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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. Mark

    It's pretty simple... If god wanted women to cloak themselves they would have been born with a cloak to hide themselves. Clearly this sort of dress is against god. This sort of topic is wrong on so many levels I do not know where to begin.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
    • Anna

      So please explain why we wear clothes at all...

      August 24, 2010 at 1:13 am |
  2. jimbet

    Great, We can now say MERRY CHRISTMAS, PUT up a CHRISTMAS TREE... Becasue we had to stop our age old custom snce it offended muslims... the face and body coverings OFFEND me and most of North Americans, those born here, who are truly North Americans. take your customs to the country that originated them. MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY EASTER. HAPPY HANUKAH... And to all a goodnight!..

    August 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
  3. Lorenzo

    To me, the issue is a practical one: For public safety, nobody should be able to hide their identity in public, except for costume parties/events. If a person wants to cover all parts of their body that can be used to help identify her, she should be allowed to do so BUT should be required to have a chip implanted in her so that her identity can be read by anyone who wishes to know her identify. I do not want someone walking in to my store unless I can see his or her face. However, I would allow people to do that if I could electronically identify them as they pass through the door.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
  4. October10s

    This article is based on the viewpoints of women who are delusional. In covering up their faces and hiding their sexuality they are making those aspects of themselves more, rather than less important. There are millions of women who walk around in modest clothing who do not call attention to themselves and still function in society just fine. The niqab and hijab are ways for women to move in society in ANONIMTY. It isn't to minimze their sexiness, its purpose is to ELIMINATE their person-ness. Women in burquas aren't people. They're blobs moving around from point A to point B. To sincerely believe that no man can withhold his urges if he is to look upon you is to be vain in the EXTREME. To believe that God created your very unique features so that they can be seen only by yourself, your family and your husband is to believe that God engages in the futile and pointless. Don't see the point in worshiping a God like that. Moreover, such a belief system starts from teh premise that the world of the woman is and should be in the home. I think we're well past that nonsense. Many people engage in self-sacrifice and adherence to strange rules because they think that it pleases God. But how do they know what pleases God? It makes no sense at all that God would be pleased by women covering up but not by men covering up. The notion is absurd. The niqab and hijab came out of cultures that sought to constrain the movement of women. To take those cultural norms out of context and try to make them fit into this modern cutlure is silly. Women wear these things today because they can, they want to or they must. But its got nothing to do with rational behavior. I see no point in trying to explain the irrational.

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

    First of all, hijab and niqab are personal freedom; so it's none of your business to judge or call on anyone. Second, if you are not waering hijab how can you judge how it feels like in a 99 dgree weather? plus watch your wrods when you are commenting on a very well respected website! all i am seeing UNEDUCATED PEOPLE, before you judge others try to educate yourself 🙂
    bt3sbo el wa7ed w el denya ramadan !
    ~R

    August 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • seiscat

      These garments are historically symbols of female oppression and are very offensive to many women who have spent their lives fighting for equal rights. Any piety attached to them was attached by men, not God, to better keep women in their "place". they are about as acceptable as "black face" on public streets.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  6. Muslim_786

    When the men aroused when women get uncovered that means women need covering. Satan is the 3rd entity b/w a man and woman and there always a bad thinking whispered by satan to both sexes if they mingle with each other without any covering.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:15 pm |
  7. Angel

    I am an American Muslim woman that has worn the hijab for the last 15 years. I have read some of these comments, and although I can't say that I am surprised at people's ignorance, at the end of the day, my husband takes care of me far better than any of my non-Muslim friends' husbands. He never asked me to wear hijab, actually, I would leave him if he asked me to take it off! I care more about what God wants and expects of me that what my husband, neighbors, or a whole bunch of losers making comments on an article think! There are plenty of women, beautiful and ugly showing skin all over the place in this country, so for those of you who are fixated on Muslim women taking off their clothes, go look at someone who goes to great lengths to expose themselves rather than cover themselves. Why don't people offend nuns who wear the habit? Noone would think to do that, I know I wouldn't.

    As for m y husband, yes I will go there. I am a "stay at home wife" by choice. I work when I want to. I have kids. I went back to college and got a graduate degree. I work many hours outside the home as a volunteer, because I don't feel the need to earn money because my husband makes more than enough money since he spent his youth studying (and has a PhD) instead of drinking and partying as I saw many young American men do in their youth. He loves to cook for the family so I don't even do that. We have a great relationship and we respect each other. So for those who commented that we stay home and cook for our husbands, you need to get out more and meet real people.

    Did I mention that II love to wear my hijab! Wow! Imagine that! That in a "free country" people are free to dress as they want. Guess what! This is what I want. DUH. Ever thought of that. In addition, it makes me feel happy and proud. I AM PROUD TO BE A MUSLIM!!!!! LOUD AND CLEAR. At the end of the day, you will be judged for what you know and what you chose to do with your life and I it is not my problem, but I am not about to get naked, or expose my hair and body just because "that is what everybody does". It is nonsensical and idiotic to live that way, in my opinion.

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

      Angel, you are quite right why Christian Nuns are not the target of being covered ! My wife also chose to stay-at home even though she is a doctor and she is doing a great job taking care of my kids at her own will. She wears hijab and alhamdulillah our life is free from all worldly-sophistications. She says, she feels so-safe and secured doing so and she started taking hijab after marraige at her own choice. No doubt, hijab pertains modesty of all-sorts

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

      What you believe God wants and expects were dictated to you by weak-willed men who want to control everyone and everything around them (same is true of all organized religions). They enforce barbaric and sexist laws through intimidation and fear of reprisal, by claiming to know the mind of God and telling you you don't know any better. Consider yourself lucky as a woman-not a Muslim woman-that your husband treats you well.

      Ask yourself this: if God is so omnipotent to have created the Universe, do you really believe that He would be as petty and malicious that he would care in the slightest what you wear or don't wear? How incredibly arrogant to believe that God is down on our level of ignorance and superstition!

      August 23, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
    • chatbout

      That because of their career choice. You are regular person, free to do whatever you want. Why cover yourself? You really believe God wants you to do that or because you culture says God wants you to do that. Change is coming soon, less Muslim women especially the younger generation do not wear these type of clothing. Education is the key for all of us to live in peace. Religion (all of them) only suppress our intelligence and our freedom as human beings.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:37 pm |
    • Arnold

      Angel, Thank you for your comment. It's sad that many people are immature and ignorant in their perception of others to say nothing of the lack of respect and courtesy that has escaped them. While I practice a different faith I respect you for yours.
      God bless you and your family.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:37 pm |
    • Layla

      Angel,

      That is your opinion. I would be extremely upset if I thought God expected me to cover my hair. My hair is beautiful. It is a gift from God. Why would he/she/it not want me to show it? I have no problem with women who wear hijab. I don't understand it, because I like to show my hair and I don't believe that the Creator minds one bit.
      Personally, I think at a certain point, thinking God cares either way is silly. Doesn't God have other things to worry about–like wars on the earth, people starving, homeless people, but no–God is sitting up on a cloud worrying about if hair is covered or uncovered.

      August 23, 2010 at 8:22 pm |
    • Anna

      Layla, the problem arises when we try to justify our actions based on what we want to believe about God. That is not analagous to truth. Angel, may God bless you on your journey.

      August 24, 2010 at 1:10 am |
  8. Differentviewpoint

    For all I know, being covered like that and coming into my business means you are plannning to rob me. If so, forget the IRS beat you to it. Then again, I shoot first, I never miss, and won't bother to ask questions. Does that not explain why you should forget that mode of attire. I don't really care why you prefer to dress that way – it can be hazardous to your health.

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

      Now that you've watched this video you'd know better.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • Differentviewpoint

      Screw the video – and don't get the idea in your puny brain that I hate Islamics or Muslims. Terrorists, fanatics, lunatics, and the like – YES – but anyone crazy enough to hide their identity to commit crimes is making a target of themselves. I keep thinking of those who have lost thier lives because of those who hide their identities whiole commiting their crime. My customers need not become another statistic because of a so-called belief.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  9. rivirivi

    Again, please do not condone or accept this form of abuse. Women are not responsible for the thoughts men make in their own heads those are lies these women are told over and over including beaten to accept it. That is why they wear the non-entity dress to appear chaste and to not produce sin in the men. Abuse is abuse even if the victims do not recognize it now-a-days.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:12 pm |
  10. madmo

    When leftist news site shows two women who voluntarily wears extra body coverings, every body seems happy. I am not sure if CNN can show millions of oppressed women in Middle East and South East Asia same way.

    Islam enters to any country as a peaceful religion, but when it gain enough numbers you can see the true Islamic sword comes out. Want some examples. See 57 islamic ountries and muslim majority South East Asian countries.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:12 pm |
  11. Dhulfiqar

    People who wear revealing clothes, suffer from low self-estreem.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
    • Manny

      Or they may not have air conditioning.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
    • Differentviewpoint

      You say "low self estreem". BS. Your spelling is incorrect and your comment possibly suffers as well. A sense of "high esteem" would be more plausible – however – some people would/should have more respect for others by not showing "too much" of themselves. Somewhere I recall the phrase "Less = more".

      August 23, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
    • Dhulfiqar

      @Differentviewpoint

      If your argument against my statement is based predominately on a typo then I don't have much more to say you.

      August 24, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  12. Aaron

    cnn is an epic fail period, i cant believe i waste dmy time reading this thread and its comments, total waste of time at least im at work and im just passing time, ahahahahahah. muslim women= self righteous BS

    August 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
  13. TRH

    Religions are silly...and Islam is among the silliest.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
  14. Gus

    No. If the men don't have to, the women shouldn't have to. Period.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
    • Reversal

      Women say if we have to – men should have to as well. Periods and babies.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:39 pm |
  15. keste

    muslim women choose burka !!!!, not sure how correct is your statement , please go and run a free democratic opinion poll in ny muslim country, lets start with Iran.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  16. bobq

    So you mean to tell my I can rap up in rag and go to the bank? lol

    August 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  17. chatbout

    Why don't Muslim men wear a hijab or niqab? Covering yourself is act of cowardliness. It's the culture that made these women think like this, years of abuse. Americans are now finding out the truth. I hope one day it all change.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm |
  18. JustMe

    In this country, Muslim women have a choice of covering up. Therefore, it is not a sign of repression or control. Things are different in other countries, where there is no choice in the matter, women cannot work outside the home, see a male doctor, be in the presence of any unrelated male, they must walk escorted by a related male or stay at home. Ask those women if it is a sign of repression. Of course, they will deny it. But for many women in other countries, it is not a choice.

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

    You cover a cows head before you kill it. I see nothing wrong in covering these weirdos heads before we whack em! Kill 65these animals before they kill us!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:07 pm |
  20. KO

    A good article. I have no problem with Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab or niqab–just with governments and societies who take that choice away from them. That would include Iran AND France.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:06 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.