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. faz

    Great article. Great to see other people out there that are not closed minded.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  2. Joetampa

    Want to keep mosques out of your neighborhood? Bury a pig!

    April 2, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • paperjihad


      What's that supposed to do, exactly?

      April 2, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  3. Jesse

    This is the greatest flaw in our country. You have religious freedom as long as we like it. This has nothing to do with women's oppression because they (muslim women) have a choice here and will not be chastised. It's about middle America trying to control people's due to their xenophobia. I can understand why some people dislike certain people, but to hinder their rights to happiness and freedom is ridiculous to me.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  4. Joetampa

    It's hard to believe that in a one hour special, there was not one mention of what's in the Koran. Not even a reference to a Muslim's duty in 'subduing infidels'. CNN is losing what little credibility it may have had before this whitewash of Muslims and their intentions. If you ever get a chance, look up these obvious references to what Muslims are really all about:



    April 2, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  5. Elaine

    I find it interesting that women who wear burkas and head scarfs believe that it is for their own good. They are told by their religion that it protects their beauty and it protects them from male lust. That argument sort of falls apart if they choose not to wear those things. Then they get acid thrown on their faces. How is that protecting women? That proves to me that the real reason women have to wear those things is because women are seen as evil temptresses that need to be controlled in Islam. If that weren't the case, a woman could choose not to wear those things and feel safe in those societies!

    April 2, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  6. Domo

    People who cry about moderate muslims being non existent need to get out of their boxes and stop being ignorant. I'm pretty sure they've had little or no interaction with muslims. FYI, those muslims lead their everyday lives same as you,worrying about the same exact things like feeding your family and leading good life.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  7. Rick

    These women are so deluded. Why men are allowed to wear anything they want? Because islam is a religion created by men!

    April 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Amber

      No, Muslim men cannot wear everything they like. They have to wear modest dressing too. Besides, they are not allowed to wear silk, silver and gold. Women can wear anything made out of silver, gold, and silk. If men had created Islam, then why did they make men have to earn bread for the family and the women don't? Men have to pay alimony to women. They have to earn and spend their money on their family. But the women don't have to spend their money on their family. Well she can, if she wants to. But she does not have to. Men have to go to Mosque to pray in congregation. Women can pray anywhere they want, home or mosque.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • paperjihad


      Muslim men are also not allowed to wear clothing made from silk or gold jewelry. Women are.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • paperjihad


      I'd say if it were true what you said, "it's a religion created by men", then women would be required to dress less than modestly, don't you think?

      April 2, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  8. because

    I want to hear from the two daughters in the video why they (women) cannot pray in a mosque at the same time and intermixed with the men? Even the mosques here in the United States you don't see this. Do they feel empowered when they can't pray together in the mosque?

    April 2, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Amber

      Well I am a Muslim woman and I can go to any Mosque I want to pray. I just don't have to mix with men. They can't mix with us, women either. We make our own lines and they make their own. We can even lead our own congregations. I know some part of Quran by heart and I lead women's congregation's sometimes.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • paperjihad


      You'll find a similar situation in Amish Churches as well. And we are well aware in some Christian sects women can't serve as clergy. The concept isn't anything new. But women can pray at the time the congregational prayer is held.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • because

      No, you cannot pray in the same line or in front of a line with men because women are not seen as equal. Wake up and smell the roses. and stop comparing Amish with Islam, there is no comparions and there must be 50,000 Amish compared to millions of muslims.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  9. freewords

    Law of the Garbage Truck
    One day I hopped in a taxi and we took off for the airport.
    We were driving in the right lane when suddenly a black car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us.
    My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches!
    The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at us.
    My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy. And I mean, he was really friendly,
    So I asked, 'Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!'
    This is when my taxi driver taught me what I now call, 'The Law of the Garbage Truck.'
    He explained that many people are like garbage trucks.
    They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment.
    As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they'll dump it on you. Don't take it personally.
    Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on.
    Don't take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets.
    The bottom line is that successful people do not let garbage trucks take over their day.
    Life's too short to wake up in the morning with regrets,
    so ... Love the people who treat you right.
    Pray for the ones who don't.
    Life is ten percent what you make it and ninety percent how you take it!

    April 2, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  10. Domo

    Its funny how some cyberhaters see wearing hijab as something oppressive even when its not forced, yet they don't see the treatment of women in their own society. Just pull up music from top music charts where women are nothing but b****s ,sl***ts, h*s. ironic

    April 2, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • paperjihad


      I used to be well acquainted with a lady who ran a women's shelter here in the Midwest. They had to maintain a safe-house at undisclosed locations for the women's security. Some of the stories she told were rather disturbing.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  11. Travis

    Major in chemistry and biology huh? Getting a head start on that chemical and biological warfare.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  12. Foreal89

    Stupid worthless article catering to the Muslims it would be great if the all went back so they could not complain

    April 2, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  13. Jessica

    reading these comments has made me realize how far america really has come.

    that is to say, not very. i am appalled at how ignorant, close minded, hateful americans are. the media has presented muslims as terrorists, when that is only a one-dimensional view. the kkk were terrorists; so should i say that all christians or white people are terrorists?

    americans are guaranteed the right to practice their own religion. if they want to wear a headscarf, let them. they're not hurting you. so get over it. in the meantime, try to learn some respect.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • realist

      Yes, freedom of religion is an absolute right in the US. So too is the freedom to criticise religion. Neither exist in the Islamic world. These women, by virtue of their presence in the United States, can pick and choose what they like from Islam and leave the rest aside. They would have no such freedom in the Islamic world.

      April 2, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • ALI

      so glad to read your comment and i completely agree.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • joseph

      you mean by killing thousands of people in New York they didn't hurt us ? wake up people and open your eyes before it is too late

      April 2, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • bethe123

      jessica - you are clueless.
      Terror is not the only issue.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Snake handling LAW

      NO religion is NOT a guaranteed right in US. Just ask snake handlers

      April 2, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  14. The land of the dinosaurs

    I think Islam needs to go the way of the dinosaurs.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  15. Mike

    I will never have a problem with women wearing what they want. I do have a serious problem with the ones that are tortured and killed because they choose not to wear them.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  16. JEPD

    There are socially oppresive elements in all western religions. I grew up in a Christian environment where women had no say in any religious matter. All this contrasting of Islam and Christianity is simply a desparate attempt by both sides to one up each other. Why don't we just agree that Christianity and Islam are equal in their abilities to be flawed, as well as equal in their abilities to be beautiful. The duality of belief systems to have flaws and advantages is just the real truth about human religious ambition. Any truly Godly person would not dabble in such nit-picky squabbling.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  17. missa

    Wait, so.... she didn't feel "comfortable in her own skin" until she hid herself under a scarf? Really? Just further evidence of a serious self esteem problem. I'm proud of my religion too. I'm also proud of the way I express myself with my hair, my face, my voice, my "adornments", etc. I actually like who I am, and, I'm not the least bit uncomfortable about displaying my true unhindered self to the world. No confident woman would where that nonsense. I have zero respect for it. And it's offensive because she is suggesting that all women should be uncomfortable without a scarf. What kind of a messed up American converts to Islam anyway?!

    April 2, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • missa

      oops... typo... "wear"

      April 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • jennarosie

      people who give islam a chance and see what it really is, those are the people who actually arent messed up in this world

      April 2, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  18. jschau

    Religious freaks from the 7th century are going to tell me what's right or wrong? I don't think so.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Foreal89


      April 2, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Is it OK for religious freaks from the 1st century to do what you don't want the 7th century religious freaks to do?

      April 2, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  19. jschau

    I would say this is the last chance for so called American muslims to stand up against what any sane person sees as an atrocity in the grand old middle east. It's time reality checked in.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • jennarosie

      it dosent have anything to do with the time that we are in now, just because its 2011 and the fashonis diffrent dosent mean that they should stop wearing the hijab, sure they can make the hjab fashonable but just because some people dont like it dosent mean that they should stop following there religon... if you learned about islam then you would understand

      April 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  20. Joe

    There are millions of oppressed Muslim women that live in Muslim countries and have to wear veil and are considered as second class. Those living here and see that as a "pride" etc., are brain washed, and nothing but a mouth piece for their extremist religion!

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

      You're right! I agree!

      April 2, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Gertrude Brown

      Wearing the hijab, burka, chador is a symbol of control, using male authority to control females, humiliating them, to subject them to genital mutilation, it is a psycological ploy to be subjective to slavery and abuse and in fact permits the male to force females to obey and is invasive in all its aspects.

      April 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • HurtfulTruth

      Let's see how we can re-write your comments...There are MILLIONS of American women who, depite living in pretty much the same basic religious climate for over the past 200 years, have had to fight for the right to vote, hold jobs that were ONLY reserved for men, STILL not paid equally as men to this day, and CANNOT HOLD POSITIONS OF LEADERSHIP IN MOST CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS!!! Gee, habits worn by Catholic nuns ain't too far off from burkhas!!!....But I digress...

      The majority of the Muslim world exists n places where literacy is relatively low, and exposure to other global perspectives is SEVERELY limited. We, on the other hand, are well aware of the world we live in, and how others treat their people, whether good, bad or indifferent. However, WE still can't seem to find a way to treat women as equals can we?

      Look in ther mirror before you judge others, since you may just be paasing judgement on yourself.

      April 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Steve

      Hurtfultruth, to compare women in the US to what the Muslim women endure is delusional. Yes women here have been treated unequally to men and although they have made great strides still have a way to go, but to draw a comparison makes zero sense.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Rick

      Its interesting to note that while its a "requirement" that jewish women wear modest clothing and headgear, very few if any actually do it. Apparently the jewish religion is far more advanced in the concept of equal rights for men an women than islam.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • jennarosie

      if you dont know anything about islam then dont talk about it, for a person who says that islam is a extremist religon then that shows that you are a uneducated person who obivously has NO idea what islam is so i suggest that you dont give any more comments and stop saying untrue things about islam so you dont embarrass your self any further.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • PRISM 1234


      Couldn't have said any better!

      April 2, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • oz

      how do you know these women are oppressed? I know lots of women in Turkey,In Europe and even in Texas they are wearing Hijab and they don't feel oppressed.As a Muslim, you cannot force your women or your sister to wear Hijab.you should think twice before you write a comment about things which you don't know.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Right

      @ oz you said "As a Muslim, you cannot force your women or your sister to wear hijab" WOMEN ? How many are you allowed to have ?

      April 2, 2011 at 9:50 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.