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. M&M

    They cover up to distract attention from their physical because they want people to be attracted to their intellectual. Well, don't they realize that this doesn't work in America. People will always stare at someone who is dressed out of the ordinary regardless of what the dress is. The cover-up is doing the exact opposite that they want it to do. Also, what about the women in Muslim countries who have no intellect because the men don't allow them to be educated? What is their attraction? I think it would be wise to use the intellectual brains to know that in America people need to conform to certain norms of society as long as it is decent. The reasoning for covering up in America is just stupid! And as for pleasing the Creator? What? He couldn't care less if you have one leg, blind and ugly as hell. He sees your heart not your physical body!

    August 23, 2010 at 11:20 pm |
  2. Bill

    In the western world, where women have rights and the option to choose what they wear, I can maybe buy the claim that it is done to bring the focus from their physical appearance to their intellect and personalities. However, since most of the women in the world who wear these clothing items are in countries where they don't have that choice, and are wearing these items because they are forced to and are beaten or worse if they don't, I'm not buying it. They fact that in many of these areas women are not allowed to even go to school leads me to believe the style of dress has little to do with showing off their intellect. And if it does, why does it apply to just women? Why would it not be just as important to have men in those cultures cover themselves up to bring about that same shift in focus?

    August 23, 2010 at 11:16 pm |
  3. Liberty

    Most people do not have a problem with freedom of choice. But we do have a problem with people being threaten into compliance under fear of death or mutilation. Which is something we do not want within our boarders. We fought that fight already with extremist of some faiths and ideologies already and know there is a track record of it in Islam.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:15 pm |
  4. Jay

    American Muslim women can were these items (or not ) with little fear of retaliation, unlike in a Muslim country– kinda like a guy wearing a really bad Hawaiian shirt at a formal diner party – tacky, but he won't get disemboweled for looking like an idiot.

    ...and the guy never claims that it's his religious right to wear it ( or that God spoke to him and told him to ) Or that he'll get beat up, have acid splashed in his face, have his nose cut off, or any number of other wonderful Muslim practices if he refuses to wear the tacky Pineapple over garment.

    Look – this is America: If you want to dress up for trick or treat every day, that's your business. But when you get shot coming out of liquor store mistaken for a bandit – you better damned sure not come back to America and ask for one frigging ounce of sympathy...

    What did Forrest Gump say?: ' Stupid is and Stupid does' Ms. Naim..........................

    August 23, 2010 at 11:14 pm |
  5. Carlos

    Where is my comment, CNN? Why pretend readers can comment if, half the time I post a comment, my comment does not appear?

    August 23, 2010 at 11:10 pm |
  6. Dorothea7

    Helen Keller said that being blind meant missing the "slant of the mouth", as she called it, of the people whose words were being spelled into her hand, she missed the expressions on people's faces. She was right to complain, for if so much of the face cannot be seen, how can the character be judged or the true emotions be evident? The burqa takes that away from us all. It turns the wearer into a blob of cloth with eyes. It dehumanizes the wearer by concealing so much of where our humanity shines forth the most brightly. If you would want me to ever trust you, much less want to get to know you, show me your face.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:10 pm |
  7. My

    Sorry, but I'm afraid it's what allows for such violent behavior. A sense of hiding, no one really knowing who is under the veil, it could be a man or a woman. Who would know if they've been punched in the eye? Can't even see that.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
  8. Mike

    They are simply brain washed. That's all there is to it.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
  9. Ninja

    They have followed the teaching of Ninjutsu

    August 23, 2010 at 11:05 pm |
  10. Shrug

    Just one of those, 'to each their own' things. I don't have to understand or respect your head coverings. I just have to respect your right to it. I think we're so ate up with demanding everyone understand our beliefs and that is the wrong approach. This just creates continued distention. People just need to leave each other the hell alone all around.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:04 pm |
  11. GreyGeek

    "While it is true that some women adopt the veil voluntarily, it is also true that most veiling is forced. It is nearly impossible for the state to ascertain who is veiled by choice and who has been coerced. A woman who has been forced to veil is hardly likely to volunteer this information to authorities. Our responsibility to protect these women from coercion is greater than our responsibility to protect the freedom of those who choose to veil. Why? Because this is our culture, and in our culture, we do not veil. We do not veil because we do not believe that God demands this of women or even desires it; nor do we believe that unveiled women are whores, nor do we believe they deserve social censure, harassment, or rape. Our culture’s position on these questions is morally superior. We have every right, indeed an obligation, to ensure that our more enlightened conception of women and their proper role in society prevails in any cultural conflict, particularly one on Western soil."
    –Claire Berlinski

    August 23, 2010 at 11:02 pm |
  12. Carlos

    Per the article, Nadia says that there is a "common misconception of Muslim women being forced to cover." Aliya is then quoted as saying, "I actually know more people who wear it against their parents’ wishes than unwillingly in compliance with their wishes." The implication in Aliya's statement is that she knows some people who wear the hijab unwillingly. Therefore, contrary to the message Nadia, Aliya and the article are trying to communicate, there ARE some women who are "forced to cover." It is irrelevant that they and many they know choose to cover. What matters is that this is America, and some American women are being forced to cover. The article contradicts itself. Women, in America, being forced to cover, is not a "misconception" after all. Muslim Americans, am I missing something here?

    August 23, 2010 at 11:00 pm |
  13. GreyGeek

    "There is no nation on the planet where the veil is the cultural norm and where women enjoy equal rights. Not one. Nor is there such a thing as a neighborhood where the veil is the cultural norm and yet no judgment is passed upon women who do not wear it."
    –Claire Berlinski

    August 23, 2010 at 10:56 pm |
  14. Angel

    In the end, does everyone realize we are all talking about women's clothing-LOL. Does it really matter so much? I don't think it is about freeing "oppressed" women at all, I think it is about being forced to interact in society with people that have different views. Remember women used to cover their whole bodies in this country until the early 1900s. They didn't start the feminist movement so that they could take off their clothes, they wanted the right to vote! I don't really think Susan B. Anthony would wear a miniskirt-LOL. I think it was far more important to her to be respected as a equal in society, than to be objected by the same society.

    I have always wondered why the women who attend red carpet and black tie affairs seem to show so much cleavage but the men are always completely dressed from head to toe (except for hats). Women are expected to wear heels, makeup, etc. in order to look dressed up while men can look respectable in slacks and shirts. Who made up these rules. It doesn't sound fair to me. I think women should be allowed to dress as they would like.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:50 pm |
  15. GreyGeek

    "Veiling cannot be disambiguated from the problem of Islam’s conception of women, and this conception is directly tied to gender apartheid and the subjugation and abuse of women throughout the Islamic world, the greatest human-rights problem on the planet, bar none. Nor can the practice of veiling be divorced from the concept of namus — an ethical category that is often translated as “honor,” and if your first association with this word is “honor killing,” it is for a reason: That is the correct association. The path from veiling to the practice of killing unveiled women is not nearly so meandering as you might think."
    –Claire Berlinski

    She makes an excellent point.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  16. Brian

    of all the causes one can take up in the world, an individual decides to cover herself to be 'pure' so that a vengeful god will be closer to her. hmm very sound logic. not be judged by appearance? then why wear the veil in the first place? people will judge. promote modesty? how about questioning of allah's injunctions against homosexuality and not judging homosexuals. please go to ali sina's faithfreedom website to learn more about islam.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:45 pm |
  17. Marilyn

    If the women interviewed in this article wish to wear coverings they are, thank goodness, free to do so (or not) in this country. However it should not come as a shock that others might make comments or stare. Any decision a person makes is going to have natural consequences. The women interviewed may not want people to judge them on their looks but on their personalities/intellect however it would appear, ironically, that because of their choice of apparel they ARE being judged on the way they look. Is covering up, then, the best way to call attention to one's personality? Could dressing this way be a plea to call attention to themselves? If some american born women are wearing the coverings against the wishes of their own families as was mentioned in the article then could we, in some cases, be talking about adolescent rebellion or coming of age issues – rather on the same level as getting a tattoo or a piercing or wearing provocative clothing to school which would unsettle the status quo? People should do as they please and at the same time be honest with themselves as to their motives – is this about faith or identity or belonging or insecurity- and not expect others to have their mindset. If a woman wishes to be seen in public wearing head to toe coverings that person should get a backbone and stand up for what she believes in and at the same time practice putting herself in someone else's shoes so she can understand why other people might object or react negatively to such apparel. Empathy and understanding work both ways. You get what you give.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:44 pm |
  18. Robert Corsini

    Growing up in Southern California in the 60s and 70s I went to Catholic schools and half the Nuns wore full habits. People didn't seem to have a problem with it then - they just looked hot and uncomfortable. What is wrong with America today? We are suffering from some sort of psychological dystrophy - the dystrophy being generated by a toxic melange of messages being ingested day in and day out breaking down the fabric of our humanity.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:44 pm |
  19. Laila

    Islam says to dress modestly, it doesn't say to cover ur face..how u interpret modesty is up to individual common sense. I am a muslim woman myself Although I respect those women who wear hejab for personal reasons and choice, I don't wear it in the west because personaly I believe that u get more attention for wearing hejab than if u don't, and one of the reasons u suppose to wear hejab is to avoid attention. on the other hand if i go to a muslim counry i will wear it for the very same reasons.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:39 pm |
  20. Angel

    As to the father who made the comment about what Muslim women think about his girls wearing shorts and tanktops. I doesn't really matter what we think, just know that we wouldn't dress like that. Eventually your girls will be grown women. What do men think about women who wear shorts and tank tops? I guarantee you that they are thinking different things when they look at those women than when they see me wearing a head scarf and loose attire. Isn't that what you think if a Muslim women is walking in the mall next to a lady in a miniskirt?

    August 23, 2010 at 10:38 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.