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. Ozzy

    @Kate, but that happens once in a blue moon! Radical muslims are blowing up and killing people on a constant and regular basis.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:06 am |
    • Kate


      For some reason I can't get the comments to display properly threaded so I'm not sure what you were replying to – but from context I *think* it was a reply to my reference to terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland funded out of NYC and Boston? If so, then I'd simply suggest you visit the BBC Online news site, and go read the Northern Ireland section.

      They call them dissidents now, it's more politically correct, but I'm sorry – if you set a bomb, you're a terrorist, regardless of your religion or race. Simple. There was one detonated just last weekend, 3 kids were injured – no warning again.

      They're not as infrequent as the "peace" would imply 🙁

      August 24, 2010 at 12:39 am |
  2. Reality

    Putting religion and dress codes into perspective:

    1. There was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no bases.

    2. There was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    3. There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    4. There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completes fails as a religion.

    5. There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    6. There are no sacred/revered cows, castes or reincarnations i.e. Hinduism fails as a religion.

    7. Buddhas here, Buddhas there, Buddhas everwhere makes for a no on Buddhism

    August 24, 2010 at 12:02 am |
  3. Kvobekvo

    Yes, I will highly recommend some ugly men to get covered as well.
    Joke aside, why do you need to be covered in a way that you can't breathe, eat or talk in order to "shine" your intellect. This woman has been wearing the cover for only a year. What made her become so releigious all of a sudden? This seems like a way to get attention. I personally feel opressed when I pass a woman that is covered.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:01 am |
  4. wearwatyawant

    The second girl needs to practice taking care of her feet!

    August 23, 2010 at 11:59 pm |
  5. chris

    if they could wear a bikini underneath all that burlap, I'm all for it.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:53 pm |
  6. XtnThinkr

    This country was founded on the right to practice one's religion as one sees fit. These women have the right as American citizens to express their faith how they choose. All those Muslim-haters out there need to remember that the America they think they are "defending" is a country where freedom of religion is protected by the First Amendment.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
  7. Fathima

    People who believe in God, the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, and the Quran follow His commandments as revealed in the Quran.

    The Quran reveals regarding: men and women

    30. Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.). That is purer for them. Verily, Allâh is All-Aware of what they do.

    31. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like palms of hands or one eye or both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer dress like veil, gloves, head-cover, apron, etc.), and to draw their veils all over Juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms, etc.) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husband's sons, their brothers or their brother's sons, or their sister's sons, or their (Muslim) women (i.e. their sisters in Islâm), or the (female) slaves whom their right hands possess, or old male servants who lack vigour, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And all of you beg Allâh to forgive you all, O believers, that you may be successful.

    Surah 24 An Noor Verse 30-31

    August 23, 2010 at 11:42 pm |
  8. G

    I respect the ladies' opinions, but if this is not imposed upon them, why is that that american women, including Secretary Clinton is seen wearing a head scarf in all her pictures taken when visiting muslim countries ? If she is not muslim why was she made to wear a head scarf when visiting ?
    I see a double standard here. Muslim women want to be allowed head scarves even when rules prevent the use of head gear, such as for a driver's license picture, yet, a non muslim woman travels to a muslim country and she HAS to wear a head scarf. She is not given a choice.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:40 pm |
  9. er

    In this country, the only people who regularly cover their faces are children at Halloween and bank robbers. When I see a woman in hijab, my intellectual reponse is "live and let live." If that's what they want to do, so be it. But my emotional response is much more visceral. I don't see god or allah or a pilgrim getting closer to her deity. I just see oppression. I'm especially sad when I see little kids with women in hijab. The boys are getting the clear message that their mothers (and thereby all females) are inherently dirty and must hide themselves in order to be safe from men. What drivel. That should be offensive to decent men everywhere. And the little girls? That's the worst. Instead of being taught to be strong and smart and beautiful, whatever their physical attributes, they're being brainwashed to cover themselves in shame. Very depressing.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:39 pm |
  10. Carlos

    Nadia and Aliya, if you think most Americans respect your "intellect" more because you dress that way, you are kidding yourselves. Showing that you are extreme in your devotion to a non-existent deity does not make anyone respect your intelligence. It does quite the opposite.

    As for masking you "beauty," you are kidding yourselves there too. From what I have seen, I can tell you are both pretty lacking in that department.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:35 pm |
  11. rich

    So we're just going to go ahead an ignore the origin of these garments and take the word of the few that have been interviewed that the current reason they wear them, mind you done under anonymity, is due to wanting to not be seen as sex objects?

    August 23, 2010 at 11:33 pm |
  12. Carlos

    What Nadia and Aliya will never admit is that they are really full of themselves. They talk about humility, but they feel a sense of superiority by showing-off their religious devotion. That smugness is amplified by the fact that, in a Western country, they can feel like a rebel by dressing they way they do. I bet when women like Nadia and Aliya get together, they compliment each other alot, and denigrate people who are not part of their clique.

    All this nonsense, and for no reason. There are no deities, people. Stupid things like religious dress are just ways of segregating humans from each other; to create an "us" and a "them."

    August 23, 2010 at 11:31 pm |
  13. Percy

    Wow they sure seem to feel like they're something special. They assume men would look at them as something other than equals or as objects of desire. They choose to live in a mixed "society" among fellow humans and want to enjoy the privilege of anonymity but don't mind looking at others that are much more exposed. How do they handle things like banking? or getting through security at an airport? How about the old ladies that are covered, do they think that men look at them as desirable sex objects as well?

    August 23, 2010 at 11:30 pm |
  14. Steve

    It's very ironic..we are now "concerned" about women wearing veils, and don't give a damn about strippers selling their bodies for one dollar bills. I think reality lies somewhere in between. Having said that, I probably have more respect for a woman covering herself up–if that's her choice–than a stripper or a porn star unveiling it all up for random strangers. It's a strange world after all.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:29 pm |
  15. Jay

    Can I wear a picture of Mohammad on my T-Shirt picking his nose and will respect my religious freedom to do so?

    August 23, 2010 at 11:29 pm |
  16. A Real American

    Funny, your dress is symbolic to a terrorist. Which your religion hosts the largest numbers of in the world. I am Irish/German, but choose to blend into our American society rather than display the signs of the IRA or Nazi’s and opt for the normal practice of the accepted norm of the country I call home and respect with its own unique culture. I hope you are not accepted. We have a culture here in the United States. Could you wear an American flag on your head where you are from? Why should we be accepting, when your own country men and women are not accepting of our culture? We don't stone people to death here, we don't mass kill for fanatic religious ideals and we don't wear your cultures crazy, cowards cover up to make us feel better about our insecure issues. Love it or leave it. Please leave. I will pay you for the expense.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:23 pm |
  17. Tracy

    You stupid, pitifully ignorant people who keep saying "go back where you came from...." News flash!!! These are AMERCIAN women, they ARE where they came from. I suggest a refresher class in American history and the Constitution.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:23 pm |
  18. ozmine

    Hello everyone,
    Just looking at me nobody can tell what my religion is. Because I believe religion should be in private .Nobody has the right to ask, criticize or tell what to believe or not. Please if you do not want to be judged do not judge. Respect and even be more nice to people who are different from you.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:22 pm |
  19. Mike

    This Moslem dress is an assertive, deliberate identification with sharia law and with the Islamic community that supports sharia law. These girls may or may not be naive and innocent about the bigoted, intolerant, hateful and violent doctrines of Islam; but willy-nilly, they are identifying with those doctrines. Even if they do not know much about those doctrines, you can be sure that their men and their community leaders and imams know about those doctrines. This covering of one's body, and especially the face, is an instrument of self-segregation away from mainstream America. It is not surprising that mainstream America is suspicious. The Islamic community that these women choose to identify does not share our values of liberty and equality because the sharia law they identify with contradicts our values.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:22 pm |
  20. Carlos

    So Nadia and Aliya think they have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe? So much for "humility." FYI, ladies, you probably already know this deep down (and, if you don't, then you are truly dumb or brainwashed), but there are really no such things as deities. That means you are dressing like a moron for nothing.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:21 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.