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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.

Misconceptions

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. theone

    If you want to wear that garbage do it in your own house or go back to the sand flea land you came from – especially the chickee that wants to work at Disneyland. Disneyland is a land of costumed characters and you know it. It's not a land of religious fanatics and nobody wants to see it there.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
  2. VANewsMan

    We're all conditioned to wear certain things or to display ourselves in certain ways in public. Some ways are good, and some are bad. Who is to decide? I don't much care until it becomes a security issue. Full facial coverings – showing just the eyes – are too easily exploited for criminal activity and terrorism. Those types of coverings should be banned in public places. Beyond that, I couldn't care less.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  3. Abuasiya

    It is amazing how many people make comments with out knowledge or facts. Men don't make woman wear anything. excect the children whom thier responsible for, it is a womans right to be a prostitute or a pious person. Who cares if the woman is naked or not, only ther mother and father of that person.

    As for men writing the laws, uhh..... those same laws or similar rules are in your bibles. All through it. If you don't like Gods laws and his prophets laws, ask God to remove you from his provisions. But I am sure you ppl won't be that bold to do that.

    You for get nuns and orthodox christians wear hijabs, no matter what they call them. Arabic is the true problem you all have. The ignorance in the language is apparent. Because the similar names we use are fount in every language but you ppl show hate toward Islam and Arabic terms.

    Is a woman stupid for covering her Cancer ridden head, is the person whom had SARS stupid for covering their face. are you going to walk through a smoke cloud with out covering. I mean only in the west and within disbelieving ppl do you hear these comments. Let them do what they want.

    what about those who wear tights as pants and my kids gotta see that. Please America is the most hypocritical place man, and it was not always as such.. America was once a good place. but not anymore

    August 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
  4. Cindy

    These women wear these things because they feel guilty if they don't. They've been brainwashed into believing GOD wants this of them. So, they feel guilty when they don't do it. Its not complicated.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
    • hijabi

      Guess what? I don't feel guilty. I do whatever the hell I want. And 95% percent of the muslim girls I know do not wear hijab.

      August 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  5. Max

    It seems that a lot of people posting don't have good reading comprehension. Muslim women aren't required to wear the hijab, they are simply told that dressing and acting modestly is better for them, just like it is for men.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
    • Imonetone

      Then the word MODESTY is open to interpretation.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
  6. msaprilr

    I don't buy it. Not one word. A symbol means whatever the people looking at it say it means. And in America, we say it means something awful. They should take it off. Furthermore, most forms of it completely eradicate self-expression. And it makes them seem not human. Humans are physical, sxual, sensual people. You can't stuff that under a veil and expect people to engage you like a human being. It's creepy.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  7. Ninja's with no Brains

    Isn't anyone worried about this!!!?? What if these women in full garb are hiding things under their garments. What if their hiding the nicest set of boobs that god ever created. How am i to see them! How am I to accept the challenge of trying to not get caught peeking at them while in conversation with her. The travesty! I must pray...

    August 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
    • Reversal

      And you are a boob with no brains.

      August 23, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  8. paul

    This girl is so way off base it is truly sad. She really thinks people will judge on her "intellect" b/c she is dressed like a set of drapes? She apparently has no concept at all of what people think or how they think. She is getting the same reaction I would get if I paraded around in a ski mask.

    August 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  9. Loophole

    Watch out – they all want to take over Europe and the USA

    August 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  10. john

    I guess if there is really nothing that a woman has that appeals to others then by all means wear those masks. I guess Islam is right in that sense.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  11. disgusted

    Since when did your face become an issue of modesty? God gave you a face,,,,, use it.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  12. Tim

    I haven't any issue with coverings from neck to toe, but the covering of the face is somewhat problematic. If you don't think so, why don't you put a hood over your head with two eye holes, and walk into your nearest bank, convenience store, or pretty much any retail establishment. I'm fairly certain you'll be getting more attention than you bargained for, even if trying to be "modest". These places have video surveillance for a reason....usually DUE to people that have entered their doors wearing something that obscures their identity. I don't care what your religious stance is, but if you wish to partake of what this free country has to offer, you do have to submit to some of the societal norms that are expected. You do need to be an identifiable person if you're going to interact with the rest of the public. We have people from all over the world, and it is expected that we have to come together in some ways so that we can interact in a cohesive manner. Obscuring your identity, religious based decision or not, may serve your needs, but it causes unrest in others (like that banker that wants to know what the heck you're up to). You can claim that it's to be closer to your creator, but as it's an option in the first place and not a requirement, you really should consider your neighbors around you as well. Your neighbors may be just fearful, white, rednecks...but more likely, it's going to be people from every corner of the planet that may not share your belief system, and just want to know that you're not a threat.

    The argument presented in the article of 'taking the focus off of physical appearance', is interesting to me, as the covering is a part of your physical appearance, and it sends a message every bit as strong as if you were wearing something more revealing. The true irony here is that in this country, the full covering manages to draw attention rather than dissuade it, which would appear to be less modest than what is suggested to be necessary. Sure, in Saudi Arabia, these coverings garner no attention whatsoever, but we're not in Saudi Arabia...we're in the United States. These women know what sort of attention they'll be attracting, yet by their own admission, voluntarily persist in this behavior.....that, suggests a lack of modesty, rather than the exercise of it.

    Regardless, as I said before, I believe that a person can dress whatever way they want...but to obscure your identity from society and still want to be a part of that society, is inherently contradictory in nature. Women need not be objectified, but they do need to be identified, or at least identifiable.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  13. Cyril B.

    Women cover their faces because muslim men are sex maniacs. They have no high regards for women.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  14. CatM

    I've hear women say that the covering forces people to get past their looks or gender and only take them on their intellectual standards, but it's the opposite. Wearing it removes everything BUT your gender. It's shorthand for "Female", which is really only good for breeding purposes in Islam. No one looks at a woman in a Burqua and thinks "I'll bet she's a skilled surgeon". They know what she is under there because of what the ideal woman is to a Muslim Man: probably uneducated, subservient, used to being told what to do by men (and obeying), and good for having children. That's all they need. Everything else is irrelevant.

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

      Well said. Not enough Muslim women living in the west trying to affect change, either here or in their countries of origin. And very few western feminists are willing to give it a shot. Moral relativism is in full bloom, at the expense of millions of women in Islam.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  15. johannes

    you can sill tell if a woman is fat.... lol ... arab men treat woman (good looking ones) like property and don't want any other arab men chasing them.... its ridiculous when you see a fat woman covering herself... like she would attract any living thing with or without it on.... lol

    August 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • johannes

      p.s. i've seen some that look completely spherical....lol...wonder whats inside???

      August 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  16. sYRa

    I am also a muslim woman, and I know that it is not required in Islam to cover the face, it is however required you cover your hair and dress modestly, as to not show off your figure. I think society should grasp this idea because there is no limit to what women are wearing these days, and it always gets them in trouble. There is no good that comes out of outrageous and scanitly clad clothing except for sins and negative attention, disrespect to yourself and other woman, as they are only viewed as objects to look at. How come these days magazines all over are trying to run campaigns for the over-weight woman not to be discriminiated against or the overly skinny to not starve themselves thin, there is no limit to societies expectations of outwardly appearance, and too many people dwell on it and ruin their self-esteem over it, they waste their time on it when they could be doing more important things. Men choose to judge woman by how "hot" they are and marry them for their looks, and years down the line when the looks fade so do the marriages becasue they are based on lies, and that contributes to why our divorce rates are getting so high. Just think about it logically, and don't lie and say this is not the case, if woman were more modest, confident, and chaste today there would be a lot less problems between couples, and this is the natural truth.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
    • Nonsense

      We are all animals, we are just smarter than a lion that's all but all the basic mammal principle apply to us. Of course men judge women by how hot they are it is hardwired into our brain as to evolve and make the best and strongest babies possible.

      Muslims are even more hypocrites then any other religion since they allow their princes, emirats, etc... to have entire harrem of woman. Talk about respect. This is all crap. There is no creator, no god, it's pure invention by the rich of this world to control the masses, the 'small people' as BP CEO would say.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
    • itsAmerica

      Lady you really need to step out of the cave into the daylight. For such a new religion it amazes me how old world your views are.

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

      See, that doesn't make sense. Why would God not want you to show off your figure and express yourself through adornment? I agree that publicly over-emphasizing one's gender characteristics is wrong. But so is completely stifling them. Your body and your sensuality are part of who you are. You can't be a whole person without expressing your whole self. And others can't view you as completely human if you have no body, no skin, no hair, no face. This is not how human beings were meant to relate to one another.

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

      well did you ever find any less of a human in someone that covers her his or her hair, was it hard for you to judge them without looking at the texture and color of their hair??I do not support covering the face in Islam but I do see logic behind covering the hair.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
    • db

      Syra, great write up. Thank you. This total cover up, like you said, is not called for in any part of your teaching, only to cover the cover your hair and dress modestly, as to not show off your figure. If you even look back over American history al the way up into the 1970's, except for the hair being covered, the same was expected of American women. Somehow our culture started accepting more and more female skin showing. Believe me, well over 3/4 of these young women that like to show off all their skin should not be doing it as they are just plain FAT as pigs and it all hangs over their skin tight clothing. That is not only unsightly but repulsive. An imagineation can go along way. The other quarter seem to be able to pull it off but for what reason, to be the center of attention? Probably. Again, it has gone this way in our culture due to women basically stop maturing mentally once they graduate from High School. Their choice in attire sure looks like HS girl material. I respect what your thoughts are and could not agree more in some areas, love that you do leave your face uncovered as a face tells another person all they need to know about you and your emotions.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
    • VA

      msaprilr,
      So does that mean a blind person cannot relate to another human being?

      August 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
    • sYRa

      a blind person would not even be able to tell if you are covering your hair or not and therefore would see the purity in your words and intellectual thoughts and actions. Although blind people are capable of reading facial expressions.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
    • Nathalie

      SYRA,

      Sorry but you are 100% wrong and 100% brainwashed. First of all, the VAST MAJORITY of western women living here do not "dress immodestly". We have jobs and careers to go to, where we wear fashionable, respectable clothing. We would get fired for coming to work topless, as would men. I don't know any girl that walks around in miniskirts and bikinis in her daily life, so shake that stupid notion from your head.

      Second of all, just because we show our face does not make us "immodest". And guess what? If a guy walks down the street and cat calls an attractive woman, that is HIS problem, not HERS.

      Third of all, you assume that men seek women out for their looks alone-again DEAD WRONG. That is only a small portion of men who are extremely insecure; the vast majority of divorces here occur due to a) financial problems and b) incompatibility. And in our society, we have the FREEDOM to divorce when we realize we are no longer happy with the person we chose. You think that there aren't just as many marital problems in the islamic world? Think again. The difference here is that people are allowed to divorce without shame.

      Furthermore, if a woman wants to dress up in a sexy way to go to a fancy dinner or to a nightclub, then she damn well should be able to. We realize that human beauty should be something celebrated and expressed when it's in the right time and place. There is absolutely nothing wrong with dressing up and looking sexy for the right occasions. And a woman that chooses to is not "immoral".

      So my point being, get off your little brainwashed "soapbox" blaming all the world's problems on "uncovered" women. What a joke. Look at the islamic societies of the world, and then look at ours. In which one can you live a more decent life? Yeah, I know you know the answer.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
    • scott715

      You believe that god "Allah" made you and told you to be ashamed of and cover up what he made, it's absurd. Being covered was not madatory in Qatar when I was living there, but there were some women who even wore long black gloves along with the rest of the covering. I guess this was so they wouldn't accidentially touch an unclean infidel like me. What a shame that people can still swallow this kind of nonsense while demanding that we respect their right to believe it. Why is religion off limits for constructive criticism? If you insist on saying the earth is flat you will be called a fool, why is this any different?

      August 23, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
    • Syra

      PeopLe these days are not use to living in any limits especially in America and loook at where our society is going....mothers killing their children, children are not safe, men turning into wild psychotic serial killers, there is so much sickness here in this country, there should be some control and that is what religion was made for, for humankind to follow these rules of society and god to live peacfully while on earth, to be kind, to not commit sins, to love thy neighbor all of these things are healthy good morals. WOman covering their hair to show modesty, to show their husbands or respective partners enough respect to only give them the privelege to view their beauty and no other man, as to not stir passions in other men which lead to infidelties in marriage and divorces. Covering the hair will not hinder your chances to becoming a successful brain surgeon or even president!! Impress others with your intellect and and good deeds instead of your outer appearance. When woman show more modesty there will also be less jealousy between our fellow sisters. If you loook at even our earlier American society..the pilgrims all women were modest, wearing long skirts, covering part of their hair with a hat when going out...wearing full gloves, even in early european soceity, it seems things are getting out of control in this world and it will only end in destruction. THere are no more moral values or limits in American society.

      August 23, 2010 at 9:59 pm |
  17. Bert

    Shameful distortion by CNN to try and hide the truth about the evils of Islam.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
    • johannes

      ugly woman will continue doing it... lol... some poor bastard will have to marry them....and surprise!!!! lol....

      August 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  18. ekul

    This women's opinion is of ZERO value.

    She's a victim of brainwashing by a religion that is so intolerant it demads death of those who dissent.
    if she renounced islam and put on a bikini her male relatives would murder her because ilam is a anti-intellectual totalitarian belief system. -
    ---
    --
    x x
    |
    -
    muhamed

    August 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
    • Bert

      Spot on truth – thanks Mo!

      August 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • CatM

      I absolutely agree. This is what they've been TOLD to do. And they do it.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
    • johannes

      sharia law was invented by a bunch of dudes....woman that fall for it are either naive or stupid... but alas... ugly and fat woman will always support it because its in their favor...lol

      August 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • Kate

      @ekul

      Think about what you just said. "This woman's opinion is of zero value"

      Maybe you should be in KSA.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  19. disgusted

    Ill be honest,,,,,, if she gets on a plane,,,,im getting off it.

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

      I agree 100%, my question is what is that person, who may be male or female, hiding under all that cloth. We did not think this until the ethnic group of people, Muslum in nature, attacked us. When that happend, when they try to take over governement, when they do not assiliminate, when they are not friendly, when they do things we are not ready to accept do to ignorance of their customs, we fear them and out of self preservation will avoid the confrontation rather than place ourselves in jepordy.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • Kate

      @disgusted

      I wonder how the FAM who wears niqab feels about that

      August 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
    • AND

      True story on AUG 21 I was in Fort Lauderdale going home from my cruise vacation. I was at the airport and right near the security checkpoint I saw her and I dashed into the bathroom. (Let me get this strait I have to take off my shoes but she gets to keep the burqa on. WTF!) When I can out of the bathroom my flight was boarding and their she was in line getting on the plane Then I got on (Hoping I don't blow up) I was scared threw out the entire flight. I didn't see her on the flight they might have just told her to take the burqa off.

      August 23, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      How about the shoe-bomber? Underwear bomber?

      Do you discriminate against people who wear shoes and underwear too?

      August 24, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
  20. Lee

    Good one, Kate!

    August 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.