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. Saadia

    Thank you CNN for posting this and giving the true side of the story.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:08 am |
    • Vicki

      I am sorry. Women who cover are not brave. Facing a little societal scorn is not on a par with what women and girls have to face every day from Somalia to Iran. I think you should know when you veil that the majority of people seeing a covered woman simply pity you. Some feel angry. But very, very few North Americans will ever respect a covered woman for her intellect. It seems ridiculous to us for a woman to wear a symbol of oppression in a land which they or their parents chose to live in because it offers freedom from oppression. Making that sort of choice does not seem very intellectual to me. If you are a religious orthodox, why not submit fully and completely to the wishes of your most orthodox clerics? Why not move to a country where you feel completely comfortable honouring your god as you wish? Why live in a culture you despise and then complain about it? By the way: this is not at all racist. I have many Muslim friends. But the women know how lucky they are to live in freedom and choose to worship their god privately rather than wear their religion on their sleeves.

      August 24, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  2. Jack

    That's crap.
    They've been conditioned to think that way.
    It's ok to cover your body, buy why your face?
    Of course men get worked up at the slightest glimpse of female skin, but hey,
    we sure as hell want to see more than a set of eyes.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:01 am |
  3. trying2save

    These hijab wearing women...are a step backwards in the women's rights to equality. Our societies have evolved after a lot of sacrifices and given equal rights to men and women. Why is there a specific dictat for women.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:58 am |
  4. noboru mokoto

    All kind of precepts were made for social order 2/3/1000 years ago and the complete covering in the desert was a real necessity (see the Tuareg today still riding completely covered) .
    But keeping all this in a Western country is just childish and senseless...
    I hate Carl Marx and the communism but when he said that "religions are the opium of the people" he just said the bitter necessary true.
    To be honest, loyal, compassionate and modest, you don't need to adhere to any religion nor to show up in weird clothes: you need just your inner spirituality.
    Most of the truly compassionate men and women in history weren't forcefully religious: actually Muslim,Christians and Jews were the most ferocious bloodthirsty people in the human history.
    Check any History book and you'll see.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:57 am |
  5. trying2save

    Some muslim women don't even realize that hijab is a symbol of their subjugation. There is something like "stockholm syndrome" . In this case agreeing is just a matter of survival instinct. In past they could get serious punishment for not wearing hijab...certain radical muslim societies still follow that.

    Why do most uneducated muslim women support it.
    And why don't successful and educated women support it. Of course there may be an exception here and there.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:54 am |
  6. noboru mokoto

    The fact is that when the man in his disgraced history had a need to justify violence and domination or impose a social order invented some religion...
    For instance for Muslim eating pork was forbidden... I bet!! eating a rotting meat in the desert was certainly a great danger of intoxication or death... but today??? with the pork meat controlled and sterilized even at excess??? Same with Christians and fasting or eating lamb at Easter...
    All kind of precepts were made for social order 2/3/1000 years ago and the complete covering in the desert was a real necessity (see the Tuareg today still riding completely covered) .
    But keeping all this in a Western country is just childish and senseless...
    I hate Carl Marx and the communism but when he said that "religions are the opium of the people" he just said the bitter necessary true.
    To be honest, loyal, compassionate and modest, you don't need to adhere to any religion nor to show up in weird clothes: you need just your inner spirituality.
    Most of the truly compassionate men and women in history weren't forcefully religious: actually Muslim,Christians and Jews were the most ferocious bloodthirsty people in the human history.
    Check any History book and you'll see.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:54 am |
  7. Iron V

    This is is disingenuous, circular logic. That is, BS! "Yes, we avoid the negative, demeaning standards of an unjust society by hiding behind masks..."

    Huh? Say what? Well, that's certainly an elevated, unimpeachable strategy, isn't it? Actually, it's the refuge of self-absorbed, relentlessly egomaniac IDIOTS...

    August 24, 2010 at 1:53 am |
  8. alex

    come on. Lets get serious. Someone from the deserts of arabia invades civilized countries They raped women, destroyed civilized countries, stole their national wealth. Do you call this a religion that is imposed by force. If this is islam then it should be wiped off. Lets face it these idiots kill people in order to expand their stupidity. These are the ones who may push the button and destroy the world we love so much. Look at the innocent people killed in Israel, in Iran and Lebanon. they have no respect for life and believe in shedding blood in order to survive. Then we living in civilized countries allow them to dictated their way of living to us. Something is not right here. Send them back to where they came from.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:49 am |
  9. Canadian

    My main concern and source of frustration is the fact that I, as a woman, would need to cover myself in an Islamic country... They ask for respect from us, Westerners, but unfortunately we do not get the same respect in return and cannot exercise our rights to be uncovered in most islamic countries... Sad...

    August 24, 2010 at 1:42 am |
  10. globalblog

    TMNT remember?

    Hijab was worn by the Arabs long before Islam...the quran says to cover your bosoms not your face!

    August 24, 2010 at 1:40 am |
  11. globalblog

    TMNT remember?
    Hijab was worn by the Arabs long before Islam...the quran says to cover your bosoms not your face!

    August 24, 2010 at 1:40 am |
  12. CommonSense

    What is the difference between allowing KKK members to wear hoods and this? It is a public safety issue. They are no different than a kid getting a tattoo or piercing their tongue. It is all a show. Being closer to God isn’t about what you wear; but, what is in your heart.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:40 am |
  13. SuZieCoyote

    I grit my teeth every time I see a woman covered. Take that crap somewhere else. We've worked hard for freedom for women here. I guess I'm one of those hateful people who give the dirty looks. You put my daughter at risk. You put my grand daughters and their grand daughters at risk. If you want to be a piece of property, fine, but take your veil and go somewhere else. Women aren't property in this neck of the woods.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:39 am |
    • Kate


      Conditional freedom isn't freedom, it's just changing who has the control.

      Just sayin'

      August 24, 2010 at 1:43 am |
  14. Jack8163

    Western people, in general, are far too tolerant of Islam. They look at it as though it were simply another religion like Buddhism, Christianity, or Judaism. It is not: Mohammed was a psychopath, a butcher, and a child molestor. Did Jesus or Buddha ever behead hundreds of people? The 'Prophet' Mohammed did. Did either Buddha, Jesus, or Moses have women and young girls as sex slaves? Mohammed did. Does your average Christian or Jew advocate cutting the hands off thieves or drowning young girls in swimming pools when they 'dishonor' their families by being with boys. Sharia law does. These 'coverings' are exactly that–a covering for Islamic terrorists who often masquerade as women. Islam is an oppressive, evil, deceptive plague on the planet and rather than being politically correct and coddling these people who would send the whole of humanity back into the dark ages, people need to learn the truth and speak out against that which is so utterly and fundamentally un-American and contrary to the principles upon which this country was founded and for which so many gave their lives. Find out the facts about the evil deeds of 'Prophet Mohammed'. Spread the word and stop the lies before these psychopaths take over our society.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:38 am |
  15. HinduAlex

    Islam is a religion that is easy to hijack by likes of Taliban and these fools try to defend it by saying it is part of the religion. 1400 AD is long gone, crusades are over, just grow up and modernize your religion like the rest of the religions have. Quit living in the past fearful of your surroundings.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:35 am |
  16. kk

    Kate, the Koran tells stories of how even the Prophet wasn't always popular and that his wives concealed themselves for their own protection from hecklers. The verses of the Curtain says for men and women to dress modestly, never mentions the body and face full coverage. The cloak of God's love I that I was referring to isn't one that is purchased in a store, but is emanated from the heart. Regardless, Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc, all need to get along. I think the hijab and the like is a frightening sight for most westerners. It heralds from a world where women don't have much freedom and we do enjoy our freedom here. And one has to accept limitations set before them by the choices they make. If they choose to wear certain clothing die to their religion, fine. They just have to accept the fact that it may not be acceptable for the potential employer's dress code. Students need to see the teacher's face, police need to be able to run, firemen need to wear protective garments, etc.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:33 am |
  17. Zanatos

    I think it is wonderful how the Islamic religion protects women from sex-crazed oglers and from manly responsibilities like getting a higher education, owning property, driving a car, discussing politics, voting or venturing outside the home without a male family member escort.

    Under Sharia law, women who are raped routinely get sentenced to death by stoning – so the burqa/hijab/niqab really are a good way for women to try and protect themselves.

    And when a Muslim woman's husband dies – she has the choice of marrying a brother-in-law or being homeless. Having so many options is terrific.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:30 am |
  18. Doug

    I think Muslim women should cover their face, i have yet to see one which was worth looking at.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:13 am |
  19. sotiri3

    I fully appreciate the back and forth rhetoric on the subject. I understand the idealistic point of view of doing whatever you want in a country that respects all religions and personal choices. I don't think it should be illegal for women not to wear whatever they want. In this country everyone is entitled to their own opinions...but not to their own facts. The fact is, you covering your face in order to be modest is not a symbol of modesty but simply oppression. PURE AND SIMPLE! These women are oppressed, maybe not forcefully or by anybody in particular (although it is usually the case) but rather by their wrongful interpretation of the Q'uran. THE SLAVEOWNERS JOB IS COMPLETE WHEN THE SLAVE TAKES PRIDE IN HIS CHAINS. These womens are slaves of their religion and they take pride in the oppression that old traditions have placed on them. There is no sugar coating around this.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:11 am |
  20. Sandsave

    Thought taking the post button off would work?

    August 24, 2010 at 1:10 am |
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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.