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 Schaub

    The two evils in the world are religion and corporate greed. Come to think about it, it's the same thing.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  2. Jim Schaub

    Christians illegal? Now if we make all religion illegal we'll have peace on earth.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  3. Jim Schaub

    Tough. Remember 9/11.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  4. peacppl

    Shocked you can use big words mike

    April 2, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  5. sid ali

    come on guys let not hate each other surely we human at the end of the day !! i am muslim i do get on with every body as long they show me respect and would give respect equally . this sort of argument just going to create more hatred not woth it +more violence ,who wants be christian be who wanna be muslim let him be full stop .
    peaceful .

    April 2, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  6. TheAgnostic

    I'm sorry, Ranger, but I'm not smart enough to follow your arguments. My bad. And while I hate to point it out to you, all of your polysyllabic were monosyllabic, ie. duck, walk, quack, etc. Just an observation. Perhaps I missed your intended sarcasm?

    April 2, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  7. peacppl

    yup yup yup yup

    April 2, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  8. peacppl

    get her done jake

    April 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  9. 20 Year Veggie

    Nothing advertises a total abdication from logic like a head scarf.

    April 2, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  10. RangerDOS

    If you racist hate-mongers have such an inferiority complex that your scared of Muslims and Hispanics coming into the country, well maybe it's time for the Darwinian natural order of things to take place and you to become extinct. Actually you guys could use a little shake up of your DNA, I think the roots are getting tangled on your family tree (if you know what I mean). I work with Muslims, Hispanics, Jews, Christian, atheist, gays, and some I'm not even sure of what they are, and really don't care as long as they treat me well. You look-alike-little-Hitlers need to to open up your gene pool and let some else jump in..What a laugh you guys are...:-)

    April 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  11. peacppl

    i didnt know they offer internet service at piggly wiggly down south

    April 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  12. Rick

    I'm moving to China in the near future...it's not perfect by any means BUT in the next 20 – 30 years this country will be nothing but a cesspoll of minorities mainly illegal mexicans and gang banging black thugs and political correctness gone crazy. The middle class america will be gone! The handful of white millionaires will rule this country and own most corporations and only interested iin their stock portfolio.

    April 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  13. peacppl

    hell is reserved for rightwing bigots of ALL FAITHS

    April 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  14. peacppl

    : /

    April 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  15. elijah

    if islam is so great what the fuc.k r doing in the usa,australia europe etc.
    fuc.k their religion i wish every muslim burn in hell.....amen

    April 2, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • peacppl

      go watch your eternal left hand turn aka nascar mr.grand wizard

      April 2, 2011 at 6:40 pm |

    Ban Islam in the USA, ban Islam in the USA, come on people sing it with me, Ban Islam in the USA..........

    April 2, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  17. jake

    CNN is paparazzi. Muslim controversy is in the cool. CNN is crack, junk-candy, and a tool for the liberal facists that know there is a better way for you rednecks. If you are not in love with the Obama, killers of the unborn, lovers of strange flesh, you are backward. CNN is a reflection of the liberal thought process that is indemic in the universities, news rooms, and back alley stench holes of America. Plus it makes them a buck playing off your anxieties and fears. They are smart, you are dumb, they are National Public Radio, they are Hillary the Hun, the are the Obama-mans, they are minion.

    April 2, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  18. patty



    April 2, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • peacppl

      wow ....second grade education on display

      April 2, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • RangerDOS

      Patty went that far in school?

      April 2, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • Adnan

      Are you kidding me right now? I thought we were a democracy? What happened to freedom of religion? These young women are simply proud of who they are, and much respect to them! Why some people have gone from a war on terror to a war against Islam is beyond me. They have the right to war the hijab if they please in America.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • jake

      That a girl Patty! Tell them to get the heck out or we will waterboard all there Akbars at Guantanamo.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • peacppl

      jake you and patty must be related.....that means shes fair game for you where you come from

      April 2, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  19. SixStringSting

    Has it dawned on you folks at CNN that if Islamic countries showed the same level of tolerance of other religions that they demand from the west, maybe people wouldn't have a problem with Islamic dawa, and mosques?? Or, if folks like the underwear bomber, the times square bomber, the fort Hood murderer, etc, didn't commit attrocities in the name of Islam, that people wouldn't have a problem with Islam?? That if there weren't a great number of Islamic texts and teachings that call for the elimination or subjugation of non-believers under Islamic law that people wouldn't have a problem with the propagation of Islam in the west?? The problem is not the average Muslim in America, the problem lies within the texts and teachings of Islam. And, just because there are Muslims that choose to ignore those texts does not mean that they do not exist. Start talking about expunging the venemous verses from the Qu'ran, eliminating Islamic Jihad, and leaving Sharia law on the 7th century scrap heap where it belongs, and then we'll talk about that Mosque you want to build.

    April 2, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Red

      the problem lies within idiots, people who are ignorant and filled with hate. its not the texts. you can compare the bible and the qu'ran they are very similar. in fact there are extremists in all religions. In the U.S there are over 600 christian hate groups.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  20. TheAgnostic

    What was once the "melting pot of America" has become the garbage can of the world. Our politically correct society is leading us down a dangerous path. Most of the strife in the world, and in history, has been driven by religion, blind faith, and extremists. It is no different today, except the weapons are better.

    The fact that muslim women want to wear their costumes is not so much an insult as is the fact that they reject our way of life. My brother in law in the Navy was stationed in Bahrain with his family. His wife and kids had to follow the rules of proper attire when they were off the base. Yet, musllims in this country have no such restrictions. Again, because we are too willing to accept everyone, even if, in the long run, they may harm us. The same with hispanic immigrants. They come to our country, spend our tax dollars on benefits, but can't speak English. We are letting this happen to us in the US.

    As for respecting religions, the whole concept is a joke. All faiths are based on the writings of a bunch of really old guys in history who happened to be more literate than the rest of the population, and used the fear of deity to keep the masses in line. Christianity, islam, judaism, hindu,ad infinitem, they are all based on the same principles. They are all a feeble attempt by men with finite minds, like us, to grasp the infinite. If you're not smart enough to understand it, which we are not, although Einstein is pretty close, then the only step left is a leap of blind faith in a deity. Foolish, against reason, and useless in the end. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “Faith... Must be enforced by reason...When faith becomes blind it dies.”

    We are losing our ability to reason, both as a country and as species.

    For whatever it's worth.

    April 2, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Bootytime

      Well said.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • RangerDOS

      Hey, could you tell me what back water trailer park you live in? I want to make sure that I stay clear of it! Well, you do have the internet there or did you borrow one off the mobile library bus that drives there? Holy cow, what a bunch of racist hate filled garbage you just spewed forth...

      April 2, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • jake

      How can you believe anything you just said? You are an agnostic! Of course the book you read to adopt this ideology was written by a man. Therefore your God is man, your god is yourself, you have it figured out. But then there is blinding light and a different reality and there is no book to explain it to you. What are you then?

      April 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • MAinHistory

      I myself am an Athiest and while I think religion over all is a bad thing it is dying in this country. As far as tolerating other peoples beliefs, there is nothing wrong with practicing your religion as long as you don't force it on anyone else. These women, and Muslims in general are welsome to practice their religion and any hint that they are not is by definition anti-American.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • TheAgnostic

      RangerDos...thank your for a perfect example of the most fallacy of logic, the ad hominum argument. If you want to believe I live in trailer park, so be it. I expressed my opinion, nothing more. If you don't like it, I'm sorry. Oh, and by the way, I don't hate anyone, but I feel great distaste for you.

      Have a good weekend.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • RangerDOS

      Hey, using a couple of poly-syllabic words to justify your unreasonable hatred of Muslims, well if you walk like a duck, and quack like a duck – figure it out. How many Muslims do you know up close and personal? Bet you don't.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Mike

      Multi-culturalism does not work..............Muslim's and Democracy does not work.........

      Wake up America.....your blessings from the Lord are about to end unless you change.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Adnan

      "The fact that muslim women want to wear their costumes is not so much an insult as is the fact that they reject our way of life" "We are losing our ability to reason, both as a country and as species."

      Aren't you being a little hypocritical right now? Why do you reject their way of life?
      America is a democracy, are we not? We have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression do we not? So why can't we muslims practice our religion as we should? Because the world is at war with terror, and the terrorist happen to be muslims? Whatever the politics, Muslim women wear the Hijab because it is part of our religion. And if a woman is practicing her religion she is wearing her Hijab because it is commanded by Allah/God, and because she is proud to do so, not because they're told by their men they have to wear it. Please stop mixing politics with Islam. And if you tell me "Islam is so violent – Jihad this and Jihad that" Well, Allah says in the Qur'an Jihad is only allowed in self defense. And there are rules to jihad amongs which are not to take innocent lives. There are no ifs, ands or buts in this matter. Why have we as Americans gone from a war on terror to a war on Islam is beyond me. Don't judge Islam by the men who do violent acts against civilans for their political cause, but rather go to the source which is Qur'an and the Sunnah (Sunnah means practice of the prophet Muhammed peace be upon him).

      God bless and peace!

      April 2, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • TheAgnostic

      Adnan, thank you for your comments. Please understand I never said islam is a violent religion. If you read my previous posts I think you will see that. You seem like a reasonable man, and I respect your comments. My issue is not specifically with islam, jihad, etc. but the basic fact that most of the turmoil in our world, and in our history is ultimately bound up in religions. And yes, as a born and bred American, I do take some offense at the imposition of extremes of culture being forced upon our society. That is my personal bias, devoid of reason, but my bias nonetheless. The same freedoms of speech, religion and expression that you quote, while valid, I believe are hurting our country.

      Do I have a fear of islam taking over and forcing me to follow sharia law? No, because if they try to force me I will tell them to go pound sand, in a manner of speaking.

      Thank you for comments. I enjoyed them.

      April 2, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Philip

      Well said. I lived in a religion for 20 years that required head scarfs. I have extensively studied the subject. Wrote booklets on it, promoting it. However, the underlining principle in every religion that practices it is an oppression of women. It is no more a beautiful thing than cross burning in someone's front yard is – which was a religious practice in the south till it was outlawed as a hate crime. I'm not saying it should be outlawed, but let's not promote it as anything other than it is – oppression and hate of women. A promotion and advertisement of the idea that women are less then men and cannot reason, therefore need their husband or father to reason for them – thus the scarf reminds them and others that they have made a commitment to not use their own reason but rely on anothers.

      April 2, 2011 at 7:33 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.