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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. magic

    She can wear what she wants. And I can treat her the way I want. Ignore her.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  2. Carmen

    This story may be true for American women who are Muslims. Here you are free to wear practically anything you want to wear. I don't think women in countries that are dominated by Islamic law can say they have the same freedom of choice

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

      What's your point? No one is talking about those other countries. Neither are from a different country.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
    • Carmen

      I think i made my point Drake. If you are too stupid to understand it then that isn't my problem

      August 23, 2010 at 8:09 pm |
  3. reddog

    Nice eyes.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
  4. Jerry - Florida

    Really? Who cares? If these women want and enjoy being abused, that is fine. Just don't expect other women, particularly American women, to follow suit. And most of all, don't try and impose your moslem or idiotic customs on the rest of us.

    In America, it is illegal to wear anything that hides your face/features. If you are living in America, you MUST respect our laws and customs. Otherwise, simply return to where ever you came from.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • Len

      Obviously you didn't read the article or watch the video because she's from here. And no one abuses her. Get your facts straight.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  5. Arnie Benson

    They cover their faces as they are terrorists and ugly

    August 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • a

      I totally agree with you..sooo true

      August 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  6. Olivia

    @seiscat

    Yet again, covering your face is NOT REQUIRED. Stop associating it with the laws of Islam and trying to demonize the religion more than it has already been.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
  7. a

    All Muslims will go to hell one day...they are BAD ppl...

    August 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • Drake

      They'll see you there.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
  8. herry

    muslims ... this is 2010...
    come back from 10,000 B.C.
    Get the new version of that book.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  9. AJ

    AHAAN, AHAAN,

    O YA..

    WOW

    FANTASTIC.. ...

    I CAN'T WAIT TO GET MYSELF A HIJAB TOO,

    I REGRET NOT KNOWING ALL THIS !!!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  10. unnamed

    The reason i find anything more than a hijab weird is that you cant see the expression on the girl/ woman's face so its hard to read emotions. It feels like religion always pulls you back when everything is propelling you forward

    August 23, 2010 at 4:35 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 twised 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 that's not sexist/oppressive?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
  12. Warner Losh

    Imagine if a group of people in the US wanted all women to always wear bikinis in public. Or go topless. How outraged would women from the country be?

    Now you are in the right frame of mind to understand the resistance of Muslim women to removing the hijab. It is immodest for American women to go topless, most will agree. Most would never think about doing it. Going out in public without the hijab for a Muslim woman is similar. Efforts to remove the hijab by force will have a similar effect to mandatory topless for women beaches in the US: some may go, most would be horrified.

    Warner

    August 23, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
  13. herry

    muslims.... this is 2010....
    comeback from 10,000 B.C
    u need updated version of the stupid book.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
    • Olivia

      christianity should be updated too. or rebooted. why can't women be ordained? why are they not equals in the church?

      August 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  14. Arnie Benson

    They cover their faces because they are terrorists an ugly

    August 23, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
  15. Keith

    If these women would like to wear their coverings, then just let them! Why is it such a big deal that they are wearing them? If they prefer that, then that is their choice and there is nothing wrong with that. You have your own choice too! My gosh people – stop judging others – no matter who they are.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
  16. sockboy

    ............and I can't wear a halloween mask because it hides my face and i run the risk of getting arrested...............don't get me started on this

    August 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  17. Avais

    Kate has the Room, kate you have some good points and very good critical thinking abilities, you definitely changed my mind if not anyone else's about hijab, i am absolutely for hijab,
    btw for most of you : MEN'S HIJAB IS TO KEEP A BEARED. GOT IT

    August 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  18. D

    Well... they are free to do whatever they want. In reality I have a couple of female friends that are muslim and one wears the hijab (the one just until face and hands). And everything's ok. However, if they want me to see them as "women"... I'm sorry. I'm not that religious but a muslim woman is for me no woman. It's a human being not in my field of interest. So much awkward and pointless rules and ... baggage. No! Made that mistake once, never going to again! It's even worse than radical christians or evangelists >_<

    August 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  19. Glenn

    My grandmother, who was born in Iowa in the 1880s and lived to be 94, wore a dress every day of her life. Long skirt. Hard shoes. She often wore hats to church services. She attended church activities two or three times a week. She used to tell stories of growing up on a farm, and the intense excitement of preparing for Fourth of July picnics, in which she and her sisters wore white dresses and bonnets. She was as good a Christian as I've ever known. She lived her religion. And if a young woman today wore the clothes my grandmother once wore, that person might be described (perhaps by some who have commented here) as weird or oppressed or as an attention seeker. It's all relative,folks. Let people practice their faith. Let them be sincere. Let them wear clothes that seem to us to be out of date or irrelevant. This is not ours to decide. It's theirs. This is an American idea.

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

      Exactly.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  20. Elitesack

    cnn wont let me post my comment about fox news co-owner getting caught donating 300,000 to the ground zero mosque while his station tries to paint islam as radical.

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

      if'n u use spac es n miss pell sum stuff it will not be identifyable by the electronic sivv that separates possible things for thim 2 covr up by their narrow minded computer

      August 23, 2010 at 7:33 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.