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. babuschka

    I grew up Polish, and Catholic. We all wore our headscarves to Church, and most of the older women wore theirs all the time, when not in church, out shopping, gardening, etc. I think St. Paul said all women should keep their hair covered. It was a sign of modesty.
    However, it was also convenient to do so, because it covered the fact that these women did not wash their hair very often, sometime once every two weeks, and fixing their hair was just too much trouble. They honestly thought that getting your head wet would cause a cold or flu. Keep also in mind that many of these women were survivors of the great flu epidemic in 1915. They were terrified of the flu. So... they all had dirty hair. These days when I see a head scarf I just can't help but think "dirty hair?" I know it's not true, but I was not allowed, as a child, to wash my hair but once a week. It's unfair, but when I see a Muslim woman with hijab, I still think "dirty hair?"

    April 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Mike

      You are right, as outlined in 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul discusses that the head of Christ is God, and that men should never wear a head covering when praying and that every "wife" who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.

      I have no problem with women who cover their head in church, its keeping with the tradition

      April 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  2. visnumaya

    I had a patient she was trying to convert me to Muslim kingdom. She gave me a book. I was shock. It says"Kill the Infidels" I got nervous and I ask her why "Kill the Infidels" who are they. She couldn't explain to me. I throw the book in the incinerator. I don't care any religion but if a religion would teach me to kill. Bye Bye Bye. Besides, why too many flocks of these people in this country. Bec. you don't have freedom from where you came from.

    Virginia -PEACE

    April 2, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • peacppl

      holy cow says mind your own business ....we aint talkin bout your hinduism

      April 2, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Teddy

      English not to good?

      Read any book that has an once of truth that you may succeed with knowledge, and then actually try to understand the words.

      Muslim Kingdom? What are you?

      April 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm |


    Genesis 16:11-12 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction. And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.


    YUSUFALI: The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter;

    YUSUFALI: But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

    YUSUFALI: Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

    April 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  4. Teddy

    Really commenters, Really?

    To the christians-

    So some of you are under the opinion that the head scarf is a negative sign? Didn't Mother Teresa wear one? Virgin Mary in nearly every depiction? Don't Nuns?

    To you what makes it a difference is the religion. You are fearful. You don't see that the reason is the same, as are the traditions, as are the piousness. You are a diluted and hypocritical people if you don't understand.

    To the Atheist:
    Why do you care? Live and let live right?

    Are bathing suits and lingerie in public better. How about your daughter's mini skirt? What is wrong with you?

    So to everyone else –
    Since when did too much (or the right amount) of clothes start to bother you? Who does a head scarf bother? Have you analyzed you reaction?

    April 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Ted Ward

      Of course people are put off by m*slim hijabs. People are catching on to the fact that I*lam is hostile to their culture to the point of wanting to kill them, the ultimate disrespect. The hijab is a symbol of something that is intolerant, undermining and very threatening. I*lam doesn't want to fit in, it wants to take over,oppress, and kill.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  5. Upperhand


    If there is one thing the Muslim people would truly be blessed to know is that God is Love. They do not know a God of love. Their God is encouraging of murder and violence. They do know God is one. However, they need to know that True Christianity teaches God is one. And Jesus is His name. Jesus is God manifest in flesh. God is absolutely one. But His name is not Allah – it is Jesus. If they could only receive the revelation that Christ is God incarnate and He died on the cross as us, offering us freedom from sin through Him, and that we cannot save ourselves by good works, they would truly praise God the rest of their days like they presently do not know how!

    Read these quotes from the Qur'an and see for yourself the violent nature of this religion, thus betraying its error. Please understand that not all factions of the Islamic religion condone violence. Some do and some do not. I just wish to point out to you the Qur'an statements that seem to encourage violence.

    The Qur’an encourages murder:

    "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."
    Qur’an 9:5

    "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."
    Qur’an 9:29

    The Qur’an promotes hate of Christians:

    "O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily Allah guideth not a people unjust." Qur’an 5:51

    "O ye who believe! take not for friends and protectors those who take your religion for a mockery or sport,- whether among those who received the Scripture before you, or among those who reject Faith; but fear ye Allah, if ye have faith (indeed)."
    Qur’an 5:57

    "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."
    Qur’an 9:29

    "Those who reject (Truth), among the People of the Book and among the Polytheists, will be in Hell-Fire, to dwell therein (for aye). They are the worst of creatures."
    Qur’an 98:6

    The Qur’an promotes beating of wives:
    "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all)."
    Qur’an 4:34

    "If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, Take the evidence of four (Reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way."
    Qur’an 4:15

    April 2, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • peacppl

      your mom likes my violence

      April 2, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Teddy

      First, some of your translations are wrong

      Second, every single Surah is out of context

      Third, none of them prove your point. The Qur'an doesn't promote violence in any case except when G_D punishes people for acts of sin (God as the Judge), or when people are being oppressed by tyrants (foreign or national).

      Context would have cleared that up for you.

      As for the wife beating............ that is the most mistranslated verse. It actually means to "Strike distance" or in simple terms "put distance between yourself"

      Good job though. I have google to copy and paste as well.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  6. llmb

    It seems like wearing a hajib in this country is like saying "Look at me! Look at me!"

    April 2, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  7. hijabha

    empowered ! i think thats what they say ! it is oppression ... no doubt.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  8. Bob

    Why doesn't CNN do something useful like do a story on how non-Muslims are treated in Muslim majority societies. Getting a "cat call" while pumping gas in the "South" & getting your head chopped off for being anything other than a muslim. Ironically, if you want to find out about the horrific crimes being committed against non-muslims watch AlJazeera, at least they are covering real discrimination.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Kyle

      Hey bob, who cares? I don't mean that in a insensitive way like the rest of the world can rot for all I care, but there is this story in the bible.....something about a not trying to remove a speck from your neighbors eye while you have a plank in your own. I care about america first, and this treatment of muslims in america is unacceptable.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  9. faboge

    Hillbillies there should be a birther rally somewhere you should attend instead of pretending to know how to write on this forum!

    April 2, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  10. JR

    Hijabs are inconsequential to me. If someone is practicing their religion in this way, rock on. I do feel like it's a bit ridiculous when you go further than that, like burquas. THAT is indeed oppression. However, if a woman wants to do it, it's on her to decide. People come in many different cultural flavours, and no one is 'wrong' for being who they are if they're peaceful. I can shake my head and disagree, but it's her business ultimately, and not mine.

    That being said, iit's the exportation of violence that is problematic. It's also an issue when certain groups try to change the culture that they move to, instead of assimilation. It's not like there is a dirth or lack of Islamic fundamentalist countries to choose from. The rubber meets the road when you try to change OUR western society to fit your religion. I draw the line with both issues.

    You don't like what you term to be blasphemous conversation? Too bad. There is a right to free speechin this country, and no one has the right not to be offended. Call me 'infidel' or 'kaffir' and that is your right. I also can say that you're full of it and need to mind your own beeswax. I'd say the same thing to some Christian fundamentalist that told me that I was going to hell for some reason.

    Have your opinion, but when you try to change my behavior or my community to fit your religion, especially through laws, then I'm going to say that you can stuff it. I'm also probably going to work against you in order to stop it.

    Btw, the crusades were 100s of years ago. Man was still riding horses and fighting with swords. In the 21st century, the idea of a holy war is moronically ridiculous. Take yer plot of land, live on it as you see fit and leave the rest of the world alone. You can't impose a 7th century lifestyle on the modern world.

    Btw, God can fight his own battles. He doesn't need a bunch of wimpy humans to do his work. And I think it's pretty egotisitical to think otherwise. My advice to the wanna be holy warriors is to check your ego at the door. If there is a God, he's going to be plenty unhappy if you're wrong in your beliefs....and then you will be in a crap sandwich. I, for one, will the over on the side, minding my own business, eating popcorn and enjoying that show.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  11. Grog

    Oh boo hoo. You want the real Islam. Read the article, on CNN, 9 Dead in Kandahar because someone supposedly burned a Quran in Florida. Gee burn a bible in an Arab country, which by the way is an everyday occurrence, and you do not get a ripple any where. Islam is a cult of violent fanatics that needs to grow up.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • hijabha

      agreed ... thats true, fanatic religions should be taught to cool down ... islamic releigion should imbibe peace and teach that more than trying to empower of burka etc, thats all facade, the real meat needs to be cooked correctly...

      April 2, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  12. gibjos

    From the video it seemed to me she didn't want to wear a head scarf. Her mom wanted her to and her mosque wanted her to but she didn't want to. I think its good that she's making her own decision. Muslim women in other countries don't have the same luxury. If everyone I knew wore football helmets at all times in public I would be glad for a choice as well.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Kyle

      It's a religious commitment she takes seriously, like christians who believe you get baptized when you truly accept jesus as the savior. She is waiting till her faith is strong enough to withstand all the pressures in this society to NOT wear it.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  13. To all Educated Peaceful People

    Continue to believe in a world that is free of racism. It can and will happen. Peace out.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  14. curious

    You know that something is wrong when certain Islamic countries jail women who refuse to wear this religious costume.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  15. The Easy Life

    After watching this video...I'm more convinced: Islam is COOL!!

    April 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  16. omegarising

    In the end, it's just a piece of cloth, it means nothing. Wear one, don't wear one. Who cares?

    April 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  17. dbg

    wonder woman is an American icon......they changed the costume because it offends the Muslims living in the west? what the.....? that means there comes a time that Rock n Roll will be prohibited because of some "offensive" lyrics, no more drinking, no more smoking, no more taxes, no more bikini blonde girls in roller blades nor bikini carwash, no more harley davidson bikers.....everything that will make them offensive will be will be prohibited........are we alienated yet?.....Muslims.....what else don't you want? oIIo you!

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

      What are you even talking about?

      April 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Kyle

      You are an idi0t.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  18. Amro Heikal

    The world will be a great place to live if we all respect each other believes. Religion for God and nation for everyone.
    In Middle East we inspired by USA freedom and hope after the wind of change in political situation. After the departure of all Arab dictators we also could be like USA. This is the time to start a new page and friendship between our nation based on respect each others.

    God Bless The World


    April 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • yank

      And if we cant get along, lets also respect each others land. You stay there, we stay here. No issues then.

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

      Yank, you are a cowardice barbarian if you really feel this way. Did you serve?

      I for one am proud of this man's words.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • sehrish

      I am happy that someone besides an american muslim has said these words. It is important for Americans to know what the wars in middle east are really about. People are not terrorists, they are fighting for what we in america have, freeedom. And yank...you're so ignorant! Its people like you who don't let change take place because of cowardness.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  19. Emam

    people shouldn't care, it's judging, technicly no one has the right to judge any one else, people should be able to listen to the message that person wants them to instead of being turned off by their apperence

    April 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  20. person

    The good ole' south, think there so perfect idk what southern hospitality is. There awful rude to me. I moved from out of state here and even I get crop told to me. I was in a town here minding my own bizz talking to my parents who came to visit showing them where I lived. Was pointing in one direction some random lady came up and said what are you pointing at, I said my appartment she said oh I thought you were an "Outsider" then she started talking crap about people who come from out of state! then I said yes I am an outsider ty very much! I have seen KKK signs on over passes, heard negative coments about Northerners aka Yankees............Grow up South! the civil war is over get over your chip on your sholder.

    April 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Aaron


      April 2, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Chris

      Nothing is ever "over". Ever. A new war can always be fought and the sides can turn in a heart beat.

      Saying "its over, get over it" is the most ignorant, clich,e stupid thing I have ever heard.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • cpg35223

      Baloney. I've been here 20 years and never had anything remotely approaching your experience.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • up1652

      Winners never remember but the losers never forget.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • razi

      No Chris....actually its not stupid to say the civil war is over..because it is

      April 2, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Bernard

      Chris are you really appeasing to confederate ideals? Are you trying to be extreme relativist in your defense of confederate policies or are you a southern militia man who fancies himself an intellectual?

      It is over because it ended over 150 years ago. Could a second revolt happen again? I hope not, but Americans are historically infamous of causing a ruckus over minute things. Tea taxes? DEATH TO THE KING. End slavery? VIOLATING OUR ECONOMIC RIGHTS. Social Security? MARXISM? Healthcare? SOCIALIZED MEDICINE THAT ROBS FROM MEDICARE. Re-evaluate bargaining rights and making states right-to-work policy implementers? FASCISTS!

      Not to mention we always need a racial enemy. We've switched from Germans, to Asians, to Russians, to Asians again, to Russians again, back to some Germans, then some Balkans, and now Arabs.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
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.