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. sunshinegal

    This is all a bunch of garbage. These women need to stand out hiding because of low self esteem, just as some teens wear green hair, tattoos, ring noses, etc. These women like the attention they are getting hiding behind a dress. Sad, sad, sad. It is NOT because of their closeness to God.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  2. onuricle

    The mosque is being built by the same money that supported the muslim religion based murder and destruction at ground zero and elsewhere since the Munich Olympics. Same money as that blew almost 300 marines to death in Beiruit in 1982. Same money that blew 200 students into smitherines over Lockerbie. Scotland several years back. Its all muslim money given by muslims supporting their muslim relgions efforts to kill all people of other religions including those that have no religion.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
    • Ryan

      Wow- you are amazing. You know all this already? Wow, you should work for the SEC.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
    • EuroMash

      ... and Saudi Arabia is the second largest shareholder of NewsCorp, which owns Fox news. 'Same Money', right, so shouldn't we shut them down too?

      August 23, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
    • Ralph

      ....and 'they' get this (same) money from the all the damn oil we (both American & Europe) so stupidly continue purchase from the Middle East and other places, that are populated by people who openly hate us. Yes, we stupid Americans just love our fuell thirty hot rod cars, big trucks and big SUV's and buy sooo much oil world wide that it drives the price per barrel up to the point that we enriched these people, giving them the money (and the means) to literally destroy us. Plus of course the large scale importing of oil ruins our trade balance and the extra fuel consumed hurts the environment. It also a sercurity issue to depend on those you cannot trust – does anyone remember the oil embargo of the 70's??

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

      Now that you brought up money, is that its the Americans who pay for terrorism. Americans buy oil from Saudi, Saudi makes billions, they covertly pay for terrorist organizations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc,. These poor countries have no economy , no means for ppl to generate income (other than Taliban selling drugs) but its the Americana and Europeans using those drugs and oil that funds everything. Saudi fund the educational institutes to promote wahabisim in muslim countries with poor governments. If Americans dont buy oil from them to have their gas guzzlers run on cheap gas, we wouldnt be in so much trouble. Remember ints all connected. This is what Daniel Perl was doing, tracing the money to the source and he was cut into pieces. Even U.S govt knows it very well that its the Suadi oil money behind all this , but they go after small time "terrorist" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. They would never ever go after Saudis, despite the fact that 9 of the hijakers were from Saudi. Every American president goes to Saudi to kiss ass to their King, because King would never go to another country to visit, King thinks he is King of the world and America and rest of the world is their dogs and they fight those dogs, with oil money. Next time, u buy that big gas guzzlers, think about the 17 yr old boy who will be bought from his family in Pakistan to become a trainee for $500 for life. These kids know nothing about Islam or any religion, they are just bought and they will be trained to become suicide bombers.
      Why does Saudi do all this, its easy. The more the terrorists, hijabis, fundamental institutes, more western hate. The more western hate, the more muslims to recruit into Wahabism. But the big picture is to promote a culture of intolerance around the world, just like Saudi is. They hate the freedoms that western world enjoys. Hate, intolerance between muslims and westerners is the fuel to wahabism. Therefore you see more women with Naqab or Hijab, Al Qaida is to yestarday's news, now we have over 40 terrorist organizations, working in their region. To run these, u need money,guns, technology, and they have all that, trace the money and you will know. It will trace all the way to Bob Williams from Ohio who just bought a truck!

      August 29, 2010 at 10:28 am |
  3. agreen

    Listen, I'm a modest woman. I don't wear low cut tops or short cut skirts and I understand the desire to be covered (either for modesty or faith). What I don't get is covering the face – hair, okay, but the face is a strange choice to me. It's not about modesty to cover the mouth, nose and cheeks. Now, it's a matter of covering you, as a person.

    But this is America and I fully support freedom of religion (even as an atheist), so if she feels she needs to do it for faith, then so be it. (And if I want to be a Ninja or Clown for my lack-of-faith, so be it).

    What I really don't get is heels and I think women being subjugated to a painful and useless clothing option to increase their appeal to men is a sad function in our society.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
    • Nathalie

      I love shoes. Are high-heels a useless addition to western fashion? Yes, but they look so cute, and are also added to give women more height and give the leg the look of elongation, thus making us appear more slender. However I am NOT wearing it for men-i could care less what the average drunk idiot at a bar or club thinks of me. I think high heels are sexy just cuz they're sexy.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
  4. Ali Tehrani

    The hijab (modest dressing) i have no problems with and her reasoning that hijab protects her from being viewed as a piece of azz i can understand (i am a guy ! ). Christians and Jews can understand hijab as a tradition that Muslims are following from Catholicism's Nuns and Jewish Haredim. And What i do take issue with is the face covering or niqab. There is no where , not 1 word , in the Quran about face covering. At best this is some "saying" invented centuries after Mohammad's death during the Abbasid or Ummayaid dynasty regarding the Prophet's wives. Infact Al-Azhar , historic center of Islamic Jurisprudence, has banned the niqab. Other muslim countries are against it. This is fanatical expression from the Wahhabi sect of Islam that rose during the 18th century in Saudi Arabia. And the root of all fanaticism are mental illnesses such as acute depression, post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc etc. I would like to think that she suffers a mental illness rather than a inflated ego of her "beauty" that her looks are so gorgeous that she needs to cover her face for the sake of Men falling hopelessly in love with her !

    August 23, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
    • cirus101

      niqab is sunnah...not Fard

      August 23, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
  5. Kate

    So the basic upshot is, women are obviously brainwashed, conditioned, or forced to wear covering, even in the US, and therefore denying them the choice to do so is for their own good?

    Of all the paternalistic hogwash out there! "Oh those poor defenseless pressed (even in the US!) women, we must jump in to save them from themselves, because it's *obvious* they don't know any better and we do!"

    Since when have any of us been mind readers and so adept at knowing how someone in a niqab feels, do they feel objectified – or do *you* objectify them because of their dress? Do they feel oppressed, or do *you* oppress them by denying them the choice?

    If you're going to adopt the attitudes and mores towards women's right to make choices of arabic theocracies and monarchies, then perhaps you're just too uncomfortable with the whole concept behind America.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  6. Pilot

    You want to walk like that, go back to where you came from, and don't tell me you are an American and you are from America......What do you think when you cover your face? basically you are insulting all men, by telling them, I cover my face because if I don't cover it and you see my face you get excited and ......

    What Muslims say and expect from other people is to respect their idology when they don't have any respect for any other ideas and beliefs. Muslims are causing all the issues around the world.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
    • rod

      no, it's ignorant idiots like you causing problems by not being educated on islam, how it was created and their beliefs! and i'm not a muslim! Like they said, people are afraid of what they don't understand, your nothing but a student of the corrupt media!

      August 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  7. sunshinegal

    This is all a bunch of garbage. Women wears these because they are insecure just as some teens paint their hair green,, wear rings in their noses, etc. These woman have low self esteem and it is not their devotion to God. Knowing several woman who wear them, extremely nice womenm but they have no self esteem, It is nothing but garbage.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
    • rod

      So nuns in the catholic church are insecure too?.........didn't think so!

      August 23, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
    • StopBragging

      Im a woman and I get tempted when I see men. Do men have the right to be known for their intellect or they are just objects? Oh btw, I put on hijab whenever I have acne or bad hair day. v

      August 24, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  8. Jane

    The prophet does NOT say that women are the equal halves of men. It says that a woman is equal to ONLY half of a man.

    If this is such a good modest thing, why don't the men wear it too? Don't men want to be closer to the creator?

    It is oppression, it is wrong, and in our North American society, full of crime etc, you can not go around covering your face. I don't care what your belief is, you cannot make it unsafe for everyone else. What if I make up a new religion, where it is part of my faith to carry a knife around? Or maybe my religion will be to be naked all the time. Is it my right to do whatever I decide my religion is?

    North America is founded, and is great, because of Christianity. How many people choose to move TO Muslim countries? Not many, they all move away, because of the oppression and violence (kill the infidels is part of their book, part of the teaching and beliefs).

    So, are we going to let North America be ruined, in the name of "religious freedom", or are we going to stand up for our culture, history, and Christian values, that have made our countries as great and successful as they are?

    We can't be soft on this any longer, it is getting out of hand. Look at the proposed mosque in New York. Unbelievable. How can it even be considered?

    And I am sure, in some rugged mountains in the middle east, they are laughing at the continuing success of the campaign against the culture and faith of North America.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
    • Ryan

      Your xenophobia and complete ignorance is staggering. Its sad there are quite a few people like you. Hopefully you dont have children.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  9. Deanne

    How can people live in a country that prides it's self on FREEDOM and then try to take this freedom away from anyone who is different from yourself. You stand there in judgement of anyone who doesn't look like you or conform to your idea's or beliefs. If you truly value your FREEDOM here in this country you will respect their right to choose! Especially since we have a government who is slowly taking this right away from us a little at a time! You and your way of life could be next! We fear what we don't understand and the only way to irradicate fear is to open our hearts and minds and let FREEDOM truely ring. Not half heartedly ring or worse yet., not ring at all!

    August 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
    • Anavay

      There is a fine line between freedom and letting people walk all over you and in this country we already paid a price for allowing freedoms for all without limits. It's time to grab hold of the problem and find a way to difuse the situation. Having the freedom to wear something that is basically a disguise (burqa) and can have repurcussions for anyone, a theif could walk into a bank and do something awful by using this freedom, a terrorist?, you name it. As for scarves like another poster said, why ban symbols of christianity even wiccan but not islamic? Ban them all or allow them all. Burqa's should never be allowed in public places though.

      August 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
    • Deanne

      As for your argument about disguises for robbers. We have men walk into banks with no disguises at all. This is just a lame attempt at reasoning something you don't like or agree with but it is the right of every citizen in this country to have FREEDOM of choice! Try to let someone tell you you can't freely express yourself by wearing something that represents your faith and see how that sits with you! We are all ancestors of immigrants here who stole this county from the Natives American Indians so we should all go home too than according to you!

      August 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  10. andy

    dress code is dress code, if you don't like it don't go to a public school

    August 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  11. dan

    Unless and until men also wear a burqua, hijab, and niqab then there's no way to have a valid argument that the practice is not inherently sexist.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
  12. Manny HM

    I saw some women at Heathrow Airport wearing the niqab. However I don't see anyone passing through security with the niqab! I wonder how airport security or TSA deal with this.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      A female agent has to take them aside to lift their veil so she can check their id. Yes apparently they do show their faces on their passport photo. Not sure how that works here in the US..!

      August 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  13. Aezel

    They want to be judged by their intellect. LOL. Yeah right, I'm sure that's the real reason they all wear the coverings, because Islamic culture value's womens' intellect so much. Nice try. Why don't they just admit: They are either brainwashed or too afraid of reprisal to not wear it. No sane person can make the argument it is so they can be judged for their intellect.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
  14. rashid

    Who cares? Let them dress how they wish. Better than some of the fat pigs showing it all. The veil is the naive view is Islam. Get real, this is nothing compared to what the men have in store for you.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
  15. pink hijab


    If someone is interesting in learning more about Islam, this is a nice site to start with...
    Peace to all.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • Anavay

      And these people try and recruit more than any jehova's witness or mormons I've ever seen.

      August 23, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  16. Colin in Florida

    If they wish to do this in a muslim country, or in private, that's fine.
    In this country, the custom of hiding your face generally means you are hiding something. Robbers cover their face, honest people don't Remember the old saying: When in Rome, do as the Romans do-there is a lot of truth in this, which means that to get along you have to fit in.
    If muslims want to get along in this country, they need to bend their customs. I said bend, not break. Head scarves, fine, facial coverings, no.
    Oh, and if muslims really want fair treatment, how about letting a church or synagogue be built in Mecca?

    August 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • Ken

      Are there mosques in Bethlehem? Is their religious tolerance in Jerusalem? In Israel?

      August 23, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
  17. rodboy

    Having travelled a lot, the US Muslim life is very different than Middle Eastern Values. Yes they have a choice here but not over there. My wife had a chance to do social work in the middle east, which was counseling women, because women there have the highest rate of clinical depresion in the world. So what gives??

    August 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • Ken

      The women in this article are not from those countries. Those countries have their own culture issues that have disfigured their religion.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
  18. bbm

    Tomorrow if someone claims that they are followers of Adam and Eve, can they walk naked?

    August 23, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
    • a_mexican_woman

      Aren't most americans following them already?

      August 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  19. andy

    why is OK for muslims to wear religious symbols in public schools but it seems that more symbols of christianity are banned every day? i understand freedom of religion, but if you're going to ban things from one you should be consistent and ban things from all religions. just because you're a muslim you don't get special treatment... give me a break

    August 23, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
    • seiscat

      I've never heard of anyone in a public school being asked to remove a cross or religious medalion of reasonable size. I've only seen the issue brought-up when the clothing was inappropriate in some way. Christmas trees and such are a different issue.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • seiscat

      If all they claim were true, their men would wear it also.

      August 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  20. Anavay

    The woman who wear these things most likely just want to draw attention to theirselves. We have a culture here in America where people like to stand out, be different and rebel. The spike of burqa/scarf wearers climbed after 9/11 because people wanted to be different and to rebel. Everyone was running to Jesus and these women wanted to make it clear that they were loyal to the mideast world of islam, that they weren't following the majority. There comes a time when you have to accept your culture for what it is and make adjustments for better quality of life. These women would be better off in a country where this was socially enforced, where they wouldn't scare anybody.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      You have read some of the posts here that want them burned, hung, or thrown out of the country right? Not the sort of attention most people want.

      That's like saying gay people who dress flamboyantly just want the beatings they receive at the hands of bigots.

      Perhaps it's a little deeper than that?

      August 24, 2010 at 3:45 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.