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. db

    What a crock of crap. These women are actually doing the opposite they are suggesting they are doing by wearing the hijab and niqab in order to stick out like a sour thumb. After 9-11 this is only an irritant to the American culture after the apparent source of people that believe in this nonsince attacked us. Women who wear these items should expect to stick out and be looked at more than any other women as they are viewed as odd balls unwilling to assiliminate into the Amercian Culture like all previoius immigrants. This only solidifies their resolve to hide their identity, which in inself is against the norm and against American practice. Further it is dangerous. How can anyone expect to drive a vehicle safely, have their photo taken for identification on official documents, not be suspect of hiding weapons, coverning merchandise while in stores, or even worse hiding ones sex in public washrooms with a mask.
    If this is such an important part of their lives then maybe being back near Mecca would be a good suggestion where it is more accepted and expected of the participants.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  2. Andy Zilenski

    Its cool with me if they covered its better then being in short dresses i am 22 and i do check out girls booties everywhere i go so do all my friends... it is a male thing we love to see you shake that bootey walking down the street... these females cover that... cool with me however sad not to see their nice booteys..

    August 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  3. Bert

    Why is this even considered newsworthy – I mean aside from trying to whitewash the truth about Islam's subjugation of women and yellow journalism to build support for the Ground Zero mosque... CNN is a pathetic fawning Obama spin machine. Put a hijab over that and send it back to periphistan.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  4. 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!)

    August 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  5. KMH

    Reading these posts is disturbing at best. A nun covers no problem a muslim women does all hell breaks loose. Please do not quote or mention the Quran when 99% have never read it, been in a mosque, or truly tried to understand anything about Islam. Make no mistake I think most middle eastern countries are backwards but blame the individuals not the religion. All the complaints about men having to cover they do, that is why dont talk about something you have no knowledge about. Most of you dont have a problem with a women running around naked this is freedom to you but a women that chooses to have modesty is sinful. Just because most of you have watered down or dismissed your own religion dont hate because the majority of Muslims have not. Peace.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • Pacoatemiami

      Maybe if muslim women didn't wear complete coverings and follow silently behind their men like well-trained pets, then society could actually interact with them and try to find some common ground. Everything they do closes them off from all contact with the world... how is this helpful to anyone? They don't seem to want anything to do with anyone. No wonder we don't understand them or relate to them.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  6. CatchMe

    You must be an idiot to say "You often see in many societies women being objectified because of how they look or being disrespected". You are drawing more attention by wearing those clown outfits, STUPID.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
    • CatM

      Absolutely. It trumpets the fact that you're a female better than any miniskirt or wonderbra.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  7. Khan

    dont fight .. come to common grounds ... all the religions says the same .. but here is something to think about ...

    who looks more like Mother mary ? these 2 ladies in the video or Parish hiltion or any other morden women ??? ...

    christian nuns wear hijab too ... think about it ... and stop fighting ... respecting a female / mother / sister / daughter is

    by covering her .. not by letting the world see her in 2 piece ....

    May the mercy of God be on all of us .

    August 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
    • CatM

      Why on EARTH would I want to look like the Virgin Mary? I'd never get laid again. Not everyone wants to be celibate.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
    • Vicki O'Brien

      In this day and age, no woman is forced to become a nun. Even though they choose to be subservient to me within the church hierarchy, they are free to leave and not expected to endure female circumcision, brutality at the hands of their families, forced into slavery, arranged marriage or become the target of honour killings. This is about so much more than the way a woman chooses to clothe herself. Men need to open their eyes to this reality.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
    • LAURA J

      @Kahn: I apperciate the gentleness of your words and sentiment, but true respect for women, for your mother/sister/daughter is demanding that the world accept them as they are, and treat them with all respect and full rights as any other person – as long as I am kept dependent on your grace for protection and respect, I am not free. There will always be those of you who will not be honorable – my future and life cannot depend on the whims of any man. I have a right from God directly to live my life, to learn, to choose and to make my own mistakes, as do you.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
    • Khan

      CatM – get some help .. ( for orgasm u dont need a person these days .. tools can help ... but for eargasm yes u need a educated person ) next time u talk please be nice ..

      Laura – Thanks for your time and words ... but i would like to clear this misunderstanding here ... my words dint say force your mother/sister or anyone to cover themself .. so they are still free to do watever they want .. as in few muslims girls dont cover headscarf or few muslims might even drink ... but even these 2 girls in the video chose to wear this .. where not forced to wear it ... :- ) ... thanks again

      August 23, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
  8. matthew

    I think they look like terrorists. Just my 2 cents//

    August 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
    • Bert

      That's because they are. Smart man – can you get it thru to CNN?

      August 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  9. Jim

    If its about modesty then why don't muslim men practice modesty as the koran commands? And while these women have a choice in America as to cover their face or not, in middle eatsern countries we all know women don't have a choice. What kind of man throws acid on a girl trying to go to school? But muslim women are not oppressed...

    August 23, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
  10. junior

    I wonder, how many of these women would still be muslim, if they had to live in a muslim country?

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

      All of them. They kill the rest.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
  11. siranda

    Everyone keeps talking like these women are living in the Middle East. They live in the US. They will not be stoned or tortured for showing skin here. They seem to be educated. Their families actually do NOT cover. As far as I'm concerned they should be able to cover everything but their faces if they choose. However, they should also not complain about being prejudiced against. This IS America. We are NOT a Muslim nation. I'm sure if my religion and culture walked around with nothing but a loin cloth and insisted on wearing it to work at the office, It wouldn't fly.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
  12. Martha

    So, there is a sign at the entrance to my bank, saying please remove sunglasses, mask, hats, etc....do these women comply iwth this security request when out ? What about a pic for a D/L? What about traveling? Should the majority be unsure of who you are? I know this is a reglion choice, although MY first choice is staying alive! Who suffers with this....as usual the masses, while a few are protected.

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


      Hopefully this will get through the moderation filters. It's permissible to show your face to the appropriate people to verify your identity – cops, store clerks, bank clerks, judges. I know where the misunderstanding comes from.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
  13. james

    Here's my take. I think most Americans' really don't care one way or the other. By and large most Americans' live a simple life philosophy of don't bother me and I won't bother you. Simple. And that simple philosophy is practiced by Americans' of ALL ethnic, religious or non-religious, conservative and liberal... whatever. The folks that seem to make the most out of these differences are each groups respective leaders. It gives them a pulpit by which to pontificate words of insanity. Both espousing religious and secular nonsensical ignorance respectively. As far as traditional Muslim headwear... Well. Said with all due respect, let me sum it up like this. It's a symbol. It symbolizes what a whole lot of what Americans' see and hear about Islam. That one, they HATE western civilization. And two, that they intend to change OUR COUNTRY to fit Islamic ideology. So this isn't a simple matter of live and let live. So those of you who are Muslim, you've got to understand, Americans' of all races, colors, creeds and religions DO NOT respond well to threats directed at us when WE DID NOTHING TO YOU!!!! You may believe your political and religious leaders that Americans' are some 'great satan', but I'm here to tell you, you're as wrong as wrong can be. We will accept you, when you accept to be part of America. You know why the focus is on you? You made the focus on you!!! You want the rest of America to trust you, to take you seriously? Then take care of your own and put the EXTREMISTS inside your religion in check!!! NO GOD OF LOVE AND BENEVOLENCE WOULD TOLERATE HIS CHILDREN KILLING ONE ANOTHER!!! If you believe so, you're nothing but a hypocrite. Killing in God's name is flat out blasphemy!!!!

    August 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
    • Nonsense

      I agree with you if there was such a thing as a god there is no way it would allow to kill any other being in its name. It's pure blasphemy.

      August 23, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
    • Ralph

      Well said. You hit the nail on the head James!!

      August 24, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  14. rose

    I don't care what people wear as long as they DO NOT COVER THEIR FACES. We have freedoms but people from other places can not come to impose their way on our society. Simply, I want to see the face of the person who is sitting next to me in the bus... The police officer needs to see the face of the person who is driving the car... Does the driver's licence match the person driving the car? I want to be sure that there is a woman in the bathroom at the mall AND NOT a man in disguise... It is called COMMON SENSE... because GOD gave each one of us a DIFFERENT face so that we can IDENTIFY each other. In the same way that if a woman goes to Saudi Arabia she can't dress like women in the west and she can't drive, and she can't go to the market without a man. We CAN'T impose any laws there. This is the way the western world functions and if somebody does not like it he/she should get back to their own countries.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
    • Carmen

      Well said! I couldn't agree more.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      So–God didn't create identical twins? Many of them have faces that are pretty darn hard to tell apart.

      I don't think that argument holds water.

      August 24, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
  15. johannes

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

    August 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  16. disgusted

    Look, the bottom line is it is not our culture and it goes against american values of suppressing women. If I visited the middle east, I would expect to assimilate in their culture. I am horrified that muslims are using our principles,,,,, our freedoms against us. To be honest, I find it spooky not to be able to see someone dressed up like a ninja or all covered up. I think tolerance and respect is a two way street. Islam does not tolerate nor respect our culture. They create fear, make demands, and insist we meet their expectations wherever they go. If these women want to send women back to the stone age,,,,,move to the middle east!

    August 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  17. Scott

    Personally, I'm no fan of islam. BUT, I am a fan of freedom. If these lady want to wear the religious clothing, what business is it of mine (or anyones).

    August 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
    • Bert

      Fan of freedom – how will you know what the terrorist looks like? This is why they love us – we aren't that smart but we have rules they can outsmart because dolts think there isn't a problem... Why are they dressing according to 7th century garb? Because they want us all to conform to Mohammed's style – even if it kills us – which is the next step if we say no. Take off the terror sheet and smile for the camera sweetie!

      August 23, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
    • CatM

      That's the nice thing about America. You have the choice to wear whatever you want and the worst you'll get is a dirty look.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
    • Kate


      I can tell you what a terrorist looks like, and those financing terrorism. Go to any Irish bar in NYC or Boston, and watch them openly fund raise and praise terrorists who commit acts like Omagh or Enniskillen.

      They don't wear niqabs.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
  18. cregis

    These Muslim women need to get over themselves. Everybody is looking at them with lust in their heart. Yeah, Right, How do the rest of us women get along? I believe in choice, and it is my choice not to want to see these body coverings. I would not hire a woman who paraded herself this way and I do not want to patronize a place where she works. That is my choice. To me they are saying I can wear these clothes and there is nothing you can do about it. Ha Ha in your face. I don't like any religion in which women are treated differently from men.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  19. Will 18E

    Not that it bothers me, Aliya, or Nadia choosing to cover up. There chosen custom will make people see them sticking out like a sore thumb in the U.S. if covering their body's from head to toe "promotes modesty and humility...and brings them closer to god...." Then there reactions to others reacting to them, would not be confrontational, argumentative, or caring what others think or do; And by definition they are failing at practicing there faith. That being said covering up is the least of there problems, when trying to assuage their god.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  20. Without Issue

    The idea of covering out of concerns for modesty, and bringing the focus back to a woman's intelligence and personality is certainly wonderful, in many Muslim countries women are still considered living property, animals, inferior creatures who don't deserve any kind of respect, consideration or trust.

    What works in theory would work a lot better if those same women who covered themselves out of piousness and modesty weren't just as likely to be stoned to death for accidently looking at a strange man.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:52 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.