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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. Crom

    Feel free to do it in your own country where islam/muslims rule... they Dont' rule in Canada or the USA so take it off and leave it off or feel the rath of the people against this crap.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
    • nina

      so IF you say they are "forced" to wear it there, are they forced to NOT wear it here? And if that were the case then where are people allowed to dress freely? so you're saying we are no better then them.

      August 24, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
    • Patrice

      One small problem with that t THIS IS THEIR COUNTRY one of them was born and raised in Washington DC.

      April 11, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  2. Stoprunning

    historic headline discovered in one of the internet tubes

    CNN.COM August 23, 1864

    Slave claims ideas about slavery bigoted, condemns Civil War.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
  3. Sandy

    I'm thinking of this psychologically for a moment rather than as a religious or women's liberation issue. I think there is a lot of negative reaction to the niqab (compared to a hijab, a thawb, a turban, a yarmulke, etc) because it hides the emotion, identity, and intention that we are used to seeing in someone's face. If you're not used to it, it can be disconcerting to interact with someone who's intentions and expressions are literally veiled, especially when there is already a climate of xenophobia towards Islam in the West. I think it will always disconcert some people in a way that the hijab won't, because of this human connection factor. Unfortunately, the discussion will continue focus on other aspects of the controversy.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  4. ED

    Can't wait to see on news how someone is being discriminated against because she goes into a bank and is told to take the hijab off. A big stink will insue and she will win a case for x amount of dollars for discrimination. Its just a matter of time till laws are manipulated to accomodate.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
    • Patrice

      Actually there have already been a few lawsuits regarding just what you've discribed. Not brought by muslim women but by sihk men who as part of thier religion must cover their heads.

      April 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  5. Warhammer

    Muslim women not oppressed? What is the religion that forces young women to marry older men? What is the religion that does not allow women to own anything? It's definitely not Christianity. I'm not saying that Christianity doesn't have it's problems, but at least we respect our women and treat them with far more equality than the other religions out there. I always feel sorry for the women of this religion. If the men in this religion treated their women with the same dignity and respect as those of the Christian religion, just imagine how much better off their countries would be. The US is great because we have not only the creative intellect of men but we have women as well! Women before my generation fought to have equal rights and man what a difference it has made. It takes a great woman to make a great man. The men of this religion will eventually figure out how wrong they are to treat their women this way. Hopefully sooner than later.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
    • xx

      Well, actually, if you had bothered to study what you're saying, you'd know that Muslim women actually get to keep their own property. They have for centuries, WAY before Christianity and many other religions. Also, women don't have to marry older men & aren't forced into marriages. Forced marriages are strictly against Islam. Don't judge muslims by the actions of some, and what you see in some third world countries isn't Islam, it's a merging of Islam and local culture, which isn't Islam.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
    • FactChecker

      Have you ever talked to a Muslim woman?

      Do you realize that in many muslim coutries more muslim women have unversity degrees than musilm men – even in Iran.

      Also Islam gave property rights to women before any other religion. If all arab news showed on their tv was rape and physical abuse statistics in America what do you think they would think of us Americans? Don't lump the majority because of the actions of a few or what you see on tv.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
    • Bernie

      XX while forced marriage is not a part of Islam, it happens all the time, not only with women but also with men. And while women get to keep their own property as per Islam you know very well that this does not always happen.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
    • lovecats101

      You are confusing religion with some cultures and the actions of some people.

      August 23, 2010 at 8:50 pm |
  6. Spike5

    I understand what this writer is saying and I believe that she is sincere. But even though American women have the choice of whether to cover their faces and bodies, their co-religionists in the middle east do not generally have that option. By wearing the veil out of choice, they are providing ammunition to groups like the Taliban who force women into submissive roles.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
    • 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.

      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 5:48 pm |
  7. Toejam

    It is not your choice to threatinging. You are wearing a common criminal tool. Why is only your freedom important when your freedom threatens all others. I've been in stores with people in hijab and burqa's. I feel threatend, If I were going to rob the store, that is what I would wear. I leave.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  8. chearn

    "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." The problem I have with this ridiculous attitude is that women in this country fought long and hard to change the our society's belief that a woman was responsible for the actions of others because of how she looked. The idea that a woman has to cover her face/body for others to respect her sets woman's rights back 50 years. She is wrong to believe that someone will respect her more because she is wearing the hajib or the naqib. Why is that any different than a woman wearing a short skirt? The point is that women should always be respected for who they are and the actions they take. It seems to me that Islam and these women are saying respect only is to be given if you don't know who they are or what the look like. I find this belief to go against everything I fought for as a feminist of the sixties.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  9. Confused

    If the purpose of wearing this is so she will not be judged by her physical appearance why do men not do the same thing? I am constantly judged according to my appearance as a man? Is it because women are taught to be ashamed of expressing sexuality? People were, and still are in some places, judged negatively according to their race. Should we hide everyone's race behind clothing or she we develop a more mature and thoughtful society that approaches these problems directly? What about the issue of compulsion? It is true women in America feel compelled to dress according to prevailing societal standards, some of which is risque and impractical for some females. This compulsion seems just as sad as a women being compelled to hide herself. People may reply, she is not being compelled! and yet if she does not do it this means she does not love God as much as a woman who does? Can an actual muslim woman please help me here?

    August 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
    • Patrice

      I wonder why no one raises these same questions about ultra orthodox and orthodox jewish women. Is it because they do not cover thier faces? Some do wear scarves to cover their hair and modest clothing ie long sleaves long skirts, They will not speak to a man who is not thier husband or male relative on the street. Take a stroll in the Williamsburg section of brooklyn. Not exactly part of main stream USA culture, but no one seems to care. BUT see a woman covered from head to toe and she is oppressed. Why the double standard is what I would like to know.

      April 11, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  10. Jim Barrow

    This article is an eye opener for me and I think for many other people also.., they are wearing it by choice and they are not forced...? that's good..

    August 23, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
  11. KC

    And yet in Toronto young women have been killed because they do not want to wear the burka.

    When I hear women praising the burka I wonder how it can be their independent decision.

    And if it is true respect for their religion, why aren't the men dressed as modestly? Why do the men wear shorts and T-shirts while the women trail behind them covered from head to toe?

    August 23, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
  12. JennieJohn

    If it is about character and having others look past one's appearance, then men should cover too. Otherwise, it is sexist and misogynist.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
  13. fsg

    also, i could believe this is a woman's choice if it weren't for the most part coercion. if you risk harm by not doing something, then your choice is not a real choice. this is why a bathing suit less 'restrictive'. in the US, i dont risk being killed for wearing or not wearing a bathing suit. in the places mentioned, you do face harassment and threats of bodily harm for your decision to wear or not wear a headscarf.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
  14. FBS

    Modesty? Then why do these women wear tons of eye makeup? Doesn't that call attention to one of the most alluring parts of a woman's face? Also in these times where security must be at an all time high, let's err on the side of caution and have everyone reveal their faces. As far as the extremist who will go to any extent to do us harm, the MEN will be hiding under the veil as well.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
  15. Jeff

    Perhaps it really all boils down to fear. Maybe the men in the Middle east really fear the strength, love, vulnerability and power of the feminine, so even though they use the mask of religion to base their case on, could it be that really deep down underneath all the religious BS They are really just scared of loosing the control, manipulation and power they have had over women for centuries.

    A real man doesn't need to have his wife covered up out of fear. A real man want any woman to enjoy the same freedoms and life experiences as he does.

    Something that is not often mentioned when it comes to this issue, is how afraid these men really are!!

    August 23, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
    • VA

      And what's the divorce rate in this fearless society?

      August 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
    • It's true

      VA since you love the muslim faith so much why don't you leave this country and go live in Indonesia or the middle east. Always room for another convert in their mud huts. YOU are part of the problem.

      August 24, 2010 at 5:21 am |
  16. Anon

    My issue with the covering of these women's face, is that they are hiding their identity. They could be a man who has just robbed a bank or have a machine gun concealed under all of that cloth. That is unacceptable for other citizens' safety the same way that trench coats can conceal dangers and are therefore no longer allowed in schools. Also, if the covering is a sign of religious subservience, why do men not cover themselves? Also, I'm sorry to say that men will objectify women no matter what they are wearing. Just because your curves are somewhat misconstrued does not mean that a man cannot imagine and objectify what is underneath. Many women of all religions would like to be known for their personality and intelligence rather than their beauty and this is possible without a headcovering. Wearing the coverings themselves is also a means of attracting attention in a society that does not cover themselves in this way. In America, by wearing the covering you are attracting more unwanted attention than if you were to simply wear a conservative top and jeans.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  17. JohnRJ08

    By covering their faces, these two women make it impossible for people to judge them for their "intellect and personalities". By covering themselves, they actually draw more attention to what they look like underneath. They also brand themselves as a faceless members of a religious system, rather than as individuals. By hiding their faces, they also hide one of our primary means of communication– our facial expressions. So their logic makes little sense to me. Rather, it sounds like the convoluted rationalization of two women who have been subjugated by men for so long that they're suffering from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. They have become apologists for an archaic, tradition-driven practice which has always been dictated by the insecure, paranoid men in their culture. The notion that a woman who shows her face in public is never judged by her character and intellect is preposterous. Perhaps it is that way in a purely Muslim society where men are incapable of looking at a woman any other way.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
    • VA

      You do realize that a very small percentage of women in Arab countries are covered up this much.

      August 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • Nathalie

      Thank you for your spot-on answer. I always laugh so hard when these girls say it's about "modesty". There is nothing "modest" about wearing a face covering and all that other stuff-it only attracts attention and looks utterly ridiculous. It says "no longer a human being".

      August 23, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      But don't take their words for it! They don't sound like they know their own minds ... or did you bother to listen to them?

      August 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
    • Amber

      Right! Haven't they heard of turtlenecks? I really understand if they don't want to show off their breasts or legs, just wear a long sleeved sweater and jeans, or pants. The fact that they cover their face is what is weird. Ones face is not sexual. Its really just a silly argument. If that is true they are saying that Muslim men cannot be trusted to control themselves around women and if even a glimpse of her body outside of the square of her eyes is seen its all over! Its a bit ridiculous. There are some that just do the hair scarves, can anyone explain that? face fully showing, regular clothes, but neck and hair wrapped in a scarf. I don't think those areas are particularly sexual. Maybe I'm not meant to understand it but overall I guess the arguments just seem preposterous and archaic. However, if they want to wear them that is their freedom in America as long as it does not violate any law here, the whole face covered seems like it could cause a little bit of trouble.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  18. Spike5

    If keeping one's face and body completely covered were really about closeness to god and about not being judged by appearance but rather by intellect and mind, why is it only women and not also men?

    We all know that men as well as women are judged by their looks and their bodies. Handsome men with attractive features are generally more successful than ugly men. Sure, it's not as clear cut with men, but take a look at the men who win public office, who lead corporations, etc. How many of them have 'weak chins,' or 'beady eyes' or any of the ways we insult people's faces.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
    • nina

      be honest would you really want a man covering his face, women are generally more harmless then men. give men a reason to cover their face and they'll just take advantage of it.

      August 24, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  19. John

    So men aren't good looking enough to be objectified and therefore don't need to cover up? Well, OK, I personally don't look good enough to worry about it, but isn't that a little sexist?

    August 23, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  20. hyperbatic

    a behavior that attracts so much attention is incompatible with modesty.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:18 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.