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. Diego

    To these young ladies: I'm glad for you and your freedom to choose to wear this garb.

    You are fortunate.

    In my opinion however, it is quite unfortunate, that you are so selfish that you will wear a garment that is one of the primary symbols of the repression of women in many middle eastern countries. Do you think the women in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan have a choice to wear it? The can not drive. They can not go to school. They are property of their fathers and brothers until they are married ... then property of their husbands. They can't leave their homes without their father, brother, or husband. They can't eat in the same room. The list goes on and on.

    I hope you are proud that you are expressing your freedom to choose by wearing a symbol of female oppression.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:11 pm |
  2. Karen

    My two Muslim friends didn't cover until they married. They tell me their husband asked them to cover. You can take that as you will.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:10 pm |
  3. annidez

    Nearly all the trouble and sorrow in the world is caused by adult humans behaving like bad children. It would be nice if we took Bob Newhart's skit where the psychiatrist just keeps saying, "Stop it!"

    But stopping is clearly not an option, so let's make the best of ourselves. Religious tolerance is a place to start. I admire the women in this article, but I do understand fear about covered faces in such places as airports. If the hijab and niqab are voluntary, is it beyond reason to ask for simply uncovering the face for passport pictures and travel, etc.? It would allay a great many concerns.

    Even after 9//11, I don't know why we fear all Muslims. We fear terrorists but target everday people. That's like them hating all Christians because of Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church. I'd have a regular (non-terrorist) Muslim in my home any day.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:04 pm |
  4. 1 view of many

    Ethnocentrism is alive and kicking...

    non-muslims saying its oppressive to women...

    How does someone tell someone else what is oppressive to them? is this a joke? LOL

    August 23, 2010 at 8:02 pm |
  5. Devil's Advocate

    Let me get this straight.
    If a Muslim woman wears her religious garb in public, she is perceived as a threat? And France has made this illegal?
    So, when the Klan have a protest, gathering or anything, and wear their hoods with the mask on the front in public, this is all right?
    Must be what they're talking about when they say "New Math".

    August 23, 2010 at 8:01 pm |
  6. Tony

    Women (or men) may wera thongs or sack cloth as far as I'm concerned, but when it comes to covering the face, that presents a safety issue. Is it legal to wear a mask in public places, say a bank, or a kindergarten ? As for the moderate muslims, they remained very silent about all the atrocities comitted by their brethren before 9-11. There was never any vociferous condemnation, at best there was only " we don't have anything to do with it," and sometimes a smirk of schadenfreude.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:01 pm |
  7. Navi Reyd

    Isn't it a rather unhealthy garment?

    August 23, 2010 at 8:01 pm |
  8. OLJ

    I am a woman who happens to be a Muslim. I have sisters who wear the Hijab, but I am not wild about the Idea of wearing niqab. I really want to know who I am dealing with. But now, here is the other extreme, we see these women who have almost no clothes on, why aren't people complaining?

    By the way, I am not saying that Islam doesn't oppress women, it does. For example, there is this verse in the Quran where the man can punish the woman if she doesn't obey him. The punishment comes in different flavors. One flavor is where the man doesn't have intercourse with his woman, the other punishment is by spanking her.... and For that reason, I am not teaching my daughter anything about Islam........

    August 23, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  9. Victory in freedom

    Look I'm sure the lady is very sincere about trying to be a pious Muslim. In the writings it says that the Prophet once had a vision of Hell and in that vision he took note that most of the inhabitants were women. The whole problem is that the writings of the Prophet inspire people to try to be pious. This poor gal is just another victim of that belief system. Piousness and self righteousness are the same. Jesus Christ addressed the whole 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 the threat of hell. If you believe these writings then definitely you have a case about acting out a pious life. Here is where faith in Christ comes in. 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/ 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. It puts an end to the striving in your mind. It brings PEACE to the mind. The war in the mind has ended!! Rejoice!

    August 23, 2010 at 7:51 pm |
  10. Christopher

    As an American, I absolutely support these womens' rights to freely practice their beliefs. As a fellow human, I disagree with the practice of veiling women as an act of "modesty." The logic behind "reducing temptation" for men is belittling to both genders. It portrays men as animals who lack control and women as mere objects to be desired. Regardless, I am well-pleased these womens' rights to practice as they see fit (even when I clearly disagree).

    August 23, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
  11. Blue

    If they want to cover themselves up, let them do so. If they want to roam around in bikinis, let them do so. We were born without clothes and women are meant to have curves. If you want to flaunt what you got, go ahead. If you want to be more conservative, sure, nothing wrong with it at all.
    It just doesn't make all good sense to claim to be 'closer to god' because you cover yourselves up.
    Wearing a bikini, living and letting live (OR) Covering up head to toe and killing innocents in the name of religion- What's worse people? I would never be friends with Osama Bin Laden, no matter how religious he is or how fully covered he is.
    I am not against Islam at all. I think every religion preaches the same thing- Peace. As long as you follow the path of non-violence, every religion will appreciate you.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:49 pm |
  12. Gerry

    If the hijab and niqab are meant to promote humility and modesty, then why aren't the men required to wear them. Perhaps it's because the men would never stand to be treated in such a manner. It makes perfect sense that Islamic women are told that the face covering is necessary in order to be more closer to their creator; otherwise, the reality would likely create a backlash. There are numerous examples throughout history in which religious fear has been used to elicit strict obedience. There is no logical explanation that justifies the complete covering of the face. I'm further surprised that Islamic Americans do not boycott this archaic practice...It's in the same category as female circumcision.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  13. scott

    slender woman approaches some guys in a bikini and the #1 comment is "My, what beautiful eyes you have"

    August 23, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
  14. FatBecky

    Just wait till one of the home-girls thinks one of them has ran her mouth off. She'll snatch that niqab right off.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
  15. jane

    "The hijab, she says, helps “force people who may be otherwise unwilling to take the focus off of our physical appearance.”

    This is bs. Anywhere outside of the islamic world wearing a hijab will get you more attention than if walk around half naked. It seems kind of passive-aggressive. If you are a woman who dresses conservatively, no makeup, no flashy jewelry or heels.... if you still find men pestering you left and right you must be a total goddess

    August 23, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
  16. Carlos

    In case anyone is interested, there is an article on the situation of women in Saudi Arabia, in particular about foreign women in that country by M.A. Khan. Here is the link:

    August 23, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
  17. scott

    a slender woman approaches some guys in a bikini and the #1 comment is "My, what beautiful eyes you have"

    August 23, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
  18. Aaron

    So I guess this article is saying if people want to allow themselves to be slaves then it is okay....

    August 23, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
  19. LD mix-a-lot

    I understand and believe the people like this photo shows. However, what is up with the girls wearing TIGHT "hot" jeans, showing their booty, wearing revealing tops and then the hijab? They are usually Persian when I've seen this, do they have some other reason for wearing hijab, cause I'm not looking "up there" myself?

    August 23, 2010 at 7:38 pm |
  20. bj1

    De were diss stuff cuz they all butt ugly

    August 23, 2010 at 7:35 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.