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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. seiscat

    In general, these garments symbolize female oppression and I would hate to have some young girl think that such oppression is acceptable because she sees these garments being worn.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:29 pm |
  2. Patti

    All religions were invented by men, when they happened to be in solely charge. Is it any wonder that when God "spoke" to them, it was God’s “will” women would be the ones who would be oppressed?

    August 23, 2010 at 5:29 pm |
    • RW

      Right on Baby. I'm a man and have said the same thing for years. Ever wonder why it was women and children who were sacrificed to the Gods? When given the choice it was the man who said "Okay, but not me"!

      August 23, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
  3. anon

    I'm a Christian and there are verses in the new testament of the Bible that state that women should not cut their hair as it is a disgrace to their husband for them to do so. It also warns that women are not to wear jewelry and attempt to make themselves look like royalty. There is also a verse in the bible that states that women should wear a veil. I've often wondered why Christian women do not follow these verses.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  4. slf

    I hope you're taking your vitamin d supplements, ladies. Women who cover themselves get very little vitamin d from natural sources. As a result, they are at a higher risk for a variety of serious diseases.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  5. The Man

    It appears there are two different kinds of women who cover themselves with this nonsense:
    1. Women who are oppresed.
    2. Women who prior to covering up had no identity (low self esteem, social outcast, unattractive, etc...) – now that they cover themselves, they feal as if they belong, they have an identiy -– twisted, aren't they?? Covering up makes them feel closer to god! haaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!@#$%@!#$%!@#$!@#4

    I believe you should be allowed to wear whatever you want, but don't expect other people to listen to you, agree with you, or take you seriously if you are full of crap and not even honest with yourself.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  6. Sensible

    In this country it is a woman's choice. But obviously it isn't in much of the Muslim world. If a woman travels to a Muslim country, she is expected (and in some cases required) to cover her head even if she isn't Muslim.
    Even here in the US, the Muslim religion treats women as second class. They aren't even allowed to pray in the same room as the men. Women aren't allowed to participate in the decision making in the Mosques.
    With that said, I think if women choose to wear these outfits, then they should be allowed to do so with a few exceptions. They should have to follow the same guidelines as everyone else when entering places like banks and convenient stores, etc. Most banks have signs that require anyone entering to remove hats, sunglasses and hoods from hooded sweatshirts. This should include any type of veil.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
    • GinCas

      Sounds sensible to me!

      August 23, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
  7. Robbie S.

    Awesome job Aliya!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
  8. Dale

    Every time I see somebody wearing that type of clothing it always makes me wonder why.
    The only thing it really does is just create more bad feelings towards Muslims because of all of the radical terrorist Muslims should simply do like the old saying when in Rome do as the Romans do, wearing that burqa and black clothing makes you stick out look at me look at me I am a Muslim here in the United States and United Kingdom Muslims are not trusted because a lot of Muslims are radical and hostile.

    And besides you can have a lot of stuff underneath that clothing AK-47s bombs and wanted terrorist think about it makes me wonder.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  9. C

    I am supportive of voluntary wearing of hijab and other religious head coverings. But I think this lady is trying to be noble and fix a situation but in the wrong place. I don't think she is really trying to get anything out of this, she really does seem like a nice young lady. But she must know that Disney parks are place of fantasy where as an employee you conform to the image and do not shatter the illusion. I am pretty sure Disney was happy to accommodate her how they could. I seen a photo of the alternative and it looks a little silly to me–but it is a uniform. This is why I don't work where there are uniforms.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
    • C

      The thing about the Muslim Disney lady was posted in the wrong place! Oops.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  10. rivirivi

    All books have been written by men- and we all know men- we can make mistakes. If there is only one limitless God then all the religions and believes fail in that they instill separation from one another group of humans -when if there is a limitless God then we are all existing WITHIN together with everybody and everything from the smallest particles to the largest clump of multi-universes. All the books and all the creeds and religions are just ideas to live better – or worst- depending what a human wants to believe.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  11. Jeff

    The other day I saw a young woman wearing a head scarf covering her hair and forehead – but she was wearing very tight clothing showing off her body – so hypocritical.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
  12. Angel

    BTW, as for the person who commented "think any woman who wears these getups have a mental problem, especially those raised in the West." If I took off my head scarf, then you would think I am "normal". I think the one with the mental problem is you. You may be paranoid that people people out there want to hurt you. You may also be experiencing unusual fear and anxiety, or phobia of covered boobies...LOL Or perhaps, you have control issues and it upsets you that others choose to do something you would never do.

    BTW, I do own a DSM, I have an MSW.

    BTW, I do own a DSM, I have an MSW.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
  13. John

    The women is an object in the muslim world. Aliya Naim is part of the belongings of her family, like the TV or the PC. She has more rights than an usual object but she has less rights than a pet.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
  14. Coolmoose

    So, if the idea of a burqa is to force others to focus on who you are and not how you look, and if it is not a sign of female subservience, and if Muslim women are truly the equal half of Muslim men, then my question is this: Why don't islamic men cover themselves?

    August 23, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
  15. GG

    What about the women and girls who want to compete in sports? I can think of very few other things that build a women's self-esteem and pride then being involved in sports whether it soccer, tennis basketball or golf etc. You cannot excel in these sports with such attire.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
    • C

      Some do athletic activities with well-thought out attire.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
  16. athena

    I don't feel offended by Muslim females wearing those clothes but as someone mentioned here, I don't feel comfortable talking to them either. For me, it's weird and distracting since I can't stop thinking about their clothes.
    I believe, however, that they are entitled to wear whatever they want, as long as they are not in public buildings or places that require full identification.. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for them, they live in the US and they should respect the regulations that are implemented here.
    On the other hand, I for my part, will for sure wear a scarf if I ever go to a Muslim country, even if given a "choice". One should respect and follow rules (even cultural/religion ones) everywhere you are going.
    And it could even not be about religion any more, let's just put it this way: I'm sure I wouldn't be allowed on the White House wearing a Barney mask that fully covers my face, not even if I present the officers with a Golden/Premium Member Club Disney ID!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
  17. Angel

    BTW, as for the person who commented "think any woman who wears these getups have a mental problem, especially those raised in the West." If I took off my head scarf, then you would think I am "normal". I think the one with the mental problem is you. You may be paranoid that people that don't look like you want to hurt you. You are also experiencing unusual fear and anxiety. Or perhaps, you have control issues and it upsets you that others choose to do something you would never do or want your own wife to do....

    BTW, I do own a DSM, I have an MSW.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
    • verify

      Angel,

      Did you learn anything about delusional thinking in your coursework?

      August 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
    • Kate

      @verify

      You might have better look trying to find a therapist with the yellow pages, although I'm indeed glad that you're seeking help finally.

      Just sayin'

      August 24, 2010 at 1:18 am |
  18. Gerry

    Nice article giving the wearer's point of view. Obviously there's going to be culture shock in an open society where we are used to social interactions than involve eye contact and reading each others' facial expressions. We tend to take it personally when somewhat stands so much apart, and we forget about the feelings of the person inside who seems so oddly inaccessible. But we have to remember to treat others as we would be treated. Too bad there's no writing on the burka, like on a Tee shirt. – "I'm still a person. You can say hello."

    August 23, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
  19. Ron

    when i see that(cover) its as though these women dont exist anyway, you may have an opinion but in muslem circles it dosent count for much. So you keep on fooling yourselves,for me its just a good way to hide the fact that you cant take care of yourself. An quite frankly i could care less what you ware.

    Philadelphia

    August 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm |
  20. rivirivi

    Islam is one of the worst religions or beliefs together with Brazilean Voodo for humanity.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:19 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.