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. jim

    Just another example of people trying desperately to manufacture things in their lives to be proud of. When you have to try that hard you know there is nothing there, your life is completely trivial!

    April 2, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  2. JIm

    Muslims are not welcome here anymore.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  3. JIm

    You're not welcome here.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  4. Cadiz

    They need a scarf to feel they receive respect? I only feel their scarves show their gullibility and believe their scarves restrict the blood flow to their brains.

    April 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  5. Oy Vey Az

    10 Dead and 83 Wounded ? Over the burning of a book ? And you still call your precious muslin religion a peaceful one ?

    April 2, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Ted Ward

      The dead are always very peaceful.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  6. Victor

    Hello, Judgment Day is May 21, 2011. http://www.ebiblefellowship.com/may21 http://www.familyradio.com

    April 2, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  7. vijasa basrie


    April 2, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Jake

      Yes, And now let go of the lever in your suicide vest and go to allah. This is the same call of all you murderous fiends.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:27 pm |


      April 2, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Mom of Three

      Yeah, nothing can compare...to wipe my butt!

      April 2, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  8. Christian Woman

    Many of the founding fathers of our nation were NOT Christians, and John Adams was chief among them, along with Thomas Jefferson. John Adams feared Christianity enough to advise Jefferson not to hire any as faculty in his new University of Virginia he was founding. Not to denigrate Christians, or any other religion, but I think I can understand their concern. It's not the actual religion that is the problem with people, but how they interpret it and how it might be forced on others. Why can't we all just get along?

    April 2, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  9. Jim Schaub

    Who made you god?

    April 2, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  10. Jim Schaub

    Isn't that just too bad. I have to look at you pushing your religion down my throat with you catholic nun costume and I'm suppose to weep a tear for you. No. You freely made the decision to be as you are. Now live with your lifestyle.

    April 2, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  11. Bennyhill

    Everyday I pray to my God to protect me from some other fools god. To think that we are so special that all we need to do to get life eternal is to honor some man made religion, that claims its roots to god.

    Yes there is probably some sort of God that made all of this. Except he calls us the humor planet. We must just seem down right silly in comparison to him and his knowledge.

    April 2, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • jo an

      Sorry to inform you that there is only ONE GOD...call him/her/it what you want...you don't have to believe in God...We all live on 'little planet EARTH' and we are ONE..."It rains on the just and the unjust"...what you believe does not change that there is creation and we are all ONE

      April 2, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  12. junaid

    im muslim i and an american... if you want to hate me for my religion, go ahead... ill just continue living my life and better myself while you fill yourself with hatred...

    its easy to hate what you dont understand... many of you that hate islam never have had a conversation with a muslim and base your views from what you see in the media... you dont know what us muslims are really like.. we want to just live our lives- to presume that our lives are based around what others do is akin to thinking the world revolves around you. We are human just like you and just really want to live our own lives...

    April 2, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • mistatk

      I am Christian, and I love you for this comment. I only wish that there were more people that could possess the calmness and rational that you have. Even though we differ in our religious decisions, I still salute you, and have respect not only in your use of free will to make a choice about your religious beliefs, but the conviction to stand by them amidst scoffers.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Katie

      Thank you for this awesome and on point comment.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Jake

      You are liviing your life as a symbol of oppression and terror and separation from other Americans when you live as a Muslim in America. You purposedly try not to assimilate into American society as evidenced by many Muslim Americans that have taken the path to violence that started in their American mosques. Islam is the religion of hatred and oppression and darkness and thus the religion of Satan. Hatred of darkness is rigtheousness. We do not hate the person, but hate the darkness that ensnares you.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Ggargoyle

      I've known quite a few muslims over the years, as well as mormons, hindus, and overt christians. Although I happen to believe in one less god then most of them, I can get along with anyone who doesn't wear theiir religion on their shirt sleeve or around their neck, or tightly bound to their head, and as long as they don't try to push their beliefs on me. I enjoy seeing attractive, well-dressed and coiffed men and women who appear confident and self assured. I can appreciate the appearance of ethnic fashions if they are worn joyfully, appropriately, and in good taste. Unfortunately, that is not the appearance of hijab on all three counts.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  13. Ben

    Watch out, she might blow you up....you know, cause she's a muslim

    April 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  14. awoman

    “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...
    Mmm, if it was only for that ...what about wearing any other conservative outfit but the scarf? You don't want to show your hair, why not just wearing a hat, is it the same? I bet it is not, so then your argument is not valid!

    April 2, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • bowne

      you are missing the whole point of hijab. dont take peoples statement literal, you should do some research. and no a hat is not the same as a hijab even a 5 year old kid would know that.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Jake

      If you need a covering its your hair. Be free and quit trying to group up and stay apart from others like Muslims do in Europe. Have some backbone as a woman and do not wear a symbol of millions of women's oppression overseas.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  15. BB_Baker

    Reading all these comments slamming on religions makes me glad I am Buddhist and don't care what you practice.

    April 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • braedyn

      Makes me glad I don't believe in religion.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Katie

      Love this. You can count us Hindu's among that mix too. Live and let live whether you're atheist, Christian, Muslim... But do not judge the right of your neighbor to believe as they choose.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Ggargoyle

      Count me in as the atheist in the mix. I dislike the hijab because it makes women look so gall dam ugly! And that is intentionally the design. You don't see the Islamic men with cloths pull down over their heads, revealing the shape of their skulls . Typically they sport expensive, well maintained haircuts and fashionably cut suits while their females are trailing along behind in hideous clothes and the horrible headscarf, looking down at the ground. To me its an issue of aesthetics.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  16. Isabel

    Pride comes before the fall.... It seems the whole Islam, Muslim Schtick is the outward show of prayer and clothing that is supposed to show their love and honor of God (not the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ) while they kill and terrorize EVERYONE. Women, victim to this day, of Honor Killings where they are tortured, beaten and killed for offending their husbands in some way that offends their poor little husbands weak and whiney self esteem - and they plan these by families of brothers, uncles, cousins and even mothers and fathers.... And if this was an effective method to cure people of being people, why are they still doing it to this day. We all fall short of the law and the glory of God. We need a savior and that savior is Jesus Christ. But no one is cutting off your head if you don't believe. If one thing can be said of the huge misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Crusades is that forcing people to choose Jesus does not work. Choosing Jesus is a matter of the heart and the personal choice of FREE WILL that our great and sovereign God has given us. By the way, Arabs came in the old testament, and Muslims didn't appear until SIX HUNDRED YEARS AFTER JESUS CHRIST DIED. Muslims is a new religion, not as old as Arabs, who are tribal in nature.

    April 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • peacppl

      loser....brainwashed racist

      April 2, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • bowne

      i agree with peacppl.... this person called "muslim" a religion- what an idiot.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • mistatk

      I am a Christian, and I am ashamed of this bigoted comment of yours. Radical Islam is practically the WBC of the Christian faith. I think we can both agree that the WBC certainly doesn't represent the Christian faith as it was meant to be, yet they still grab the media spotlight and give false impressions to those outside of the faith of what Christianity is meant to be. Islam is not a bloodthirsty religion bent on killing anything and everything that steps out of line, as you seem to think. Radical Islam, just like the WBC is a very upsetting thing, as not only is it an evil in the world that we are better off without, but it gives false impressions to others about the true nature of the religion. I am afraid that the pride you have in our Christian faith has led you to arrogance, and distanced you from the commands of Jesus to "love your neighbor as you love yourself." I pray that God finds a way to open your eyes to the beauty of others, and to externalize the love He set inside us.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Yusuf

      I suggest you go and do some independent unbiased research and find out how astonishingly brain washed and ignorant you are about Islam. Who ever told you all of what you know now or where ever you learned them from is questionable no doubt.
      READ the Holy Quran and find out for yourself about the just sovereign God that you keep talking about.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  17. Voice of Reason

    Using the words "empower" and "hijab" in the same sentence is laughable.

    April 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • peacppl

      youdont know what either word means...you only know ignorance

      April 2, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • ball23

      so the nuns that choose to cover, are they empowered by their choice?

      April 2, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Katie

      Empowerment is the ability to choose what you wear.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  18. Westerner

    I love John Stewarts take on this, it keeps the sun off your head and prevents you from being stoned to death

    April 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  19. Brian

    Thank you CNN for your PR pieces on Islam. You have convinced me that Muslims are the most peaceful people on earth, and that they are just misunderstood. They are the victims.

    April 2, 2011 at 4:14 pm |

      Brian, you're probably the most uneducated man on the planet.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Oierin

      Guess you havent been to Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan. Lots of Muslim love there

      April 2, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Katie

      Why is it so hard for people like you to get it into their thick skulls that people are good. Extremists, a minority, are bad.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  20. hauslp

    gee, those gender segregated prayer rooms really empower those women.

    April 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • joe0211

      so they have to be with men to feel empowered

      April 2, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • peacppl

      muslims dont go pray to pick up women loser....hence the seperate rooms ....respect what you are to feeble to understand

      April 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Opposing view

      Orthodox Jewish women wear either a wig or a scarf to cover their hair. Amish and Mennonite women wear caps. In the 60's, when convertibles were more popular, women wore silk scares to cover their head and protect their helmet-hair 🙂 Who cares what people wear on their heads or bodies? The Arabic clothing that Americans think look like nightgowns are simply what is comfortable for the climate! Start judging people for their actions and not what they wear or look like.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Citizen Twain

      All religion does is keep women down. Men are afraid of women, so they have to take away their power. These so called Men, are cowards.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Jack Chambers

      The ironic thing is that they were not segregated at the time of the prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). And regardless what an irrelevant comment.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • bowne

      you should do some research before you speak.

      April 2, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • fuse

      If it's a choice why don't you see muslim women choosing NOT to wear it? Oh yeah thats right because it's not a choice.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • LRoy

      Like "Ivy" in the story, converts are sometimes more religious because we CHOOSE the religion. In my case it's Catholicism.

      No matter whether you like the scarf or not, as a female, Muslim women do not have to worry about "bad hair days". I just wish they were more colorful than dull gray or black. Different patterns, and heavier material for winter.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Jake

      The covering is a symbol of female oppression and terror. Burn a koran, 40 people die. Do not wear the burka or covering in Muslim lands and the woman will be tortured. Muslims in America should shed such coverings to show their allegiance to freedom, disdain for oppression and violence, and respect for the American people. It is right and just for Americans to feel uncomfortable with this wicked symbol as it reminds them of the Word of Satan, the imaginings of cave dwellers and the dark, better known as the unholy smelly and rotten koran.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:22 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.