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. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Contrary to our ISLAMIC SYMPATHZER Mr. FAREED ZAKARIA's pretensions the Islamic HEAD SCARF, and the MUSLIM BEARD are IN MOST CASES A STATEMENT OF DEFIANCE by Muslims and a SYMBOL OF PROTEST AGAINST AMERICA's FREEDOMS. In short the message is "DON'T MESS WITH ME!!". Our so-called allies, Pakistanis pay EXTRAA BONUSES to their militray servicemen who grow beards, the longer the beard the greater the bonus!!! In America, especially after 9/11 we find a lot more Muslims wearing the hijab in response to the PERCIEVED DISCRIMINATION OF MUSLIMS, a notion PROPAGATED & NURTURED by people like Mr. ZAKARIA.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • peacppl

      shut up cow worshipper

      April 2, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • peacppl

      go eat a hamburger

      April 2, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  2. john

    so then why don't they wear it, if they really really wanted to wear it, then they would, careless of what others think!!! like their mother!
    pretty much since the 1st gulf war, Muslims have become more radical, and it's only getting worse and worse!!
    back in the 70's, there was less Muslims woman wearing the veil than today!!
    another thing that surprised me was when i visited Morroco, while leaving in France, and guess what!! i've seen more unveiled muslims woman there than in France!!!! why??? shouldn't it be the opposite???
    Muslims used to be simple people of faith just like Christians and Jews, but now, they are turning into fanatics!!!

    April 2, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Morrigan

      Oh, like Christians aren't? I have met more cruel and hurtful people in the different sects of Christianity in my short existence on this earth than I ever have in the Muslim ones. True, growing up in a small town, the people I encountered that were Islamic were few and far between. But after moving to NYC, this judgment proved the same. I have been looked down on, and hated, and even had scripture shouted at me just for deciding to live my life the way I choose to by Christians. Yes, Muslims have their crazies that like to blow stuff up. So of course it's all over the news as anti-Islam propaganda, and all the people like you rise to the call, forgetting your own past, your own prejudices, and of course, your own insanity.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Morrigan. Of my short time on this earth I can guarantee that because Christians are not as a whole on the same exact page on subjects, that you can find a Christian denomination that would not look for your choice of lifestyle. I have attended a service at a Christian based church that catered to those of alternative lifestyles and it was interesting but I did not feel the worship was any different.

      Please do not be one of those that define entire groups.

      April 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • Morrigan

      @ Mark: That was exactly my point. That there are just as many terrible Christians as there are Muslims. Yes, I have had more favorable experiences with people of Islamic faith, but several of my friends from back home are Christians. Yes, as a whole, Christians of many denominations have treated me poorly. But the point of that story was that both have their evil members, and neither is perfect. Personally, I do not identify with either religion, being agnostic myself. It's what, I think, allows me to stand back and observe everyone else and see their faults. Never have I seen such hypocrisy, though, as what comes from "good American Christians": Folk who promote love so long as you are one of their flock. If not, might as well GTFO. (again, not true as a whole. I am aware. But more and more have I seen people like this John and OTHERS in this comment board rise up and prove this point again and again)

      April 2, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  3. Emily

    I live in Tennessee, and I feel admiration and pride for women I see in my community wearing hijabs. I am not Muslim, but I absolutely respect women - especially American-born women - making a choice to wear an article of clothing that has the potential to make them discriminated against. They believe strongly in their religion and make a conscious choice to go against our society's norms for that reason. I'm proud of them!

    April 2, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • what about

      The church of the Nudist they go naked all the time should they be allowed to walk through town naked ?

      April 2, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  4. Jake

    Take off the covering or go home to the caves of satan and his prophet Mobombhead.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  5. john smith

    Why stay in a country where so many people hate you? Why not go to one of those wonderful Muslim countries which are full of people who believe the same way you do? You don't see us opening strip clubs in Iran.....Oh wait, we'd be beheaded.
    Hey, remember this story? America wakes up. You're in a concentration camp for terrorists or deported. Short story, but what a happy ending.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  6. Tell the TRUTH

    There is a law in the US that restricts religious freedoms if that religion causes harm or death to the worshipers, it is called the Snake Handling Law. Look it up.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • WOW

      Thank you for sharing about this law, it might be the law US can use to BAN Islam.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  7. marj

    More people have been killed, brutalized, oppressed in the name of god. I don't care if it's jehovah, zeus,or allah. However if someone chooses to cover a part of his or her body in the usa I call it free will, not oppression.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  8. Kevin SHamloo

    Why are you promoting and keep repeating this stone age freaking Islamic point of view about the scarf and hejab. These girls are bunch of teenagers who don't even know their basic human rights and brain washed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  9. mango

    islam out of usa now

    April 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Morrigan

      how about intolerant fools like YOU out of the USA now? It's people like you that give Americans a bad name. Whatever happened to love they brother or whatever? Muslims are still people and they have just as much a right to live here and practice their beliefs here as you or I do. America is not just for Christians. If you do not believe this, please, I urge you to look up the Treaty of Tripoli.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • peacppl

      wow....such an intellectual coment......loser at life

      April 2, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  10. Rockman '97

    it is ok to talk about religion but it is pointless to argue about it! why do people need to display about their own faith? religion has nothing to do with what you wear or not wear, it is only between you and god you believed in.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  11. Cletus

    Moderate Islam is guilty of not stopping radical Islam. Until they do that they are just a guilty is as the radical ones. If a group of people stand by and do nothing as a child is killed under the name of their religion and sharia law then are they and their religon is no less guilty then the people who killed this poor girl. You can't us to respect and not fear Islam they you need to stand up and stop those in your religion that pratice readial Islam. Then and only then will main stream people accept Islam as a non violent religion.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Morrigan

      just like moderate Christianity should be responsible for stopping extremists, too, huh? How about when you guys stop the fringe loonies that is the WBC and others like them, Islam should be responsible for their extremists. Every group has their nut jobs that blow things waaay out of proportion, but lo and behold, it's only bad if "they" are doing it. Never do we look to the hypocrisy in our own borders.
      Oh, and by the way. Christianity has just as bloody and violent and even CRAZY a history as you claim Islam does. But yet, if anyone fears the Cross, they are clearly heathen sinners, am I correct? Learn your own history before you decide to take such an idiotic stance on anything else.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  12. Marty in MA

    Wear whatever you want but I think it's silly. Religion has been blown way out of proportion.
    Watch Religulous by Bill Mahar and you'll get it.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  13. Ryan

    The dark ages of Europe began in the 400s not 100, and it didnt not last 1000 years, it lasted about 600.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  14. Mark Wilson

    Frankly, I find it offensive that women think it's necessary to cover their hair for any purpose, especially for modesty's sake. It's America, and we don't do that. It's time to assimilate into American society and realize that, if you want to dress modestly in public to uphold a religious obligation, just don't wear mini-skirts, halter tops, etc. Just don't dress like a hussy. It's obvious that the TN girls in this video are being pressured by their elders to conform to the religious restrictions of an insular enclave that is distrustful of Americans around them. Period, end of story.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  15. It's Me

    I admire people who live by their beliefs. It is admirable, especially in these days, to follow religious beliefs.

    I have an issue, not with the ħijāb (this is a reasonable step taken amongst many religions to maintain a level of modesty) but have a major concern with the niqāb (veil that covers the face) – especially when the eyeveil is used.

    In America there is freedom of religion. I do not believe in Islam nor can I accept it. As long as Dima and Lema Sbenaty can accept I will not accept their religion, I would argue hard for their ability to wear the ħijāb. Beyond that, IMHO, a serious line has been crossed that I cannot accept.

    The key part being acceptance and tolerance. I accept their rights and tolerate their right to express their religion – as long as they accept MY rights and MY right to express my religion. Anything less leads to conflicts we have today which is no longer based in religious foundations.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  16. Pete

    Does Islam truly require women to wear a hijab? nope.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  17. Christie

    Thank you juniad...i was crying as i read the comments of those so racist and filled with hate. There are evil people in all cultures of the world and the best weapon against that is to love one another and accept each other as unique and individual. I live in the south and have made an effort to learn about Islam by talking with many practicing muslims and have found we share many similar viewpoints about family, love, respect, and current events in our world. Just because our cultures are different isn't a reason to determine either of us is wrong. What IS wrong is hatred against any culture or people because of the actions of some. I must believe that as a human race we are better than this.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • tony

      Christine go blow somebody.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  18. jo an

    My grandmother was born in Tennessee, late 1800s..I have many photos of her and in all of them she is wearing a bonnet.
    She would never be seen without it. My Dad always wore a hat, never saw him leave without it.

    I always wore a headscarf in the winter in Ky. ALWAYS!! So head covering is not the issue. One more thing..The church where my grandparents attended, had a section on the left for the women and the right for the men. Funny us!!!

    April 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Pete

      exactly, 'HAD a section'.
      welcome to the 21st century

      April 2, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Juliett

      And how many years ago was this? Thats like the constant argument of what " The Christians did during the crusades." Most religions have done whats called EVOLVE. Most religions do not bring opon themselves all kinds of drama everyplace they go anymore, nor do they push to be treated special just because of their religion where others around them are not. Only Christian women whos JOB it is to serve Christ and maybe teach at at Christian schools wear the Habit, you dont see women working in your local grocery store wearing them now do you.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • tony


      April 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  19. 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. You will be constantly abused and mistreated within a muslim community if you choose not to wear one, you are even possibly subject to extreme violence like honor killing and acid attacks. It's not a choice.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • hanoman

      and you know that how???

      April 2, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Ibrahim

      except for the fact that about 1/3 of the people at my masjid chose NOT to wear it... go educate yourself.. if someone wants to do something they will and if they dont.. they wont...

      April 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • fuse

      Just google "stoned for not wearing hijab" and you will understand my point of view.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Rhonda

      I am married to a Muslim man, consider myself Muslim, have never worn hijab, he has a large extended family in the middle east and about half of the women wear hijab, the others don't, because it is A PERSONAL CHOICE!!!

      April 2, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Ibrahim

      yea.. and in afghanistan google "soldiers killing for sport"... there are good and bad in everything.. use some logic

      April 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Juliett

      Well, better hope they can get a job after college as many companies here in AMERICA have whats called a "dress code" and just like that lets-push-our-radical-religion-on every-one-else-chick did when she sued Abacrombie & Fitch because they expected her to follow the same dress code everyone else had to follow in order to work there, these women are simply causing problems for the Americans that took them in. If you can't follow the rules, then step aside for those that do. I am tired of these people "infiltrating" our communities and trying to force their twisted religion on everyone else. All the boo-hooing constantly about their freedom of religion doesn't hole water anymore. Yes, everyone has the right to worship as they see fit, but when your form of worship causes problems for the people in the area that you move to, and blocks you from becoming a tax-paying contributing citizen in society, then there is a problem. Also, she said it herself in the article, that the headscarf symbolizes "lowering your eyes" , sounds like submission to me. As an American woman, I hold my head up high, not hide and lower my eyes. And should a man disrespect me by cat-calling, I simply stand up for myself, and put HIM in HIS place!

      April 2, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • fuse

      Acid attacks don't exist in western societies. In fact there is very little violence towards women for not following religious ideals.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • freddie

      u hav a fat mouth, do ur homework. i bet ur not matured enough, if u hav balls than go research by ur own, u just hear bull crap

      April 2, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  20. SheilaKA

    From the vitriol I expect people to say that Catholic religious women who wear habits are being oppressed. Get real. It's only oppression if you don't have a choice and are forced into something you don't want. Most Muslim women who choose to wear hijab in the US do it because they want to.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Blake, da Bozo

      Agree totally.
      The key word is "choice". That's why many religious people, including women, have chosen to discard the ancient habits, and wear contemporary dress. But if you think there hasn't been pressure from their male bosses to keep the old black robes, you're nuts.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Huh?

      Ya right, and for all the Hitler Youth that grew up to become camp guards it was a choice...

      April 2, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • CSnord

      People ascribe the wrong meaning to the Hajib. In most Islamic countries, women are oppressed, like they were in the US and Europe at one time. From this we conclude that Islam is to blame, and the Hajib is a symbol of that oppression. That may be true in Islamic countries, but not here. The Hajib means something else here. Like the Yarmulke, Rosary, or Payer Shawl, the Hajib sends a message to others. It says: "I'm different from you. I have faith in something you do not and that makes me morally and spiritually superior to you. My Hajib confirms this." Similar totems are used outside of religion, like Masonic Symbols, secret handshakes, and team colors. It is a way to erroneously feel superior to other.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • thorrsman

      The only Catholic women who wear habits are nuns, women who have dedicated their lives to their church. And, rather like priests and monks, nuns have a certain dress code, though some orders are less strict than others, especially those who deal to the public a great deal. Aside from a few stray nuts, the only women who commonly wear any form of nun's habit are, indeed, nuns, who have chosen that life and ALL that goes with it.

      Far too few Muslim women have that much choice in their lives.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Ggargoyle

      Most orders of Roman Catholic nuns have kicked the 'habit' decades ago. They may have a somewhat conservative dress code but most people would not be able to spot a modern day nun if they passed one on the street.

      On another note, as for the hijab sending a message of 'superiority', the author can't even spell the word, and is unfortunately in a state of delusion.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:40 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.