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. Chuck

    What a crook of crap..... Islam is not a peacefull religion, especially the latest version....
    If it was so peaceful why is it that it says anyone who isnt a muslim is an infidel and should be killed ?
    Why is it ok for the follwers to lie to others about the real islam that supports Sharia law ?

    All of it based on controlling the followers and destroying all other religions or legal structures.. if you dont like democrazy I say move to IRAN

    August 23, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
  2. Mary

    From the article: "...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."
    Any woman who would dress like that is obviously going to attract male attention, wanted or not. There is a nice gray area between dressing like a tramp and wearing a niqab. You can wear modest tops and pants that aren't skin tight. There's no need to walk around covered from head to toe. I have serious doubts that men would respect her more as she's covered in Muslim gear.

    Oh, and women DON'T have to wear make-up, etc. to beautify themselves for men. I wear make-up b/c I want to, b/c I like how it makes me look. If I feel like walking out without it (again, b/c it's what I want to do), then I do that. Running to cover up isn't necessarily the most liberating action.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:26 pm |

    I have to agree I wore a nylon stocking to cover my face and the liquor store owner pulled a gun and chased me out of the store... Unbelievable !!!!!.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
  4. Rob

    I couldn't care one way or the other, unless it's a security issue. Like a driver's license photo or some other form of legal ID.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
  5. K.S.


    The teachings of Islam concerning hijab (the veil) and segregation of the sexes is probably the most confusing and difficult to accept for Western society. This is because of the widespread and erroneous notion that observing hijab is a heavy restriction imposed on Muslim women. In fact, the very opposite is true. You will find that hijab is a means of protecting women, and providing them with freedom from many social ills. The word "purdah" is also used to describe the concept and the practice of hijab.

    Islam provides guidance not only for individuals, but also lays down rules for the good of all society. In this case, the institution of hijab/purdah guards the moral condition of society. Muslim women not only have responsibilities as wife, mother and daughter, they also share with men the responsibility of upholding the moral standard of society. The Holy Qur'an has laid down that one of the methods that men and women are to use to achieve that goal is hijab. It says:

    "Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do." (24:31)
    "Say to the believing women that they restrain their looks and guard their private parts, and that they display not their beauty or their embellishment except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head coverings over their bosoms....." (24:32)

    The verse goes on to list close relatives from whom observing hijab/purdah is not necessary.
    From these verses it is made clear that both men and women are to conduct themselves with modesty and propriety at all times, and especially when in each other's presence. This teaching is based on the fact that Islam recognizes that "prevention is the better part of a cure." So segregation of the sexes is prescribed so that situations which cannot be controlled afterwards, are not allowed to develop in the first place. In this way, erosion of moral values can be prevented, and society is safeguarded from problems such as adultery, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

    The Holy Qur'an requires that Muslim women dress modestly, cover their heads and wear an outer garment to conceal their beauty from strangers. However, you must understand that this physical covering is the only first step to developing hijab. The true and full observance of hijab/purdah is achieved when "veiling" extends to a man or woman's mind and heart. This means that one should veil or shield his/her mind and heart from impure and immoral thoughts when in contact with the opposite sex. One's thoughts, words and actions should reflect a sisterly love and respect towards fellow beings. This behavior leads to one's own moral upliftment, and also creates an atmosphere where men and women, instead of resenting and degrading each other, treat each other with respect and understanding.

    Another verse of the Holy Qur'an states:

    "O Prophet! tell thy wives and thy daughters, and the women of the believers, that they should pull down upon them of their outer cloaks from their heads over their faces. That is more likely that they may thus be recognized and not molested. And Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful." (33:60)

    A woman who is following the rules of hijab in her dress and actions is not likely to be treated in a disrespectful way by men. Thus hijab/purdah provides Muslim women with freedom from some of the problems that women in Western society are facing today. In Islam woman is not regarded as a "sex object," nor is she exploited or harassed in this demeaning manner. As you are probably aware, various feminist movements are trying to deal with these issues today, sometimes with little success.

    Islam has undoubtedly given woman dignity and honor through hijab/purdah, and has provided a protection for her so that she can pursue her activities more freely. This gives Muslim women peace of mind. You may have noticed that most Muslim women who follow the practice of hijab/purdah appear to be more relaxed and at ease with themselves. This is because Islam has reduced the importance of physical appearance as a mark of self-esteem. A Muslim woman is free to develop in herself other talents, and does not have to rely on her physical beauty to achieve what she wants. At the same time when a woman practices hijab/purdah in the true manner, she fulfills her responsibility to society and gains satisfaction in the knowledge that she is able to gain nearness to Allah.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
  6. seward1967

    I say to these stinkin Muslims, get rid of the rags on your head and body. You are in America Now.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
  7. Joellli

    What I don't understand for those who are against neqab, Do you prefer to see women dressing half naked, 1/3-3/4 of the boobs out and very short dresses or to see someone dressing by covering well her woman parts? Honestly, those with half of boobs open do not feel comfortable when men stare on them, why do they sometimes try to cover themselves? Sometimes thongs are visible and they try to cover or displaying tattoos behind their backs? If you feel that you are comfortable having your top part of your thong visible or half of your boobs visible when covering later? Leave them because when you looked at your mirror before you left your house , you saw that boobs are visible.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  8. Abu Jabir

    “These guys are animals. If they saw a female dog, they would harass it,” Hind Sayed, a 20-year-old sidewalk vendor in Cairo’s Mohandisseen district, said, staring coldly at a knot of male vendors who stood grinning a few feet from her.
    In accord with her interpretation of Islamic law, which says women should dress modestly, Sayed wore a flowing black robe and black veil. Together, they covered all but her hands and her pale face with its drawn-on, expressive eyebrows. Despite her attire, Sayed said, she daily endures suggestive comments from male customers and fellow vendors.
    “I think a woman who wears hijab can be more provocative to them,” Sayed said. “The more covered up you are, the more interesting you are to them.”
    Zuhair Mohammed
    , a 60-year-old shopper on the same street, said she long ago stopped wearing the traditional Islamic covering, in part for that reason.
    “I feel like with the hijab, it makes them wonder, ‘What are you hiding underneath?’ ” Mohammed said.
    Mona Eltahawy, a 41-year-old Egyptian social commentator who now lives, unveiled, in the United States, said that as a Muslim woman who wore hijab for nine years and was harassed “countless times” in Egypt, she has concluded that the increase in veiling has somehow contributed to the increase in harassment.
    “The more women veil the less men learn to behave as decent and civilized members of society,” Eltahawy wrote in an interview via Facebook. “And the more women are harassed, the more they veil thinking it will ‘protect’ them.”

    August 23, 2010 at 6:22 pm |
  9. John Kantor

    It's not a "choice" – it's a repressive ideology.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
  10. John Kantor

    The veil and the Burqa exist for only one reason: to deny women access to the public space – and to keep them as chattel.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
  11. Inner Angst

    I'm right! No, I am.
    I am, because my God says so.
    I am, because my PhD says so.
    I am, because years of meditation and my Bohemian lifestyle say so.
    I am, because I'm stronger than you, and you will obey.
    I am, because my way has worked for me, therefore it must work for everyone else!

    I may be right, I may be wrong, as long as I'm not hurting you, let me be.... please.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
  12. Rachy

    I'm bemused by the comment that people can judge a woman by the content of her character when she is completely shrouded and unapproachable. When shopping in the UK, I felt intimidated by a group of women in these clothes, who make no attempt to make friendly conversation when standing in line, or make passing greetings like other women. They dress as if they want to separate themselves from everyone, so it's no wonder that people accustomed to an open society feel uncomfortable around such people. It's the same effect as if I wore a bag over my head with two eyeholes cut out. It just doesn't FEEL right to us. It feels threatening somehow, even though I'm sure that isn't the intention.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  13. CN

    And by the way, has anyone noted the eye makeup on Nadia?

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

    America is the land of free. It really won't matter here what you wear. But I would love to know what these three females think of muslim women in Iraq or Afganistan????

    August 23, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
  15. KVAN11

    She's probably trying to get a job at Disney so she can sue them.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  16. Joseph

    If I could have 3 wishes the first one would be to completely erase all religion from the face of the earth. Anything and everything to do with it would be gone! Wearing a bee keeper’s outfit in the name of religion and freedom is ridiculous. You don't need to see me to know me? Oh I see that your brain washed. And while there are some people in this country who are afraid to admit their feelings let me be one of the few who speak for a good majority. Please get rid of all the Muslims in this country. Send them away........far away. I don't care where. If someone were to nuke them all, I'm not afraid to admit that I would not cry. My comments may seem like I am angry, but it's quite the opposite. I sit here calm, collective and aware of what I'm saying. What a great way to start the end of all religion: and yes, we should start with the Muslims.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
    • Inner Angst

      If you are truly calm.... You're a very scary person, and no different then the calm suicide bomber who is very calm about what they are about to do...

      August 23, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
  17. Phillip D.

    Woman's Issues in Islam:

    August 23, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  18. AmeriCanadian

    Doesn't matter what these (kinda poor) women say...brainwashing, sexism, chauvinism and 15th century type mentality is why they do it. IT is an affront to modern women everywhere, not even hardcore Xtians (ie: Amish) make women cover their faces in this fashion.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
  19. bodesnotwell

    I believe there is an active Islamic fifth column at work in the US to undertake a long term goal of molding our society to their concept. That's not to say all Muslims are knowingly participating in this effort, I'm sure many just want to practice their own faith in peace. I think we're going to see more and more challenges to what most feel are our social norms.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
  20. Mojonaamdi

    I am a Muslima & I challenge any of these women to prove to me that the niqab is required or for that matter the head covering. The head covering is a tradition that was inherited from the time of Moses (Peace be on him). There is nothingteh the Holy Qur'an that states Muslim women must covertheir hair. In fact, the only evidence of any such requirement is a very weak hadith (saying) of teh Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, that indicated such a requirement. The Holy Qur'an is the authority and if God wanted it to be that way, I believe that He would have made it clear. Modesty is required oer the Holy Qur'an for both women and men.
    In Islam two people (man & Woman) walking together needs to be known, lest there be any suspicion of wrong doing. This is why marriages in Islam MUST be made known & public. The niqab does not facilitate this and therefore cannot be right.
    Thank you.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:13 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.