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. Evoken

    Hijab is a symbol of male superiority, I'm growing tired of these dumb monkeys proclaiming that their religion is peaceful..I read the Quran and it's filled with retribution and is against individual thought. Christianity, Islam, etc..mental slavery.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • andyk

      evoken, i can see how you come to your conclusion. But it's always easier to denigrate something that to put forward something else in it's place. You are against hijab even if the woman decides on her own to wear it. Are you against swimsuits even if a woman decides on her own to wear it? Isn't a bikini a symbol of male superiority? If you disagree, please explain how a woman choosing a bikini is superior to a woman wearing a hijab? If you agree that neither is ideal, than please explain what is an ideal dress code and how enforcing that is anything other than mental slavery? In the end, allowing people to choose what they want to wear within some reasonable limits of decency decided upon by each society is really all anybody is going to be able to defend. If thats a hijab, fine. If thats a mini-skirt, okay.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Teddy

      I don't know what you have read, or haven't, but you seem to be mistaken. But maybe it is just that you aren't inclined to understand and see what others do. I would even expect your life to reflect the heavy hearted burdens that you feel. I worry that my words will be brushed off, but I am reminded:

      "Verily, those who disbelieve, it is the same to them whether you warn them or do not warn them, they will not believe." {6}

      "God has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearings, and on their eyes there is a covering. Theirs will be a great torment." {7}

      and then:

      "Have you seen him who takes his own lust as his god, and God knowingly, left him astray, and sealed his hearing and his heart, and put a cover on his sight. Who then will guide him after God? Will you not then remember?"


      Seems to me that all the stuff you talked about must be your own interpretation of "scary" things that God is saying to you. I don't think that you would come to the conclusion if you can't even make it through a few versus without feeling fear, rage, or hate.

      Try meditating on your feelings and really analyze them. Don't be foolish.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  2. TheRealJesus

    Try being an atheist anywhere in the U.S. See how that goes.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  3. KeepItReal

    Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) narrated that the Prophet (may the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) married her when she was six years old, and he consummated her in marriage when she was nine years old. Then she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death).[

    April 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Christopher Matthews

      This is nonsense. Mohammed was married at 25 to Khatija who was 40 years old. He worked for her and she asked him to marry her! She died when Mohammed was over 50 years old and up until that time she was his ONLY wife. If he was a pedophile, he certainly did not exhibit that sort of behavior.
      Most scholars believe that Aisha was 18 when she married Mohammed. He also married several other women, most of whom were much older.. in their 70's. He married an African and also a Jewess. Some of the women had lost their husbands in battle and he married them and took care of them in their old age.
      The hadith or traditions and sayings, were written hundred of years after Mohammed died and is not without exaggerations and errors. The Quran is still in it's original language and even non-Muslim scholars agree that it's in its original form... word for word.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  4. FrankinNJ

    Great article. If it was a story how some sect of Christianity made women wear headscarves, you would all be up in arms about how degrading it is. But because it is not Christianity, it gets a pass. Get over it. It is a piece of clothing, if a woman wants to wear it, fine. If not, that is a different story. As for the rest of the article, wow, is there anyone on here that has not been made-fun of because they were different?

    April 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  5. Charlie

    Muslim women like attention, and that why they wear the hi-jab. The highest ranked Islamic cleric in Egypt stated that there is no mention of the hi-jab in Islam. So now the hi-jab is used as a way of creating division. ex. the religious and pure Muslim believers V.S the not so religious and not so pure non-Muslims. It's all for attracting attention, and nothing more.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • LOL

      (to Charlie) ..and your stupid comment ....and to all the racists who troll these stories so they can post their ignorant crap.. Go to School and Get an Education!

      April 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  6. Jean

    Why do brides wear veils? Is it just a fashionable item to accent the dress, or do women wear wedding veils because their mothers did, or is it because society and/or males expect them to wear one? Is there some deeper message that women have unknowingly accepted.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  7. Jean

    Why do brides wear veils? Is it just a fashionable item to accent the dress, or do women wear bridal veils because their mothers did, or is it because society and/or males expect them to wear one? Is there some deeper message that women have unknowingly accepted.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • interesting

      I have also wondered the same thing. Veils go way back to the time when Christianity first began. Mother Mary wore a headscarf. Why do people who call themselves Christians have to be so hypocritical sometimes?

      April 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  8. Anavay

    They do it for attention trust me. I have some muslim friends and one only wears the hijab on certain days at school (college) there are big events, she told me I should wear one, even though Im not muslim, just "to be different". She was wearing a tank top and jeans and then put on her jacket and threw a hijab on. They think theyre being "different" or better than other women by doing this.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • andyk

      interesting... so since this one person you wear seems to do it for questionable reasons, that's what motivates all of "them"? Don't think there are any sincere practicing muslim women who wear the hijab out of modesty... I guess you're free to have your own interpretation... as unlikely and different as it may be.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Maxine

      Seriously Anavay, SERIOUSLY? I mean as you were typing away your comment, you didn't think, 'hmmmmm, could I be generalizing here, just a little bit??' You attend college and you still think that one person's beliefs or actions reflect thousands upon thousands?? Seriously?? Enlighten, Anavay, enlighten....and soon!

      April 2, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  9. Dubya

    Yes, we Muslims are so aggressive and violent that we're building new mosques across the entire USA and are doing better than other Americans in both financial and educational spheres in this country. We are doing great in Europe and will do even better here. Your racist, uneducated opinions don't matter to us. Either you live with it, or get out of OUR country!

    April 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  10. Letrineous


    April 2, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  11. RS47

    The problem is not with the hajib, or with muslims for that matter. The problem is with orthodox Islamic theology, which is totalitarian and supremist. Muslims living in the west are very fortunate in that they are not subjected to true orthodox Islamic theology and shari'a, so they are quite free to express themselves and do as they wish. However, this is not the case when living in a true Islamic society where most tenants of orthodox Islamic theology are rigorously observed and enforced. Remember, it doesn't matter what some muslim might say about their faith, what matters is how the Islamic schools of jurisprudence define Islamic theology, such as Al Azhar University in Cairo, and these tenants as they always have, include death for apostasy from Islam, conversion or subjugation of the kaffir (non-muslim), and many other totalitarian and supremist articles of orthodox Islamic theology. And these are what are tought in most mosques.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Ahn

      I think knocking Islamic theology is pretty disgusting, Son if you Don't know what you are talking about perhaps you should Learn about it before you shoot your mouth off and denigrate people's religions

      April 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • MoThePedo

      Khadijah died three years before the Prophet (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) departed to Madina. He stayed there for two years or so and then he married Aisha when she was a girl of six years of age, and he consummated that marriage when she was nine years old.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • andyk

      I have to strongly disagree with you. It does matter how muslims view their faith and how they interpret it. Unlike in Catholocism and branches of Orthodox Christianity, there is no preistly class in Islam. There are people who can be viewed and respected as scholars who have trained in jurisprudence or other aspects of islamic knowledge like quranic recitation, but they are not priests and they don't determine what the people believe or practice. For this very reason, there is quite a divergence of views in Islam and while scholars at Al-Azhar may say one thing, that may lack any meaning to >1 billion of the world's muslims if they don't agree. What is taught in mosques varies greatly from country to country and even by regions within a country. I'd ask you to provide some evidence for your last statement regarding what mosques teach... I don't think you can.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  12. george

    One of the most interesting aspect of conversion to islam especially among western women is that they comment that they have started dressing modestly, can anybody please tell me where in the bible it tells to dress immodestly. I seriously doubt whether any of the western converts know that many of the traditions adopted by islam has been borrowed from early orthodox christianity. Orthodox christians are supposed to pray seven times a day , half of the year is spend in fasting and while praying they have to kneel on the floor. What all the converts are looking for is their in christianity. A walk to your nearby orthodox churches of coptic,greek,armenian,malankara would clear your doubts

    April 2, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Resist710

      That's why they're called the Abrahamic religions George. They all have the same root. They should all just get along, all their ancestors were brothers and sisters. But politics and greed get in the way.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  13. dbg

    Terry Jones said: hhhhmmmmm......let's burn the Koran and see what will happened.....ZABOOMMMM!!!

    April 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  14. B.S.

    This hijab is disrespect for women. How the women fell when the were it in 100-120 degree summer in the middle east. Besides why the women don't have to show their hair while the men can show it. If hijab was made to cover the beauty of the woman, what about the beauty of man? Being a good person comes from the heart, If your heart is dirty nothing will work to cover it.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Ahn

      Your name says it all "B.S." just like your ignorant comment. IF you don't know something for goodness sake look it up and Try to understand.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      Actually, oh ignorant one, the man IS to cover his head as well. I guess you didn't notice. You also would notice, if you had a working brain that could interpret what the eyes see, that the men NEVER uncover their legs above the knees.
      Hijab is for BOTH THE MEN AND THE WOMEN for Muslims.
      But, you displayed your ignorance and un-American values very well.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Mary

      Islam is all about equality, you only have to consider Islamic societies for examples.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • seriously?

      You hear it over and over, Muslim women saying themselves that the headscarf is their choice and they love wearing it. Also that it is not forced upon them (the majority of them) Why can't you just actually believe them?
      Also seems like you have never been to the middle east or even wore a hat. When its hot and sunny out people put on hats to keep the heat off their heads right? The scarf effectively does the same thing. Also if the women are wearing the long dresses it is much cooler than wearing jeans there. I know I have done it! worn both types of outfits and in that heat you are better off wearing a long flowing outfit that covers your head. It also keeps the sun directly off your skin! I say its a good way to prevent Melanoma.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • RealTalk

      And the North Koreans love the leader. Certain things are subjective, and certain things are objective. Patriarchy is integral to Islam, Mohammed designed it that way.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Kam

      do you have the guts to pass same comments to orthodox jewish dress they also wear a hat could be very opressive in summer??????? but would you send a negative remark i dont thinks so,

      April 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • jake

      Wear the hijab or lose your head. One or the other – it is the woman's choice.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  15. Michelle

    I am Catholic, and I'm a live and let live person. I live my life to what I feel is accepting for me and God, not for my neighbours. Perhaps I'm not a 'good' Catholic as I refuse to preach to others to 'believe'. I'm a US Citizen living in Canada, I refuse to give up my citizenship and I get criticized for it with "when in Rome". Doesn't bother me because they think with ignorant heads, much like racists. I have no problem with the Islam religion provided it practices the peace it preaches. Again I'm a live and let live person... However.....

    While I make it a point to smile, I do not get one in return from Muslims. Yet oddly enough in Canada and the US, most people WILL smile at you despite the day they may have had. Twice now in the past year, I've had the chance direct meeting with a few Muslim families. Obvious Muslim due to the headscarf. I wasnt' watching where I was going in Target one day shopping in Michigan with my 10 y/o, and I bumped into a Muslim mom with another woman and their kids. I apologized for not watching where I was going, and nothing was said except a glare. THEN the command to their children "Cmon, we are taught to not speak to Christians", they grab their kids and pretty much ran. There were people around me, as flabbergasted as I was. My daughter starts to cry asking what did we do? So how do you explain to your kid that while we should never hate people becuase of their race/religion, etc, we should ignore the Muslims who do this to us. One woman next to me heard my daughter, and took matters into her own hands. She went up to the Muslim women and demanded an apology to us. The Muslim reply was "we don't apologize to Infidels". Unfortunately this woman who directed herself at the Muslim woman had a son in Afghanistan, and while I will not repeat what was said, it wasn't pretty. But I bought that lady a coffee when she had her say! And there were a few around us who clapped. As prior military, I have lost friends in Iraq helping to protect the very people who seem to hate us.

    I still am a live and let live kind of gal. But I also believe "do unto others as you would them do unto you". I'm very sorry that the Muslim countries are in such disarray.. I used to feel the US should help, but now i'm not so sure anymore.. To those Muslims having such a difficult time living their peaceful lives, it's because of the remaining 80% of Muslim society that hates Christians as to why you, the peaceful Muslims, are having such difficulty. Until the rest of your religion becomes more peaceful I doubt you stand a snowball's chance in Hell. literally.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Resist710

      Nice borrowed anecdote. We don't apologize to infidels? Where were you? Some ghetto back alley in Peshawar?

      April 2, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • andyk

      I love people who make "insightful" comments about a religion with 1.2 billion people based on the 2 supposed families she ran into. I seriously doubt the story that Michelle tells, but let's just say it is true. That would be the equivalent of me saying that after running into two christian KKK members or skinheads while I was down south, I concluded all white christian americans (or perhaps just 80% of them) are mean spirited bigots. Go meet more muslims and you'll realize there aren't 1.2 billion intolerant muslims... the vast majority are ordinary people. Couched in your live and let live... is a deep seed of ignorance. That just because i had a bad experience with 1 racial/religious/ethnic minority, that means a large portion of them are the same. Would you do the same thing when you meet your first white person from North Dakota (if they're not friendly, it must be a white person from North Dakota thing)??

      April 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Concerned

      That stinks you had that kind of experience, but you should really know that most Muslims are not like that. I can't believe that someone would be so rude. I would hate for you to think of all Muslims that way just because of what she said or because some of them don't say hi when you pass them by. There are rude people everyone.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      Real cute story. Total fabrication, but still cute.
      How do I know it's a fabrication? I was deployed for nearly 5 years, all in Muslim nations.
      NEVER, EVER, EVER has that att itude been present or words even slightly similar ever said.
      Indeed, I've been a guest ad many Muslim homes, ate with their family and even played with their children.
      Just another page of the Roman Catholic death machine from you. Soldier of Christ, Amen.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Lizzy10

      Did you remember to turn the other cheek, like the Catholic religion teaches?

      April 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Jon

      Michelle, your made up story is shallow and full of bigotry. "We don't talk to infidels?" .. yeah, right! You're obviously spending too much time watching Fox news and listening to tea party garbage.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Teddy

      As a Muslim and a vet, you seem to be either making things up or you being blinded by your own personal issues.

      I have lost friends in war, but I don't blame that as religion being an issue. I think you have more problems with (arabs) then you do with Muslims.

      A belief is internal, and can be expressed externally. A ethnicity is external and can be internalized. I think you have devalued the ethnicity and automatically painted all "those" people as bad, and since you know that many of them follow a different religion you now have more amunition against them.

      Racist maybe? Educated? Not.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Christopher Matthews

      Hey Michelle... really she use the word "infidels".. and we are supposed to believe you. I am surprised that you did not throw in a few "Allah Akbars" and "Death to America" in your lame story.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Kam

      I am a Muslim and I feel sorry for the treatment you received take my apology for that.
      However I myself gone through worse just because of my Muslim name occasionaly though and have faced
      judgemental attiutudes while at airports,job interviews,social interactions etc etc but i am not
      going to demand an aplogy because its the brainwasher who needs to sought not the brainwashed. If Islam
      wasnt a problem before 9/11 then why now somebody made it a problem.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  16. peacppl

    time for me to go listenin to dueling banjos......peace to all sane people of the world

    April 2, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  17. JCK

    After reading a few of these posts its pretty obvious that no other nation hates Americans more than Americans hate eachother . Why does the ability to hide behind a keybord produce such bravery ?

    April 2, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Maxine

      Because, "Hatred is the coward's revenge for being intimidated."

      April 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  18. MrG

    The Media is also to blame for reporting this as headline news, basically taking some nobody and turning him into a world wide story. Why don't they just take every report of a redneck making a racist statement and report it all over the world?

    April 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  19. peacppl

    garlic wards off us moooslems

    April 2, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • jake

      No. Waterboarding wards you off and cleans you enough that your smell is tolerable.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  20. peacppl

    good ol duke boys....yeeeeeehaw

    April 2, 2011 at 2:51 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.