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. sarah

    Middle East = Expected
    West = Rude

    August 23, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
  2. michelle

    I just want a Muslim to clear this up for me...am I going to hell because I am not a Muslim? And if I don't convert when Islam takes over America, will I be killed...just like all the Christian martyrs and Jews and free people who've been killed by Muslims over the centuries? This question is just for the extreme Islamists...not the ones who think they've found peace by converting or just being one so they don't get killed themselves.

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

      No, the Holy Qur'an does not say that non-Muslims would go to hell. In fact it says that every nation was sent a messenger and that everyone would be given a just reward for what they do – good or bad. Christians, Jews and Sabiens are given a special name by God in The Holy Qur'an, i.e., "Ahl al Kitab" (People of the Book). Yes, we Muslims do believe that the original teachings of many religions became corrupt, but only God Almighty can judge who will or will not get to heaven. We also believe that HE is most Merciful, so hell may not be 'forever' as some like to say. The Holy Qur'an also says plainly that "nearest to you (Muslims) are Christians." When Islam was in it's infancy and Muslims had to flee Mecca, the prophet sent his followers to the Christian King in Abasynnia – because he was a "God fearing and just king" for protection.
      Thus, hardly I think a case for Muslims to believe that non-Muslims will automaticall go to hell.
      Let Allah (God) be the judge.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
  3. JJ

    Defining modesty is subject to the culture norm at the time. Covering one's self from head to toe and not talking to someone who isn't your husband is oppression. These woman may look content, well that's because you can;t see them and to ask them would not get an honest answer out of fear to speak out. It's to speak out when your own "righteous" religion forbids it. America had this problem in 50s with the Culture of Conformity. Housewives looked happy and appeared happy but were the subject of the worst kinds of mental depression because they had no social outlets. They were expected to set the table, clean the house, get the kids ready for school, and put on a smile for guests when they came over. There opinions never mattered or their wants in life were never expressed.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  4. Spoonless Eddie

    People. God does not care about your hat, or your coat, or your beard, or your pigtails, or what you eat, or on which day you eat it. Rules like this were made by men, not by God. God is not about drinking beer or smoking cigarettes, either. These rules too were made by men. Will we go on killing one another over these rules? Will we go on cutting off women's faces with knives? The Ottoman Empire is gone. The Crusades are gone. The 21st century is upon us. Get with it, or don't.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  5. Sevres Blue

    That's fine, dress the way you want, but you are frightening to look at. Think about it – what do you think a big being, covered entirely in flowing black cloth.... it's like a costume. Even nuns used to show their faces. I could accept their reasons for covering if the men wore them, too. Why are only women's cheeks, lips, arms, legs in need of being covered up. It IS sexist. And it is oppressive if they cover up because the men in their family would be outraged if they didn't. I think that in this culture we 'read' people by their facial expression. If you want to cover the rest of yourself up, fine.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
  6. jacob

    why do some of you people think the prophet of Islam's first wife was 7 years old?? where are you reading this? that is wrong....his first wife was at the age 25....the prophet wed a 40 year old woman named Khadijah. some of you need to get your facts right. i think the biggest problem here is education. its not that hard to get the right facts about Islam. just because you read one thing on the internet doesn't mean its right. there are almost 2 billion Muslims in the world and over 150 sects of Islam with many of them teaching the incorrect and/or perverted versions of Islam. there are also many anti-Islamic people out there that pervert the facts and scripture about Islam in order to promote hatred or there own philosophies and religion. just read the Quran yourself and make up your own opinion instead of reading what others say about it or teach of it. the truth doesn't come easy, people, you have to work for it. i think we should all read the holy books of all religions, think about it for some time, discuss it, and then formulate our opinions. i see so much ignorance in our country...its very scary. nobody wants to read and study anymore.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
  7. KBinMN

    Battered women also find ways to justity their abuse. I think the same psychology is at work here.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  8. Farhad

    Yes, Islam encourages woman to wear head scarf. But the question is what is the rule of Islam if woman does not wear (not prefer) head scarf. Not wearing head scarf does not mean someone is preferring to wear just an underwear. That is where the problem is and that is the main contribution of religion, wearing head scarf is not. People used to wear head scarf long before all these major religion ruled on the face of earth.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
  9. John

    ...if you really wanna stop this in America, just dress up with full Burka gear, face covered and everything and start a string of bank robberies across America...that will have the cops go nuts and pretty soon after that, I bet they'd pass a law against wearing them in public. ha.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
  10. Cyrus

    What a load of BS. I am man and i was born a Muslim in Iran and just recently ~5 years ago I denounced my faith. On the out side people say what they are forced to say, but in the inside they tell a different story. In my family and with friends I have witness how women have been indoctrinated or rather forced physiologically that they must wear the hijab or chador. If they did not they face stigma or severe consequences. I don't believe a word what these women said, they are scared and they will not be honest on what they really feel. My own mother wears the hijab because she is made too. I try convincing to not wear it but she is to afraid what her friends and family would think of her. My father has basically disowned for leaving but at this point i don't care. What ever these women say take it with a grain of salt. Fear makes them wear it and being honest about is something that can't be. Well this is my experience and i don't expect 100% of all Muslim women to be like this, there are some who don't even wear the hijab. If you read the Koran, the profit who's name i can not say had wives whom he feared would flirt with other men, to prevent this he ordered that women must wear the hijab, it was out of his jealousy that women have to wear the hijab. Never did Allah nor the angle Gabriel order him to make such rule, he made this due to his own insecurities. If you guys are interested in this read the Koran ans see for your self. Again this is what i have experience and still do.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
  11. Morgan

    Wow now ever time I see my GF with a towel on her head after showering I am going to freak out and jerk it off. Tell her NO and Hell No.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:03 pm |
  12. PhoenixDave

    Let's see... how many other parallels of female subjegation can we rationalize today?
    "Women Who Agree the Church is Right to Burn Witches Explain Their Choice"
    "Women Who Walk Behind Their Husbands Explain Their Choice"
    "Women Who Only Speak When Given Permission Explain Their Choice"
    "Women Who Have Their Daughters' Clitorises Cut Out Explain Their Choice"
    "Women Who Agree Girls Should Not Be Educated Explain Their Choice"
    "Women Who Agree They Should Not Have the Right to Vote Explain Their Choice"
    "Women Who Agree They Should Not Be Allowed to Own Property Explain Their Choice"
    "Women Who Agree 'The Woman's Place is in the Home' Explain Their Choice"

    Please! The hijab and niqab along with all the social and cultural restrictions that go with it is just another in a very long line of institutionalized ways (be they religious or secular) to subjegate women and girls, make them property, and control their lives. Unfortunately, it takes time for cultures to mature beyond this female-as-property ethic.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  13. sarah

    When I go 'East' I behave in a respectuf way (even if it means covering my self). Or should I behave in a way that I (self-centerdly) FEEL that I am entitled to as a Wester women?
    For those that choose to live 'West' should respect the Western way of living. Who are you to preach and/or change the way WE think. WE say its rude to cover your face (cloth/suglasses)when you are speaking with someone. Bottom line. Its extremely disrespectful.
    I am not igorant, I was not born on raised here, but I respect where I am.
    When I am in a Budist coutry I don't show them bottom of my feet or touch their heads. When I am in the Middle East, I don't wear bathing suit on the beach, or tanktop in public.
    Why is it when everyone comes here, they do not respect American culture the way we respect others.
    I think people are getting sick of it and that is why you will have to defend your rudness.
    I belive in GOD and he told me to treat others the way I want to be treated. There is a lot to learn from this.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  14. Frank Rizzo

    The wearing of the veil, and or covering from head to toe is (NOT AN ISLAMIC REQUIREMENT NEVER HAS BEEN & NEVER WILL BE) what you're witnessing here is a (ARABIC CULTURE TRADITION). These Muslim Women and others are the People that are Hijacking Islam and causing non-Muslims to feel the way they do. Real Believers of Islam don't wanna have anything to do with these People. There is only one ISLAM, everything else does not matter.

    The Arabic men who caused 911 not followers of Islam they're Criminals, and their Wacko Leader Osama Bin Ladan and any others that may fellow his wacko understanding of Islam. I have many friends from all walks of life, and yes religions and I know that there is bad apples in every group. Today it's Muslims, tomorrow it may be you. Let's stop madness before it destroys our Nation and why not?

    August 23, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  15. Kathy

    Facial expression is one of the most important parts of communication. How sad to not be able to let a person see your smile!

    August 23, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  16. me, Philadelphia, PA

    I can appreciate that they want to be judged for their intellect instead of appearance, but men are the same everywhere – they like the chase and covering up like that makes them sit there and not only wonder what they look like under there, but also how they can find out.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  17. Maria Elena

    All of these women, most of them since birth, have been indoctrinated/brainwash/etc...all of their lives. That's all they know that they are less than a human being...that man is their master and all women are, are pure slaves. how sad. They even submit to being stoned, to have group of 4 men witness if they are raped, etc, etc.
    WAKE UP AMERICA...RADICAL MUSLIMS ARE WORKING STEALTHILY TO OVERTAKE OUR COUNTRY AND PUT IT UNDER SHARIA LAW. They are right under our noses, working in prisons to convert thousands to radical Islam, doing their honor killings, and so.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  18. MM

    Let me tell you all a little something about disrespecting women. What higher form of disrespecting women could there possibly be than cheating on them time and again? What is the rate of adultery in the US – 50%, 60%? Why is the divorce rate 50%? Isn't wrecking a marriage and causing long term emotional damage disrespectful? Americans could care less about their own morality but are eager to judge others. Whatever the true purpose of the hijaab, it certainly seems to be less disrespectful of women to me.

    August 23, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
    • Guest

      Saudi divorce rates are no less than 50%. Per one article it is as high as 62% (http://www.arabianbusiness.com/524652-surging-saudi-divorces-rate-sparks-new-law )

      August 24, 2010 at 3:19 am |
  19. AS

    I appreciate both women for standing up to what they believe in! I am not a muslim and not a US citizen, but the first time I came to the US, I actually felt free - free to dress as I wanted to without having to answer to criticisms from others who really had no business telling me what to do. Why should the same freedom that lets me wear jeans not be given to these women who want to wear their traditional clothes for whatever reason. As long as it is not forced on them, as long as it is not offensive, why persecute them!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  20. Rock God

    How is it not sexist if the men don't have to wear hajibs? Any religion, including Christianity, that views God as male is evil. Evolve, people!

    August 23, 2010 at 5:56 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.