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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. Alex

    Is anyone else getting really tired of all the CNN articles about how great islam is?

    April 2, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
    • Hopesforpeace

      Not at all, Alex. It's good to educate Christians like me and other non muslims. In fact i think there should be more education about other religions as well so that the world can live in peace. that way we can at least understand and respect each other. Bless you.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  2. Sunnye

    I see no one attacking the Duggar girls(19 and counting) and their decision to wear long skirts. The Sbenaty sisters' reasoning is no different than the Duggar's. Get to know a Muslim before judging. I have a number of Muslim friends. They are my friends, good people and no different than you or me. If I'm not mistaken, Christains and Muslims coexisted peacefully before the Crusades.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  3. Hello.

    @ Right .
    Your ignorant, and you discriminate against Muslims.
    Stop wasting your oxygen on me, goodbye.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • Right

      SHOWING your true self now ?

      April 2, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  4. FATIMAH HIZAM MUHHAMMED

    WALLAHI i have never seen such passion and anguish displayed for something that so many people know so little about how does this look for the most ignorant of our species have so much to say when they could not have possibly applied any of this religion into thier lives if so they would have excepted islam whole heartedly this is an outrage to fellow americans who have excepted this religion and live in peace and fight for this country and drive mass transit vehicles and fight fires and nurse you back to health overtip the waitress hold the door for you to pass through you cannot blame a religion for an animal trying to save there soul la illahah illillah muhammadar rasullullah

    April 2, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  5. eki

    Wow, what a great way for CNN to get everyone in here worked up while keeping us ALL on their site hahaha. Wow way to go CNN. Your sensationalism at its finest !

    April 2, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
  6. faryal

    I am an American muslim physician who wears a head scarf ,thats my personal choice and i dont want any one to tell me what to wear and what not to wear and i dont judge my patients on the basis of their clothing ,for me islam is a source of spritual strength and it has brought so much tranquility in my life .Most of the muslims i know are patriotic ,peaceful ,hard working people who just like any other person want to live peacefully.The world is important and everyone counts even the insect crawling on the surface of earth ,so please live and let others live peacefully .

    April 2, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • rs1201

      Faryal
      That's what we ask of you and your coreligionists. Don't place bombs in our cities and don't fly jumbo jets into our buildings for the purpose of killing as many innocent people as you can. And don't give me that sorry excuse that your religion was hijacked by these terrorists. There's over 1.5 billion muslims in the world...I keep hearing that 1% or 2% are potential terrorists...do the math lady and the number of potential terrorists amongst you is staggering.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • Hopesforpeace

      AMEN TO THAT, FARYAL!!! bless you.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Right

      @ faryal you said ".Most of the muslims i know are patriotic ,peaceful ,hard working people who just like any other person want to live peacefully." Most ? How about the few you know that are not as you say have you turned them in to FBI ?

      April 2, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  7. jennarosie

    ive been going to an islamic school my whole life and IVE STUDIED ISLAM SO TO PEOPLE WHO SAY STUFF LIKE ISLAM IS A VIOLENT RELIGON GO AND RESEARCH BEFORE YOU EMBARRASS YOUR SELF INFRONT OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE!!

    April 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • Hopesforpeace

      Agree.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  8. jennarosie

    if people did Research and saw the truth aout islam...they would understand how islam works and how it is a awsome religon. ,DO SOME FREAKIN RESEARCH AND OPEN YOUR EYES!!!! ive been going to an islamic school my whole life and IVE STUDIED ISLAM SO TO PEOPLE WHO SAY STUFF LIKE ISLAM IS A VIOLENT RELIGON GO AND RESEARCH BEFORE YOU EMBARRASS YOUR SELF INFRONT OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE!!

    April 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  9. Hello.

    How come when a nun covers her hair. No one says anything.
    But when a Muslim covers her hair, it's a whole different story.
    Some or most people discriminate, judge & say ignorant comments.
    Digest and accept the fact that people have different beliefs in the world,
    and do not be so ignorant. Be respectful& have morals, please.
    Arguing will get you nowhere in life.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • Right

      Now go tell this to your Muslim friends

      April 2, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  10. Kent Rushing

    All of this is very interesting. I respect all religions; however its just incredibly intriguing to me as well, that Americans are not allowed to go to these other countries and what they want. Good ole America!!!

    April 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  11. jennarosie

    if people did Research and saw the truth aout islam...they would understand how islam works and how it is a awsome religon. not everything the media saya is true so to be educated and a person that people would like,DO SOME FREAKIN RESEARCH AND OPEN YOUR EYES!!!! ive been going to an islamic school my whole life and IVE STUDIED ISLAM SO TO PEOPLE WHO SAY STUFF LIKE ISLAM IS A VIOLENT RELIGON GO AND RESEARCH BEFORE YOU EMBARRASS YOUR SELF INFRONT OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE!!

    April 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Blackrobe

      How come you call yourself Rosie if you are proud to be a Muslim!

      April 2, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Hana

      Blackrobe... because unlike some other religions, Islam does not require a person to change their name when they convert. Some people simply choose to.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
  12. theoldadam

    Check out this list :

    http://www.thereligionofpeace.com/index.html#Attacks

    .

    April 2, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  13. theoldadam

    There is no real freedom in Islam. That legaistic, religious, political system subjugates women and all those who are not members. It's just terrible.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • jennarosie

      do you know about islam? if you dont ( which i am pretty sure of) then study about islam and see how much freedom we muslims girls have, just because we choose to wear the scarf dosent mean that all of our rights are gone.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  14. momma keeps encouraging

    how long until momma starts demanding you wear one ?

    April 2, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • Tasha

      Seriously, I believe everyone that wrote something against Islam and the Muslims haven't ever spoke to a Muslim. Try to speak to a Muslim you will get pleasant answer and respect. I'm assuming and I know for fact that NO RELIGION says to disrespect or have hatred towards other religions. The religion is not the problem, the problem is in u .. Not mine nor ur religion is the problem its the person u really are. Being ignorant and self prided about what you think and say is right and what you is right .. why not take some time out and go learn something .. about religions you are against. OKAY

      April 2, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  15. Tasha

    I love Islam, I agree with you, and my fellow people, Before saying anything about Islam and what Islam says, you need to learn and get information about it. Instead of assuming wrong about Islam because what Media shows us why not search yourself. Islam restricts many things, but it has reason for such restriction. Learn them. Many people don't follow Islam the way it says in the Holy Book The Qu'ran, because most follow there culture. However, during the time of slavery whites were against Black.. after the Civil Rights movement whites were angered more and lynching started because of hatred. Even today, many blacks are hated why ? no reason ... and people are picking on Islam because what they see and hear thats all .. they never search themselve but depend on others because they believe and trust others more than themselves.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • rs1201

      Islam condoned 9/11, Achille Lauro, Ft Hood, Northwest flt 253, the NYC subway bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, the NYC synagogue bomber
      your religion does not exactly leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling...as a matter of fact...your religion and its followers scare the heck out of me.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  16. Tanuja G

    having a mosque is good but u need 12 acres? for what? and why dont they protest when others in the countries they came from are prevented in practising their religions? They remember their rights when they live in democracies but forget to defend others when they are in their own environs

    April 2, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • lol

      I agree with you, self- criticism should start when you see an injustice, not just when you suffer that injustice.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • rs1201

      You got that right...they're trying to build a 53,000 sq. ft mosque in Tennessee and they pretend to not understand why the "infidels" are getting nervous about that.
      When I see a synagogue or a church being built in Riyadh...I'll be in favor of muslims building their mosques...but not a monstrosity of 53,000 sq ft...that's definitely going to be used for something else...something that may very well hurt us.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • Hana

      What are you talking about? Do you understand that many of the Middle Eastern countries are ruled by Oppressive regimes that oppress everyone and only use religion to justify their rule if they feel it necessary? Protesting for the rights of anyone could get you thrown in jail. They are all oppressed. Admittedly some communities more than others depending on the country. However, in all of the Middle Eastern countries, people have the right to continue to worship the religion that they do. There are Christians, Jews, various Muslim sects (some seen as heretics by the majority), Bahia, Sikhs, and even Zoroastrians in various countries.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • Hopesforpeace

      Please do not judge them just because they could not stop violence in their homeland. And do not hate them just because they can afford a bigger land. Sometimes, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror. Where is the love in the world now a days? God bless.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  17. I'm Muslim and I respect everyone no matter what is his/her religion

    Does Christianity teaches you these close minded and fruitless judgments about Islam ?? No , I am pretty sure that it doesn't . Islam gives an amazing picture about Christianity. We do respect Christianity as a religion and we believe that it exists and conveys the good morals and manners just like Islam .. Why don't you try to be serious and get enough information about the history of Islam and Muslims’ life ...Never judge someone because of few information you gathered from media or whatever ...extremism exist everywhere even in Christianity . But what you really need to have a look at is the real Islam ; the moderate and prestigious religion. Also , Muslims don't judge you based on what you wear , they rather focus on how you think!!!

    April 2, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • splasher6

      You say Christian but who are the infidels then?

      April 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • why then

      Why does Islam say kill the Saturday people first then kill the Sunday people ?

      April 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • paperjihad

      @splasher6

      As Muslim, I've never actually called anyone an 'infidel'. Nor have I actually been in any conversation with my friends in which they've used that term either. That's usually a term used by people critical of Islam as a basis to criticize Islam. But lets face it, where do Christians think Muslims will be in the afterlife?

      April 2, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • paperjihad

      @why then

      Where did you read that, exactly?

      April 2, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  18. I

    Does Christianity teaches you these close-minded and fruitless judgments about Islam ?? No , I am pretty sure that it doesn't . Islam gives an amazing picture about Christianity. We do respect Christianity as a religion and we believe that it exists and conveys the good morals and manners just like Islam .. Why don't you try to be serious and get enough information about the history of Islam and Muslims’ life ...Never judge someone because of few information you gathered from media or whatever ...extremism exist everywhere even in Christianity . But what you really need to have a look at is the real Islam ; the moderate and prestigious religion. Also , Muslims don't judge you based on what you wear , they rather focus on how you think!!!

    April 2, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • ironemos

      This is a bunch of islamic lies. Islam approves a perverted version of christianity that consider jesus just a prophet. But islam openly condemns our christianity that worships jesus Christ. koran in many locations points to those who worship Christ as pagans and talks about real christians as enemies of Allah and asking muslims to not be friend with them and many other things I don't have the time to mention here. So don't tell me the Koran or Islam protects christianity.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  19. ian

    every year about 20k americans convert to islam and most of them are women! (feel free to google if you dont believe this). if islam doesnt treat women equal, as most of the people here believe, then why are more women in america converting to islam? numbers dont lie. i believe before you comment on anything do some research on your own, of course use neutral sources and not the media...

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

      those who convert to islam have a history of Religious Illness, and are used to being subclass already, so it isn't a dramatic change for them

      April 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • rs1201

      probably the real ugly American women...as muslims, they can wear whatever you call it (burka or hijab) on their head and cover up. I'm joking...maybe it's not funny...sorry. But it is a bit preposterous to say that 20,000 American women convert to islam as if that legitimacy to all the principles in the Koran...it doesn't.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • Hana

      Seriously? Religious Illness? Sorry but no. My family is a very open-minded yet religious family. The women in my family are strong, independent, and powerful in their own ways. I show that same strength when I chose to follow a religion that I believed in rather than just copying everyone else. I have the support of my family.

      I converted to Islam because of how it spoke to me. I dont expect you to understand that. But, God has touched my heart with Islam in a way that Christianity never did. I have found inner peace and love in this conversion that I did not have with Christianity. And I am in no way oppressed or second class in this country or in my marriage or community. My husband and I are partners in the marriage. As it is encouraged in the Quran. Men and women are not treated the same in the Quran, but equitably balanced....

      like your two hands are not identical, but rather mirror images of each other with a few slight differences... and yet they balance each other and fit together to create one strong unit when interconnected.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • ironemos

      This is not a proof that islam treat women fairly. However, by considering the larger sample of muslim women who live in middle eastern countries and islamic countries worldwide, you can never deny that they suffer from huge discrimination. In Saudi Arabia for example, a 100% islamic population, women are not allowed to drive cars and yet you are talking about how women are treated fairly in Islam. Give me a break

      April 2, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
  20. max

    How do so many muslims immigrate to the US and get jobs? I can't just drive south and get a job, and I'm christian, speak English, eat and watch the same things as you.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • Pamalmadingdon

      Max I'm guessing they have highly sought after degrees that people like you here in the US are too stupid to get. The more you cut public education the higher the cost of higher education the less educated your society becomes. They value eduction we value cheap labor and corporate welfare.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • Hopesforpeace

      I agree with pamalmadingdon, max. Sometimes being a Christian and speaking english is not enough in reality . You definitely may have less experience and is less educated compared to these immigrants. Our government is not stupid. As a fellow Christian, I'm sorry to say you are not very Christian like by judging other people. Do not blame others just because you have not had the opprotunity compared to others. Please have faith in God that He will rightfully handle man's wrong doings. It is not for you to judge. All the world needs is love. There is plenty to share in the world for every human being. Seek wisdom and stop ignorance before we hurt others.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • peacemaker1

      Pamalmadingdon....I'm starting to wonder if people from other countries are even raised with manners! Why would you categorize a vast majority of Americans in the way you just have?
      If you are going to leave such a comment, you could atleast back it up with facts.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • max

      Are they really edumacated? Or are they handing fake diplomas to their people? I'll take any job if I can move to the states.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:19 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.