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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. mohammed

    The fact is that muslim men are so scared of their sexual urges and their women cheating on them they need to wear that riduculous garment in the desert heat. As for women being taken seriously because of hijab! Are you kidding! Women are not even trusted to walk alone Wake up muslim women!!!!!!

    August 23, 2010 at 7:35 pm |
  2. MM

    I consider myself a Muslim, though I'm more spiritual than practicing religious. I have my own struggles with my faith, as I'll wager any Christian or Jew or anyone else does. I attended a liberal Ivy League undergrad school and questioned God as much as anyone else there did. I do not wear a head scarf, but others in my family do, and I completely respect their right to do so.

    Take a second and try to understand their point of view. There is not a single woman in the world who has not been judged for her looks at some point. Men are judged by their looks too, of course, but traditionally in history it has always been the woman who is objectified for her looks. Just look at pop culture today– the overwhelming majority of eating disorders, plastic surgery procedures, and scanty advertising is focused on women. Women who dress scantily are automatically assumed to be sluts, while this rarely happens for men. Like it or not, women, more often than men, are always going to be judged on some level for how well they measure up to a society's conception of "beauty."

    The hijab is then used as a way of fighting back against conforming to society's idea of beauty. Covering one's hair and dressing modestly is a woman's effort to not give in to society's pressures to focus on looks. Does it end up attracting extra attention? Sure it does. A nun wearing a habit attracts extra attention, but that doesn't detract from her expression of her beliefs. I can understand trepidation about the niqab– it is natural to want to see what someone's face looks like–but I honestly don't understand the ballyhoo about the hijab. You say that it is a symbol of oppression created by men? Let's be honest, all of the Abrahamic faiths have some sort of hijab-like mandate for women, it's just that Islam is the only religion where many women still follow those guidelines. Whether or not religion in general is a man-made fairytale, now that's a whole different debate. If the women are not being forced to wear the hijab, and if it makes them feel stronger in their faith and less pressured by societal ideas of beauty, then why all the fuss? Why do we fight for the right to cover as little as desired, yet balk at the right to cover as much as desired? France did a great disservice in its banning of the hijab, because by infringing upon the basic civil right to choose how to dress, it actually took a step backwards against freedom and democracy.

    Iran and Saudi Arabia should not be taken as examples of Islam– the average Muslim in America will tell you that they vehemently disagree with oppressive and disrespectful distortions of Islam such as mandatory hijab or not letting women drive. If there's one thing I remember from my Islamic Sunday School classes, it's the Quranic verse that "There is no compulsion in religion," and no forcing anyone to practice something they do not wish to.

    What frightens me is the fact that this is even an issue. Same with the ground zero mosque– a community center two blocks from the site, at that– and with the media's reluctance to cover the Pakistani flooding even though this is over a hundred times the size of Katrina's devastation– and I go to New Orleans regularly to keep up with the relief work. What frightens me is that all this fear shows that the average American truly believes that Muslims are somehow bad. That all Muslims are secretly terrorists, and that we want to impose sharia law in America. That "different" is suddenly equated with frightening, dangerous, and a threat to American freedom. I am both a Muslim and an American citizen, and I choose to live in this country BECAUSE of its history of tolerance, because of its freedoms and wonderful democracy. I pay taxes, volunteer weekly at a soup kitchen and domestic violence shelter, spend my weekends on Habitat for Humanity builds, AND, yes, I attend a mosque and consider myself a Muslim. I am a medical student and have been working at a free clinic to get ready to spend my career helping the uninsured in America. I contribute just as much, if not more, to American society than my average Caucasian, Protestant neighbors do. Yet I feel the need to justify myself to others because suddenly being different, being a Muslim, means that I am dangerous and a threat to American values.

    Oh, and @Cyrus earlier, I am sorry that perversions of Islam are so prevalent in the world, but that doesn't give you the right to speak for every Muslim woman. My own mother continued to wear the hijab even though my father begged her not to after 9/11, for fear of discrimination... sad as it is that women are forced to cover up in other countries, that does not mean that all women are forced to do so. I choose not to wear the hijab, and I don't "fear for my life" or live on the lookout for acid-toting brothers or cousins. Please, people, educate yourselves. Enough is enough... quit the fearmongering, not every Muslim is out with a bomb to get you.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:34 pm |
  3. Mary Mary

    OUR VIRGIN MARY mother to all did not cover her face – women who wear these NINJA pieces of fabric just
    don't fit in to MODERN SOCIETY and look scary, STUPID, especially on 90 degree days – IF YOU WANT TO LIVE
    IN AMERICA ..... PLEASE LEARN TO SPEAK ENGLISH – HAVE YOUR SONS AND DAUGHTERS SERVE IN OUR
    MILITARY FORCES (and not just try to get FREE AMERICAN PROVIDED COLLEGE EDUCATIONS to get all the
    high paying jobs taken from those children BORN HERE – my TWO kids college cost over $200,000 . I am BORN and raised in New York and schools (classrooms) were NOT OVERCROWDED like they are now- hospital EMERGENCY ROOMS were never so horribly over crowded with long long waits to be seen like now, our roads and highways
    had morning and evening commute traffic – most all roads here now in this country have unbelievable traffic tie ups
    everyday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Untolerable especially on WEEKENDS – and the GANG VIOLENCE from the
    countries MEXICO, SOUTH AMERICA and some others from those allowed to enter USA – DISGRACEFUL

    August 23, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
  4. sam

    Take an emirates flight and land in Dubai ... you can see almost every women covering herself up just before flight lands in Dubai.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
  5. wyominguy

    "hey want to be judged by their intellect and personalities."......... Pure BS

    They are looking for attention and enjoy parading about being Different.....and are to some degree victims of a CULT not a religion.....when Islam stops supporting stoning, murder, terror and dictating dress they will be a religion...

    August 23, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
    • nuser

      Yes they are looking for attention. They are so silly!

      August 23, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
  6. Lisa Morris

    This was orchestrated – this woman worked for Disney for 2 1/2 years before raising a fuss. Disney is trying to offer her options that will meet their dress code and allow her, her religious freedom.

    Where in the world does the Constitution guarantee you that you can wear anything you want at work? Let's say I'm a nudist because it's part of my religion that works at Disney – are you going to allow me to work in the nude in front of children?

    My employer says that I can wear jeans on Friday – and specifies they cannot have holes or tears. I cannot do as I want but I'm not going to raise a fuss. If you don't like it, get a new job and stop grand standing.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  7. Victory in freedom

    Look I'm sure the writer is very sincere about trying to be a pious Muslim. The whole problem is that the writings of the Prophet inspire people to try to be pious. Piousness and self righteousness are the same. Jesus Christ addressed the issue of self righteousness. He said all of your piousness/self righteousness is as "filthy rags". There is a huge fear in Islam about going to Hell. It seems that the pages of the Koran are full of this kind of "inspiration". If you believe these writings then definitely you have a case about acting out a pious life. All of this piousness was addressed by Jesus Christ. That is the basis of faith in Christ. He took the punishment for us. That is why Christ says "he who the son sets free is free indeed". Freedom and belief in Christ are born out of each other. Freedom in all of its nuanced forms are fundamental to belief in Christ. I am free from "me" trying to be pious/self righteous That's why a person who believes in Christ can say "I am righteous" -–but it is not of himself. It is a gift from God. Hopefully our Muslim friends will get the message.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  8. Daniel

    Why people need to don extremist garments to draw further attention upon themselves is beyond comprehension. No matter the reason – whether it's purported to demonstrate one's devotion to God – or to cover up in the name of modesty- it remains a stereotype perpetrated by these Muslim women themselves. These women have chosen to dress as a stereotype with all its attendant opinions, beliefs, criticisms and ramifications. They have made a choice and in this day & age with all the anti Muslim feeling in the western world, it's a choice that comes with consequences. Between 9/11 and wars in two Muslim countries, these women have chosen to display themselves in garb that is bound to draw the ire of many and allows them to stand out as a symbol of a culture that pretends to be one of peace but has instead proved otherwise.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  9. Dan

    They wear it to hide the explosives.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  10. Michael

    I'll tell you why, because you're brainwashed. Either by your religion or a man. Pick one.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  11. carl786

    I can only feel bad for all the muslim haters here! Because, they have no clue how badly they are gonna get roasted by allah for all the slander against Islam. Oh and btw, it is not too late for you haters to convert to Islam & escape the violent after life. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world....we are here to stay, so give a break to all the hate.

    And who told you that all women wearing burkas are oppressed? We even have a all female rock band from Afghanistan called the "Burka Band" and their music rocks!

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_Y-sw89qTY&w=640&h=360]

    August 23, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
    • Joe

      It's the fastest growing religion because your shoving it down peoples throats! Um...convert or die? Remember the crusades Carl768.

      August 23, 2010 at 7:34 pm |
    • Joe

      Those are Men under the burka's

      August 23, 2010 at 7:36 pm |
    • Joe

      I thought Islam was peaceful? Is it not allowed to kill innocent women and childern? So...what happens to the extremists who strap on bombs and walk into a crowded market? Does Allah say well done..dont worry about the mother and her children, here's your virgins...enjoy!

      August 23, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
    • Joe

      Which brings up another ? Are the virgins wearing Burka's? By the way...what do the women get? Oh wait I know...poof, their virgins again!

      August 23, 2010 at 7:49 pm |
    • Kate

      @Joe

      Suicide is absolutely forbidden ... I leave that as an exercise for the individual to figure out if that means the not-so-smart bombs are actually Muslims or not.

      August 23, 2010 at 7:54 pm |
    • Joe

      By the way carl786, I don't hate Muslims or Islam... just you and your way of thinking!

      August 23, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
    • Joe

      Joe @Kate...what are you talking about?

      August 23, 2010 at 8:00 pm |
    • Kate

      @Joe

      Just answering your musings two comments up from my reply

      August 24, 2010 at 9:44 am |
  12. Liberty

    At least here these women can make that decision on their own.
    But this does not speak for all those that are compelled to; through intimidation, peer pressure, or fear of the imaginary.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
  13. momof4

    What about the places in the world where women are beaten or otherwise punished for not covering themselves or for driving, working, getting an education or even leaving the house without an escort? This country is great because women have the freedom to dress how they choose (almost, we still have a puritan philosophy going on here) not how they are told

    August 23, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  14. Boscobear

    There is a problem with their opening statements,"...They want to be judjed by their intellect and their personalities." For this to happen, they have to be out and about interacting with people-all kinds of people and this would include men not of their families. Does this happen-I would think probably not. If they are this conservative, then the men in their families wold not let this happen. So, for all you people, especially the ladies who think this is so great, why don't you try it and let your boyfriends, husbands, even your little brother tell you when you can go out, where you can go, etc.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  15. YoMama9853

    I'm sure she doesn't have 5 kids by 5 different man, I'll tell you that much!!!!!
    Stop being so damn paranoid and get your selves adequately informed and educated before you come here spewing out opinions and acting like you know something. And I thought this was a free country and people had a freedom of religion. No one is judging you for NOT wearing a head scarf!!!

    August 23, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  16. AbuHana

    CNN is into censorship! No 1st Amendment rights here!

    August 23, 2010 at 7:16 pm |
  17. 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 your intellect.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:15 pm |
  18. AbuHana

    They cover themselves up to hide the stink and ugly.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:14 pm |
  19. spacebunny

    I've been married for 5 years to a Muslim man. Well, I'm soon headed for divorceville because my idealistic youth is over and now I finally realize that no, people from different cultures just don't mesh very well. Muslims think Christians are misguided and are not true monotheists. Muslims need to have everything done their way and there's no compromising. The best thing Westerners can do is section themselves off from Muslims otherwise WESTERN SOCIETY WILL LOSE ITS IDENTITY. Really people, you do not want to have Islam forced on you as I have experienced over and over again during these last five years.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:14 pm |
  20. Joe

    Why don't Muslim Men cover themselves? Why are Muslim women forbidden to drive, walk around without male escort, the right to vote? Why are Muslim women stoned to death – but not men? Why are muslim women subjected to honor rapes and genital mutliation? Because this is a barbaric, oppressive "faith." These women are little more than Branch Davidians – brain washed.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:13 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.