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. timur lang

    Wasn't Mary wearing a veil? Why are nuns having 'that' kind of dress? Stop the hypocrisy, ignorance and bigotry. Oh for the ignoramuses, what was the dressing of Jesus? Now, you tell who are the actual followers of Jesus. I am sure not those who parade their bodies to nakedness.

    August 24, 2010 at 5:06 am |
  2. 7ygh

    Wearing a veil in the US = Freedom/Modesty
    Wearing a veil in Afghanistan = Oppression.

    We have no right to ban a garment (except in places where covering your face causes a security threat: airports, banks, etc.), as we also have no right to force a garment.

    August 24, 2010 at 4:57 am |
  3. Yoranne

    Maybe our children will have to wear a burka one day.... I hope they will change the design by then!!!!! Unless we stop them........

    August 24, 2010 at 4:53 am |
  4. Yoranne

    What is a "GOOD" muslim? In countries like Pakistan where 100% of the people are muslim........the killings go on. So i still want to know.....what kind of muslim decides for another muslim, who is going to live or die. Imagine.....how many Christians, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics etc... they will have to kill to purify the world......and then they will have to kill the "BAD" muslims to.....and all in the name of ALLAH.....hiding under a burka......because the muslim woman are worse than the men. And under a burka, you can be a perfect whore to without anybody knowing or recognizing Allah's devoted slave. They are eating our countries little by little....and we just wait and watch until we, woman, will be forced to wear a burka to.....Ca suffit !!!!!!

    August 24, 2010 at 4:47 am |
  5. Khalid

    I am muslim and I do believe that hijab is heaven for prude women and most of them put it by choice.stop blaming muslim men for it.I am against it although respect other people's choices...and no it is not required you dont go to hell for not wearing it.

    August 24, 2010 at 4:35 am |
  6. Amrita

    I am a pretty progressive American woman raised as a Christian, and since becoming more aware of Islam, although it's not a religion I would want any part of, I'm beginning to understand the value of hijab. I can understand the philosophy of not wanting to be objectified and saving your beauty only for your close family members and husband. I'm beginning to find it very appealing. I find Islam as a religion a pretty scary thing as everyone but a Muslim is an "infidel" and their theological view of government is discomfiting to say the least. I think the burqua is ridiculous but as far as head covering and loose clothing I'm beginning to totally get it. And this is coming from a feminist and anti-authority person of many years standing. At least you wouldn't have to worry about a bad hair day.

    August 24, 2010 at 4:28 am |
  7. nicick

    they needed modesty since their history was one of molestation

    August 24, 2010 at 4:12 am |
  8. Sinfulone

    Personally I respect their right to wear what they wish, me I wear my six gun on my hip in a legal open carry ..now if I put on a Lone Ranger mask how many of you would cross the street to stay away

    August 24, 2010 at 4:12 am |
  9. Chris

    I live in Dubai and the sight of women in niqab is normal. In my opinion there is no difference wether you wear a leather miniskirt or a niqab. In both cases you define yourself merely as a sexual object of male desire. It is a sad and grotesque way to block out any civilised communication, because these people can not think of non-sexualised communication between members of the opposite sex at all.

    August 24, 2010 at 4:03 am |
  10. Jovan

    So... given the reasons for wearing as stated by the interviewees, women who do not wear must be: inferior, not worthy and incapable of being spiritual. Or have I missed something here?

    August 24, 2010 at 3:58 am |
  11. Jells

    If you go to an Arabic country, you will see the disrespect that men show toward Western women. They have no clue how to act around us, and they think it's quite acceptable to approach us, compliment us, inquire about our marital status, etc, etc. It is very unflattering, and it made me feel like a piece of meat. So, I'm just saying that it's no wonder that these women think they will be disrespected if they wear anything other than a sheet.

    I understand that this particular woman was born in the U.S, but I'm just saying that the problem lies elsewhere.

    August 24, 2010 at 3:52 am |
  12. Sara

    (bismallah alrahman alraheem) I was a christian who converted to islam after studying in a university about the facts and origins of different religions. I also lived in egypt for over a year and I wore the hijab while living there, at first out of respect but then out of my own desire to do so. let me explain: First, the custom, simply, of the covering was done by men and women because of the climate in that part of the world even before the religion of islam began. Yes the above quotes from quaran are accurate and it does NOT say a woman should cover her face, but cover her 'beauty' . If a woman choses to cover her beautiful face its her choice. Secondly, the muslims that I know that do practice the 'covering' today do it as an act of modesty, to avoid being looked at for their bodies only -but for their mind or personality. Most of them as do i, believe it is a sign of respect because a woman is not the toy or adornment for other men...but loyal and faithful parnters, sisters mothers, etc. My cleavage, my rear, my beautiful legs and my face are my gift to my husbad – not for all other men to gawk over and fantasize about. I am not oppressed because i still choose to wear the hijab in america. I am oppressed if i choose NOT to wear it because that means i am conforming to society that values sexy bodies and has lost the concept of modesty.

    August 24, 2010 at 3:20 am |
  13. Mom of Three

    This is all very quaint but a waste of time, considering none of this stuff is any more real than Santa or the Tooth Fairy. Stop spending your hours, days and weeks on this stuff and start making the world in front of your face a better place to be.

    August 24, 2010 at 3:14 am |
  14. I am a muslim

    These kind of EXTREMISTS give MUSLIMS/Islam a bad name.

    August 24, 2010 at 3:01 am |
  15. Sid Hartha


    You did well to counteract the indefatigable poster Kate with your ”whip around my neck” example. It would seem Kate has no idea of the political power of symbols given her specious statement that the niqab and burqa are

    “symbolic of the oppression of women throughout the world…but they're symbols of the actions of people – the garments themselves are used as tools to further that oppression, they aren't the cause of it.”

    The young women in the CNN piece are wrong on so many levels it’s pathetic. How much more glory they could give to Allah by working to help their oppressed Muslim sisters who have no choice but to wear the dehumanizing “tools” of their rabid countrymen.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:57 am |
  16. I am a muslim

    The thing is that I have been around these kind of women for a very long time. The only thing that I can think of so far is that they do this so that they can among their people appear to be more religious and sort of an authoritative figure. The problem is that these kind of women and Men with beards are MORE DANGEROUS to muslims because many muslims will think that he/she is a god fearing person and therefore I can easily TRUST this person, where as what I have experienced is that EVERYONE should watch out for these hypocrites. They ARE ONLY COVERING themselves to gain or just show off to muslims in their own community that they are better than them. Also, I have seen many girls in hijab wearing tighter jeans, and more make up to attract boys. They defeat the whole purpose of dressing modestly. I would love to see Hijab/Niqab/Beards/head coverings totally BANNED.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:55 am |
    • Khalid

      I agree with you...you must be moroccan !!

      August 24, 2010 at 4:39 am |
    • timur lang

      Those wearing beards may or may not be religious. But one thing for sure, if you don't have beard you are NOT religious. Those wearing hijab may or may not be religious. But surely, those who don't are not.

      August 24, 2010 at 7:16 am |
  17. mark

    Religion is the biggest waste of time...get over your superstitious belief and move on.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:47 am |
  18. Mario Dorizas

    I think france is correct in banning it. Islam is a oppressive cult, that calls itself a religion. We have no place for this in western society.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:34 am |
  19. me

    Coverings like you are all talking about are a little scary to me. I wouldn't want a the Ku Klux Klan to start wearing their coverings in public places, any more than the coverings discussed here. Or Native wearing their heads covered in snake and other animal skins. Use them for ceremony, use them for private groups, what ever your religion requires of you in private and appropriate locations....If it is OK for a Muslim to wear their covering into 7-11, the courthouse, school, a bank, then let the KKK folks wear theirs too.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:32 am |
  20. Carlos

    I have read, before, that Western converts to Islam are the most likely to be extremist. So, for example, an American girl who converts to Islam is probably more likely to dress all in black, and wear the face veil. (Yes, covering oneself, head to toe, with one's religious identity is patently a form of extremism). The fact that one converts at all probably means she lacked a sense of self to begin with. Now that the convert feels she has a place where she belongs, she throws herself headlong into her new religion, trying to out-Muslim those who were born Muslim. My guess is that many fanatical converts, as they age, will look back on their religious fervor with a sense of embarrassment.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:16 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.