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.


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. rivirivi

    Islam is imploding because of its lack of common sense. Information is so readily available now, anyone with some forehead would be cognitive that any type of power over other humans leads to abuse of that power. Islam is imploding and the radicals know it. One of the main hateful thought is that American women are way too free to do as they please. Islam is imploding and disappear within the next 10 years. American women will never accept to be subjected to wearing the "non-Entity dress" for nobody. Too bad too sad but for being too ambitious and greedy the end of Islam is near.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  2. Mike

    Don't we have better things to do than harrass women who wear scarves? Like take care of our defecit so we're not eternally in debt to China.

    But while we're at it, we may as well start inspecting the obese because they might be hiding explosives under their love handles. Motorized scooters? More like motorized bombs if you ask me. They are suspicious and un American because I say so!!!!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  3. The Eternal Satyr

    As with all mental illnesses, religion goes to any extreme to justify its own existance and its own ways and means.

    Delusion is the norm among the human animal, especially with the religionist.

    In the final analysis, none of this really matters and the point is moot.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  4. John

    The whole idea of wearing this is modesty. Well I say modesty is a man made concept which assumes the naked body is vulgar. I disagree. It's a philosophical flaw.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
    • rivirivi

      Regarding the Non-Entity dress, it is not that their bodies are considered vulgar, it is to stop the women for making men commit sin and the women have been brainwashed for centuries, killed and beaten into believing this. As if any human has the responsibility for other human's thoughts. The Non-Entity dress is a symbol of the worst abuse women have been enduring for centuries and centuries. Islam will implode for holding on to their rigid selfish man-made rules and women put-down syndrome.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
  5. Marie

    The coverings are a lot like what western women wear and do to themselves (miniskirts, tight outfits, etc.). To me, they both belittle women, and encourage the assumption that men in general are uncontrollable pigs, which is a hurtful belief for all, and actually encourages the acceptance of such.

    Sorry: there's no comparison at all to Catholic nuns, who have never covered their Face (their individual ident!ties) from the public.

    I'm a woman and I can't imagine becoming friends with someone whose face I can't see. It is impossible for me to read their expression. I've smiled at them in the grocery store, but I can't tell if they're smiling back, and so I just feel stupid (which is my own issue, but thanks anyway), so now I don't smile at them (and I like smiling and saying hi to people, so what a bummer). **In fact, they are not Able to smile back at me.** I'm not close enough to read their eyes.

    Imagine if men were also allowed to cover their faces. How scary, much less unhappy, would that be? Not being able to see all these people around you....

    I HOPE in the future I'm not forced to learn to read body language through yards of fabric and facial expressions through small eye-holes!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  6. Christine

    They should all be deported back to their countries.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
    • Abuzayd

      very simplistic indeed, you failed to grasp that Nadia is an african-american, she has as much if not more right to this country as you do. more than a third of the muslims in this country are african-american and GROWING.

      what will be your plan B? lynching?

      August 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm |
    • JustMe

      That is too funny! They are Americans. Are you going to put them on a ship and just circle the harbor, then drop them off again?

      August 23, 2010 at 5:12 pm |
    • sahar

      thats alright go head, and if they deport all the christians and jews back then there STILL is a problem those females grew up covering themselves. and most likely they wont want to jump in bikinis then Where will you deport them?

      August 23, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  7. jeff

    I can understand some women not wanting to be mentally undressed by unknown men. To somehow tie the hijab/niqab to an increased probability of an eternal afterlife in heaven is patently absurd.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  8. JP

    The sad fact is that muslim women are oppressed..these two women are fortunate that they live in the US...How many stories have we seen of girls and women being attacked for wanting an education, or given beatings or death/prison sentences for adultery or for speaking to a man in public who is not their husband...These women need to take a look around at saudi arabi, afghanistan, iran and see just whta is happening to women...No sharia law and customs are designed to allow men to control women..as to muhammad, "Be good to women; for they are powerless captives (awan) in your households" his words in the year 623...POWERLESS CAPTIVES...Says a lot

    August 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  9. meatman

    I would wear a Hajib as well if I lived in a culture where men marry their 13 year old cousins and stone people to death for minor crimes.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    I'm not trying to be biased, but she's never seen a Muslim woman being interviewed and asked about her oppression BECAUSE THEY'RE OPPRESSED AND WOULD BE CONDEMNED FOR GRANTING SUCH INTERVIEWS! Perhaps another reason she refused to provide her last name? Give me a break people!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  11. The_Mick

    They claim the garb doesn't make them inferior, they claim it is good, yet they NEVER suggest that their husbands, fathers, etc. do the same!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  12. El Turkito

    I am concerned about the way I treat women, I don't care what women wear or not wear, I am however, concerned about the religious attires Muslim women wear because in this era of terroristic attacks on good people in the name of Islam it makes it easier for these women to hide weapons etc.,

    August 23, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
    • Think first

      And how many terrorist attacks have been carried out by women? Or with small arms? I'm not saying we shouldnt do thinks to prevent terrorism, but telling someone what they can wear is again against the moral foundation of this great country. Wanna start telling people what they can wear when it doesnt hurt anyone- Then move to France

      August 23, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
  13. ET

    Why would your creator create you and then tell you to cover it up?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  14. Barry Soetero

    It's because you're all fugly! That's why!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  15. Terri

    I would hate to wear one of those and it always looks so uncomfortable to me. I worry that it is a type of suppression of women (why don't men wear them?), but if one feels that it's important to them, more power to them.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  16. sahar

    Its cool how everyone has their own opinion on niqab or burkha, but its not going to change anything. whats funny is people who dont practice islam have problems with women covering themselves. I think its better to be involved in your own religion. If a christian woman has the right to wear bikini than a muslim woman has the right to wear a hijab or niqab. and for the people who dont know, muslim females choose to do it they're not forced too. if it was that case, nadia and aliya would be getting interviewed how oppressed they feel, not how proud they are with what they do. if we are going to discuss islam and that it oppresses the females, then i want to see where in the Bible, Or Tohra does it say that females are allowed to be in bikinis running down the beach with 100 men looking at them. In both books, it is forbidden for the females and the males to expose their "NAKEDNESS". I dont need to read the Bible to tell anyone of you this. But just to be sure i Did so i have evidence. "It is a shame and wrong to uncover your nakedness to others. The priests were warned to wear undergarments so that their nakedness would not be discovered when they went up the steps to the altar in their robes. Their undergarments (linen breeches) were to cover from their loins (waist) to their thighs (Exodus 28:42)." " Many people do not know that the Bible often calls improper covering of the body nakedness. Its not only Islam which prohibits the exposure your body. No one comes to America because they want freedom to show their BODY PARTS. and for the people who do not want to see females outside wearing hijab or niqab then IM SURE there are people who dont want to see girls in bikini or short dresses. So should these people start blabbing about that they need to be covered, or ask the law to ban nudity. If muslims were to speak out against Kim Kardashian or Carmen Electra IM SURE THERE BE SOME FREEDOM ISSUES. But when its a female COVERING herself shes told to stay home and do it. Whats Funny is America right now is in Afghanistan and Iraq FIGHTING for MUSLIMS FREEDOM, and have sacrificed a lot of soldiers for MUSLIMS freedom, but in their country they want to DENY muslims that same freedom. I didnt mind any comments said here at all, but it just shows that people like to make things up. If you really want to know why females cover themselves then maybe research it. Ask someone. Know the reason the benefits. and NO ONE is PUT in JAIL or BEATEN by their husbands for not covering themselves up. Covering up yourself only benefits the person, doesnt harm anyone. and the people who think it was a law made by men because they think they own women... I just wanna know how many religious laws are written by females in the Bible or Tohra. Everyone should educate themselves about their own religion rather then someone elses religion..unless you want to convert to it. You cant change anything being the outsider. Live your life the way you want to, and let others live theirs the way they want to. PERIOD!!!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
    • Ken

      Thank you.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • keste

      Sahar, muslim women choose burka !!!!, how correct is your statement , please go and run a free democratic opinion poll in any muslim country, lets start with Iran

      August 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
    • Dhulfiqar

      Keste, apart from Northern Tehran, many Iranian women want to wear the chador.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
    • rivirivi

      Again, full of lies. The wearing of the Non-Entity dress is only the desire of men to control their women. No religion here just pure power-over syndrome. Show me a woman judge working free in the courts of Sudan. Show ME!

      August 23, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
    • sahar

      keste why should i go to iran when right now we're having this problem is America. They can solve their issues themselves. Im American and i'm focused with what we need to improve in this country. If you so interested in being the WORLDS POLICE go right ahead.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
    • keste

      Muslim woman in US to choose Hijab vs normal attire , is no brainer.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  17. Miria

    Covering your face is not required in Islam. They may force it in those other countries but it is no way stated as mandatory.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  18. keste

    many mans are jundged by their personlities, hight, looks, man should also start wearing Burka.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  19. jb

    They're making a point. They['re making the point that they hate American freedoms. They're making the point that they hate men, whom they must view as nothing but a pack of sex driven animals. Well, maybe in their religion that's what men are. But men in this country and outside of Islam, men have more respect for life and women, and don't go around controlled by their impulses should they see a facial expression. And I do blame Islam. The violence is done in the name of Islam, with no major Islamic clerics speaking out, with no American Islamics speaking out. The violence is done because their religious documents say that it should be done. It isn't about Al Qaeda. It IS about Islamic belief.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  20. rivirivi

    The real reason as I was told by many women wearing it was: "My husband does not want me to cause sin in other men who would look at me and have "bad" thoughts." We all wear it for centuries, it makes us chaste." My opinion is that these women have been killed, brainwashed, beaten to the point of no return. They actually believe that if they show their legs, arms and/or face they are absolutely responsible for the thoughts made inside the men's heads and they (the women) deserve to be punished for it. For being a temptress. NO ONE not eve ONE woman told me that she wanted her intellect shine. What a ton of lies is this article. It upsets me that CNN publishes it and condones yet another form of male power over syndrome, another form of abuse,- even if the victims are too brainwashed to admit it. Shame on you CNN!

    August 23, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • Kate


      Considering how many warnings there are for paedophiles, rapists, and the like out there, you have to admit that there are a lot of people who are a danger because they can't control themselves. How many of you were aghast and criticized the woman in NYC who let her pre-een kid use the subway alone last year? Why? because of the fear of sexual predators.

      But you're wrong, it's not the woman's fault, not even if she shows skin. The fault is the man's for not having any self-control or dignity of self.

      The idea that men are animals is one I disagree with – most of them are perfectly capable of controlling themselves, if they even have "urges" to begin with. Modesty isn't about that (or shouldn't be) – you wouldn't go to a board meeting wearing a bikini, you don't go shopping in a thong. Everyone's idea of what is modest is different, so is this.

      And still no-one has explained where modesty conflicts with the going top less day – why can men go without shirts but women get arrested and fined?

      Modesty for women but not for men – what's the difference in inequality?

      August 23, 2010 at 4:57 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.