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. Joe

    You posters are all just freak'in, pathetic losers! Everyone thinks they know it all, but none of you know diddly pooh! Get a life!!!

    August 23, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
  2. David, Tampa

    What a tale of baloney. As soon as the social FORCES that cause them to be covered are removed, the coverings are removed. So let’s be honest ladies. The boyz are FORCING you to cover. All the Quran says about it is " A man should not display his wife in the marketplace as he would a flower" Give me a break. You standing in the sun in a black covering does not lead me to you intellect.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
  3. Ebs NE

    Here in the US covering up is a choice - women here play with the idea as they wish - but the vast majority of Muslim women have no choice. It is forced upon them to be faceless and dehumanized outside their immediate family. Of course it is sexism and oppression - only women have to do it. Amazing how people try and justify it and make excuses. Liberating? Right. That's why under so many burqas women wear loads of makeup, jewelry, etc.Covering up makes a woman even more of a sex object, as more of their body is considered too sexy to display, even a glimpse of hair. Time to come out of the dark ages and stop this sexist dehumanizing nonsense. The world will be a far far better place for it, with Muslim women allowed the same rights and freedoms as men.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
  4. AbuHana

    They cover themselves up to hide the stink and uglinest!

    August 23, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
  5. Ruby

    If moderate and righteous muslims would only cared more about the outrageous treatment of their "dear sisters" and stand against extremists, we likely wouldn't be at war. You can't shrug your sholders when your peers are stoning women and blowing up innocents. If muslims could manage their own population, the rest of the world wouldn't have to!

    August 23, 2010 at 7:11 pm |
  6. Mearder

    To User (Kate)

    Shut up Kate eat a cake
    Religion is Stupid and ridiculous to all those who believe in a god are retards with people like MUSLIMS and yourself (Kate)
    there should nt be no place for you in this modern world (Kate) beside your nicely sugar coated words tolerating MUSLIMS
    is nuts tolerance yes but not when its ridiculous

    August 23, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
    • Kate


      I'm sorry, I only speak English ...

      August 23, 2010 at 8:25 pm |
  7. Vicky

    I am sorry to offend anyone, but in this day and age of all the terrorism, they need to take off the stuff they wear. For example, while at a Doctors appointment at a well know place, someone covered head to toe in this stuff scared the h@@ out of my 12 year old daughter, she though we were about to be killed. this is America, live by our rules or go back to the wonderful place you came from

    August 23, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
    • ade

      please help educate your daughter so she will not spread your fear of the unknown.

      August 23, 2010 at 8:20 pm |
  8. susanbellnc

    I am glad I saw this article. It is a great look at this part of Muslim religion that seems to cause so much concern with so many people. I am going to post it on my Facebook page and I hope my friends click on and read it as well. I am torn though when it comes to situations such as in convenience stores and such not wanting someone whose face is covered to come into the store. I used to work in a convenience store, and it can be scary at times. I had a man come in with his motorcycle helmet w/ visor still on, and I was required to ask him to remove it so we, and the cameras, could actually see his face. That would be a hard thing for me to have to decide, the aspect of religious freedom versus the safety issue. I'm glad I don't have to make that decision.

    These women are doing what they feel they need to do in order to be closer to God and practice their religion. After 9/11, that became so much more difficult for them. I applaud them. And I especially applaud the fact that they are willing to answer questions that people sometimes bring to them. Open communication is the only way we will have more understanding and tolerance.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:06 pm |
  9. sk

    religious beliefs aside, living in society requires some accepted norms of behaviour -which is why one cant walk around without clothes in public,without being arrested- the same should apply for clothes that completely cover you where one cannot even recognize the person they are interacting with.. it is not about religion– more about what is acceptable societally without causing disruption or posing a threat - you cant expect people that cant see you to interact positively with you...

    August 23, 2010 at 7:06 pm |
  10. Zana

    It is not MODESTY, but CONVENIENCE that women are wearing scarves for ages!

    When I visited Egypt, I gladly wore a scarf because of the dust and sand that I had to comb out of my hair every day. A little wind goes a long way in Cairo – all that fine sand from Giza plateau! So – yes, wearing a scarf in many countries is a great thing!
    I prefer a hat now when I go hiking!

    August 23, 2010 at 7:05 pm |
  11. Great Thinker

    The absurdity of all this is that people believe in a supreme being in the first place and to add to the absurdity they convince themselves that this being that is claimed to be truly superior in thinking REALLY cares about whether someone covers their head/face or not. If there were a supreme being, which of course is just a figment of collective wishful thinking, I would hope that it had infinitely more prescient concerns that these petty rules that mankind makes up.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
  12. Sterling

    I read her comments about "women are the equal halves of men". I wonder where I got the idea that wpmen are not allowed to go inside the mosque?
    She only has to go to Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, etc., to see how "equal" she is and see how women are treated. It's obvious she only believes what she wants to believe. She needs to realize there are many muslims out there that don't share her "enlightenment".....

    August 23, 2010 at 7:01 pm |
  13. Mgolam


    I can't understand why my comments are filtered? Can anyone send me a response explaining why....if you are running this blog with honesty?

    August 23, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
  14. God is Dead

    In my opinion, if you wear your faith on your sleeve, don't expect ANY kind of civil interaction. We live in a secular country, keep your religious nonsense in your own home.

    Those who publically profess their religious ideologies should face public ridicule for their ignorance and superstitious beliefs. There is not a right to "believe what you want". There is no other realm in our modern daily life where you can spew nonsense without evidence and claim it is off limits to reason, logic, and debate.

    My hope is that ALL religious indoctrination ends and those who are religiously minded wake up and join the 21st Century.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
  15. lscott

    A muslim man explained to me why women must wear the hijab. It is, he said, because women are unable to control themselves and taunt men with their bodies, so it's really for the women's own good as well as for the good of society.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  16. ReligionISaVirus

    What a waste of life is religion.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  17. Jaqob

    Muslim women are repressed in Muslim countries. See acid to face. Amricans got it lucky.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  18. AF

    I totally disagree with her. Woman dress like this in Sauda Arabia and yes they are respected as an animal property to a men. Woman are stoned they cannot drive ...... To think somehow this gathers respect look at Islamic countries. They are pathetic when it comes to human rights or religious right of others.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
  19. ALI

    Of course these women should be allowed–in public– to dress as they please, regardless of their motives. And of course circumstances might come up in which facial recognition seems a requirement. (How many times are you asked for proof of your identity each week? When using your credit card, entering a bar, ordering a drink, applying for a job, when you get pulled over....your face/features are matched with information to ensure security for you and for other people.)
    This obviously presents a few problems, but which should be dealt with respectfully, with people's right to their own traditions kept in mind.
    ... what I find to be somewhat insulting is the assumption that the general public is incapable of getting to know or judging a woman unless her physical features are covered. I don't care if you look like Vivien Leigh, your personality and your intellect will speak for themselves to me. I would think most men would agree. If humility is the motive: It would seem more humble to not presume your beauty to be such a distraction to others.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
  20. lscott

    If a woman wishes to be viewed only by her intellect and not her appearance, forget the hijab. Just stay at home and communicate via the internet where all the faceless live.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:56 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.