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. johannes

    you can still tell if a woman is fat.... lol...

    August 23, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  2. David

    If women are the equal of men in Islam, then why arn't men required to cover themselves? Then why are women forbidden to drive an automobile, or leave their house unaccompanied? Then why are women responsible for the behavior or thought of the Islamic men? It is like blaming the victim for the crime. Islamic women hold no positions of power in Iran or elsewhere in the Arab world for the most part. These women are definitely oppressed and they are brainwashed to believe they are not.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  3. BMD

    Pride and self centeredness comes in many forms. Some draw attention by flaunting their body, others draw attention by hiding it. Either way, it is saying, "look at me and how sexy I am", or "look at me and how humble I am." Your body is part of you just like your spirit and your mind. Modesty is not about hiding it, but about adorning it in such a way that we are not sinning (which can even be in our pride let alone morals) or causeing someone else to be tempted. When someone dresses in such a way that their very appearance screams at everyone around them by the very distraction of it accomplishes nothing but to be attention drawing. That is not humility. Also, to go into another culture and violate certain rules of etiquate surrounding openness and safety based on being able to deal face to face without feeling like the other is hiding something is more disrespectful than those who make an issue of women wearing these garments. Yes, we are an open country with freedoms, but respect goes both ways, and trust will never be gained by extreme practices and hiding ones features.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  4. rm

    Hey Rod, at least catholics are prosicuting the priests who break the trust.
    The Muslims are closed mouth about the radicals among them and therefore support them.
    After Pearl Harbor Japaneese Americans joined the Army to fight.
    After 911 didn't here all about the Muslim-Americans joining the fight.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  5. Josh

    We should all be naked. You can hide a bomb in your jeans.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  6. Krista

    I can understand where Kate and the women in this article are coming from, but the issue for me is the double standard. I cannot / do not support any religion or culture that objectifies women. Some might claim that covering them up is an attempt to stop objectification but it's exactly the opposite. They, like some other religions (christianity among them) have blamed the physical attractiveness of women for the evils of men and society. I think it's absolutely ridiculous to think that a man should have the right to blame a woman for his own inability to control himself.

    Just like people who blame a woman for 'dressing sexy' when she's attacked* (word changed to get this posted), Islam and many other religions have basically put the responsibility of on the victim, requiring them to cover up in order to gain respect. "Men treat me better/differently/with more respect" (when they wear the hijab) is something I hear frequently. So, rather than change the attitudes of the men and raising them to respect women no matter what they wear, the women are forced to "protect" themselves from the abuses they're supposedly causing just by being themselves or what God / Allah has made them.

    I believe Islam calls for modesty for both genders. The hijab, at least anything more than the headscarf, to me represents not modesty, but shame.

    Does this mean that we should legislate against wearing it? Only in cases where it can cause a risk to society (entering federal buildings, getting license pictures taken etc.). Should we discourage it as a society and look towards the root causes of why women feel they have to go to such extremes of modesty when men are not held to the same standard? I think so.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  7. Concerned Citizen

    I am serioulsy concerned by the intolerance and hatred exhibited in some of the above coments. Where do we get off saying that OUR way is the only way? America is a land of freedom and that means freedom for all. After WW2, Asians (Japanese) were vilified and discriminated against. After 9/11, the muslims are the new targets. If we look within our own communities and even our own churches, we can see so much evil being done by our so called Christian neighbours. What one wears (or doesn't) should not be a measure of a person's character. I would have hoped that after all the scandals involving the clergy, politicians etc, people who be less judging based on appearance alone.
    I, for one, command any person who choses to live in dignity and respect for themselves and others regardless of their religion or manner of dress.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  8. scroo yoo


    I thought they was ninjas

    August 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
    • scroo yoo

      I thought it needed to be said a sixth time

      August 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  9. Jon

    You can wear a pumpkin on your head, I wouldn't mind. Just getting sick of all the coverage, time to step out of the spotlight.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  10. rr

    A person can dress modest and get just as much respect. This person is a joke. How do we know they aren't hidding bombs under there? Come on I am getting tiered of us using the Freedom of Religion excuse to allow terrorist activity in our own backyard. These women are a joke. If you don't like your daughter wearing something tell her that she's not leaving the house wearing it. If you think she is showing too much skin tell her to cover it up. You don't need to wear a mask on your face to get respect.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  11. Az Zaqqum

    An the Islamic scholar for the Infidel I have 2 issues with hijab and noqab.

    1- according to the quran, the veil is to be used to cover the bosoms. So why is being used to cover the hair?

    2- the quran clearly says that a good Muslim is not supposed to draw attention to herself, by wearing these bi'dah head and face gear, she is drawing attention to herself.

    If you have questions you can email me at theazzaqqum@gmail.com

    Az Zaqqum Islamic Scholar for the Infidel

    August 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
    • Bob

      When you read the Quran, you look at the whole 23 years mesage in sequence & the authentic life of the prophet (peace be upon hm), you don't pick up one verse, draw conclusions or start ciriticizing. Those desirous of becoming famous may do that. Those who desire more acceptance by other other sociiteis may do that. Our ojbective should be to get acceptance from Allah, not find compatiibility or please others. It will be futile if we find loopholes by using one command.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  12. Pacoatemiami

    It is ironic that the story says that they wear the covering so that they can be judged by their intellect and personality rather than their appearance. It has the opposite effect in reality. The message it puts out is "Don't even look at me". That discourages any sort of interaction.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  13. Tom Jones

    If it draws you closer to God – why are you born naked?

    August 23, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
    • Nonsense

      You are born naked because there is no god...

      August 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  14. JPF


    August 23, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
    • Nonsense

      I agree, it is offensive, just like someone talking with a hat and sunglasses is. (Except at the beach...)

      Again, faith and religion is evil, it brings people apart. One's faith is never compatible with another one's faith and there is always something that offends another person of a different faith.

      Religion is the cause of all the world's suffering and misery. This would never happen if we were all Atheist. There is no such a thing as a god...

      August 23, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      Personally, I find anyone who types in all caps offensive.

      August 24, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
  15. weird

    weird, archaic, confused, God is more pleased when you cover your face? Too extreme. Bravo for decency and modesty. Much of society has gone the other extreme but swinging the opposite direction isn't the answer either. Find moderation.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bert

      And it would help if you lose the bombs too.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  16. mart

    I have worked with arab men, and most of them, as soon as they get off the plane in europe or the us are looking for booze and women, hypocrites. doing this in a arab country is up to them, here, they are just attention seekers. but, they can do what they wish, as long as they follow the rules, it isnt part of a disney uniform, and it isnt allowed in court.. etc.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
    • Kaini

      I've seen plenty of good wholesome Christian American men doing the same things abroad...

      August 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
    • obsthetimes

      I can attest to this.
      Muslim men are pretty repressed, but they want to keep up the charade of being pious, keeping their societies 'pure', and their women straignt.
      Like they say, do not get too strong a character for yourself, for you are fooling no one but you.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
    • obsthetimes

      That lady from disneyland shouldn't be allowed to work there.
      Disneyland is 'holy' to us just like mecca is to muslims and we don't want controversy in good clean fun, kid oriented disneyland.
      It is just odd to see the hijab.
      II personally feel very uncomfortable having encountered the hijab. I don't get it! Why keep this issue alive?
      Wouldn't the easiest way not to be noticed be to blend in and not wear it?

      August 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  17. Kaini

    People seem to have a problem with Muslim women wearing hijab, but what about other religions dress? When I was in Catholic school not even ten years ago there were nuns who dressed modestly and covered their heads. Before Vatican II women would cover their heads in Catholic mass; you can still see old ladies at church who wear veils over their hair.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
    • verify

      That's not the issue, Kaini... it's covering the FACE and concealing one's identity that is objectionable.

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

      That's not the issue, Kaini... it's covering the FACE and concealing one's ident!ty that is objectionable.

      (oops... went to 'moderation' because I spelled 'ident!ty' the correct way – bizaaro!)
      (...and then I proceeded to post it in the wrong place.... sorry)

      August 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      This is a very specious argument. While it was not always so, today western women are free to choose to wear a nun's habit. The vast majority of Muslim women around the world have zero freedom. They are 100 percent subservient and submissive to men. No aspect of their life is to be enjoyed, from sex to death. After the western dark ages, came the Enlightenment. As educated North Americans, we need to respect women around the world, not just those in democratic countries. And, to the mother of one of the women featured in this piece, in my view you should feel ashamed that you admire your daughter's 'modesty and piety' by covering herself when you should be teaching her that in the land of her fathers, she would have no freedom to choose. That as an educated Muslim woman living in the west, it is her duty to become an activist, at the very least on behalf of all the women in America who emigrated with their families to social 'freedom' yet continue to live as prisoners of religion– be it through female circumcision, lac of education for women, arranged marriages and, perhaps even honour killings. Yours is a religion that across the globe coerces women into a life of servitude, If you feel the need to be closer to your god, show your face and model compassion for other women in Muslim countries. You have escaped– they cannot.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
  18. Pam

    Please you are in AMERICA. You do not have to be scared of any MAN.
    Ladies have RIGHTS

    August 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      Sue women have rights here. But in 2002, over 93% of the prison population was male.

      Given the choice between a strange male or strange female, I'd be more afraid of the guy.

      August 24, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  19. Loren

    “When you love someone, you want to be more pleasing to them,” she says. Does she hear what she's saying? She's objectifying herself. She can only be more pleasing to the one she loves by removing herself as a person from society. I feel sorry for her, she has no clue how perverted that is.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  20. Nonsense

    God is only in the imagination of humans not able to understand the laws of physics and mathematics. There is no such thing as a creator and it is very sad that half of the world population believes in a god. Luckily the other half believes in Buddhism and Hinduism or other (more) human beliefs...

    A century ago, there were less than an estimated 100 million Atheist worlwide, these days we are closer to a billion and it is estimated that in the next century we will represent over 35% of the world population.

    Religion and beliefs in an imaginary friend is evil. Religion and faith has caused more wars, more destructions and more suffering and death than any other causes since recorded human history. Faith in a christian god is not compatible with faith in a muslim god or faith with the other gods of other faiths. This non-compatibility makes your faith hurtful for billions and their faith also hurtful for billions other. Faith in a monoteist god is just non-sense and pure proof of non-intelligence.

    I am so glad to be a western European where it is estimated that 60% or French, Germans and English (Including Belgium, Switzerland and Netherlands) are Atheist. We are the future, we are humans who accept being humans meaning life and death and nothing else. Our only purpose is to evolve, survive in this galaxy make the best out of the world, protect our planet, live with humility, compassion, love and science.

    To summarize, faith is ok but not great, religion is EVIL, the devil as you people call it.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
    • Loren

      As a Western European, don't pat yourself on the back so hard. Where has much of the radicalized Islam taken hold? In the liberal democracies. Your tolerance of this religion has led to terrorism and murder. Great job.

      August 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
    • Nonsense

      Yes you are right about this. Religion is evil and should be banished. America is as responsible as western European about terrorism as we know it. Again this is due to religion and greed. There would be no muslim terrorism today if we did not need oil and Americans and Europeans did not conquer illegally lands of other people just for their resources.

      We are all responsible as we do not push governments to provide us with green alternatives to oil. Again, without oil there would be no muslim terrorism as there would be no need to go into these countries.

      August 23, 2010 at 2:54 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.