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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. Tom

    Muslim population in the U.S.: 0.8% (Pew Research Center 11.8.09). CNN over the last week you have flooded your website with Muslim related articles. Stop pushing this on us! The Muslim population is less than 1% in this country, and as such you should deliver content that is relevant to your demographic. Cut it out! Maybe you should write some articles from the other point of view - you know the point of view that the burqa should be banned (Belgium and France) instead of only taking one side in this issue. Oh wait, that wouldn't be in line with your agenda. Get back to news reporting not opinion columns.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Noah's Ark

      What, you're afraid of learning something that might perchance enlighten your dense mind? Get with the program - 1 in 4 people on this PLANET are Muslim. No man is an island anymore ... so it is QUITE relevant, so bring on the articles.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Den

      Yes and isn't it amazing that 1% has resulted in the pollution that has befallen us.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Tom

      You are right. So write articles about the "Arab Spring" sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East not some sympathy news campaign that applies to one of the smallest minority groups in this country. The more you push this on the U.S. population the more they will push back. "Belief Blog" – what a joke.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Reality Check

      Hijab (headscarf) is ok by me in the U.S. but the Burqa/Niqab (full face veil) have no place in public society. In the privacy of your home is one thing. But the full face veil intentionally alienates the women from blending into the U.S. culture. All other cultures of immigrants have assimilated and formed the wonderful "melting pot" that is the United States. The Burqa and Nicab are tools that prevent certain Muslim women from interacting with other members of a free society and it is offensive to others. How would you like it if someone walked around with a ski mask on all the time (I'm sure you'd be great friends).

      April 2, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Mighty7

      Stormfront is all-white all the time. Go there.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  2. carolyn scott

    Excuse me, but do all these negative comments apply also to nuns who choose to wear veils and habits? If a woman chooses to cover herself in the name of modesty or whatever, it's her free choice that matters, not your opinion. I can remember when men had fits about women deciding to wear pant-suits to work instead of skirts and dresses. There was no religious or modesty issues involved, but men (who were bar far in the majority at the management level that controlled dress codes) seemed to think it was a terrible thing. Fancy restaurants even had signs saying "females not allowed in pants" We've come a long way guys, you can just but out of this discussion.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  3. someoneelse

    Making our women wear high heels (and yes, we force it on women from a societal point of view as who would choose to wear them) is much worse than some head scarf. Seriously, high heels are dangerous and unhealthy.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Tom

      You clearly 1) are ugly, 2) don't have shapely legs, 3) are bitter towards attractive women, 4) a feminist. Women wear heels because their main goal is to be desirable - as evidence by women's claim that "there is no price for beauty." Wear flats, or boots, or sandals if you don't like heels - who cares.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Fuyuko

      way off topic..

      April 2, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • confused

      Tom, you made her point for her. "women wear heels because their main goal is to be desirable." To whom? Men? The squirrels in the street? The desirability has value, and it is dictated by men controlling the self-esteem of women. This point is further made by your earlier comments "you are ugly...you don't have shapely legs..", an attempt to silence her by denying the very commodity (desirability) you are controlling. The point is not off topic as it is a parallel to the discussion. She is pointing out that you are no different than the "men requiring the women to wear a hijab," and you proved her right. Way to go.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • someoneelse

      The context was pretty clear, but for the less intelligent people, I'm a guy.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • someoneelse

      @tom, 'confused' did a good job of putting your idiocy in its place, saving me time luckily.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • S

      I would also like to add the confused's point that it would be a lot harder to get eating disorders if people dressed more modestly and attractiveness wasn't put on such a pedestal.
      Cmon. We have companies making push-up bikinis for 7 year olds. Seriously? Criticize your own culture first.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  4. Fuyuko

    God designed us with natural head covering- hair. Anything else is something man comes up with.

    I'm sure the custom would've died a quick death if men were forced to wear head scarves.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • beentheredonethat

      So hair is by Gods design.Then being bald is whose design? It is way of showing respect for God. Just as taking ones hat off when entering a house as a guest is a sign of respect. Next you will go after the Pope for forcing Nuns to wear a habit.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Finger Puppet

      @beentheredonethat,
      Enjoy your posts! Actually we are not that many years from the days when all women in Catholic churches were required to cover their heads with veils. Also the issue you raise about nuns in habits is actually an active one in some Roman communities. The Pope recently sent a set of "visitors", (ha!) to most congregations of relious in the US to see if they were towing the line, wearing habits, living in convents. Many nuns have chosen to give up the habit and live independantly. That seems to make Rome nervous.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • S

      so...you're a nudist?

      April 2, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      sorry, nuns aren't forced to wear habits these days... and nope, don't believe god cares one whit whether you cover your head or not. man's rules. not gods.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:03 am |
  5. Allocer

    It seems that people who are too ignorant, like Reality, Robert, POD, and BHO, spend most of their live trolling in CNN just for the sake of trolling. Its a redudant tactic from idiots who are useless to exist.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Finger Puppet

      At least they seem to have a command of the English language, unlike some others.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Allocer, Christians on this bog have been bored to tears with Reality's anti-social comments, cut and pastes from other anti-socials that refuse to live in harmony with community. He still doesn't get it. His ego is his downfall. He believes himself above others in intellect, when in reality, he's failed miserably because he can't see past his nose on any social issues.

      Amen.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  6. Auntie Warhol

    Welcome to America. I'm so proud.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • PHXMan3

      It's depressing, isn't it?

      April 3, 2011 at 4:01 am |
  7. being honest

    its funny,when there is post about Christianity everyone is in line to bash it and say what a false religion it is, but now in this muslim piece everyone is cheering how great the headscarf is and what a wonderfully written article this is.. you guys are a joke

    April 2, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • confused

      I really don't see people loving and praising Islam here. Are we reading the same comment thread?

      April 2, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Mike

      I can't agree more...People prefer to stay away from Islam because they know the consequences of being critical at it....However, they know Christians are peaceful, so why not attack ? 🙂

      April 2, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Hana

      Really??? I see a lot of hatred and bigotry in these comments. However, I will tell you this. I read the articles about Christianity and simply do not reply. I dont even read the comments. Why? Because it is not my faith. I support people who follow the religion, or any religion really. I encourage anyone to follow the faith in your heart. But, I have no issues with Christianity to bash it, nor do I feel a need to defend it from people who attack it as I dont think that very many Christians WANT me to voice my support when I am not Christian. Here however, Islam is my faith, and I hope to educate people on the many views of Islam. Muslims are not one united group that all believe, practice, or interpret the religion in the same way. And we are not all from the same cultures, which is very important as much of what people hate so much is cultural traditions that may or may not have any root in Islam itself. The divisions between Muslim groups are just as deep and almost as diverse as Christianity. Actions of one group are not representative of the whole any more than the actions of the IRA are representative of Mid-Western American Christians.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  8. mango

    Any religion based on a prophet who liked to molest children is bound to be bad. Jim Jones "loved" his people too. If you are so weak and dumb, please do join a whacko religion, whether it be Christianity, or these freak hole moooslims.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • neo

      You sure do have a lot of hate in you. Maybe you should talk to someone about that, your obsession with how Muslims live THEIR lives is consuming you.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • HeavenSent

      mango, as a practicing Christian, you are the anti-socials in society for not joining community in Church which tells us that you are willing to live in harmony with your neighbors. So, keep it up with refusing to learn religion and everyone will look at you as not caring about the rest of us because you don't care to learn what's going on.

      Amen.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  9. Robert

    Islam is the source of all conflict and contention in the world. I wonder why?

    April 2, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Auntie Warhol

      Wrong. Fail.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • paperjihad

      @Robert

      How old are you?

      April 2, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • bethe123

      @paperjihad - Nice ad hom...Trying refuting his points...oh, that's right, you cannot.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • paperjihad

      @bethe123

      You are correct in that I should refrain from ad hominem. My bad. However, I can certainly refute his points. My source is the 2010 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report. The report identifies 294 failed, foiled, or successfully executed terrorist attacks in 2009 in six European countries - down almost 50 percent from 2007. The breakdown of attacks with respect to responsibility was thus: 237 by separatist groups; 40 by left-wing and anarchist groups; four by rightists; ten with no clear affiliation; two by single-issue groups, and one by so-called Islamists.

      And yet, the report points out: Islamist terrorism is still perceived as the biggest threat to most Member States, despite the fact that only one Islamist terrorist attack - a bomb attack in Italy - took place in the EU in 2009.

      In other words, Islamists were responsible for 0.34 percent of the terrorist attacks in the European Union in 2009. I'd say that's a far cry from Muslims being responsible for all the world's ills.

      Peace.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • BG

      @ bethe123

      Here's the study that paperjihad is referring to. Interesting reading. Seems they still treat Islamic threats as a priority.

      From Page 2 – Executive Summary

      "Islamist terrorism is still perceived as the biggest threat to most Member States, despite the fact that only one Islamist terrorist attack – a bomb attack in Italy – took place in the EU in 2009. Islamist terrorists have threatened EU Member States with perpetrating attacks aiming at indiscriminate mass casualties. The number of arrests relating to Islamist terrorism (110) decreased by 41 % compared to 2008, which continues the trend of a steady decrease since 2006. The threat emanating from Islamist terrorism inside the EU is influenced, to a certain extent, by developments in conflict zones and politically unstable countries such as Afghanistan, the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. At the same time, the EU is used as a platform to prepare and initiate terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world."

      April 2, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  10. mango

    please go celebrate your burka or what ever, celebrate with camels in the desert, it's ANTI American, go from here, do it now. Really, if it's so great, go to Iran and love it.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Auntie Warhol

      Nice.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Maxine

      Mango, I love the way you use the word "please". You say celebrate the burka or "whatever", you don't even know what your criticizing so vehemently. Reread your comment...how did you get such authority to tell people where to go and what to do with their lives? Have you ever met and talked with a Muslim woman who observed hijab? Instead of passing by her and thinking your ignorant thoughts and wishing her to go back to wherever it is she came from? Try to leave that realm of ignorance once and see what it feels like to judge people outside of your point of view, just once. As you say, you will "love it".

      April 2, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • filter

      Hate much?

      April 2, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Noah's Ark

      So, you're spewing hate against Virgin Mary, as well. She wore hijab. It is a de facto sign of submission to God, not to husband, father, brother, uncle, culture ...

      April 2, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Finger Puppet

      @Noah's Ark
      So, then you wear one too ? If it's good for women to be submissive, then it's good for men also. Right ?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  11. Nunajer Bidnis

    Do what you want to do. Be who you want to be. March to the tune of a different drummer.

    Express yourself. Be true to yourself. Follow your bliss.

    It's none of my business. Tend your own garden. You are not my brother's keeper.

    Celebrate diversity. Live and let live. Love thy neighbor.

    Look what they done to my song, ma. All you need is love. Play that funky music white boy.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • bethe123

      Burn a Quran.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Hana

      Bethe123... are you trying to be the new Hitler then?

      Burning books, ANY book just reaks of Nazism.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  12. naz

    tell them to come to new york and see how the muslim wear there headscarf not parttime but fulltime...

    April 2, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • ROKme

      Agreed. I think being a Muslim in America is much different than being a Muslim in a poor, rural community in a country practicing Sharia law. Obviously the girls are western and for them wearing the covering is a choice. Whatever they decide – more power to them.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  13. POD

    The problem with Musims is that they want EVERY woman to wear the headscarf and they do not respect the freedom of those that chose not to do so

    April 2, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Auntie Warhol

      False.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • paperjihad

      @POD

      I have no idea from where you got that idea.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • beentheredonethat

      The headscarf is nothing more than a display of ones beliefs. Just as a cross is a display for Christians, or a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke. These are all displays that tell the world what I believe. Your statement that all Muslims want all women to wear a headscarf is like saying that all Amish people want to do a way with buttons on shirts. By the way Muslims and the Amish have a lot in common with the practice of modesty as they see it from their beliefs.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Noah's Ark

      Virgin Mary wore hijab! She is the most revered woman in all of Islam!

      April 2, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • beentheredonethat

      POD is correct. Others do try to force women to wear the hijab. In Baghdad the women who work in the greenzone dress the way they want and most do not wear a scarf. When they go outside of the greenzone they put a scarf on. They don't want to wear it but are threatened if they don't...

      April 2, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  14. smiley

    Modesty is not calling attention to yourself. In the US, the hajib's effect is quite the opposite. Wearing the hajib in the US is some kind of statement, it is a costume, but it is not "modesty."

    April 2, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Auntie Warhol

      From *your* perspective. Ever think there might be other, equally valid, perspectives?

      April 2, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • confused

      modesty has nothing to do with avoiding attention. In this context, it's about behaving in a manner that is not improper or indecent.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • HeavenSent

      smiley, I suppose you'd like everyone to walk around butt naked. I hope you don't live in the windy city where the temperatures drop.

      Amen.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  15. AC

    The irony is that coverings are always so that the men can have more self control. Why shouldn't they display their beauty? Because the men cannot control themselves. Its not just Islam either-a posted mentioned early Christians also had the requirement.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • paperjihad

      Both genders are required to dress modestly, and the Qur'an directs us to lower our gaze when we face temptation.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Kallen

      I agree. They are just calling attention to themselves. If they are required to wear them for prayer then fine.. but it is just a distractio to wear them in public.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Noah's Ark

      Are nuns distracting you? Images of Virgin Mary?

      April 2, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • S

      @Kallen:
      So the woman dressed modestly is HUGE distraction, compared to the woman in stilettos and a tank top and mini-skirt? Huh.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  16. Glen

    why does CNN cater to muslims? its sickening that they cant get the taste of Obama and muslims out of their mouths.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Noah's Ark

      Gosh, Glen, get with the program. It's only because you see it that way.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Maybe CNN figured out how ignorant your generation is to the meanings behind scriptures. Not only the Muslim, but Christianity as well. I wonder what kids 2,000 years ago will think of what your generation speaks about cribs (being your new apartment and not a big baby bed), bad (being the opposite of saying good) etc.

      Hint, hint about scriptures. Stop picking and choosing one scriptures without reading the surrounding scriptures. Then you will know the subject matter, the action(s) and the outcome(s). (e.g. Dick and Jane (choosing one sentence on the page) ... without reading the rest of the page, you have no clue what Dick and Jane did or what the outcome was).

      Amen.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  17. Reality

    I watched "Unwelcome, Next Door" and noted that the sisters rarely wore a headscarf. So much for "But to American-born Muslim sisters Dima and Lema Sbenaty, the hijab is a source of pride."

    April 2, 2011 at 7:35 am |
    • Auntie Warhol

      Seems like they should be able to wear what they want, when they want. Doesn't it?

      April 2, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Noah's Ark

      Virgin Mary wore a scarf! Does hijab on her disgust you, too? The two sisters clearly stated that they do not feel ready to embrace it just yet, only because people are so judgemental. So there ...

      April 2, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Jesus

      I have seen many middle eastern women without the scarf. They have very oily and thick hair. It's hard to maintain. Perhaps the scarf is really an excuse to avoid washing heir hair and having it cut regularly.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • S

      Nuns and orthodox jewish women wear scarves and dress modestly......

      April 2, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  18. Mr. Sniffles

    Five of the last six stories here are on Islam. CNN is really out to stir up the hornets nest for their own selfish interests.

    And I'm sure the howlers are going to deliver.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:43 am |
    • Rob

      Well there is a lot going on in that religion right now

      April 2, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • Hana

      They are all break away pieces from a tv special. Nothing earth shattering about that. They do the same thing for other specials too.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  19. BG

    Google 'Muslim women apostates'

    Let them speak for themselves.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:29 am |
  20. B(iraq) Hussein Osama

    what a great and beautiful idea the hijab is. I wonder if the Prophet copied that off the christians of his time, or were most christian women already prancing around bu ck na ked 1,400 years ago.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:19 am |
    • BG

      What's the stats, BHO? Kinda late for trolling. Ah, that's right. The Rathskeller just closed.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • ro81n

      BE ROMAN WHEN IN ROME, IF YOU ARE SO PARTICULAR IN YOUR DAMN PRIDE, GO TO YOUR COUNTRY. WHY YOU ARE IN US?

      April 2, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Rob

      The hijab is great, the problem is when it is made MANDATORY. All "religious dress" is a joke. Funny hats, weird hair, scarfs, burka its an f....n bunch of crap made up by men.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • gabe

      wow. you're such a tool.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • confused

      1 Corinthians 11:5
      "But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven."

      April 2, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Gman

      Thanks confused, for that little nugget from the book of Corinthians. Christians often forget what the bible says and how intolerant it is. Luckily, as another poster wrote, people don't believe as much and certainly don't read the bible enough to know.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Wow Confused and Gman. Shaking my head in disbelief how illiterate your generation is to scriptures. This is what you get for being lazy and not studying the Bible. Yes, we'll all rebel against what our parents, grandparents and previous generation where taught. We're so much brighter (NOT).

      1 Corinthians 11:5 means that Jesus' truth is the covering over their head. Meaning, to have the wisdom of what Jesus taught in their brains aka knowledge.

      No excuses for any of you.

      Amen.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Syriac

      I agree with HeavenSent. Many people say things about the Bible that they aren't sure of and that they don't understand the context.

      April 8, 2011 at 3:11 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.