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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. Mohammed Khan

    It is about men and their rules for women.. NOT about G-d. I love these women for the faithfulness but deem them to be brainwashed by a culture of male dominence. Very sad all around.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
  2. hi!

    this is america its a free country
    im arab im a musilim and i was born here
    Islam is of peace in the Quran (dont say u know it if u dont)
    it says tht we are only aloud to have wars for jihad and 9/11 was deffinantley not jihad because it also says not to kill the innocent and not to harm children or women.
    why dont u guys understand tht
    sharia law is islamic law and it has nothing to do with taking over the world or any of tht it just helps muslims understand their religion well.
    i wear the hijab it is by choice. in some countries it is by force. THIS IS WRONG. Saudi is a good country but they can be extreme and they do not reperesent islam. Islam is a great religion and its teachings apply to everyday like even to our life in the modern days hopefully ppl can understand this.
    this is something id like to stress; only because a group of muslims were terriosts doesnt mean we all are. we r mainly peaceful ppl dont judge a good chunk of the world based on actions of a few. these terriosts were uneducated ppl, thts why they did wat they did. if they had understood islam better they would have known tht what they did does not apply to islamic law.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
    • seiscat

      If it is so wonderful to wear why don't your men wear it as well? I think you've been brainwashed into accepting a sexist custom.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • NotSold

      Hi – I'm wondering if you can answer a question for skeptics then. Is Jihad not a part of Islam? If not, where does every Muslim learn about this practice to the point where a non Muslim like myself is even aware of its existence and practice? And the whole multiple virgins you receive as a prize for committing Jihad? Where is that written? Is that not in the Quran?

      August 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      Please, understand your own culture/religion. Covering your body and face is not just a requirement for women in Saudi Arabia but in most of the Islamic world. Why do Muslim women marginalize other Muslim women?

      August 23, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  3. Fatima

    More power to them. If they chooose to cover their face and body, that is their decision. Modesty is a virtue and apparantly these days it's not valued. I'd rather be a strong, beautiful woman who is covered than a woman who thinks revealing her body is the only way to make a place in today's world. These muslim women are valued for their intellect and voice more than most other women.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
    • Moli

      Fatima, I value my body, mind and spirit! I know that my self worth would be lower if I pranced around half naked. My parents brought me up to respect myself and that the way you portray yourself to the world is the world's first impression of me. Respecting myself means that I dress appropriately ie. skirts are never above the knee.....cleavage is not to be displayed. Explain how covering my face is considered modest...please. Part of human communication is reading facial expressions and mannerisms. My younger brother is 85% deaf, but you would never know......lip reading skills are to die for.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      Sorry Fatima but in our culture, these young women are usually pitied. Thinking people know their choice of dress only serves to represent mass global oppression of women.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
  4. Henry

    You choose to wear a bikini and she chooses to cover herself. End of discussion.

    And it is the idea that women are objects of beauty and, especially in society are they viewed as pieces of meat (western, eastern, past and present), so you're to reply by either having self-respect or not.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
    • seiscat

      These items have been signs of repression for centuries, something I don't want my daughter to see and consider as acceptable. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. These things should have been left behind in the Middle East with the stonings and lack of schooling.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  5. OriginalMinnesotan

    No Islamic man has to wear a burka to be closer to God. Just another male dominated reglion and these are religious fanatics and cults. Religious relics or symbols whether burkas, bones, beards, crosses, or veils, are just that, and these women sadly can not have any adult personal expressions in life.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  6. Sophie

    The objectification of women causes too much exposure in the West, too much cover in the middle east. It is all still a reaction, a response to men, rather than women acting out of the cores of their own nature. We should be free to dress however we choose and still be respected as people and not objects. In both cultures, men seem incapable of seeing women as whole people and not just bodies.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
  7. mabel floyd

    i think that it is the women having to wear those sheets that cause the disgust with islam. also when you see the impotent old men in saudi carrying whips and trying to catch a women who has let a wisp of hair show–smiling–;aiughing–looking directly at man–going out with out the escort of a male member of the family–so called "honor " killings–the children belonging to the father–oh i could go on–these things disgust people in the free world. some western women say they choose to look kooky to keep men from desiring them. luckily western men are able to be responsible for their own thoughts and behaviors. muslim men must be too immature to attempt responsible behavior. pity the women and see to it this crap is not allowed in this country. if you want to act like this–go home to saudi–

    August 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • Henry

      Like I was saying, that is the culture of those countries to blame. Islam forbids you from treating your wife as any less than your equal. They don't have a say in the which way their wives or daughters cover themselves. They are not supposed to. The rule and culture of those countries have warped the teachings of Islam.

      And anyway, who would want to live there when they've been born and raised here, lived here all their lives as did their parents before them? Why would they even care for another country?

      August 23, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
  8. Layla

    I don't think God cares what people wear. I don't think any particular form of dress is "pleasing" to him. If it makes someone happy to wear head coverings/face coverings that is fine. But I will say that I think that covering the face in particular would very much hinder connecting with other people. When another person is trying to talk to someone whose face is covered they cannot see any facial expressions be it a smile, a frown, an understanding look, a look of amusement, etc.–all of which play such an important role in human communication. I think it is fine if someone chooses to cover face/hair. But it seems delusional to me for a person to think that God is taking note of what clothes a person wears or how many times they go to church, etc.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • cirus101

      God's law for All women are to veil. not just muslim women. u have lots to learn. u can continue with ur way of life, one day u will pray the price, the christian world is already paying the price as we speak...they have the highest #'s in the following areas:rape.sodomy,murder,child pedophilia,alcoholism,drug abuse,suicide,divorce,children out of wedlock,fornication,adultery..name it and the christian leads the way...simmer in ur soup with ur man made laws..fear the fire whose fuel is of men and stones,its a place set for the disbelievers in the Oneness of GOD....better u than me

      August 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  9. Jim Bob

    Wearing a mask is for bandits.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  10. kris

    it's time to rewrite the Quaran, an updated version for the 21st century. liberate these poor women from the conservative family indoctrination of wearing their hajibs,najibs. these poor women are killed for not adhering to the conservative dress imposed upon them which is only the tip of the iceberg. will it ever happen? NO! females are subjected to relinquish all identity the moment they are delivered. it is their destiny to wait hand and foot to all males on the planet. their everyday existence is deplorable. these women are incapable of realizing their subjugation. i pity each of them as they do not understand their True choice .

    August 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  11. Shaun

    Some of the responses to this article are absolutely disgusting. WoW I knew my country (U.S.A) had it bad but this is ridiculous. When when folks get off that "If you're not doing what I think is right then it's wrong"? Ladies continue to wear what you want to wear and hold your heads high in the face of adversity. Brown is the new black(people). Well actually black is still black but that's an entirely different conversation. If you feel that youre attire puts you closer to god then be about that and may God continue to bless you. Most of the responses were probablywritten by athiests anyway (and that's not a negative they have right's too.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
    • Jim Bob

      Modesty? On the contrary, it creates a spectacle.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
  12. Moli

    I understand completely the idea that by being covered you are showing modestly. I have family members that are of the Muslim faith and the females simply cover themselves with loose fitting clothing, when they go to the mosque the wear sheer veils. Why is this not acceptable? Why are the men(In Muslim countries) not required to cover modestly as well? The pants suits they wear could easily be modified for females. Personally, they ONLY reason I have disdain for the hijab, burqua is simply the lack of an explanation of why a woman must be covered from head to toe and a man does not.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  13. Whiteman

    Every time I see one of those 'women' it makes me want to call the police. This is a security violation! They should make it illegal.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  14. LAURA J

    HIJAB ok, NIQAB – no place in our culture or society – EVER.
    Dont like it? Leave. My forefathers fought too hard for freedom to have people like this toss it away – more importantly my maternal ancestors fought against this kind of ridiculous oppression and second class status and won.

    That these women cannot see thier oppression is just sad, but no reason to inflict it on the rest of us.
    THIS IS A WOMENS RIGHTS ISSUE IF EVER THERE WAS ONE!! Whats next? Female circumcision becasue its what you want?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  15. Laura

    We need to respect the choices of all people. To wear the hajib or not to should never be a matter of law or rules.
    There are circumstances in daily life though that a person must reveal their appearance, and common sense dictates those reasons very well. At such times that you are asked to reveal yourself, it has naught to do with God, nor does it diminish you as a person. When identity is needed, you are not being treated or judged as an object. We have grace when we live our lives to make others feel comfortable, so while we all deserve to have a choice, we should also strive to live a life of grace.The customs of humanity must be examined for their intention and traced back to their causes.For some women wearing a hajib is forced upon them and we need to examine this closely. The rights of the individual in the western world supercedes the right of the tribe. I have seen girls in Canada butchered by their tribe, because they did not chose to follow the rules of their tribe. They had no rights as individuals in their families nor in their tribe.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  16. Miria

    @Lenny.

    I disagree.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  17. Susan

    The only problem I have with people wearing niqab or burqua is that it covers the face to the point where it interferes with communication and identification. If these ladies feel that wearing hijab and niqab is there choice and makes them feel better, and they are not hurting anyone, then leave them be.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  18. me

    If a woman wears a bikini to a clothing-optional beach, is she also being oppressed by choosing to cover herself?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
    • Henry

      Good point.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  19. Rinsewind

    I completely understand the hijab and have no problem with it at all. My muslim women friends echo these same sentiments about the importance this has for them in their personal faith journey, to become closer to God/Allah through obedience to Him. The hijab should absolutely be allowed as part of the fundamental religious freedom allowed all residents of the United State. I also feel the niqab should be allowed, except for passport and driver's license photos, and should be removed when necessary for security concerns– I have no problem with it being removed in front of only female law enforcement officers whenever at all practical. I will admit, however, to being somewhat disconcerted by the niqab, if only because reading people's faces is one way I have learned to understand people and social situations. Still, women should have a legal right to wear the niqab under most circumstances.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  20. Adam

    If Nadia wishes to expresses her identity so much, why did she refuse to give her last name for the article?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:17 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.