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. VegasRage

    They don't want their breásts causing earth quakes.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:37 pm |
  2. dj

    next thing you know is all the women at cnn are going to start wearing the hijab. It sounds like most of the reporters at cnn have already converted to islam by just listening to all these kiss up stories about a religion cnn knows nothing about. I can't believe how disrespectful all you moron liberals have been to the wishes of the 9-11 family members about this ground zero mosque. No surprise because islam is a political movement and not a religion. Hey liberals when did you start caring about religious freedom? Especially when you have spent the last 30 years attacking and killing Christians?

    August 23, 2010 at 10:35 pm |
  3. VegasRage

    ...and if they don't explain it that way they will need to answer to their husbands for it.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:34 pm |
  4. Mohammed

    In different periods, and different places, throughout muslim history a head scarf of any kind has even been banned entirely. The Koran just says to be modest. There are no laws that prevent someone wearing a Halloween costume on the 4th of July in the United States, however I despise when muslims say I don't understand something, when I just disagree with something. Since it's not required in the muslim faith and not by the laws of the United States, I will assume: 1 someone is making her wear it, 2 she's an ugly b**ch, or 3 she's a stupid c**t, but there's no in-between. Take it off.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:28 pm |
  5. gwats

    The Hijab and Niqab wearer are basically saying: 'I stand with but I stand apart from you.'
    I consider the attire ultra-modest, but restrictive in terms of comfort on hot days. These are 'good girls' trying to appease the culture, and in doing so, hoping to please Allah. The modern World in which we live makes the niqab impractical. Wear the hijab, where local laws permit. Most of you ladies have luxurious heads of hair. Wear THAT as your personal Hijab and go on about your business. You are conflicted, and you are paying the price for the 'war' being waged for you eternal souls. I feel deep sympathy for you.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:28 pm |
  6. Roland

    Imagine you're a 10 yr old Moslem boy – whenever you go to the mall with your mom she insists on dressing like a fat ninja. You're only 10 but you can't miss the stares and snickers that passersby direct at you – soon you're hostile to "America' and the "decadent West" and are well on your way to becoming a suicide bomber.
    Or if you're too chicken to be a bomber you come to the CNN message boards and spew nonsense in support of the very burka that made you an Islamic nut in the first place.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:27 pm |
  7. BAP

    Robert . . . you are wrong. There have been several bank robberies recently by men dressed this way. No, they don't ban ski masks but, then again, you wouldn't let them in a bank, a store, your home . . . would you?

    August 23, 2010 at 10:27 pm |

    It's a personal choice. When I saw a Muslim women in a black burqa with only her eyes exposed in Dallas Airport. I used to find it exotic. After 9/11 I find it FRIGHTENING. It now seems like a disguise, rather than native dress. It's a new world now.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:24 pm |
  9. James B

    You ask:
    Do you look at every Ryder van wondering if there's a bomb in it?
    Do you see a plane coming in to land and wonder if it's going to fly into the terminal?
    Do you x-ray your mail to see if there's a bomb or anthrax in it?
    Do you wonder if the guy next to you in church is suddenly going to be shot?
    Do you look at every college kid and see the Va Tech shooter?

    To which I say no, those examples are isolated incidents of criminal behavior and should not result in fear. However, Islam creates death and havoc the world over; just a simple newspaper cartoon of the "prophet" typically results in riots and death. Frankly, Islam is less a religion and more a blight that needs eradication. Simply put, not every muslim is a terrorist (although their silence on terrorism begs the question), but EVERY terrorist (ie 9-11) is a muslim. We simply cannot be silent on this issue any longer.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:23 pm |
  10. Jeff

    Yes, I've seen the pictures of the Muslim women who have had their noses and ears respectfully cut off.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:20 pm |
  11. dwighthuth

    There are many women in America who are intellectual and thought provoking that do not draw the eyes of the salavating men. Most intelligent women are shunned by the average rump humper for the simple fact that the woman is more intelligent than the man is which is an insecurity based on the mans belief that he is more intelligent than any woman could every be given the fact that he is simply man and that is how it is.

    So wearing the face covering really isn't needed in America. If you are sexy and curvacious Muslim woman and attract the simple minded rump humper that want's to breed with you just tell them that you a bachelor's degree in a certain subject and walk away. Educated and intelligent women are too hard to manipulate by the lower class of men in America and will run away when you tell them you are intelligent.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:20 pm |
  12. Kerry Berger

    Freedom of choice, freedom of expression. If these ladies wish to follow this custom that's not my business and I'm not threatened by it anymore than I would be if they chose to breast feed in public. Some people just have pins in their posterior ends and want everybody to conform to their narrow definition of "American" standards. Frankly, it is these bigots who are expressing very un-American values and should be shamed for their ignorance of our Constitution and the values that gave rise to this great Nation.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:17 pm |
  13. G

    Women should be free to worship as they see fit, but covering the entire female body speaks more to the weakness of the men than to the faith of the women. The initial edict to cover the female form was to prevent temptation. If a man cannot control his basic animal urges, covering the women isn't the answer. Men must take responsibility for their thoughts and actions. If the sight of a woman's ankle (calf, knee, or any other body part) causes and uncontrollable urge to mate, the man must learn to control that urge. The fault here does not lie with the woman, and the cure does not involve subjugating the woman. When the men of Islam act like men, women will be free to worship as they see fit. As long as the men of Islam force women to cover themselves so they won't be "tempted", women will be punished for the men's weakness.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:17 pm |
  14. nuser

    What B.S.. Stay home at all times, and you won't have a problem, or will you?Your hubby is allowed to beat you according
    to the koran.Every day.
    I have doubts about one chick, don't think she is a real muslim.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:11 pm |
  15. Matt Redmond

    She looks like a ninja....

    August 23, 2010 at 10:10 pm |
  16. riverw

    I am a Christian woman, and while I am honestly concerned about Islamic extremism and confused by many tenets of the Islamic faith, I will support ardently the right of a Muslim woman to wear the hajab and whatever else religious garb she desires. Because every woman in this country should have the privilege of dressing according to her conscience.

    America is a secular nation, whatever Sarah Palin wants her Fundamentalist pals to think. When we separated church and state, we sought to keep each sphere of authority separate from the other. Government is not for telling people how to behave, what to think, what to love, how to dress. That is the place of religion (or your own atheistic self). Government is for protecting its people from actual (!) foreign aggression and for building roads.

    So, secularists, don't get all ape crazy and desire that your government take on a god-like role in the lives of its citizens. Every government everywhere will do a terrible job playing at being a god. If you don't like the burqa, the yarmulke, or the denim jumper, well, that's OK. Go ahead and wear that tight blue jean girl uniform everyone else is wearing. But those who wish to dress according to THEIR consciences must be allowed to do so. Those who chose to dress in religious garb are obeying their god (not hiding their fat–for crying out loud, are you serious?!–or trying to creep you out and make you feel bad) and practicing their personal piety. Quiet outward expressions of personal piety are good and healthy. It is not good and healthy for governments run by secularists to criminalize religious piety, as long as that piety is not criminal. You know what I mean.

    Anyway, neither you nor I nor Barak Obama nor whatever clone Republican the GOP wants us to elect next should be allowed to tell any woman anywhere how she ought to dress. Just leave it alone, America.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:04 pm |
  17. Khaled Anntar

    If Western Societies are truly free and democratic as they claim they are, then Muslim women who choose to wear Niqab or Hijab should not be penalyzed and harrassed both by the new laws and narrow-minded people. Nakedness are so common and widespread in Western Societies that they can not accept women who hide their bodies; they are like hungary, wild animals. Everday there is one woman or more who is raped and harrassed sexually in this country and Western countries solely because of the Western lifeStyle of nakedness, one night stands, striptease clubs, bars, drinking and partying and many other things. Instead of attacking those who are different than us, we should look closely and more closely and maybe ponder more closely in the lifestyle of those who are different than us. In Islam a man or a woman is not judged by how they look but by what they do and can do; it is a big difference. American society is obessed with seeking women half naked or naked and if they see less and less from a woman, she is considered an ugly person.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
  18. shinden58

    I would be nice if all people would throw off religion and believe in themselves.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:01 pm |
  19. qazaq

    New argument: I feel that the islamic religion is somewhat distrusting to the male in covering the female so that she is "appreciated for her intelligence and not to perceive her as an object of beauty". It's like saying to a man: I do not trust you can make the difference between the mind and the body. Because of that, all women will be covered. I just feel like saying: have confidence that I can make the difference. That I can appreciate a woman (and a man) for what they are and not for what the body looks like. I can meet beautiful (or ordinary looking) intelligent men and women and respect them for what they are and not for what they look like. Anyway, this is a very interesting subject in that it questions are whole system of values. Hopefully someday human being will be able to love and live in true spiritual harmony without religion.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:56 pm |
  20. Mag

    I agree that we live in a free country where you are allowed to practice your faith and beliefs but you need to not be angry or surprised, especially after 9/11, that you will encounter negative actions from people. We need to feel safe around other people inn public and full and complete body coverege like the one the women wear does not make me feel safe. They may be the nicest people in the world but we live in the time of war on terror and we have our fears.
    I don't think it's unreasonable. I wish it wasn't the reality we live in but we should adjust presenting our beliefs to the society we live in. I'm a christian and ackowledged the fact that because we live in the country of many religions it's no longer politically corect to say Marry Christmas or have a Christmas Tree in a public school building.
    I think they should do the same. Appreciate other people beliefs and fears

    August 23, 2010 at 9:56 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.