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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. Karimah

    Whatever happened to freedom of choice? Freedom to choose religion, job, husband/wife, restaurants, modes of transportation. Just leave people be and mind your own business. It is a requirement to cover yourself in islam (points of view and schools of taught vary on the face covering) I cover and I am happy every single day that I cover. Guess what my husband is not a muslim either so for those who think men ask us to do this I CHOSE this for MYSELF. I wore the naked stuff at one point in my life but my perspectives have changed. GET OVER IT. GET ON WITH YOUR LIVES and find something else to do with your time than wonder why we choose to be like this. We look not for our reward on this earth but in the hereafter where are you looking for yours?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  2. mk

    It is sad to hear so many people discriminate, especially in a country such as the United States. A country that discriminated against Native American's, Jew's, Blacks, etc, it was just a matter of time till this day came. It's a joke to hear all these people talk about how Muslim women are not educated, and they are oppressed... despite reading an article having comments from Muslim women saying the complete opposite. I do have a suggestion to those people who are commenting blindly about this topic, and are claiming that Muslim women are uneducated, why don't you educate yourselves about the religion and the women in the religion before making assumptions. I invite you all to visit a mosque, and see what goes on. Whether you are male or female, go visit one of the Muslim Community Centers, instead of speaking blindly. Even better, attend one of the gatherings at the mosque when they have a speaker. You will see that Muslims are peaceful, caring, loving people. We have families, and have children who go to school(both male and female), have fathers and in some cases mothers that are both working to support their famlies. These families are more American than some of the people who are telling Muslims to leave the country. Last I checked, the country gave the freedom of religion. If women want to wear hijab, or naqab, they have the right to. As long as they are abiding by the rules/law of the country, there is no reason for people to speak against them.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  3. Robert

    Only in the US can you gain an education that is more than reading the Koran (if indeed you think you will be appreciated for you intellect and not your physical appearance). In Islamic countries, women cannot gain an education like you are currently enjoying here in the US. What these ladies are doing is moving us closer to the bleek future of the world... the rights that you enjoy now by promoting this silly practice will help eliminate the rights of our future US citizens... Congratulations. Your ignorance and narrrow mindness is vry obvious. I also agree with others that there are psychological issues all over here... Taking refuge in a cowardly fashion in Islam.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
  4. JZ

    This is not true, this explanation is a way to justify what they are doing using existential terms . the reason they wear it (And this is coming from an ex muslim) is the fear of an eternity of hell as they are being judged by radical msulims as opposing the will of their illusional god. that is the only reason, everything else is BS. Sorry.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
  5. Abuzayd

    the truth smashes falsehood, ppl think the muslim women as 'oppressed' but they come out and proclaim that it is of their own God given choice.

    perfectly ok for women to walk around essentially naked but if a group CHOOSES

    August 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
  6. Karen

    If it's all about modesty and doing something to please your god, why don't the men do it? They say it's not part of the Koran, so it was a man-made law. If the men of their culture are so proud of the how the women are covered head to toe, why don't the men follow suit and do so as well?

    And the some of the reasons these women are mentioning – hiding their weight and putting less of an emphasis on appearances – only speaks to me of how insecure they are about the way they look. They're covering up because they're ashamed of the way they look.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
  7. kanon

    Glass crashing down on too many people here. Ignorance is unfortunately willful by them.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  8. Damon

    Most probably look down upon this because it comes off as hiding your identity. Why are you hiding your identity? With the mark the Muslims have in this world as a religeon that is happier killing innocent people in the name of their lord and hiding behind cloth and false identities, no wonder people feel uneasy when they see this in the US. One could argue that Christianity was spread through violence, but they knew no better ...it's 2010 and Muslims still use violence to enforce their beliefs. We dont want it here! Call me blind, but Im not deaf. I dont hear of mass killings and bombings in the name of Jesus Christ.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  9. herry

    this muslim people marry to their sisters and try to prove them morally higher.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  10. Foreal

    I love the hood rat converts that go all stone age with religion, except still keep squeezing out those kids. I am pretty sure there is more than just clothing. How about self sufficiency.
    PS. In the old school, women on a swing would be shot. So best get to steppin'

    August 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  11. Daniel

    Make no mistake, they cover themselves because Islam demands it. You can try to pander to these people all you want CNN but you helping no one. Islam is evil, the practice of it is evil and these women cover themselves because Saria law demands it. Ever seen the news clips of women in full dress getting beaten by the Morality police in afganistan because they had paint on their finger nails?!?! HMMMM? All you sheep actually trying to start a dialogue in here about this make me laugh, You are blind, deceived sheep trying to feel better about yourselves by accepting the lies and propaganda of others. You are fools. They can come up with all these touchy, feel good excuses that they want but the fact is Ialm oppresses and enslaves women. PERIOD. Go pander your lies to someone else, I aint buying it and neither are many out spoken Muslim women in this country who know this and have lived it. I went to college with a lady from Pakistan and she in a class oral report discussed Sharia law and Islamic moraility, i wish it would have been broadcast on National TV cause it was awesome. She lived it and she said that it was a forced belief system, forced by brutality and physical misconduct that if they didnt cover themsleves and were raped by some man, that it would be deemed THIER FAULT for not adhereing to the law. CNN you are a bunch of liars and propagantists. You can fool the sheep, not the shepards.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  12. Mike

    I didn't read all the posts so maybe someone already said this. Hiding your identifiable features in almost all cases will cast suspicions upon yourself. All the bad guys where some kind of mask to cover their identity. Its reasonable, I think, for people in this country to be wary of anyone who completeley conceals their identity. We, as a nation, simply are not used to seeing this and really don't understand it. Not taking anything away from the Muslim women, you have the right to dress as you wish in this United States of America. You should not be surprised though, when you are shunned or looked upon as radical.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  13. American Male

    Sorry.

    Its a Mask. I dont trust you. I will not talk to you. if you have what seems to be a attractive body, i will still wonder what you look like with clothes off. Im surprised that it wasnt mandatory. I thought it was but now that I know its a choice I am very upset.

    I cannot identify you. i will not recognize you from anyone else. a mask is used to cover your identity and confuse people. I do not like to be treated as a fool. a animal who cannot control its desires. its youre choice to openly treat me a man with such disrespect in public. I have always respected everyones religous faith and customs. just learning right now that it has been a choice and the true meaning of why it is worn is angering. In fact, i just feel sad for the women who play these games.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  14. jb

    That is stupid logic. It makes no sense that in order for people to judge your intellect you must be covered. Men don't get covered, and they're judged by their intellect every day. My grandma wore pants and light tops, and she was never seen as a "sex object." The truth is they're stretching for excuses, when the simple explanation is that they're thumbing their nose at American or western culture, symbolizing the hurt we've suffered at the hands of the Islamic extremists, rubbing in our faces their hate for our freedoms, their jealousy of our power and success.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  15. marcus

    Dear Niqab and Hijab wearers,
    I don't know you and you don't know me. I do not care if you are a man or a woman. I do not care if you are beautiful or ugly. I do not care if you are muslim or Christian. However, we are people living in a western community and society. If i were to meet you I would simply avoid you because frankly you give me the heebie jeebies and you look like you're about to mug me at a moment's notice. I would not get to appreciate your inner beauty and intelligence because you are not approachable when I cannot even see your face. That is the world I live in, if you can respect that. I too am an immigrant. But I was taught that when in Rome, do as the Romans. Religion is a personal matter. We live in a country where religous tolerance is the norm. There is no need to wear your religion on your sleeve and less so on your face. Don't take that tolerance for granted. Peace.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  16. George Jetson

    They say they cover themselves in "adherence to their faith’s promotion of modesty and humility." I'm wondering why this adherence is ONLY imposed upon the women and not the men? Why aren't the men required to be modest and humble? The answer seems to be because it's a way to subjugate the women, and/or a preemptive way to prevent women from being molested by men.

    I don't see how covering yourself completely brings you closer to God. Living a righteous and honorable life seems a better way to do that and doesn't require clothing.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
  17. Craig Shearer

    Why aren't their men also adhering to modesty and humility? I hate nothing more than seeing a woman dressed like this on a 90 degree day and then seeing her husband walking behind her in a Polo shirt and Khakis. What a man. If you women continue to allow yourselves to be treated and dominated by your men this way, I PROMISE to never treat you the same as anyone else and I will NEVER be able to see your "intelligence".

    August 23, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
  18. AJ

    NOT TO FORGET HIJAB PROTECTS FROM UV RADIATION LOL. THERE IS NO HARM IN HIJAB, THERES JUST BENEFITS AND ADVANTAGES.. GO FIGURE

    August 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  19. EdnaTN

    Perhaps these women should think of the abused women in other countries who are stoned and tortured for not wearing these clothes. It is easy to be enlightened on a mountain top. Do they also volunteer to be circumcised?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  20. fromthecheapseats

    Religion is such a pain in the ass!!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:39 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.