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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. herry

    Quran is not a book it is a TIME TRAVEL machine.
    If u read it, it sends u back 2000 years in time.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  2. AZinAK

    “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.”

    Wow. God has stalkers!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  3. Kimo

    The Victorian missionaries had everyone wearing black wool suits and dresses in Hawaii during the 19th century. How crazy is that? You do have to ask, however, if the hijab is worn to show you are devote and so that you will judge the person on their character and not their looks, why Muslim men do not wear them.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  4. CN

    Why is there always a comparison between hijab/niqab and "low-cut shirts and formfitting pants". Is there no inbetween? Has nobody heard of a pair of capris pants and t-shirts? There are so many ways to dress conservatively without covering your body head to toe. I go to the office every day dressed "business casual" and I've never felt that I was on object of sexual desire by the men I work with. Indeed, I feel they very much respect my ability to make financial and tax decisions for their clients based on my intellect and not my lack of push up bras.

    And regarding the niqab and burqa: if you want people to interact with you, you need to show your face. Most communication is non-verbal. Our entire continent has been raised for generations that facial expressions is a primary way of communication. This might be different in other areas of the world where culture and communication is different, but if you choose to do this here, you have to accept that most people are going to be unable to know how to talk to you and therefore won't.

    I'm of course not talking about the idiots that drive up and take pictures of you. Just as you don't want us to associate most Muslims with terrorists, please don't associate must of us with bigots.

    I can say this first hand. There are many Muslim women who wear hijab and niqab at the YMCA (irony noted) when they take their children to swim lessons where I also take my children. I've never seen any of them talk with the rest of us non-hijab mothers. I did see them instantly introduce themselves to a very white woman wearing hijab whose conversation I overheard saying she was Sweedish and talk of her conversion to Islam. I've tried broaching conversations with them by smiling, but seemingly they ignore me. I doubt very much they want to talk to me. And so I sit in my chair, politely ignoring them while wearing my scandalous capris pants and t-shirts.

    I think many Muslims complain of non-understanding. This is probably very accurate. But could it also be accurate that they don't understand non-Muslims? Why is all the burden of education and understanding on us?

    August 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  5. Kris

    I have one question, if covering themselves has nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with all the other supposed positive reasons mentioned in this article- then why will Muslim men not cover their faces? Oh, they are men, it is different.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  6. Kathy

    Facial expression is one of the most important ways of communicating. I feel that some Muslim women want to cover themselves only due to being raised in a culture that oppresses and discriminates against women. They themselves won't tell you that because they have been taught that it is about modesty, honor, etc. But tell me how many Muslim women wearing Burka have ever competed in the Olympics? Enjoyed playing any kind of sports? They are like the canary that is happy in the cage because it has never experienced freedom. I think if a Muslim woman who has seen the positive side of the wonderful freedom of women in America really were given a safe environment to state her feelings, she would hurl away the black shrowd in an instant.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  7. Justina

    What Muslims go through in the West is NOTHING comparing to the sufferings the religious minorities go through in Islamic nations. These ladies should work for freedom of conscience in the countries of their origins if they really love their Creator God.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
  8. Frank

    Regardless of the reasons, its not in American culture. We are at war with ISLAM, have been for the past decade. Muslims and the the ISLAM religion oppress women, they are treated as second class citizens. ALLAH demands they are treated as second class citizens and sex slaves, they are forced to share their husband with 4 other wives and can do nothing about it, they must walk behind their husbands. If they cheat, they are killed, murdered in honor killings, if they try and leave ISLAM, they are marked to be murdered. What sane person would sign up for this kind of life? I was just getting started with what these women have to go through. She must not have a Muslim man now or she would probably be black and blue for not following his every command. In "AMERICA"Shariah Law is not only outrageously and morally sickening to us. ITS MOSTLY AGAINST THE LAW. You dress anyway want to, but if I were you, I would see about talking to a good Psychiatrist. We are NOT going to have America looking like Saudi Arabia without a civil war breaking out.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  9. sealchan

    At some level there are beliefs that underly the, let's say Western European culture (the "West"), that are as deep (personally, psychologically) as any religious belief. You might even call it an implicit faith that even many atheists hold true. At stake with the covering of the face (I do not think there are too many strong arguements against hijab as there are perhaps against niqab) is the elimination of individuality. In the "West" the development of individuality and the freedoms and responsibilities that come with that is, perhaps, the secular legacy of the Judeo-Christian (?Islamic) faith. We are responsible to God or the State or each other...for our actions and choices. To not at least show our face and the information that our moment to moment facial expressions reveal about us is to pull down a huge curtain over ourselves, our individuality and our participation in the society.

    To what extent then should be expect faithful Muslims to honor the "West's" implicit beliefs? Is it unfair that those who do not necessarily subscribe to a "religion" do not also have sensitivities that should be considered? Should agnostics and atheists also have a seat at the table for discussions on the protection and consideration of cherished beliefs along side believers?

    Then again, do we not all tend to wear the niqab on the internet! Interesting how technology provides a new context for this particular debate.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  10. christopher

    "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."

    This is how women thought (or were convinced to think) in the early days of Russian Communism. Hopefully, a generation from now Muslim women will realize that they can be free instead of following this kind of dogma. There is NO FREEDOM in being a slave to ideology, whether political or religious.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  11. ronnette102

    Hey, maybe they have bad teeth and bad hygiene so they cover up. Ahahahaha!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  12. Morgan

    why is it when I go get my drivers license I am asked to remove my hat from my balding head but when people such as these 2 ladies go to do same they are not required to. even the the ones who wear that rolled up towel on there heads they just buzz right on through no questions asked. my ball cap promotes who i am also. razorback fan 24/7

    August 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  13. Jesse

    My only complaint is if they are gonna try and get their driver license picture with their face covered like the lady tried to do in Tampa Florida. Google it "Lady covers face for driver's license" Can you imagine being a police officer ask for some some identification and seeing just a pair of eye's on the driver license. I'm not a religious person but religion is normally practiced in the home or at a place of worship and no where else. Am I wrong?

    August 23, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
  14. Dave, and totally confused

    Im in agreeance with NEHicks, still confused, but in agreeance.
    Perhaps my level of intelligence is lacking, but, I wouldn"t buy a box of cereal
    with only a pair of eyes on it.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  15. Meow

    If I were to go to, say, Iran and walk down the streets in a garment that doesn't cover my legs or arms and without wearing a hijab, I wonder how many looks I'd get and how soon it'd be till I get arrested. And of course I'd appear to be disrespectful of their local culture and laws. So why is it okay for Muslims in America to do something that's not welcomed by the Western society? Double standards!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
    • CN

      Although we don't always achieve it, we strive for the higher standards of personal freedom and expression.

      We won't whip women for wearing hot pants, and we won't deny any woman admittance to the emergency room for heat stroke because she wore 7 layers of clothing on a 110 degree heat index day.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  16. mjva

    I was born in a Moslem country but was and am an atheist. Women covering themselves so men won't be 'tempted' diminishes the humanity of both women and men. Men need to learn self-control and civility instead of imposing their weaknesses onto others. If you follow and perpetuate backward constructed conditions, then their extremes lead to genital mutilation, honor killings, witch burnings, etc. Religion and customs are inextricably intertwined. I can understand the pressure to hide yourself in Moslem countries to avoid ostracization, maiming, or death. But here in America, this so-called choice turns womanhood into a prison.

    I'm all for the French principles of Laicite - the separation of public from private. If you believe in superstitions and its associated symbology, then keep it in your head and in the privacy of your home. This goes for crosses, turbans, etc.

    If I want respect, I articulate eloquently, exceed in a male-dominated technical profession and continually expand my knowledge-base and skillset. Following backward bronze-age customs will get you nowhere, but make you hidden, silent, and living without the freedom and liberty to fully know yourself and the world. Religion is the parasite of women.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
  17. GinCas

    The silly masochistic things people do to please their nonexistent supernatural beings! Now if only they just abused and oppressed themselves, all would be well, but unfortunately as they gain power and acceptance, they start imposing their ritualistic behaviors on those who don't share them!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
    • Frank

      Thats exactly what they are trying to do. That Muslim that is suing Disney so she can wear her Hajib Rag, or whatever it is, I promise you was a well thought out plan by the Muslim Brotherhood and you can bet there will be a Muslim attorney representing her probono (FREE) The reason being that if they win this lawsuit it will give them yet more power to start their push on American to accept Shariah Law and continue their plan to take over the U.S. Thats the entire goal of ISLAM, to rule the world. Thats why you never hear any Muslims condemning terrorist attacks even though their Koran tells them to lie to the infidels, they still stay silent. They must think we are complete idiots, well our leaders and lawmakers are because they are handing ISLAM our country on a silver platter, just like Europe has already done! Were NEXT! They are HERE AMERICA! Not in middle east. THEY ARE HEAR! Everyone involved in 911 was living here, training in our flight schools, living next door to you maybe, did it all right under our noses using the Mosques for training and sneaking around. We must be fools....

      August 23, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
    • Gwain52

      To GinCas & Frank: I completely agree with you.

      August 24, 2010 at 9:32 am |
  18. AVAIS

    Why ask for proof for everything, just observe and research to see what the harm is and what’s the benefit, I did that about hijab and benefits easily outnumber the harms.
    Go figure! Ahhhh…

    August 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
  19. Rob

    What a backwards mess Islam is. I see these Muslims in Bay Ridge Brooklyn everday with their hair and heads covered, I guess to be modest??? And then they have on 20 pounds of makeup and often tight jeans. I am at a loss how that is being modest....Or the ones that use their head scarf as a cell phone accessory, the tuck the phone against their ear and put the scarf over it..Instant handless.....How is that modest...Give me a break

    August 23, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
  20. Basil

    All this talk of wanting to please God. Why are we born naked if God wants us to hide our features which he gave us. Nature gives men and women features which should attract an opposite in order to procreate. Hiding eliminates the possiblity of free expression. If Muslim women are afraid that their incredible good looks will cause undue attention then I can understand the need to hide but I have never seen a good looking muslim women.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:46 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.