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. Trixie

    Islam is not a religion and the muslims here are terorists. Nobody wants to say it out loud but in small groups, that's the talk. I will never accept the people in that hate-filled cult, and Americans only have to wait to see more attacks from the evil ones.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
  2. halley

    I understand them trying to make people recognize who they are on the inside but how come men dont wear them dont they have personalities that they want to showcase.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:50 pm |
    • Kate


      You know any answer to that is only going to get the responder into trouble with *someone* ...

      Just sayin' 🙂

      August 23, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
  3. TheGreatTroll

    That black chick is stupid. She's not a real muslim. She's not even married and has a baby. That's total ghetto not upright and proper Muslim values. If a muslim girl came home preggers her daddy and brother would beat her ass in the backyard and make her sleep outside for a few nights. If that black girl wasn't a muslim she'd be some other weirdo black thing, like in to anime or used bookstores or something that one usually doesn't associate with your everyday black person. Also, I don't believe black people drive manual transmissions.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:44 pm |
  4. Bekah

    I think most American clothing that doesn't leave an inch of a woman's body up to the imagination is more objectifying and rude than what Muslim women wear. How are short shorts halfway up your butt, clothes so tight you might as well take them off, and low cut shirts revealing most of your breasts NOT objectifying you?

    I don't have to run around half naked to realize I'm a beautiful person and neither do these women. If they're happy in these clothes, well then let them be happy!

    August 23, 2010 at 9:41 pm |
  5. Fugly Women

    These women fully veil themselves because they are butt ugly and they know it. I promise you there is no movie star lurking beneath those covers. A lot of them are fat pigs too. Their husbands probably make them wear the nijab to bed as well. Essentially it's kinda like putting a bag over them. Hey, you don't always get pretty when your marriage is arranged so what else can you do. The more covers you see....

    August 23, 2010 at 9:38 pm |
  6. Darrin Cates

    Bottom Line ... it's just spooky .... it freaks my kids a little despite the tolerance teaching of diversity. We've grown up with trusting an 'honest face' if you know what I mean, and when you cover it up, well, frankly it just makes us a bit suspicious, nervous, or uneasy when we can't see your face or expressions. Communication is not strictly though the eyes so if you want us to get to know you, drop the mask. The only other times we've been exposed to covered faces is with burglars, robbers, and ninjas, none the which we want to run into ... then throw in the whole Muslim terrorist factor ... IE: If it was Canadians who terrorized us, then came to live here and covered their faces, I'd be just as unease with them ... seriously, can't you just take it off so we're not all making a big deal of it? Just wear it around the house if you have to but don't subject us to the visual shock of someone wearing a mask ... we don't like it!

    August 23, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
  7. Mark5

    Well I think men could make the same argument too. As a man, I could cover up everything so all you could see was my eyes. Then people would not judge me upon my looks but on my intellect and personality. I am also wondering if covering up women`s faces like this is not making them into even bigger sexual objects. Women s breasts are actually meant for feeding babies but covering them up and making them a hidden from view and seeing them in public by others taboo, has helped to make them sexual objects. In some African tribes the women go around bare breasted like men and I would bet this makes them less of a sexual object. So perhaps covering up women `s faces like this contributes to the complete sexualization of women, now making their faces sexual objects too. Perhaps this is why Islam is so controlling of their women.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:27 pm |
  8. Ed

    "...they want to be judged by their intellect and personalities."

    Yeah, right. I think that the operative question is why Islam is so attractive to blacks here.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:25 pm |
  9. Spockanator

    Tis a shame... waste of fabrick

    August 23, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
    • cackle


      August 24, 2010 at 6:16 am |
  10. Rabidmob

    A hijab or headscarf or whatever is fine, I see no problem in covering your head, it's a hat, that's fine.

    A niqab that covers your face is not fine. If you have no face, you have no identity. You may be committing criminal acts. What are you without an identity?

    August 23, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
  11. Vinny Randy

    I wonder what will happen if she is in Texas or in the desert? I bet is must be very hot to wear those.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:20 pm |
  12. MrE

    These women "choose" nothing. They are subservient to the men in the family. Let's hear the the real facts and interview the men in the family to understand why the women must be covered. To say they do not want to be judged by their appearance is also a joke. Conservative observant Muslim women here in the D.C. area routinely add very, very expensive (and beautiful) scarves, designer jackets, designer shoes and gold jewelry to their "modest" attire. The real story? They are satisfying the small ($*%& syndrome of the men by appearing obedient while satisfying their desire to gain attention and show off wealth. Though possibly intelligent, many Muslim women are not permitted to think for themselves.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:20 pm |
    • Kate


      So according to you, all niqabis are really weak willed shallow vain bimbos, no matter what we tell you to the contrary ... Are you sure you're not posting from South Waziristan?

      Just askin' – cos you'd fit right in there.

      August 23, 2010 at 9:26 pm |
  13. sandpeople

    It's a disgrace the way women are treated in Islam, forced to a life of dressing like jawas, having no rights, forced to stay home accept being raped and beaten by their husbands as young as 11.

    As for hiding intelligence, it is well known that 99% of muslim women have the intelligence of a peanut, its not their fault, they are treated less than animals and not given an education. There's no way around it, this is inhumane treatment and despicable and should be outlawed.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
  14. SF Progressive

    Religion is and always has been a blight on the world. It is the refuge of the ignorant, the psychotic and the unintelligent. Anything done in the name of religion should be outlawed and not tolerated. It's time to tax all religious property, ban the all religious expression and if necessary, eliminate all those who profess faith. Time to end this shameful part of human existence once and for all.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
  15. cassie

    It is fine for these women to wear these coverings if they so desire. And I do believe that many of us here in the US dress rather immodestly. Other religions cover in order to respect their dedication to God, e.g. Roman Catholic Nuns. In general, however, I find it odd that people feel more self confident if they are hiding under cloth. Can they not accept what they are as women? Or are they afraid of men and what men might be thinking? Most of us have some acceptance of what we are in nature and that it's OK for us to exhibit the feminine characteristics without fear.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
  16. Somaya

    I am a fanatical muslim woman that wears the Niqab (face covering). I believe severity is part of God's religion. I do not care if the Niqab is not in the Quran. The Niqab is a good way to hide my hatred for this infidel country called America (please donate to Pakistan !) as well as to by pass security checks. Every Niqabi hates America. I encourage people to ask women who wear the Face Coverings what their opinion is of America and I promise you she will evade your questions as she runs away to a Taxi Cab !!!

    August 23, 2010 at 9:13 pm |
  17. ahujaji

    obviously wearing these niqabs & Hizabs was started as a way to oppress woman .
    Muslim women are welcome to continue this custom anywhere in this world as long as they wanna do it ...

    They can also include nice customs like No Education for Women , No respect for women and all these things in the list

    August 23, 2010 at 9:13 pm |
  18. Jim

    Of course you have the right to were what your beliefs, or religion, expects of you. The only thing that really irks me is that after the planes hit, it was found out that what these terrorists did the few days before the big day, was they spent all this money going to strip clubs. If they honored their religion the way they claim to, how could they do this. It doesn't matter that these women were not muslim and did not deserve to be honored, but what was actually going on in their heads. I think this clearly tells us what the muslim man truely believes. In tells us that they look upon all women as a sexual object and can be used any way he wishes. This is why women have to covered, because the man knows that other men will see his property as a sexual object and will take her whenever he wants to. And if a woman dresses like our women do, then that only means she's a whore and deserves whatever happens to her. It's the same way in every society, only they're afraid to admit this. Common, it can't be argued that the woman is second class. They're not allowed to go out by themselves nor can they talk to any man without a relative, mainly a man. You can't tell me that girls are allowed to go to school for any type of education; remember when a school of girls were allowed to die in a fire, because they weren't wearing the correct clothing? When you say you only know educated women who wear the clothing, how would you know anybody who isn't. You probably don't hang around anyone who isn't in school. No likes to think there is anything wrong with the way they follow their beliefs, I know I don't agree with everything my church dictates to me. But at least I admit there is a possibility of wrong doing. Don't be so firm in your argument.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  19. AJ

    Let me start by saying that I am originally from Turkey, but from the Western region that is modern, with majority of people well-educated and away from this dark-ages nonsense. A woman covering herself up in the name of religion is totally ridicilous, God brought us into this world naked. These things are imposed on women by men, who see their women as their property and they do not want other men to stare and lust after them. Because it is never the man's fault, the woman is always guilty for arousing a man. Of course, they are brainwashed into thinking that they are doing something honorable and getting closer to God and heaven by coverung up. Just like the terrorist organizations recruit the ignorant using religion, convincing them that they are fighting a holy war and will go to garden of Allah if they blow themselves up in a suicide mission. I feel sorry for these women, but most of them will argue with you defending their way of life, so what can you do.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  20. Dave D'aranjo

    This was illuminating. These women are very lucky to live in a secular democracy where they are free to practice their religion as they wish, and to leave said religion should they choose to. It's worth noting that they would not have this "luxurious" freedom of choice in a society governed by Sharia law. It's paradoxical. I wish them well.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:09 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48
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.