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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. IzzisGirl

    I cannot believe that people can be so cruel. As a Jewish American woman, I am wary of Muslims, but definitely don't hate them. I can understand their covering, tho' . . . some Jewish women – mostly Orthodox – wear distinctive clothing as well, but you may not recognize it if you don't know what to look for. As a Reform Jew, I don't wear that kind of clothing. You can find me walking around in shorts and a tank top and sandals, but I do wish there was something besides my Jewish star necklace that I could wear to show my identity as a Jewish woman and my relationship with G-d. Those who keep kosher are reminded every time we eat that we are Jewish and have a special relationship with G-d. I sometimes wish for something more outward.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:07 pm |
  2. Free

    Who gives a hoot about Islam, its culture or traditions? Islam isn't compatible with a democratic society. Send these fuc**rs back to Middle East. I am just tired of listening to that we need to understand Islam. There is nothing to understand about this backward violent religion.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:06 pm |
  3. Chuck

    Let them wear the stupid things....makes it easier to identify them when the government wakes up and starts sending them to Islamic places....NEWSFLASH!!! It is women wearing these things that are being used as suicide bombers all over the world....it hasn't happened in the USA or Canada yet....YET!!! But like everything else we will just wait till it happens and say how shocked we are and didn't see it coming. The bleeding hearts may be blind (maybe wearing a burqa), but I am not. The Islamic people want to get rid of the infidels....if you are nor Muslim you are an infidel....so...when you are on you tube on your knees with veiled captors behind you....maybe that wholesome handshake wasn't such a good idea....I am an infidel and I don't want them as much as they don't want me.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
  4. Brent

    Might as well put a ring in your nose – you're already being lead around by the nose – the caran is only a book – just like the bible.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
  5. Mary

    Muslim women have the right to do this but I, for one, have a visceral reaction against it.
    The song "Once Upon a Time" has the lyric, "How the breeze ruffled up her hair." Well
    women wearing the niqab or hijab cannot experience this simple, natural pleasure. This
    mode of dress seems to me to be just unnatural and repellent. I try to encounter every person
    as a distinct individual but this mode of dress engenders an antipathy in me that I have
    to make a conscious effort to overcome.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:03 pm |
  6. programmergirl

    I say let them wear their ha bibs, burqas, nabeebs, habeebs or whatever they want to suffocate themselves with. I am so very thankful to be a Christian, an American woman, born and raised with American values. When it's 100 degrees out, let them sweat and be uncomfortable. I will be wearing shorts, tank top and sandals. They can walk around miserable all day long, so long as they don't enter a bank, airport, courthouse or other public facilities where proof of identify is required. And they should not get upset by people's reactions to their garb: they ... supposedly CHOOSE to wear this ridiculous attire.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:02 pm |
    • shehzad

      Let me ask you a question. Let's say you have a sister who wears hijab, and covers her body, while you don't,. and there is a gang with evil intention standing at the end of corner. Who do you think will likely be attached and will fall pray to that group? Islam belives that showing of body is for husband, and staying modest is the right way to have pure society. You don't have to wear niqb (covering of face), but dressing modestly is the requirement. I hope you guys open eyes, and be more tolerant toward other religions, and understand their perspectives.

      August 24, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  7. Tolerant but worried

    In college, I became close friends with a muslim girl who wore a head scarf and covered herself with western clothing from neck to wrist and ankle. She was a wonderful, intelligent person who taught me a lot about islam. I believe most muslims are dedicated to thier faith and want only peace. A few radicals have effected our perceptions of the religion. The same can be said about many religions.

    After visiting home in Kuwait, she returned with a husband and started to wear a burka. I felt sad for her because I knew she loved her Disney clothes and long skirts. I never got to ask her how she felt about it, her husband did not think I was a suitable friend. I still mourn the loss of my friend and wonder how she is doing back in Kuwait.

    So while I am respectful of the religion, I do worry that some of the culture surrounding the religion does hurt women's rights. Some women may choose to cover to this extreme degree, but an equal number are probably forced into it. We do not hear from them – thier husbands and fathers won't let them talk.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  8. Patricia Reinhardt

    he little scarf is saying, ‘I am Muslim, and I have a presence here.’”

    The little scarf says to me that they are Muslim cold killers and cultists.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  9. Noble9

    Yeah, BOO HOO, people harass you for dressing up like a clown. If I walked around in a stormtrooper costume I would expect people to make fun of me too.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  10. Vicki

    Right, Kate. But that's taking the easy way out. Facing scorn in a country where, for the most part, freedom is cherished and individuality accepted, is a lot less personally painful than fighting back in a country where men stone those who step outside the norm.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:59 pm |
    • Kate

      @Vicki

      I have to disagree with you to a degree, but the reasoning would get moderated in a heartbeat, sorry.

      August 23, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  11. Tom Joy

    I'm not fearful of Muslims because I don't understand them, I'm fearful of them because they blew us up. I'm also still waiting for all the good little joyful Muslims to vomit up the terrorists and thereby prove they aren't hiding or supporting them.

    The niqab and burqa are signs of the oppression of women no matter how you explain it or how "joyfully" you wear it in America. Every time I see a woman in that garb I shudder.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:58 pm |
  12. Nancy

    Women who cover themselves for this religion, do so for their men. Obviously men cannot be trusted and will be too lustful if they can see the female form. The women, on the other hand, must be able to view uncovered men, those who wear regular clothes, without having lustful thoughts. Women must have more self-control than men. So clearly, them men put the responsibility for their inability to control their thoughts and/or actions on the women. That way, they don't have to be responsible for their behaviour. Convincing the women that this is appropriate is the worst form of male domination. It is the excuse rapists use...she was asking for it because of the way she looked. Wrong! You are responsible for your behaviour.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:56 pm |
  13. Somaya

    I wear the Niqab because I am a Fanatical Muslim and I believe severity is part of God's religion. I hate America and so does every woman that wears the Niqab ( face covering). The face covering is a good way to hide my hatred for this infidel country (btw plz send aid to pakistan !) and to bypass security checks. If you ever doubt a Niqabi does not hate this Great Satan America feel free to ask her ! She will evade all your questions while running to the nearest taxi cab to get away !!! - DEATH TO AMERICA LONG LIVE BIN LADEN !!!!!!

    August 23, 2010 at 8:55 pm |
    • Kate

      @Somaya

      Don't you have a bridge to crawl under?

      August 23, 2010 at 8:58 pm |
  14. Deklan Singh

    Women from whatever culture can explain that they wear sarongs or pant-suits or hoop skirts for any reason that comes into their pretty little heads, but there aren't men in any culture but one that are lining up to kill those women in order to defend their honor. Even in the days of the bikini boom, there weren't women being offed left and right by their husbands or family members. You can call raw sewage "a nice lobster bisque" if want, but you're not fooling anyone.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:47 pm |
  15. Charlene

    Its strange how i just ran into this video on cnn because a woman at work was speaking to me about how it irritates her and she is sooooo against a person walking down the street with their face covered. So i asked her "why it bothered her so much." She replied "well because i cant see their faces." I replied with "but why do you feel you need to see someones face?" She replied "because its my right to see them" I replied with "well its also their right to cover their faces if they chose to do so!" I also told her do you like it when someone tells you that you are wrong for believing how you believe? At this point all i could do was shake my head at her and say " Well listen to watch you just said and ask yourself that question again!
    Im ashamed to say that their are all races and cultures that can make such prejudice statements and in the same breath say "But im not prejudice" SMH to you people that say these things but feel your religion should be seen differently! Koodo's to you for being you Nadia & Aliya. I admire you for being STRONG woman in America today!

    August 23, 2010 at 8:44 pm |
  16. Suleiman

    The bottom line is, if a human soul dies believing in the Oneness of Allah (The-God, Al- ilah) then he will abide in peace and tranquility in Heaven forever. But if a person dies disbelieving in the One True God and the messenger sent for his time, then he will be torched in hell for eternity. What a painful doom! May God guide all sincere people to the straight path.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:42 pm |
  17. Cecilia

    When a culture or religion directs women to dress in a way that is significantly more restrictive than men, then it's obvious to me that women from that culture or religion are valued differently than men. Nothing I have read here , no matter how eloquently stated, has persuaded me otherwise. There are gender differences in every culture where clothing is concerned, but the operative word here is "restrictive". Modesty can and is acheived by men and women from all cultures without going to such showy extremes. Does this mean that islamic dress for women should be outlawed? No, of course not. We live in a free society and people have the right to dress how ever they choose, but this kind of religious restriction still reflects what many know to be true – that the tennents of Isalm have led to the oppression of women for generations and continue to do so today. This is less true in the US where certain laws make it difficult, yet, interestingly enough, more true in the very places where Islam was born. Based on what I read in the news every day, in those countries where Islam is the "purist" women suffer the most. May God help them.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:40 pm |
  18. ozzie

    I find it wild that folks here are saying that this garment should be disallowed because the wearer is saying "I'm more religious than you are". Hopefully you are being as religious as you see fit, and in which case what does it matter what someone else thinks ? This isn't grade school where an A+ is better than an A. One of the great freedoms in the US is that you are free to observe your religion – it doesn't say which religion (as unfortunately too many think", how religious, or even if you have to believe in religion. You can't be forced to wear a hijab, or get ashes on Ash Wednesday, or only eat fish on friday, nor can you force others to.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:40 pm |
  19. HotDog127

    Cosplay fans? me thinks so, why else do they dress like ninjas in public.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:40 pm |
  20. HotDog128

    These woman are obviously avid fans of Cosplay. Why else would they dress like ninjas in public....

    August 23, 2010 at 8:39 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.