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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. Ryn

    I understand what the perception of muslim women is, and have no problem admitting feeling uncomfortable in the presence of a woman who's covering her face. After reading some comments here though, I will transcend my perceptions and make conversation with her instead of just assuming based on the psycho-social stigmas of today's society; to which I adhere to consciously or not, that she is someone to be feared, pitied, or avoided. Perhaps it will help me understand better the woman underneath the niqab...instead of judging her in passing based on what the majority tells me.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
    • sahar

      Thanku for not judging by someones appearance. For some reason I feel people think the girl underneath the hijab or bukha is some oppressed women by her husband or society. That women is a normal human being like you and I. However, WEEE AS A SOCIETY are the ones who make it difficult for her. It is Not her Man Or her Religion that makes it hard. IT IS US. LOOK at all these posts that tells me whose making a hard life for a muslim female. its the ignorant people, no one else.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  2. texaslady2

    If there is a god, I seriously doubt that he/she cares more about how we dress than about how we treat each other.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
  3. Aaron

    wow great article CNN. you really got all the angles on this one. NOT. why do they cater to muslims so much it is BS? there were only 2 points of view from musllim american women? what about other american women? this has no merit, it has no sustinence or meat to it. its like a first year college paper i see at my community college. the kind of paper with no thought put into it, with no research. Straight up, i give this article two big F&^%ing thumbs down, big time. just more regergitated, recycled, re-used, (how america enslaves muslims) does not give them rights, or whatever BS straight unfiltered BS, you suck CNN, you really suck.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  4. brian

    Really? this is an issue in America? How is what these women choose to wear based on their religious beliefs any different than how the Amish dress? Of Jews wearing a skull cap? Or Christians wearing a cross?

    We should be curious about the world and the poeple around us, not fearful, talkd to these people you might learn something.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  5. unnamed

    so If i wear a balaclava to a bank, i can sue for discrimination if they arrest me because its my religon?

    August 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  6. Different viewpoint

    Hell for all I know, you just might be fixing to rob me or blow yourself up coming into my business dressed that way.
    1. If you're intending to rob me forget it – the IRS beat you to it.
    2. If you're planning on blowing up the place – you're not going to heaven – you're going to hell.
    3. If you're planning on #1 – I shoot first, I never miss, and I don't ask questions. Nuff said.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  7. Manny

    They wear a blojab as a sign of faith.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
  8. American

    "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." – John Lennon

    August 23, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
  9. rivirivi

    Besides, it all started when Mohammed, their holy last prophet, married that 6 year old, consummated the marriage when she was 9- anyone else at this time would go to jail for pedophile. Instead, she grew to be a beautiful- most beloved wife but she was too beautiful and visitors looked at her. He commanded her to wear the first non-entity dress and when she protested, she was beaten into submission- as have been millions of women for centuries. Now, when their daughters and the daughters of the daughters are 12 they must submit themselves to operations which will cripple their female bodies and wear the non-entity dress which by the way is excellent no to make their intellect shine- Show me a woman judge in Sudan- but it is very convenient to hide the bruises. Shame on all who condone, accept and excuse the non-entity dress, a symbol of the worse abuse of women going on for centuries and generations.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
  10. Mdajani

    I don't understand why such racism and hate by all these comments.. This is a free country and the lady wants to cover her hair.. When nuns do it in church (as did Mother Teresa and Mary).. ppl find that honorable.. but when a Muslim does it.. its unacceptable and scary.. wow..

    August 23, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
    • Manny

      Nuns are unacceptable and scary too.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
  11. Abuzayd

    ppl think the muslim women as 'oppressed' but they come out and proclaim that it is of their own God given choice smashing the false misconceptions. to further smash the misconceptions, the fastest growing segment of muslim converts are WOMEN, i think the ratio is about 3:1. does not compute? go check for yourselves what all of these women find in islam what they couldn't find anywhere else. don't believe all the lies the haters want you to believe, think for yourselves.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  12. paula

    It's really sad to hear these otherwise intelligent women spouting the party line. Being covered from head to toe isn't modest, it's repression plain and simple. You can be modest and still be part of society. Look at muslims in Singapore or other advanced countries. They don't feel the need to go about enslaved to medieval ideas to profess their faith. Nor do they shun people of other faiths as friends.
    I grew up in a community where we were Christian, Jew, Budhdist, Hindu, Muslim and every other belief, race and ethnicity under the sun. We got along, respected each other's beliefs and guess what, the Muslim women amongst us didn't have to hide, nor did their fathers resort to honor killing or any other medieval device to control their daugthers. Where there was respect, where there was tolerance and where there was understanding, there was also freedom.
    Whether Muslim women like to believe it or not, their "choice" of perpetuating the full body covering (and we are not talking headscarves here – or the wigs that orthodox jewish women wear etc) is both a reflection of a male dominated and disrespectful tradition ( how about those taliban men who cut off girl's noses because they resent being raped) and it never reflects an actual freedom of spirit, no matter what they say

    August 23, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  13. Manny

    They save money, not having to buy Clearasil.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  14. kurt

    I don't care 'why'.
    The world isn't a giant Sesame Street set. I need to see who you are. I want to be able to see your face if we're in public. If you're on your own property, you can wear a Big Bird constume around the clock. I _ don't _ care.
    As far as whether covering your face indicates you're someone's 'property' and all of that: don't care. That's not even on my radar.
    I need to see your face in public, as do the cops, all cameras, security guards. It's for the good of all of us.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
    • Steve Michaels

      Smart words, Kurt.

      August 23, 2010 at 8:51 pm |
  15. joe

    Thank you for treating me as a pervert who needs to be kept from viewing you. You say it's an act of faith. Your faith tells you that men who were created in God's image are disgusting leches, who want to look upon your body. Give it a rest. There are far more lovely things God created than your body in all it's self-righteousness. But, do as you wish. It's a free country, to express your elevated sense of self over all others, men in particular.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  16. No God, No Religion

    The people featured in this article seem pretty nice. They are not terrorists, nor are the vast majority of the Muslims in the world. They choose to wear particular costumes to celebrate their religious beliefs – hardly anything to get excited about.

    Personally, I hope that religion eventually vanishes with improvements in global education, but I accept that it will probably require a few more centuries. In the meantime, we should outlaw the most egregious practices, and simply accept the rest for now. A little tolerance will go a long ways while we collectively come to terms with our shared life on this planet.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • Maximus Alexander

      Well said! It's amazing to think that so many people are so easily manipulated and fooled by man made constructs that we call religions.

      August 23, 2010 at 11:29 pm |
  17. Seer

    We are an open society, with people accustomed to seeing one another and in particular their facial expressions. I don't feel that I'm on a level communications playing field if the other person is wearing a mask. The simple fact is that our culture's communications methods require us to see each other's faces. This isn't true in Arab countries – at least with respect to the traditional role of women. For this reason alone, the hijab should not be permitted – AND more importantly, Muslims should of their own accord find a way to honor their faith without withdrawing from our culture. It's that withdrawal that legitimizes bigotry.

    Secondly, covering your entire body for your entire life is a terrible recipe for Vitamin D deficiency, which is epidemic in our culture, causing hormone imbalances, cancer, bone loss, and immune dysfunctions. This is clearly a case where modern science has shown that a traditional practice is unhealthy and should be discontinued.

    Lastly, I fail to see how a woman in full hijab is the "equal" of a man. Imagine trying to participate in sports.

    August 23, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
  18. Laura

    So why don't the men wear the hijab? If it truly is only about the relationship with God and Islam, then why don't the men wear the exact same thing? Why don't the men and women kneel together in prayer? Why are the women praying in the back of the room? If men also wore it, then it would make sense that it is part of the religion...

    August 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
    • rivirivi

      Men do not wear it because they do not have to cover the bruises. The women wear it because they have been brainwashed into not to "make" the men sin. Brainwashed into accepting it for centuries. They also believe that they are responsible for the thoughts men make in their own heads. Nothing to do with "letting their intellect shine" . How many women judges are in Sudan? How many women engineers? Sheriffs?

      August 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm |
  19. AVAIS

    I LOVE HUMANS SO MANY COLORFUL THOUGHTS

    FOR CURIOUS ONES ALTHOUGH TO GET REAL AND HONEST ANSWERS READ AUTHENTIC BOOKS OR GET IN TOUCH WITH REPUTABLE SCHOLARS

    August 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  20. Let me see if I read this right????

    Did I just hear the NY Iman's wife say that "... this is America ... we have to be careful and NOT ofend America's muslims???" .... oh, so what is this? a SHAKE-DOWN by them?? they are NOW telling us how our Constitution works?? ... is it me, or does anyone else noticed that ALL of these Islamic advocacy activities are happening ALL at the same time? ... the Islamic women suing Disney after she just decides she wants to start wearing her muslim scarf and they won't let her? ... NOW, the Islamic Mosque proposed to be built 2 blks from Ground Zero??? ... they are coming out of the woodworks?? Are we stupid of what? It's just another FORM of Terrorism ... now they are going to try and BLACKMAIL us WITH OUR CONSTITUTION?

    August 23, 2010 at 4:57 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.