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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. WilliamQ

    1. Unless the person is covered head to toe they've made an arbitrary estimation of how much people are sexually objectifying them.
    2. Wait – a culture can't just simply respect women? I'm an American and while no formal lesson was ever taught to me as a children I treat all women with respect.
    3. Oh, that's right, Arab society has historically oppressed women (look up the etymology of awrat/aurat). All you need to do is look at the "pleasure marriages" Islam condones, the place of women in Islamic courts and the penalties given to women for being raped (that's right!) early Semitic people imposed and you understand why the hijab and niqab came about.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  2. Vicki O'Brien

    Kate's comments are typical of strong western women who, in the name of what they perceive as 'equiality' or religious freedom, support covering when in fact they, and I include myself, should be speaking up for the millions of girls and women around the world who are abused, violated and oppressed by Islam. Covering only represents 'freedom' to western educated Muslim women from more liberal families who allow them the freedom to choose. Tragically, these are the very women who know exactly what is happening to girls and women in Muslim countries from Somalia to Iran and choose to ignore it. They show no real compassion, no empathy for real suffering in the name of their religion. If they don't speak up for their sisters in Islam, who will?

    August 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
    • Kate

      @Vicki

      I appreciate your remarks, but I think I should clarify a few things that you had no way of knowing when you posted them.

      I'm a veteran, and in the process of that have done my best to help a country to overthrow the oppressive status of its leadership towards women. In effect, I've fought to give them the choice to wear what they like by their own choice, rather than have it dictated to them by some egotistical group of misogynists for whom Islam is simply the vehicle for their control.

      Of course, that wasn't the actual mission parameters, but hey, I can make it personal at the same time, right? 🙂

      Here's my problem. What exactly is the point in us going over there and spilling our blood to give them the freedoms we have in the US, while people in the US are busy trying to either surrender those same freedoms, or deny them to others?

      I can't "save" the world. I just do what I can to promote the Constitution I swore to defend. But to be honest, how can we say we're for religious tolerance, try to influence the world where there is no tolerance, when we don't even practice it here in our own homeland?

      The world isn't perfect, and yes in the Middle East there are regimes that are dictatorial, unbalanced, reduce the status to women to that of property (which the US only managed to get past in the late 1800's itself). America is *supposed* to be different, we're supposed to be a place where women can come and be treated equally and have *their* choices *respected*.

      But it seems only if everyone else agrees with them. The line between the two get blurry now.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
    • Kate

      @Vicki

      I appreciate your remarks, but I think I should clarify a few things that you had no way of knowing when you posted them.

      I'm a veteran, and in the process of that have done my best to help a country to overthrow the oppressive status of its leadership towards women. In effect, I've fought to give them the choice to wear what they like by their own choice, rather than have it dictated to them by some egotistical group of men for whom Islam is simply the vehicle for their control.

      Of course, that wasn't the actual mission parameters, but hey, I can make it personal at the same time, right? 🙂

      Here's my problem. What exactly is the point in us going over there and spilling our blood to give them the freedoms we have in the US, while people in the US are busy trying to either surrender those same freedoms, or deny them to others?

      I can't "save" the world. I just do what I can to promote the Constitution I swore to defend. But to be honest, how can we say we're for religious tolerance, try to influence the world where there is no tolerance, when we don't even practice it here in our own homeland?

      The world isn't perfect, and yes in the Middle East there are regimes that are dictatorial, unbalanced, reduce the status to women to that of property (which the US only managed to get past in the late 1800's itself). America is *supposed* to be different, we're supposed to be a place where women can come and be treated equally and have *their* choices *respected*.

      But it seems only if everyone else agrees with them. The line between the two get blurry now.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
    • Kate

      I give up trying to reply to this, every attempt gets moderated even though there's nothing bad in it, and these comments sections never get moderated.

      @Vicki, you're slightly off base, but I can't post to explain why. Sorry.

      August 23, 2010 at 6:39 pm |
  3. ItsaJessi

    Islam is a violent and oppressive religion. It is not a religion of peace. Islamic and Sharia Law seek to kill, steal and destroy. Islamic and Sharia Law is not welcome in America. Freedom means standing up for truth and righteousness- not taking a stand with evil and terrorism!!

    August 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
    • mk

      It is sad to hear so many people discriminate, especially in a country such as the United States. A country that discriminated against Native American's, Jew's, Blacks, etc, it was just a matter of time till this day came. It's a joke to hear all these people talk about how Muslim women are not educated, and they are oppressed... despite reading an article having comments from Muslim women saying the complete opposite. I do have a suggestion to those people who are commenting blindly about this topic, and are claiming that Muslim women are uneducated, why don't you educate yourselves about the religion and the women in the religion before making assumptions. I invite you all to visit a mosque, and see what goes on. Whether you are male or female, go visit one of the Muslim Community Centers, instead of speaking blindly. Even better, attend one of the gatherings at the mosque when they have a speaker. You will see that Muslims are peaceful, caring, loving people. We have families, and have children who go to school(both male and female), have fathers and in some cases mothers that are both working to support their famlies. These families are more American than some of the people who are telling Muslims to leave the country. Last I checked, the country gave the freedom of religion. If women want to wear hijab, or naqab, they have the right to. As long as they are abiding by the rules/law of the country, there is no reason for people to speak against them.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
  4. bailoutsos

    :::keepithoro "There are several things that are "sunnah" or examples of the Prophet," @@@ So, the dress code seems a little more lax for men than women. Men can expose more flesh. Interesting.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
    • xx

      Women and men have different body parts, smart. And men have their own dress code, but its one that practically every male follows anyway, regardless to do with religion. Stop spouting nonsense.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  5. PAul

    The only harm is it continues to ensure the dehumanization of Muslim women, it continues to perpetrate the falshood of divine beings and it continues to excuse the inability of muslim men to act civilized and mature.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  6. ccb

    I am a non muslim grew up in a muslim country, so this doesnt bother me.
    If they wear this to make them feel better, then go for it. However I know a lot of them wearing this because of peer group pressure, which sux.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  7. damn what happened to my CNN default name - DryHump

    if they want to be viewed only for intelligence and modestly why do they still wear makeup? you can still be seduced with the unknown. what's behind that veil? what's underneath that robe? if it's already out in the open it's a simple 5 second glance, WYSIWYG, if it's all covered up it takes longer to imagine what's underneath. it's quite contradictory.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  8. Kensi

    Great. Another mainstream media article about the glories of the burqa, nikab or whatever the want to call it. How about articles about forced genital mutilation or Christian girls in some European towns like Malmo, Sweden being reduced to wearing an Islamic veil to avoid being harrassed by Muslim men hell-bent on enforcing their cultural codes on non-believers. And if that's just too much for the MMS, how about just asking simlple questions, such as, "Why aren't devout Muslim men wearing a garment that covers their entire face and body?" and "If men and women are eqal halves in Islam, why are the most confining and restrictive practices reserved only for women?"

    August 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
    • James

      How dare you question the religious practices of Islamites, regardless of how barbaric they may be? Political Correctness requires that Westerners accept without hesitation any and all beliefs and actions of others while never holding the unbelievable and goofy customs of Muslims accountable.

      August 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
    • VA

      I am a Muslim man and the only answer I can come up with is that repressive societies like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States use it as a method of control. It is nowhere in the Quran to dress like this. More and more I feel that Islam needs a Renaissance to remove the Arab culture that has become entwined with the faith.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
    • Kate

      @Kensi

      Why aren't devout Christian men taking part in Go Topless Day pointing out the inequality that men can show off their nipples without an eyebrow bring raised, by going topless, yet women are jailed or fined for doing the exact same thing?

      Why did devout Christian men try to block the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, trying to continue an imbalance of women making less than 70% than men for the same work?

      August 23, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
    • Ryan

      VA- you are correct, it is out of control. But thats they way religion works, and thats the way it always will. Its a method of controlling people, to get them to do what you want. Thats why if you DONT always do what they want, they threaten you with "hell" and other bad things like that. Its all a joke. And its not just Islam, its ALL of them.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  9. what?

    Thank god that he created us with no clothes. If he wanted to cover us than we should all been born with Niqabs and no one would know the other because it's a seeeeeeeeeecret. Give me a break and open your eyes. Enjoy the beauty and freedom that god gave us we carry his image and we should reflect that image.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  10. AGA

    Why do Muslim women veil themselves?

    The modest attire of Muslim women has become so commonplace, that hijab, the Arabic word used to refer to the Islamic dress code, is now commonly used in English. One of the most visible aspects of Islam, hijab is often the subject of controversy as well. Some view it as a sign of the subjugation of Muslim women, while some others see it as an obstacle to the integration of Muslims in Western society.

    However, to Muslim women who practice hijab, it represents an act of obedience to God. It also represents a step towards freedom, i.e. freedom from being judged by their looks rather than their intellect.

    Modesty – Required of both men and women

    A common misconception about hijab is that it is mandated only for women. Hijab is actually mandated for both men and women. The difference lies in how they are required to implement it. The Glorious Qur’an says:

    “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands..."
    [Al-Qur'an 24:30-31]

    Both men and women are required to dress and conduct themselves in a manner that befits their dignity and is not the cause of temptation for others. Hair is considered part of a woman’s physical attractiveness. Therefore, covering of hair for the woman is considered essential to modesty of her attire, even in the Bible. This is the reason that nuns and orthodox Jewish women also cover their hair.

    It is the outer dress of Muslim women which includes the head covering that is usually referred to as hijab. Hijab is not merely a covering dress, but more importantly, it is behavior, manners, speech and appearance in public. The headscarf is an outer manifestation of an inner commitment to worshipping Allah – it symbolizes a commitment to piety. Self or inner morality is what gives meaning to the external scarf.

    The Face Veil

    In the opinion of the majority of Muslim scholars, a woman should cover everything except her face and hands. The face veil however, is worn by some Muslim women, who either consider it a requirement, or wish to adhere to a higher level of modesty.

    Hijab – A liberation

    In a society in which women’s beauty has been commoditized, and where women often end up associating their self-worth with their looks, the hijab and its concomitant de-emphasis of physical beauty can be tremendously liberating. Muslim women wear the hijab out of obedience to God, while recognizing the immense wisdom behind His commandment.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
    • Confused

      I agree so very strongly with your comments societies expectations of beauty. It is an absolute tragedy that we are physically born into a system of appearances that only few of have a chance at successfully participating in, yet we all have to make efforts towards participating. I do not understand the double standard for men and women however. If men and women of Islam both covered their faces I would be IMMENSELY impressed and think Islam the most progressive and hopeful religion on the planet. This does not occur however, instead women are shamed into covering their heads themselves while men do as they please.

      August 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
    • seiscat

      The fact that no men are adhering to "a higher level of modesty" by covering themselves from head to foot, says it all – sexual bigetry plain and simple. what's good for the goose, is good for the gander.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
    • nina

      @confused
      if u believe that then why don't you exclude the niqab(face cover) out of the equation, which is only done by a few. like the comment says both men and women have hijab in islam – its just different for both the same way men and womens bathing suits are different

      August 24, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
    • AGA

      @ confused Have you ever thought that these Muslim women don't feel ashamed of wearing the hijab? It is solely an act of faith and an act of modesty. I've seen many posts here saying that women who wear the hijab think of themselves as self righteous people and that they're better than everyone else. This is not true. It's just people who are confused and think that these people are unapproachable. Now about the men, just like women they must follow the law of the Quran. Don't judge a religion by it's people. If a religion tells you to do one thing and you're doing another than that's wrong. If you want to judge Islam, then read the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad P.B.U.H. And as far as I know, to know a people, you must integrate into their society. If you stand on the side you really can't learn much or come up with a logical conclusion about the people. May God send all of humanity on the right path. Amen. Peace be upon you.

      August 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
  11. Lynnwood

    It shouldn't be allowed on security grounds period. She wouldn't be allowd in a bank or gov. building like that anymore than a motorcyclyst can wear his/her helmet in there. In this day and age when muslim extremists are using this kind of clothing to disquise suicide bombers, it simply shouldn't be allowed in public areas. (And please don't bother to point out that those kinds of attacks haven't occured here in the US.........yet)(Nor should you assume I'm some sort of Evangelical. I'm and Aethiest who believes in everyones' right to follow their own faith)

    August 23, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  12. Caroline M

    - All stems from the 10 commandments - thou shall not covet– men can't restrain themselves.. so they made a law to cover the woman cause we have better restraint..

    August 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  13. trixen

    Do they even need to explain it? We need to learn some tolerance in the USA.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  14. Carmen

    @ kate - you obviously didn't get my point - I don't care what you/people wear, but when you live and enjoy our freedoms you need to be accounted for by law enforcement. If I showed up at work wearing a balaclava, I would not be let in the doors of my building.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
    • Kate

      @Carmen

      Then you'd be happy to know that they're required to prove their identity to those with a legitimate interest in verifying it on request, contrary to people's belief on the subject.

      August 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
    • goodgirl

      We live in a free country. Let people wear what they want.

      August 23, 2010 at 7:24 pm |
  15. Jeff

    Nobody ever talks about how efffin scared these men really are.

    The idea that "god" or the universal consciousness would want women to be covered up is the most insane concept I have ever heard period.

    Wake up people and atleast try to enjoy the reality you exist in!

    August 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
    • RiddleMeThis

      Excellent comment. Finally someone here taking on the very premise upon which all of this behavior is based.

      Imagine a child who avoids stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, then grows to adulthood and continues this practice. When asked why she walks so strangely, with her head down and sidestepping each crack and blemish in the sidewalk, she replies, "I avoid stepping on the cracks because doing so would break my mother's back." You would understandably think that this person has a fundamental misunderstanding of the universe. It's the same with these women who claim that they are covering themselves to have a closer relationship with their creator. They are basing their actions upon a fundamental misconception of the way the universe works. There simple is no creator in the form they believe. There simply is no "god." Sorry, but there isn't and so you are taking actions based upon a myth. In no way are you any different from a woman who avoids stepping on sidewalk cracks.

      From my perspective, I would not wish to deal with such a woman. Not because I cannot see more of her body, but because I understand the premise upon which she covers herself to be baseless and therefore I am suspect of her intellect, the same as I am of the intellect of anyone who lacks the critical thinking skills that would lead to a better understanding of religion, its basis, and the false premises upon which all religions are constructed.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  16. mike

    It doesn't really matter 'why' does it? There are many countries where you can probably live and hide your face, but this isn't one – but you knew that, right? . I think the French have it right on this, if you want to live in the West, you're going to need to make some changes. If you're unwilling, I suggest Suadi Arabia as a new home.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  17. Amelia

    I use my own personal fashion style as a means of expressing my personality. That's part of it... personality is a lot of things rolled up into one, and the way you present yourself physically is part of it.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  18. nofoldems

    People should be able to wear what they wish and no law should not dictate this (except fat people should not wear tights, but that's just common courtesy). That said, this is clearly arab culture creep. These laws were written by controlling men who did not want their women to be stolen by others. These are not god's rules, they are men's rules.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
  19. Katie

    If she finds she's being respected more by men after covering up, then that's the fault of the men who view her as a sex object, not her fault for having a feminine figure. They say we're a sex-obsessed culture, but it's really them, if they think that a man is incapable of viewing a woman without wanting to have sex with her. And covering the face is just wholly unnecessary. Your face is unique, it shows who you are, why would someone want to cover that? It's cowardice, to not want to be seen and identified in public.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
  20. All the muslim ladies (as song by Beyonce)

    With all due respect to the veiled ladies who wish to be judged by intellect & personality...it would help if you actually wandered outside of your immediate community and socialized with non muslims. If you do not, wer cannot tell what your personality or intellect is...in addition to not seeing your face.

    I lived underneath a veiled muslim lady for 5 years. She would never speak to me or my girlfriend despite our smiles and hellos. it took a buiklding fire to get her to speak up.

    So, basically, it tajkes you getting burned out of your home to open up to people. Thats my experience. So forgive me if I do not buy into the sense of self constructed victimhood that comes with wearing a veil....

    August 23, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
    • Pacoatemiami

      EXACTLY. The message transmitted by the burqa is, "LEAVE ME ALONE" "DON'T EVEN LOOK AT ME" There is no intermingling or understanding between cultures under these conditions.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
    • FactChecker

      Perhaps this lady was shy. I know a Muslim lady in our neighborhood who wears the hijab and she always talkes to everyone and she has coordinated potlucks so the neighbors can get to know one another, she also welcomes new neighbors

      August 23, 2010 at 3:09 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.