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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. Zana

    Oh, please! Women need 'protection' from ordinary men and that is why they cover themselves! And that just happen to increase after 9/11! Right!
    So – if men are so unable to focus on what is ‘right’ here, then women should rule the world!
    They are making a point and they taking over – that is what this is about!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
    • Len

      You sound like Hitler.

      "And then they came for the Jews but I did not speak up because I was not a Jew."

      August 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  2. Roza

    Though I am personally not Muslim, I lived in Iran for the first 13 years of my life. From my understanding of Islam and the concept of Hejab, women are required to wear headscarf to drive away sexual attention. But, I find ironic that Muslim woman wear head scarf in the west. Because they get so much more attention from people around them when they wear that hejab thing. Doesn't all that attention contradict the whole concept of Hejab. Everything about west goes against what Muslims believe is good or halal...I don't understand why devoted Muslims choose to live in West! They would be much happie in their home countries. Just thought. I am highly irritate it by all of this Islam talk.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
  3. mjt

    I suggest that every one of you take the time and read the Qu'ran. It will enlighten you to realize this is not a religion, it is a way of life that believes in Sharia law, converting the world to their religion and people that do not believe should die.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • shehzad

      That is certainly not true. You have taken some text out of context, and obviously didn't read the whole Quran. Islam respect other religions, and encourage Muslims to live side-by-side. Islam also encourage Muslims to have dialog with non-Muslims, who do not understand like you.

      August 24, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  4. Diane Smith

    I fear Muslims and their enigmatic ways more than Southern Baptists. Both groups intend to take over the world.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • elizabeth

      Why are you so afraid? Only guilt can make you fearful of what you don't understand. Do you really fear Muslims and Baptists because of personal experience or you just want to be part of a hate group because it seems like this is what is popular. Could it be that you are a closet bigot?

      August 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
    • John

      @ Elizabeth...I fear there irrational beliefs and what happens when people with those irrational beliefs get power. Any rational human would.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  5. elizabeth

    Muslims now know and feel what Blacks, Jews and now Hispanics have been feeling for decades. When you have people who can't be happy with peace and don't understand nor care to get to know another culture, they begin to take that fear and turn it into hate. The dress of Muslim women is no different than what nuns where to show their devotion and relationship with God. Black women for years were not allowed to wear braids. They were considered ugly. However, when Bo Derek wore them in "10" they became popular.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • Olivia

      High-five.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
    • seiscat

      No, these garments are not the same as Nun's habits. These garments are symbols of sexist customs, not piety in any real sense. The piety was tacked on as an excuse long ago and these poor fools don't realize that they support their own oppression.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      You are drawing from your own experiences of racism but you're making the wrong analogy. There is absolutely no connection between a nun's habit, and a burqa or niqab. The latter two represent total lack of freedom (for millions of women who cannot flee to democratic countries) and a lifetime of abuse and subservience to men. Nuns are lower on the totem pole than priests but they aren't beaten and are free to leave the convent at any time.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  6. russ

    I think Nadia and Aliya should experience living in a REAL Islamic society where Sharia law MAKES them wear a niqab or burkha. Where women are property of their fathers and brothers first, then their husbands after they are married. Where they can't drive. Where they can't leave the house without their father or brother or husband. Where they can't go to school AT ALL.

    Yes Nadia and Aliya ... your view and justification of/for wearing them because you WANT to is utter nonsense. In your own words, they aren't required by Islam. Why are they "required" then? BECAUSE it is MANS oppression of WOMEN in radical twisted fanatical countries.

    Move to Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia for a few years ... then get back to us with your crap.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • Diane Smith

      You are absolutely right. Just read "Not Without My Daughter" by Betty Mamoody. She will tell you how it is living over there. Frightening!!

      August 23, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
    • UT Longhorn

      there is over 1.75B muslim and they do not all live in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. it is like saying all christain live the same way life is in the vatican.BTW... life is Afghanistan and Saudia are more of Tribe life style rather than islam.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      Even better, read Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Become enlightened.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
    • almujahida

      Ridiculing a Woman in Niqab

      The Noble Qur'an – At-Taubah 9:64-67

      The hypocrites fear lest a Sûrah (chapter of the Qur'ân) should be revealed about them, showing them what is in their hearts. Say: "(Go ahead and) mock! But certainly Allâh will bring to light all that you fear."

      If you ask them (about this), they declare: "We were only talking idly and joking." Say: "Was it at Allâh (swt), and His Ayât (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) and His Messenger that you were mocking?"

      Make no excuse; you have disbelieved after you had believed. If We pardon some of you, We will punish others amongst you because they were Mujrimûn (disbelievers, polytheists, sinners, criminals, etc.).

      The hypocrites, men and women, are from one another, they enjoin (on the people) Al-Munkar (i.e. disbelief and polytheism of all kinds and all that Islâm has forbidden), and forbid (people) from Al-Ma'rûf (i.e. Islâmic Monotheism and all that Islâm orders one to do), and they close their hands [from giving (spending in Allâh's Cause) alms, etc.]. They have forgotten Allâh, so He has forgotten them. Verily, the hypocrites are the Fâsiqûn (rebellious, disobedient to Allâh).

      August 23, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
  7. Elitesack

    co-owner of fox news was caught donating 300 thousand dollars minimum, to the ground zero mosque, while his very own station uses the mosque to paint islam as radical. What will glenn beck say about this, i wonder?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
  8. Omar

    This is an excellent debate and it believe me when I say that it controvercial even in Muslim circles. As most people know the Quran was written a long time ago in a very different world, and it has remained unchanged. If you consider the treatment of women at that time anywhere in the world you will realize that it is quite clear that it gave a huge boost to womens rights. It is also evident that women need to be modest in how they dress to avoid being victimized and that is the purpose of the hijab etc. God knows the nature of man and as a man I am more likely to be tempted by a woman wearing next to nothing. Sorry ladies but no warm blooded man can avoid staring at your booty poppin out out all over the place. Im not saying i dont love it, just saying its not what a woman should be about.
    Also as a brother i personally know that the pressure comes more from BOTH parents. In my case it was always my mother asking my sisters to cover which they never did. Still they understand why it is important to dress modestly. Same situation with my wife and her mom. I feel uncomfortable when she goes ninja but i cannot ever ask her to betray her beliefs, that is none of my business.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • seiscat

      Women shouldn't have to do anything to keep from being victumized by men. If men can't restrain themselves, they belong in jail. Everyone is responsible for their own actions, period.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
    • a muslim girl

      instead of asking us beautiful girls to cover for your " sleazy nature"
      and IF thats YOUR REASONING ... your lack of self control. THEN.... You cover first ...
      if its all abt temptations ...then MEN wear BURKA FIRST, before asking or even favoring us to wear.
      THEN you wear burka omar, OR u must be very ugly .... fugly ...if u think no girl would enjoy looking at you.
      then there should be exception for ugly MEN for not covering their faces and bodies, (eventho it would be a bigger totture for us. 🙂

      August 25, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
  9. reddog

    In my belief we are all born naked and covering up or hiding our bodies is a sign that we are ashamed of our nakedness. Why is that so? God created us all and in his eyes we are all beautiful and should not hide our true selves behind garments that deny our physical forms from each other. (Except when it's winter!)

    August 23, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
  10. Ann

    These articles of clothing do represent the subservience of women. Many Muslim women are beaten for not covering up and are forbidden to travel without a male relative. You are lucky to live in the U.S. where this abuse is not allowed. If your male Muslim clerics were allowed to take over here then it would not be a choice for you – it would be the law.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
    • JJ

      It's now happening in the US. We are screwed.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
  11. Chris

    I do not put much stock in the argument that "hey, if it's their choice it's fine." It isn't OK for precisely the message that it sends to other women/girls; mainly, that there is something fundamentally immodest about a woman's appearance. According to the perverted rationale of the two individuals featured in the article, it is only by looking less like women (by covering up that which identifies them as such) that they are empowered. And if you think the practice is not inherently sexist, even misogynistic, then may I sell you some blue sky?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  12. Rah

    I guess men are completely absolved of everything. But it's not sexist or oppressive, oh no, of course not. Just like when some women supported efforts that kept them from voting or let their husbands control every aspect of their lives. Religion is such bull. This is just another way of blaming women for abuse. Got a black eye? Oh, well, she showed too much nose.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  13. Mark

    You are an idiot. Why don't you go to a country where they have to wear this crap.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  14. JDCJD

    Who cares. It's all made up anyway. Christian, Muslim, Jew... it is just a big ploy by those in power (men) to keep in power. L. Ron had the right idea, start your own religion and pocket the loot. All hail xenu!! Now excuse me I have to wash my magical underwear that god likes.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  15. Kina

    These women are explaining their point of view. Whether you like their explanation or not will have no bearing on them ceasing to wear it. Also those who are talking about the "inequality of men to women" must have never watched television or been to a beach because last time I checked, when I watch a movie with a nude scene, nine times out of ten, the women is always nude. What is up with that double standard?! I want to see naked men. How come most women have to dress super sexy to get into a super hot nightclub and men get in wearing all of their clothes? UNFAIR! Why are there waaay more women strip clubs than there are men strip clubs? And how come all nude men strip clubs are rare??? WTF is up with that? UNFAIR!
    I have plenty of friends that choose to the niqab whether people like it or not. And they will continue to wear it as long as they are free to do so in the USA. So complain all you want people! This ain't France.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  16. majo5

    I think it's men who don't want to be laughed at by other men for marying ugly women.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
  17. Abu Jabir

    Nadia, it great that you are sincere about something in this day and age even though you have no clue what Islam is. Do you really understand Islam, if you do then explain to me how could a prophet send by God ,disobey his God or Allah’s commandment (thou shall not kill). The prophet Muhammad ordered the killing of all those who do not believe in him. I do not know if you are familiar with what Jesus Christ Said when the crowed gathered to stone the adulterous women, He said he amongst you with no sin shall cast the first stone. These are words from a true Prophet of God Allah. Jesus said my kingdom is not on earth but in heaven. The prophet Muhammad kingdom was on earth and was accomplished by the suffering and killing of other humans in the name of God (Allah). How could a Prophet of God (Allah) amass so many women as wives and harem if he did believe that there is heaven? How a prophet of God (Allah) could allow himself at the age of 56 to marry 7 years old child and had intercourse with her at the age of 8 Years. At this day and age he would be considered a child molester (prophet of God is a child Molester). I think you are just misled and need to read and understand the religion that you are practicing. Did you know that the Taliban are the true Muslims and we have seen what they have done throughout the world? Go to Light-of-life.com and you will understand the truth about Islam. May God (Allah) show you the way to the truth.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
    • Olivia

      Lol, how about he had no sexual relations with anyone save for his first wife, Khadeeja. And he did not wed that 9-year-old until she was older (there is an entire story and explanation about this.)

      Mohammad never said heaven was on earth or any of that b.s.

      The stoning part you are right on. That's the point. There is a said punishment, so harsh, if you are HUMAN, you would not be able to cast a stone. Sadly, however, those countries that SAY they are Islamic nations take everything to the extreme without proper interpretation.

      Did you not know that Muslims also believe in Jesus?

      August 23, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
    • SR

      Well said.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  18. openminded?

    Hello....does freedom of religion ring a bell to anyone? Freedom to practice our own religion in the way we choose? Is anyone else getting hurt by a woman wearing clothing of her own choosing? Come on people.....are you really that closed-minded??

    August 23, 2010 at 4:26 pm |
    • seiscat

      This clothing is symbolic of sexist customs from the middle east and has far more meaning than any typical choice of clothing. To many American women, it's like "black face" is to many blacks – a reminder of bad things that are best left behind.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  19. Cohen the Barbarian

    I don't trust people whose faces I can't see.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:26 pm |
  20. SR

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DINkAk-NzHU&w=640&h=360]

    August 23, 2010 at 4:26 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.