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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. Sandsave

    OK, CNN censor, let me state this undeniable fact: The prophet Mohammed was married to a 9 year old girl. That should say everything about Islam's treatment of women. Does that statement pass your muster? It's true and not profane. Publish it.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:06 am |
  2. Seema Kurd

    Hijab or burka neither protects a woman nor makes her an angel. In many muslim countries where they wear it, they make a good use of it by meeting up with their boyfriends, which is prohibited in islam. Women wearing burka are still abused by their husbands and treated like crap. Most of the ladies who wear this outfit are obese or fat, because they dont exercise. Dressing up modestly is the best. Women dressed up like that(wearing suites or dresses) look beautiful and majestic. I am totally against burka and hijab. It is just crap and nothing else.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:00 am |
  3. doos

    why do nuns have to wear a cloak and cover their hair and ears? Don't they feel oppressed? No? Then how does a religious muslim woman wearing by choice feels such an oppression?

    August 24, 2010 at 12:56 am |
    • globalblog

      You are a moron that's why

      August 24, 2010 at 1:44 am |
  4. Not Here!

    This is the problem and why the majority of America does not support the Muslim extremists. They want it all their way as it was in the 'old country.' Well here's my solution; if they want to cover themselves, and have their own Muslim law, then go back to where they came from – but don't come to American and try and make it a Muslim country – and that's what they are trying to do.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:56 am |
    • Kate

      @Not Here

      The problem with your position is it doesn't take into account those who are born and bred Americans. You're trying to mix and match between culture, geographical identity, and religious identity.

      If you're going to rebut that by saying they should go to the homeland of the religion, then you're going to walk into a problem yourself – If you're one of the Protestant denominations, then by rights you belong in Europe, since the original faith of North America was anamism with the Native Americans.

      No-one said anything about Sha'ria in this thread – although I've yet to hear why people have no problems with a parallel legal system already being in place for the Jewish community but have such issues with a similar subset of Sha'ria also applying only to the Muslim community.

      If you consider clothing to be a sign of extremism, what do you call the Hutaree who planned a massacre of cops, or the Westboro Baptist Church and the Dove World Outreach Center who celebrate the deaths of each of our fallen heroes? They go far beyond clothing, are you advocating they be shipped out of the US as well? if not – why not?

      August 24, 2010 at 1:14 am |
  5. Kevin

    To me this looks like just a form of mental subjugation of women. It says that who they are as individuals is irrelevant. If this really is a symbol of humility before God, then why don't men wear it as well? Also, I think Muslim women need to understand that our tradition in the west is that masks are most often worn by criminals.

    I'm not just picking on Islam, I think ALL religion is BS. We're are all just animals who make up stories. People should live for this life and for the people around them. Not invisible men in the sky.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  6. Sandsave

    Hello, everyone! Just wanted you to know Big Brother is alive and well at CNN. I attempted to post and had it rejected. What I said was true...not cruel or profane...just not what CNN wanted. Gotta love this "free" country. We all are forced to wear burkhas of some type...CNN, go to hell.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:49 am |
  7. Sandsave

    Now this Mohammed we are speaking of...he's the same one who had sex with 11 or 12 year old girls, right? And we are supposed to follow some desert scribblings that may or may not have been written by him? Yeah, if I followed him, I would cover my face, too. Especially if I found child rape offensive...

    August 24, 2010 at 12:43 am |
  8. Joe, San Diego

    Amazing the KKK wore white sheets no one cried foul but the Muslim now that is pure evil

    August 24, 2010 at 12:41 am |
  9. Clear Head?

    Americans live in a country that is free, not free of different ideas. I think this is something which we have forgotten by the amount of hatred floating about, frankly! I'm not saying women should be oppressed, and this intelligent woman is clearly not. Although I don't agree with her 100%, I absolutely respect her decision. Yes, other people would probably see me more for my intelligence or personality if I did cover myself, however part of myself IS my appearance (or lack thereof haha). But this goes both ways; she is how she dresses, totally devoted to God (Allah, Jehovah, God; tomato tomahto). If this is how she becomes closer to God, then who has any right to judge her for covering up more than the (so called) "average" woman might?

    It's been said that Islamic women are brainwashed, but if this is so, then it's certainly not exclusive to Islam. Many branches of Christianity forbid women clergy or even women from participating in worship. The Amish and Mennonites dress very conservatively, and that's just how it is. Maybe they're brainwashed, or maybe we are. For this woman, covering is like wearing a cross or rosary around her neck, it's not a sign of oppression or brainwashing. We all express our faith (if we have faith) in different ways, and usually how it's been passed down. Consider Communion, the symbolic flesh and blood of Christ, and step back for a moment. If Communion was a pillar of Islam and not a sacrament of the Christian Church, would we view it differently? How do you think Muslims view Christians? Even though Christians and Jews are "People of the book" (from Q'uran text), do you think they agree with us on everything we do? Religious toleration is underrated but needs to be reconsidered by many people.

    That's not to say burquas, hijabs, etc aren't used by some to hold their own over women, however to say that it is it's exclusive purpose is to be simple minded.

    And finally, those of you who feel unsafe when around a covered woman.. Do you feel uneasy around anyone with a piece of luggage? A backpack? A heavy jacket on? What about that Suburban you parked next to at work? It could have been PACKED with explosives. There are as many "Christian" terrorist organizations as "Islamic" terrorist organizations, however, living in a country that is mostly "Christian" it's pretty easy to forget that. The KKK is "Christian", do you support them? 99.9% of Muslims are more peaceful than you or I; don't forget that.

    I'm not saying I'm right, I'm just asking you to think.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:39 am |
  10. crisy003

    The other day when I was out of town for a doctors appt in Rochester Mn, I saw a muslim man, his wife, and I think their daughter, the husband was in regular pants and t shirt, the wife was in an all black robe like outfit, and a black head dress that let you see her face, but the daughter was in all black, and you couldn't see any bit of her face, not even her eyes. It looked like she had a blindfold on, I'm wondering if this is another type of custom? Is it a more strict version of the niqab? I found it odd because usually they at least have the slits for their eyes..

    August 24, 2010 at 12:36 am |
    • Kate

      @Crisy003

      It was probably the Saudi style niqab, there's a very thin gauze-like layer that can be flipped over the eyes, which you can see out of, but can't be seen in through. It's usually used for additional privacy (although it also makes for good glare reduction in sunlight!)

      August 24, 2010 at 12:46 am |
  11. CURT

    I choose to wear clothes with pictures of marijuana.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:31 am |
  12. Kamal

    Most American Muslim women dare not disobey their parents or other elders, or else they might get hurt big time. So to say she covers her face willfully is a sheer attempt to hide her fears of prosecution. I know many women who say to live the life we want we have lie to our parents and others every day. And they live their life only when away from them. With them, they are again wearing the coverings. Abused people generally tend to be brain washed to justify and rationalize their behaviors.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  13. Terry W. Brookman

    Hiding so as not to be stoned to death for tempting a man could be a strong motivation but in this country that is not likely to happen. Such an enlightened peaceful people, give me a break, animals with no self control.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:27 am |
  14. tom

    "When you look at Aliya Naim or Nadia, they don’t want you to see objects of beauty"
    Oh my goodness! HOW ARROGANT! What makes them so sure they're beautiful?

    August 24, 2010 at 12:24 am |
  15. Toronto Joe

    Religion is a personal thing that people make public (by their dress, speech, jewelry, etc). Religious ideology of all kinds can be off-putting (anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-____ (fill in the blank))... so the coverings are experienced as off-putting by some. But beyond the religious ideology thing, humans communicate so much through facial expressions... the face coverings are like giving your back to everyone you meet outside of your immediate family and friends. It's not neighborly. People who are truly choosing freely to cover their faces like this in public are putting their religious practices ahead of a concern for alienating others. It's their choice, but I think it would be sad if this becomes a popular thing to do in North America.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:23 am |
  16. Terry W. Brookman

    After two years working for Disney land she changed her style of dressing and got laid off, now she is suing them. She signed a contract to dress in a way fitting Disney land, I guess the money from a lawsuit changed her mind not religion.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:21 am |
  17. Mimi

    All of you who question if the Bible,Torah, Koran are the words of 'GOD'. The answer here is FAITH, that is the one thing that all of us have in common. Each of us go on faith. None of us can prove or need proof. It does not matter what we wear, how we pray or what our belief is, it is faith in our 'GOD' no matter what his name, and without proof. There is but one, that is what matters. Blessed Be all of you, no matter what your book of choice is or what you choose to wear or believe.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:19 am |
    • Carlos

      Speak for yourself, Mimi. I have no "faith" in deities or anything else that cannot be proven or at least shown to be more likely than not. And I am not the only one. Atheists, agnostics, secularists and non-religious people, when combined, make up one of the largest "belief" sects in America. We may be a minority, but we punch above our weight. The higher one goes in education and the greater one's intellect, the greater the chance that one will discard religion and superstition.

      August 24, 2010 at 1:48 am |
  18. kk

    I find it interesting that these women are finding peace and safety in hiding in their shapeless, anonymous clothing. As for their safety, my question is in the Muslim world with all of the peaceful and law abiding men, what do they fear and who are they hiding from? Or is it that a woman's beauty is to temping for the men, that the women have to hide for their own safety? I can see how back in history with village raids, woman needed to hide they beauty to avoid capture. A herd mentality. God lives in one's heart and mind. And the love of god in itself is like a cloak that one wears proudly. Women need to shine with god's love and confidence, not hide.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:17 am |
    • Kate

      @kk

      I think you're looking at it from the wrong angle, to some degree – purely from the physical "concealment" aspect. You actually came pretty close to the main part of it at the end of your post.

      The concealment, "protection" if you like is a small part of the whole. The other factors to consider are, wearing hijab (at least) is a commandment as to the proper behavior for a muslimah, so doing so is simply obeying the Qur'an. Niqab is another matter, and there are a lot of different opinions about it, but laying aside where it comes from, and if it is obligatory, optional, or recommended, it has a spiritual component to it as well.

      It's going above and beyond the "minimum" required to show faith and devotion, and it gives an extra "kick" to that "cloak" of love, of peace, and of being close to God. That might not make sense unless you remember that the Prophet's wives wore similar garb, and so it's also emulating to a degree their devotion to God.

      So it's a mistake to focus solely on the view from outside as it were, without remembering the view from within too.

      Hoping that makes sense.

      August 24, 2010 at 12:30 am |
  19. Carlos

    Nadia and Aliya, how many non-Muslim friends do you have? How many male friends do you have? My guess is not many of either. If you goal is to let your intellect represent you, rather than your appearance, why are you shutting yourself off from the vast majority of your fellow humans?

    Guess what, ladies. Dressing differently does not make you smarter or cooler, it just makes you look different.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:17 am |
    • Mun

      I am a Muslim American just like Nadia and Aliya and I practice the Hijab. I started against my parent's will and continue to do so against their will. To answer your question, I have numerous male friends, all with in the limitations and boundaries prescribed by Islam and the number of non-Muslim friends I have out numbers the number of Muslim friends I have. I grew up in a White majority neighborhood, I attended an elementary school being the only Muslim girl and I also went to a Middle school being the ONLY Muslim girl with a head scarf.

      Hopefully that answers your question and more.

      August 24, 2010 at 1:38 am |
    • Carlos

      Okay, good, you are fairly open-minded. I am curious in what way Islam limits your interactions with men. If it just forbids you from having sexual relations with men, how is that much different than any other traditional culture in the world?

      You say you practice hijab against your parents' will. Okay, so, to perpetuate your conceit at having a personal relationship with a deity who does not exist, you are putting a barrier between yourself and the real humans who actually gave birth to you and raised you. Just imagine for a second, if you are mentally capable, how harmful and unnecessary your behavior would be if there were no god.

      August 24, 2010 at 2:00 am |
  20. Dr. Shaun Goldstein

    This entire article oozes with taquiyya from every single breath of the word. Instead of making such excuses for the vile symbols of ultra-reactionary religious bigotry such as the hijab and niqab why can't Muslims accept that it is a symbol of hate? The Islamic veil seeks to depressurized the very vessel of human hopes that modern society holds in its hands as a precious jewel of progress, and is a symbol of sexism, patriarchy, and oppression. Some people might say it's only a garment. But let's consider the alternatives. Today it's "just a garment" but should we concede this, there will be utter chaos. Surly, bearded imams will be handing death sentences to Jews from Shariah courts, gays will be stoned for having their own identity, and African-Americans will surely be oscillating from every tree in America.

    We must fight against these unwelcome and reactionary influences in our daily lives just as much as we must fight to eradicate terrorism in the world at large.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:09 am |
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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.