April 2nd, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Living under the headscarf

Editor’s Note: "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" features the Muslim community of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where sisters Dima and Lema Sbenaty grew up and live. CNN’s Soledad O’Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over the construction of a mosque in the heart of the Bible belt. Watch “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door” airing at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET April 2 on CNN.

By Elizabeth M. Nunez, CNN

Few items of clothing inspire as much controversy as the hijab, or headscarf. To some it represents oppression or radical Islam.

But to American-born Muslim sisters Dima and Lema Sbenaty, the hijab is a source of pride.

“Before I thought it would bother me to wear a scarf in public. I was surprised to feel that I was proud of my religion and all of my friends," says Dima Sbenaty, 20.

"We all go out together and they’re all wearing headscarves as well. It’s nothing that I’m ashamed of, and that’s part of my strength with my religion.”

The sisters have lived most of their lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Now they are students at Middle Tennessee State University. Lema, a chemistry major, wants to become a pediatrician and dreams of tending to children in Ethiopia. Dima, a biology and chemistry double major, is working toward becoming a dentist. Neither has decided if she will permanently wear a hijab, but both cover during daily prayer.

In Arabic, hijab roughly translates as “barrier” or partition. In Islam, it refers to the principle of modesty in behavior and dress, as described in the Quran: "Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments.”

Women raised in the faith like the Sbenaty sisters say the moment to start wearing a hijab is theirs to choose.

For others who convert to Islam, like Ivy Balloul, a blue-eyed American raised as a Methodist, the hijab comes with her adopted faith. “This was part of me converting to Islam," she said. "You can’t divide it up into little pieces and pick and choose what you want. It’s a whole package.”

Ivy, married to the imam of the Murfreesboro mosque, has received negative comments for wearing a hijab. “One man said to me in the post office that I can take off my scarf, that I’m free here. Another woman felt like I was a traitor. A man called to me one day from his car telling me that, uh, I should go back home.”

But these experiences do not discourage her from covering her head.

“I feel like I have more respect. Before, I could be pumping gas in my car and some guy would whistle or make some type of catcall. It was an uncomfortable situation," she said.

"When you put on a scarf ... [you] know that people can’t look at you as a sexual object. The first time I put it on I felt more comfortable in my own skin.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Islam • Muslim

soundoff (1,575 Responses)
  1. marcello

    This people make me sick.It is in Koran that men have right to beat his wife.It is in Koran that shari allah is above everything ,it is in Koran that Islam is above all religions of the world and muslim must subdue everybody to follow Islam, still they con on TV and try to make Islam look modern religion. As Omar Ahmed chairman of The Board of CAIR(Council of America Islamic Relation) says:Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith,but to become dominant ,the Queran should be the highest authority in America and Islam the only accepted religion on the earth."then please open your eyes and see what muslim have plan for us.

    August 19, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  2. iamajim

    It's interesting to note that the Koran doesn't mention hijab at all nor does it say anything about dress other than to be modest to eachother. This article of clothing is actually Arabic in origin and Islam has become so intertwined with Arabic that there is probably no way to separate them now. You don't have to dress like an Arab to be Muslim. I should know, my wife is Muslim, and therefore so am I now. I have come to believe that Islam is desperately in need of it's own Reformation, so to speak. Time will tell.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • paperjihad

      Not all rulings come from Qur'an. Rulings can also come from hadith and also by scholarly consensus (hence Sunni Muslims refer to themselves as "Ahl as-Sunna wa 'l-Jama'a "People of the Sunna and the Consensus"). HIjab is at least based on scholarly consensus.

      As for reform, Islam itself is a reformation of Judaism and Christianity and is therefore not amiable to reform. This is a very complex topic and best discussed with a qualified scholar.

      I would also like to point out the Bible says, ‎"If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shave off, she should cover her head." [Corinthians 11:3-6] So this is not a new concept. Whether or not the People of the Book choose to follow this is there own concern.


      July 22, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  3. Salam

    If Islam was a bad religion, how come it is the FASTEST GROWING RELIGION IN THE WORLD? How come Islam is the fastest growing religion in America? If Islam oppresses women, how come the majority of converts to Islam are White westen women?

    May 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • T Sea

      It is the fastest growing because – 1st muslim males can have up to 4-5 wifes (popolation explosion); 2nd none of their children are allowed to choose other religions, they either will get in trouble with their parents or even get killed. Muslim parents always use blackmailing to keep their children's beliefs. These are the major contributions to its growth. It is not natural or by free choices. By the time those children grown up, they are deep into the somewhat forced beliefs or instructions. Think about it! Even in the US, with US Laws, many of them have been killed, mainly when they are immigrants from other countries. If one wants to be a good human, not religion can make different. And religions should not be conducted by using threats, power or forces.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  4. Godfred

    I personally have never met a Muslim that ibeelves in terrorism or that the ends justifies the means . I find it very easy to prove this statement to be patently false. To wit, if Jasser has debated Islamicists or attended a CAIR-sponsored event or attended one of the 80% of American mosques that actively support the concept of violent jihad, then Jasser has indeed PERSONALLY met a Muslim who ibeelves in terrorism. Really, all Jasser needs to do is to attend the Arab festival in Dearborn, MI, or participate in a pro-Palestinian march in any USA city. What a fake Jasser is! I have never had a conflict in the practice of my own interpretation of Islam and the principles of pluralism in America, and it is that ideology that I seek to promote in our reform efforts at AIFD within the Muslim consciousness. No one – least of all any Saudi-sponsored imams – is even remotely interested in Jasser's "own interpretation" of Islam. Islam is Islam – and is easily found in the "PERFECT UNCHANGEABLE REVEALED" Koran and its hadiths. Jasser's opinion is irrelevant to Islamic theology except where it would show him to be an apostate under ummah-wide death threat. If there is NO fatwa ordering Jasser's death for apostacy, then Jasser is simply is useful tool to create confusion for non-Muslims. If I limited it to Muslim venues, my life has proven over and over again that the stimulus for reform is not great enough to effect real change within the Muslim communities. Right. Muslims have ZERO impetus to change Islam because Islam benefits Muslims as a favored class in a VICIOUS WORLDWIDE CRIMINAL CONSPIRACY. Different Muslims benefit in different ways: some men enjoy pedophilia; some men enjoy polygamy; some men enjoy being slave owners; etc.

    March 3, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
  5. Karen

    I could not let another day go by without saying just how ashamed I was of the bigoted individuals I saw in the piece about Murfreesboro. I do know, however, that does not reflect the hearts of all the people there. There are many that I am sure would speak out but they also live in fear of retribution. I am particularly upset to see an African American male lead a racist charge against individuals who have done nothing but ask to practice their religion and live their lives in peace. I am an African American female and a former educator from Texas. It breaks my heart to see another black cast such an ugly shadow upon a land already historically marred with death and violence. Mr. Fisher, To lead this assault against a group striving to make a home in this country is gut wrenching. I am a Christian and it is frightening to think that there are people out there who call themselves children of God but are filled with so much hatred. By your actions, you make my next point quite clear. We are not all the same! There are so many types of so-called Christians, that we do not fit the mold and it would be wrong to put us all in the same category. You claim to be patriots, but there are "Christians" who would protest the burial of an American soldier who fought and gave his life. You stereotype without thought and your actions are based solely on fear and hearsay. Look to your familial pasts. Most of you are descendants of people who were persecuted in their native homelands and forced to flee to the US in order to find a safe haven. Tim McVeigh was not a Muslim and I did not see anyone trying to ban white Americans from going to church and building a home. In our recent history, we have had countless individuals who have killed their own in order to promote their beliefs, but there was no cry of outrage to ban that particular ethnicity from living here primarily because of their color and nothing more. I used to believe that all Germans were Nazis and none took a stand against the evil that pervaded Europe during World War II. There were most certainly Germans who risked their lives in order to save their Jewish countrymen and other ethnic groups targeted by Hitler. I was just as wrong then to steroetype all Germans as you are now wrong to lump all Muslims as the same. You are no better than the Nazis to frighten and threaten hardworking AMERICAN MUSLIMS. Shame on you! It is time for the good citizens of Murfreesboro to take a stand and protect your American brothers and sisters. We say it in our pledge, "...with liberty and justice for all." Please be shining examples for your children and not help to create more monstrous killers that our society already has plenty of in this country!! I pray that God will soften your hearts and open your minds to a world of peaceful co-existence!!

    September 5, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  6. Luke

    Muslims are in this country to enjoy the freedoms that you are not allowed in the country they come from. These freedoms are formed from our Christian values. Go back to your country and enjoy the freedoms of Muslim values.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • CaptainMonkeee

      Hey Luke,
      We know that's not true. Granted Christianity is a different religion, but the basic laws are not much different. Islamic law and politics are two separate things. In Islam, freedom of speech, religion, rights, etc. are all allowed. Values such as charity, modestly, and kindness is put on a high regard. Modern day politics and corruption is what ruins the laws.

      And T Sea, Islam is prohibited to be forced upon a believer no matter what gender or age. To each their own one must come to either accept or reject it. None of it is suppose to be forced, ever.
      And seriously, how many Muslim men have you seen with 4 to 5 wives. Rarely do people take up on that duty because it is os tedious!

      July 19, 2012 at 2:41 am |
  7. mohammed

    من خلال الله، والنساء هن من يقدمن الحياة للخليقة كلها، كبيرها وصغيرها من الأرض. الشيطان يوسوس بغيرة في آذان الرجال مسلم أن تطغى عليهم ، لا تسمح لهم بالسفر خارج دون رقيب أو يعرفوا أنهم أقرب إلى الله مما كنت.

    إلا من خلال يسوع، يمكن للمرأة في الإسلام أن يكون حرا. انه قادم لك، وتأخذ بيده عند ظهوره ويكون حرا في الحياة والموت.


    Through God, women are the life givers to every creature, large and small of the Earth. Satan jealously whispers in the ears of Muslim men to oppress them, do not let them travel outside unsupervised or they will know they are closer to Allah than you.
    Only through Jesus, can the women of Islam be free. He is coming for you, take his hand when it appears and be free in life and death.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  8. Paulina


    April 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Paulina Knows Nothing

      And what is real news exactly? This is a revolutionary moment in history where the constant conflicts between Muslims and Christians are publicised. Just because your belief is wrong and you know it inside, doesn't make it right. The truth is the truth, you can't hide that, which is exactly what the program is displaying for people who know nothing about the religion, like you.

      August 13, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  9. Making

    I think US population and especially moslems in US will be very interested to know what is the purpose Fethullah Gulen who is living, proteded in an armed camp in rural Pennsylvania. Who is he, what's his objective, what's he doing to propagate his objective, how is US exploiting him and his objective? This story will show another face of 'Moslems in America", which is mostly unknown in this country.

    April 13, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  10. Kitty

    Why dont they ban those stupid things that the Jew men wear with the strings hanging from their shirts or maybe their ridiculous haircuts........now if you think my comment is stupid, think about the law.......yes exactally!

    April 11, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  11. Gordon

    The problem with covering ones face in 2011 is one of identification. When I pass a person in public I want to see
    that persons' FACE....This has NOTHING to do with religion....It has ALL to do with security. What is stopping a wanted
    criminal from wearing a burqua and evading the law ???

    April 11, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Dante

      Has any criminal actually done this? Sounds like you are drumming up fear for no reason. In fact, Burkas are so unusual that a criminal wearing on would be identified pretty easily – hard to hide in a crowd, you know?

      April 11, 2011 at 10:43 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.