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. Andrew

    I can't dispute that these two women truly embrace Islamic dress and benefit from this choice. However, in providing these anecdotes as counterpoints to comments by Sarkozy that these garments represent subservience, Soraya Salam and CNN cross the line from wishful thinking to deception.

    Let's consider one more data point (bringing the total to 3) in the story of Canadian Muslim Aqsa Parvez, who was murdered by her father and brother for refusing to wear the hijab (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aqsa_Parvez). Then, since these two examples are apparently relevant to legislation in Europe to ban the burqa, let's continue to broaden the international context to include the Middle East, where women are required to wear the head coverings by law in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afganistan, and coerced by violence in several others.

    Equal treatment of women under Islam? How about child brides in Yemen and Gaza, unequal value of a woman's testimony in court, and unequal inheritance for females compared to their brothers...all given precedent in the Q'uran (contrary to another unsubstantiated assertion in the article).

    There is a story here, and the one you've told is conveniently incomplete. Shame on you.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
  2. Brian James

    Parents shouldn't be able to make their kids cover their faces until they're 18 and have the ability to make the choice for themselves.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
  3. JustPlainJoe

    Interesting discussion, however the primary issue continues to be the battle between regression to primitive behaviors verses progression toward equality across all religions and cultures. Modernism is flexible and transformative and self correcting. Primitive thinking is rigid and ultimately only stands with its back to the wall. The rituals of primitivism are repressive no matter with it is the clothing or adoration of a dictator, Iman or Pope. Let people be educated and decide for themselves. Systems will self correct.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
  4. james

    i still don't get it

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

    I've never seen a picture of the Virgin Mary WITHOUT a head covering.
    same message, modesty.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  6. Leo

    My ONLY issue is with the niqab and the burqa for ONLY the following reason: It CONCEALS IDENTITY.

    In our society, if a person walks into a bank wearing a ski mask, you can bet your butt that the security guards will deal with it. There's a standard in Western society that says that honest people will show their faces. Even if the only intent held by these women is to adhere to their religion or to be closer to God, that doesn't change the fact that Western society wants people to show their faces.

    I have no problem with the hijab. To me, it's no different than a nun wearing a habit. Just show your face.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  7. kind stranger

    I've never seen a picture of the Virgin Mary with out a head covering.
    Modesty is all.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
  8. Formerly Islamotolerant

    They want to take focus OFF of their appearance? Uh, mission NOT accomplished. When I see the hijab or a burka I think "brainwashed Islamic woman". I used to not think of this until Islamofascism became so prevalent in our world without any measurable objection from so-called "good Muslims". I believe there are good Muslims, and many of them, but where is the condemnation of violence, oppression, terrorism, and general hate towards infidels? No, until the good Muslim people of the world start to show that they DO NOT accept Islamofascism, I will associate all Islam with the worst of their ranks.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  9. Murali-Devavrata

    Why there is so much of muslims talking about their rights or wish to wear whatever they like? But in many muslim countries non-muslims or even muslims dont have have that liberty. I find it strange of this kind of expression of freedom.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  10. sahar

    i Just googled Nuns and a picture came up with a female covered all the way in proper clothes. WAIT its similar to how a muslim female dresses. then i googled priest and he was covered but his head wasnt. THATS SIMILAR TO MUSLIM MALES DRESS CODE.

    so how come no one asks the priest to cover their heads or the nuns to reveal their body.
    or wait is it because half of these people dont attend churches and dont know anything about their religion but love to interfere in someone elses faith.

    PEOPLE if going to the church is SO HARD...GOOGLE IT. we really need good education in America, and those morans in other countries fly here to study... SMH

    August 23, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
  11. donna

    Thank you Nadia and Aliya for wearing the hijab and not provoking men's uncontrollable lust.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
  12. Scott

    This is cultural – not a religious requirement....and in our society today can be dangerous.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  13. neo

    This is a news story?! CNN is such a propaganda outlet, and not a news organization.

    And these 'reporters' promoting such causes are fools as well. Such Libs would be the first to lose their heads if Islam were to take over the U.S. And that is Islam's goal.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  14. Midwestmatt

    This is NOT a promotion of modesty as asserted by the Islamic faith. It is one more example of the subjugation of women by one aspect of a normally peaceful faith. Muslim men are not required to be modest only because they are in charge and they want to maintain their supremacy within the faith. Demanding that women cover themselves is the most basic form of mind control.

    To say that modesty on the part of women is required in order to "not inflame" men is another absurd notion founded centuries ago. These coverings are an insult to women and men as it does little more than say to women you are nothing but objects if you show your face and then tells men that they have no constraint when it comes to uncovered women.

    Both are ridiculous and just because these coverings have a place in history makes them no more relevant to today's time. They are antiquated and useless.

    Men, in western cultures, can relate to women without objectifying them. We grew up years ago. It's time for the Muslim culture to do the same thing.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
  15. obfuscate

    Just another nut. But it's choice to wear whatever she wants. I doubt she'll get through airport security checks though.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:33 pm |
  16. kroolk

    You know ... if you want to dress like a beekeeper go right ahead! But don't be offended when people assume things, have opinions or pass judgment based on something you are wearing. They have just as much of a right to pass that judgment, think what they're thinking, walk down the other side of the street as you do wearing that bloody thing.

    So when you see "rude" comments on here, don't expect anything else. Whenever the media brings up Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, whatever. It's never because they invented the new Huggy Bear or created some life saving mechanism. Therefore people associate that news with your religion/ religious swag and pass judgment.

    Point to my rant: Wear what you want, but don't be surprised if you get weird looks and strange comments...

    August 23, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  17. John Smith

    Most of the muslin countries still live in the stone age and whatever they have is thanks to western countries. Do they invent, produce, or manufacturer something besides wars and killings? So why do they hate civilize societies?

    August 23, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  18. Abu Jabir

    Indonesia: Sharia Law Forcing Non-Muslims to Wear Hijab

    The controversial local laws inspired by sharia are now being applied to non-Muslim citizens. Female students who do not wear the headscarf are suspended, and few have the courage to rebel, because of fear of reprisals from fundamentalists.
    In Padang, capital of the province of West Sumatra, the atmosphere is increasingly that of an Islamic state. Female students who do not wear the headscarf (hijab) are frequently suspended from school. The requirement to observe Islamic customs, sanctioned by the controversial regional law of 2005, is also imposed on non-Muslim girls, and has generated an atmosphere of strong pressure on religious minorities. The proliferation of local laws inspired by sharia (perda syariat) is a growing phenomenon in Indonesia, but the central government has chosen not to intervene for now, in spite of protests from religious minorities and human rights NGO’s.
    The application of the headscarf law in Padang is going beyond all imaginable limits, the inhabitants of the area say. An anonymous Catholic young woman admits: “Wearing the headscarf is not pleasant for me at all, and it bothers me while I am studying in school”. Other female students in various schools complain about the same thing. If they are interviewed by journalists, the young women ask not be named, because they are afraid of “being persecuted by fundamentalists”. “We have to adapt”, they say, “we have no choice, otherwise they will send us home”. Sudarto, one of the members of a local NGO that works for interreligious dialogue, reports that the headscarf law is applied strictly in at least four schools in Padang.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
  19. Melissa

    The funny thing is, the Bible orders Christian women to cover their heads as well, but no Christian woman does. Interestingly, the reason why it is ordered for muslim women is for protection from men (unwanted attention, sexual harassment/assault, etc), but in Christianity, women are ordered to cover their heads to show men's authority over them. When Islam was revealed, women were granted rights that they never had under Christianity and were considered human beings as opposed to property.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
  20. pockets

    The more I read about Muslims and their gear the more I believe that Religion of any sector in society is a mental illness. The whole concept of a god is ignorant of they very fabric that made us what we are and that fabric is evolution. Not some pie in the sky old man who is consumed by nudity and what goes on in the bedrooms. People who preach this nonsense are dangerous and mentally ill. I find the whole idea of a god or supreme being to be infantile, and it borders on the infancy of intelligence. Please science prove these 'cave people' totally wrong and what they practice to be stupidity in the highest degree. Religion poisons everything.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:29 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.