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. Kevin

    The testimony of women who choose to wear the head scarf means so much less to me than the vacant testimonies of those women who don't choose to wear it.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  2. JSledge

    In a society where covering yourself is "normal," then wearing these will, indeed, make all women appear modest. All women will look essentially the same and there is no distinction between "hot" or "ugly" women. However, in a society that this is not "normal" it acts to draw attention to the wearer. Is that what Islam would want? To wear something that so few people wear that it draws attention to you?

    If you think I'm just exaggerating, then consider when I traveled to the Georgia Aquarium last year, there was a group of Muslim woman with their children at the aquarium too. Having not seen woman covering themselves in this way before, part of the fun of being at the aquarium was watching them. It was so different to me. I couldn't tell you what ANY other person there that day looked like, but I do remember the Muslim women.. Is this working as intended?

    August 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  3. Bib Fortuna

    They want to be judged on their intellect? Why do Muslim men not wear the hijab as well? Hide behind the argument of cultural relativity for as long as you want, the fact of the matter is that wearing this attire actually objectifies women because it assumes that they are objects to begin with and are exclusively one man's property. Also, this kind of attire is regressive and goes against the very strides made by the womens' liberation movement.

    Also, they are terrorists.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  4. Bill

    Top 10 reasons: 10. Botox gone wrong 9. touch my mustache 8. hides my roots between hair dye jobs 7. the Dick Clark effect: no Retin-A for me! 6. saves on buying clothes 5. Saves on laundry 4. I just love freaking out Islamo-phobes. I just say 'Boo!' and they jump 10 feet! 3. I get a seat all ot myself on the bus 2. I can wear my 'I'm with Stupid' T-shirt and my husband never knows! 1. If I don't my husband will beat and rape me, and his brother will commit an 'Honor Killing' and murder my extended family.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
  5. Christine

    Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair, either with a scarf or with a wig. They also choose to practice modesty by wearing long sleeve shirts and long skirts. Many religions have such ways of practicing their faith. I think there is a place in the center between showing off too much (like in the US) and wearing a burqa. Too much emphasis is put on clothing and we are having the wrong conversation. We should be talking about encouraging people to judge each other based on the content of their character and ideas, not superficial stuff like clothing. I think Nadia brings up a very important point when she talks about wearing the niqab. We should want to be taken seriously for our minds, for our thoughts, for our creative energies and what we contribute to the world. this is true for men and women. When we get hung up on using clothes to express ourselves, we forget that clothes are the smallest way we share our innermost selves. Mostly, we use our words and deeds. I recently went to the beach with an older relative who told me that it's a shame I wear such a conservative bathing suit because I have a nice body. My bathing suit has a bikini top and skirt. I asked her why that should be a shame. I feel comfortable in the clothes I wear. Nadia and Aliya should be allowed to feel comfortable as well.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  6. Lia

    Sounds like both of these women have been fed a bunch of BS – I don't feel that I need to cover myself from head to toe in order that others realize my intellect. If that were true then their men should also be covered head to toe.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  7. woodie

    If you are wearing these clothes to cover up, then I see no problem with it. The issue seems to be the political statement this particular garb makes to people who wish to be religion agnostic. You are a walking sponsor for a religion. And that should not be necessary. You are a human, not a second class citizen. You are making a political statement.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  8. RW

    Modesty? Bull-crap. Muslims are far from modest. They also smell from sweat wearing all that long, heavy garb. Please take a shower and use some soap for crying out loud.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  9. ryan

    Well there is a distinction between wearing a niqab in the US by choice, and abroad where it is imposed on women. Even in countries where it isn't lawfully required, the broader culture abuses women who don't do so, and sometimes this results in their murders. This is generally the exception rather than the rule, but it is still very telling of the cultures where this occurs. The wests permissive and open society still has plenty of its own intolerant and ignorant ( the niqab isn't ignorant, but its perception as a islamic requirement is, even within muslim nations and amongst muslims themselves) behaviors. However I think in the west people are more readily allowed to discuss the wisdom of our cultural practices, and not so quickly and violently ostracized for rejecting common taboos that we feel to be wrong, impractical, or counterproductive.
    What is logically incoherent about the niqab is the use of it to be judged not on appearance but on intellect or character. If in this society the niqab draws attention or dissuades it, it is itself causing you to be judged on your appearance. If you want to express yourself effectively to demonstrate your character or intellect, facial expressions are an important part of communicating your thoughts and opinions. Not to mention the breadth of impracticalities implicit in wearing a mask. I think a lot of the arguments favoring the wearing of niqab are afterthoughts of an archaic patriarchal society where women are property and subservient to men. It seems they've been made in an attempt to tie obedience to a cultural practice together with a religious one, thereby breaking with the wearing of niqab equates, by that logic, to breaking with islam (which is not at all the case). I support these womens right to express their cultural identity through nearly any means they wish, unfortunately I don't think islamic society at large would support them in that endeavor.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:37 pm |
  10. JUstme

    Actually, I work with the public every day. Every time I see a woman in head cover, the men with her are dressed very modestly. Long sleeves, frequently a cap or other head covering and sometimes beard.

    We live in a nation where people can dress how they like. They don't have to get the general consensus if they want to have a pierced nose, or baseball cap on backward or wear a dress that's two sizes to small. It's called FREEDOM people. Freedom works both ways folks. If you want to have freedom, then you have to allow others to have it too.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
  11. Jason

    In my state it is illegal for a adult to cover their face.....I wonder how this law would interfere with this religions dress code.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
  12. IndoUSA

    No niqabs! No burkas! They do not belong in free societies like the USA. These forms of face coverings are backward, divisive, and intolerant! Wake up people. We should learn from France's experience!. Stop them now before it's too late. No more tolerance to the intolerant!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
  13. Ira

    Anyone who wears a hijab or niqab is advertising their faith, and thus advertising their basic irrationality and lack of intelligence. Religion is a crutch for the weak minded. If I were religious, I woudn't want people to know. I'd be too embarrassed.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  14. ErieVern

    No matter how it's explained, it still sounds completely stupid to me.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  15. MadPanda

    Lets just face it.-You wear it because you were brainwashed when you were a child. You were brainwashed to the point that you choose to wear something that symbolizes your own unjustified inferiority to the opposite gender. Some people can get past being brainwashed but most can't. What is impressive is a mind that can come to a new understanding and escape, through education and/or critical thinking, into a consciousness not controlled by the human desire to explain what they cannot explain by saying "god must have done it". No offense intended, but all should take a step back and re-evaluate what you think about your place in the world. Use all the information you have at your disposal and nothing more. Don’t take anecdotal evidence, stories, or “lack of an explanation” for more than the poor evidence it is. This goes for all religions.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  16. Loretta Miller

    What a crock.....let them then stay in their own country where this is practiced. We fought long and hard for freedom in this country and women fought even harder to have an identity. Why don't they just stay in their own country?? because they bleed our systems, beggers Americans and then call us names.
    If we go to another country we follow their rules. They come to our country and everytyhing changes so we become political correct at the expense of our own culture. Wake up before we are just "their" country.
    This whole article makes me sick as does your even printing this nonsense.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  17. Azrael

    Apparantly, God did such a horrible design job with our bodies that we all have to hide his creation. Or, God instilled in males such an uncontrollable sexual urge that he made it incapable for males to talk with women without wanting to have sex with them. Either way, God screwed up. Both the Christian and Muslim viewpoint of the human body require us to believe that God cdreated us imperfectly on purpose so that he could punish us with post-creation requirements...i.e. Circumcision, Female Circumcision, Covering up our bodies, etc... Why is it so hard for the discussion of "divine authenticity" to be raised in today's culture? Our Holy Books are horribly flawed, errant, fallible, etc... morally repugnant, historically inaccurate, and based on fantasy. How long does the human race have to suffer for what some uneducated persons 2000 years ago or 1300 years ago wrote. They thought the world was flat! They thought the Sun revolved around the earth! Newsflash, they don't! The elephant in the room is that these religions are both very obviously created by man, not God.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
  18. Scott

    I don't ever remember there being such an uproar about Roman Catholic Nuns who cover their bodies with loose fitting clothes, and also cover their heads and hair.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
    • Marnie

      Those nuns will smack the heck out of you if you criticize them!

      August 23, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
    • RW

      They don't cover their faces, and they bathe often and with soap. Also, your assuming they keep their clothes on most of the time. Not all Priests are pedophiles.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  19. Derek McKelvey

    It seems a lot of people have negative things to say about these women and their religion. The Quran says their attire should be modest, but does not require covering of the body. It is a personal choice. There are countries that require it, but Islam itself does not. These women in particular seem to do it to enhance their relationship with God. It's called exceeding the standard. I know plenty of people are satisfied with just barely staying within the lines, but some people want to go beyond the established rules.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
    • mjva

      Nuns started wearing such coverings to hide their pregnancies.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  20. MadPanda

    Lets just face it.-You wear it because you were brainwashed when you were a child. You were brainwashed to the point that you choose to wear something that symbolizes your own unjustified inferiority to the opposite sex. Some people can get past being brainwashed, most can't. What is impressive is a mind that can come to a new understanding and escape, through education and/or critical thinking, into a consciousness not controlled by the human desire to explain what they cannot explain by saying "god must have done it". No offense intended, but all should take a step back and re-evaluate what you think about your place in the world. Use all the information you have at your disposal and nothing more. Don’t take anecdotal evidence, stories, or “lack of an explanation” for more than the poor evidence it is. I try to do this frequently as an atheist. This goes for all religions.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:30 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.