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. zalia

    i feel like the nonmuslim just hate the truht Allah swt already talked about ppl like that in the quran. stay with ur ignorance way of life n u will never learn nothing in dis life .let me recall something what u see on tv is what u juge ppl with well done

    August 25, 2010 at 1:22 am |
  2. nooreen

    so proud of you, aliya!!! way to represent both islam and uga 😉 mashaAllah

    August 25, 2010 at 12:14 am |
  3. Frankie

    Muslim women who choose to wear the Niqab or Burqa are free to go to hell or the nearest Muslim country, whichever is worse. Do you have the right to go to work, school, etc. wearing KKK regalia? Of course not, because it's the uniform of a terror group. Well, the same thing goes for all the Radical Islamic regalia. It deserves about as much respect as the uniform of an enemy nation during wartime.

    August 25, 2010 at 12:07 am |
  4. Qatari

    i'm Muslim and Islamic studies is my major.when it come to what Muslim should or shouldn't do we look at the holy book and the prophet says that we even call the teacher. they are some thing a person must did as a musliam other things are recommended some are forbidden .hejab is under the 'must' any one who study Islam as a major agrees and from these people we talk the correct or the "official"words if we wanna know about Islam they called "saiks" they are very smeller to doctors because you find the answer with them not any body else ,that simply their job .that because they studies of islam teach you how to understand the holy book,the "say*and some grand rules like *any harmful thing is forbidden" and who to apply what you know in the real life for example (if smoking can cause damage it's forbidden) .any way it's a longe story the point is the religion of Islam is absolutely a major like business , engineering people can't just talk about like if they know every thing about it. specially those who killed by the name of Islam or judge Muslims .

    August 24, 2010 at 9:07 pm |
  5. zebnab

    Niqab and Hizab are not Muslim way of life but cultural imposition. Women who wear are mostly obese or ugly to hide their body form and figure. Prophet Mohamed’s (SW) immediate family did not wear these fully covered makeup (cloths were in short supply in those times); these were recent introductions by the Wahhabi zealots who have imposed anti-Islamic codes of practice and so called sharia laws. Women used to ride horses alone while at present women are not allowed to drive a vehicle (as if there were cars in the 7th century), or women must be accompanied by an immediate relative outside their house. Women were treated as equal to men and women would lead the battles or after the war would negotiate peace/war with the enemies/opponent of Islam. A lot of negative concepts of Islam are recent impositions by corrupt unjust rulers and their ignorant misinterpreted sharia cronies.

    August 24, 2010 at 7:16 pm |
  6. Darrin C

    Bottom Line ... it's just spooky to us .... it freaks my kids a little despite the teaching of tolerance and diversity. We've grown up with trusting an 'honest face', and when you cover it up, well, frankly it just makes us a bit suspicious, nervous, or uneasy when we can't see your face or expressions. Communication is not strictly though the eyes so if you want us to get to know you, drop the mask. The only other times we've been exposed to covered faces is with burglars, robbers, and ninjas, none the which we want to run into ... then throw in the whole Muslim terrorist factor ... IE: If it was Canadians who terrorized us, then came to live here and covered their faces, I'd be just as unease with them ...

    August 24, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  7. AGA

    It's so sad how people can post such hateful comments. People should understand that they're is nothing wrong with wearing hijab. How some of you are bashing the beautiful religion of Islam is no different than anti-semitism.

    August 24, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  8. Stacie

    I don't know how you have the time to reply to each and every stupid comment, but you are the only sane one I see here. I agree with your statements, and the rest won't agree because they LOVE to hate what they don't understand.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
  9. Dhulfiqar

    Men and Women are reflection of God's attributes, Jalal (Majesty) and Jamal (Beauty). God has a Jalal side and Jamal side, the aspects of Powerful Majesty and Wonderful Kindness, and that these two fall together in Him as perfection. Jalal is a masculine aspect, the Overpowering. Jamal is a feminine aspect, the loving, kind and beautiful. Jalal and Jamal (Majesty and Beauty), also called the names of Adl and Fadl (Justice and Bounty) or Ghazab and Rahma (Wrath and Mercy) or Qahr and Lutf (Severity and Gentleness). The man represents the Jalal of God. He expands his chest and shows his might. In contrast the woman is the Jamal of God, her chest is her beauty, an avenue of warmth and nurture....

    I'll seize here because I'm afraid I'm getting too deep for many of the CNN readers.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  10. Darren

    News Flash: Religeon isn't real. Its all fairytails created by man. If there is a God, he never said that anyone should wear a sheet over their face. I have never been so sure of anything in my entire life.

    Can everyone just live their life without getting in other's business? I understand if you need to hide yourself in an oppressive society, but this is America and the headgear is a bit much.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
  11. Sad

    My experience in a country where there were many Muslim women covering themselves made me have to evaluate what i thought about this. Being from Canada, i do not bump into this in my day to day life. The first few times i walked past some women who were covered, i stared a little, curious. Then it occurred to me that the reason for them covering up is because they do not want people to look at them. So i then walked past them without looking at them at all. I felt like i was ignoring them, and it felt really odd. Usually i might look at someone and say hello or...but in this case, i felt like the women just disappeared from the face of the earth, they are asking to be made invisible by this covering and so they become invisible. A very odd experience, and one that really makes me question the outcome of this covering. Maybe they want to be covered from men, but they become invisible as a person from the world and it does not make for great community building in this 'global community' we live in.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  12. 7ygh

    I see modesty on a continuum, as described by Sam Harris on his TED talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww). One on end is the Burkha, and on the other is women who feel objectified.

    The healthiest balance is in the middle.

    I also think wearing a burkha in a free society is a slap to the face of all the people around the world who are forced to wear it for fear of getting beaten, akin to a Jewish person in a free country would wanting to sew a yellow star of David onto their sleeve to show they are Jewish.

    August 24, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
  13. kk

    Check out the book The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. The book is set in the future with women living shrouded in an oppressive male dominated society. Some scary parallels here.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
  14. Reality

    Is that Tiger Wood's hiding under that niqab?

    August 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
    • Kate


      That raises a good question – everyone says niqab hides ident|ty – so how come *everyone* knew Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson when he went out wearing one in a sea of people similarly attired?

      Just sayin'

      August 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  15. Hmm

    I think that there's a difference between Muslim women and Muslim-American women. In the United States, all coverings are a choice, basically. I'm sure you get pressures one way or the other from peers and family, but ultimately you wear a covering because you believe it's the right thing for you.

    Not necessarily so for all other countries. In some, foreign visitors are asked or required to wear coverings while in the country or province. If foreigners are required to do this, I very much doubt that each native woman feels she has a choice whether or not to wear a niqab, burqa or hijab. In that case, I can see where it can be oppressive, though I'm not sure many living there feel it is. It's a part of their culture and always has been. It means something different to them than it means to those of us on the outside.

    It was a good point, though, that everyone needs to remember that a head covering is not the whole person. There's a woman under there, who, at least in this country, is expressing her choices. We should be respectful of that.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
  16. mjva

    I was born in a Moslem country and have always been an atheist. Women covering themselves so men won't be 'tempted' diminishes the humanity of both women and men. But I think this excuse is a ruse and the core intent of hijabs is to keep women hidden, silent, chattled and without self-determination. If you follow and perpetuate backward constructed conditions, then their extremes lead to mutilation, honor killings, witch burnings, etc. Religion and customs are inextricably intertwined. I can understand the pressure to hide yourself in Moslem countries to avoid ostracization, maiming, or death. But here in America, this so-called choice turns womanhood into a prison.

    The French secular principle of Laicite - the separation of public from private is worthy of consideration. If you believe in superstitions and its associated symbology, then keep it in your head and in the privacy of your home. This goes for crosses, turbans, etc.

    If I want respect, I articulate eloquently, exceed in a male-dominated technical profession and continually expand my knowledge-base and skillset. Following backward bronze-age customs will get you nowhere, but make you hidden, voiceless, and living without the freedom and liberty to fully know yourself and the world. Religion is the parasite of women.

    August 24, 2010 at 8:36 am |
  17. Hafsa

    thank you so much to CNN for publishing such a good article!

    August 24, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  18. tigerchuong

    Who in the world can identify a person who covers from head to toe? I think we should follow France and other European nations that banned the hijab. I think it a serious threat to public safety. Try to drive with a bag cover your head. People carry identification card and show their face for identification. People can practice their believe. However, in public place, show your face for identification.

    August 24, 2010 at 7:13 am |
  19. Mines

    I've got two for this:

    o "“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.’” - And if you tried to walk around Iran in a bikini with a scarf around your waist and tried to say this you'd probably be thrown in jail.

    o "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." – so they don't want you to focus on them as an object or to place values on them, but focus on them as a person. Yet they do this by wearing the one thing that will make them completely stand out in any crowd and one that forces you to come to an immediate conclusion of them. Which is the complete opposite of what they're trying to achieve.

    I'm not against restricting ones religious beliefs but there's a certain bit of "when in rome" that you need to consider. There are plenty of outfits you can wear to not bring attention to your sexuality, if that's what your ultimate goal is.

    And when you weigh in all the other extremist muslim restrictions against women that we hear about (for ex if a woman gets raped she gets thrown into prison for having sex with someone who is not her husband, and the rape must be witnessed by two unreleated/uninvolved parties for a rape to be confirmed; honor killings, etc) it's hard not to view these women as being repressed.

    August 24, 2010 at 5:27 am |
  20. Yoranne

    I agree with Dike, I lived in a muslim country to... He described exactly how it is. But how come that in our countries, we accept burkas and that we can't go out in theres without...............

    August 24, 2010 at 5:17 am |
    • Kate


      Because we're America and they aren't?

      August 24, 2010 at 12:16 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.