in the clergy (which is the big problem I have with them) they are not beaten into submission by male relatives on the orders of orthodox clergy based on some archaic interpretation of the bible. Nuns can have an education– no-one throws acid on their faces for going to school. They are not stoned by hordes of screaming men if they step out of line. They are not forced to marry Christ. nor are they forced to stand silently by as their children who rebel, are subjected to honour killings by male relatives.

      So please, stop with the nun analogy already. It doesn't hold water.

      Let's stop making this stupid analogy. A nun's habit is not a burqua. about.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
  19. Gwain52

    I'm sorry, but I cannot help but feel a strong sense of unease and distrust when I see someone dressed in garments that make it so easy to hide weapons or explosives. Those on the far left who support Muslim women who claim the right to wear the niqab will see things differently when one of them blows herself up in a crowded public place somewhere in urban America. Don't forget, it has already happened in Iraq, Israel and Russia. It is only a matter of time before a female version of the Times Square bomber tries it here. Personally, if I were out and about in public and saw someone dressed in this fashion, I would leave the area immediately. We should be very careful about giving formal recognition of a right to cover oneself completely in form-concealing garments in public places.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
    • me

      Lots of people carry briefcases or backpacks that could easily have bombs in them. The argument that burkhas are dangerous because women could blow themselves up is pretty ridiculous.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm |
  20. hillbilleter

    If I cannot see a person's expression when they speak to me, how can I know if they are sincere? How do you know a person's true feelings and intent if they cannot show you? It's like the Botox forehead-slippage thing – their brows are so low that they look as if they disapprove of whoever they're pointed at? How do you see people with no expression?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:01 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.