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. victoria

    wow smart women, hope to see you in med school! 🙂

    April 2, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Janimare

      I have no problem w/ smart women or dumb women wearing sweaty head scarves in the humidity of Tennessee. I don't see many men (except the oil rich sheiks who stay in their air conditioned private palaces ) who are smart or dumb enough to suffer through the heat. What is hidden is more desired. Quite the opposite effect, I think than what it seeks to accomplish.
      Our country is a melting pot, with these head coverings in that famous TN. never ending humidity, that could be a pun!

      April 2, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • Debasis

      That is a pervert response. BTW, I am not a Muslim.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • mike

      "smart" women who chose to subject themselves to this practice are traitors to women in other countries where islamic women are treated like doormats..

      April 2, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • nagi

      as we speak and chat over the net islamists in egypt , my old country are posting dire threats to the helpless unarmed peacefull copts whom doomed to be strifing under the burden of harsh persecution for the past 1400 years pleeease help and stop talking pleease direct the attention to a potential genocide in the making its getting to that point soon believe me

      April 3, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  2. Chris

    Is it wrong that I don't want to wake up one day, and I find myself in a city where half the women are covered from head to toe in a burqa? American Muslims are great at playing the victims, but we can't or we'd be labeled politically incorrect.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
    • paperjihad

      Well, while Muslims are only 1 percent of the US population, the Justice Department reports they are victims in 14 percent of all religious discrimination cases, which includes not only discrimination in employment, but also homicides, mosque burnings, and school and zoning law abuses. That's a rather disproportional figure, so yeah, maybe there is some substance to the whole 'victim' thing.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  3. Jakatta

    I don't know who ya think you are but before the night is through.....I wanna do bad things with you.....

    April 2, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  4. MM

    CNN – can you please stop shoving this crap on us already. These people are just another group in our society. Please stop singling them out to us. If we want to know about them, let it be on our time. I'm sick of the over-coverage already.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • Jenny

      MM, I don't think you get the point...it's not just about the people against the mosque or the people trying to build it or about forcing Islam or Muslim ways upon us. What I got out of it was that there are good individuals trying to provide and secure a better future for their families and trying to obtain the religious freedom we all have here in America. As I posted in a previous reply, the father of those two intelligent women reminds me of my own, who happens to be Hindu and a prominant leader in his community. I am not Hindu but enjoy going to his place of worship to touch base with my culture rather than the religion. This center is a community center as much as it is a place of worship. How can you advocate media to stop forcing Muslims upon us when all they showed were a group being denied the right to have their own culture within this community they call home. My father is a great American but loves his Indian heritage and is an avid Hindu. I love my country America, my only country, but am also proud of my Indian culture and background. I worship no one's god. No one is forcing Muslims down your throat. They are just trying to make you aware that good people are being lumped in with the bad and asking you intelligently discern between the two.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  5. JWG

    The south is not a very open-minded area of the country. There are several people out there that are racist towards all non-whites, and think that "The South will rise again." Although there are plenty of intelligent, good people in The South, there are plenty that are the opposite. That said, The South will not change for anyone. My advice to any devout Muslim that is facing hostility is to move away from areas like Murfreesboro, and go towards one of the major cities, like Knoxville or Nashville.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  6. freewords

    I recall in the seventies the woman used to sit in the back of the pickup truck and with the goats, the child boy was seated in the front seat next to Muslim driver (the spouse).
    I recall Muslim men do not know what are a Christian religion and neither the Jews.
    The State law prohibit the Bible in the country. And neither can you have picture of friends (girls and women).
    So please do not worry about a burka face cover headscarf. Pray for the woman and the child and some more education civilization.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  7. Aunty

    Notice how Soledad sticks her lips out when she's interviewing people who speak against islam?

    April 2, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  8. JM

    "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" – You Bet – and it isn't going to get any better !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!111

    April 2, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  9. RDS

    Islam: Women must submit. They are beasts of burden, for raping and breeding. Their arms can be broken by Koran Islamic law when a man feels it is needed. Go go go women of the head scarf! Go with your head covered in the scarf and support the oppression of women world wide! You should obey the Koran and not be allowed to vote, get an education, and understand that all women should never be allowed any form of human rights! Go head scarf culture!

    April 2, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
    • BullzFan

      RDS, what you wrote about Islam and the way Muslims treat women is 100% correct.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  10. Lineman

    If you don't like freedom of religion in this country then your values are all backward. If you think your religion is the best then explain to others why. If your religion means a lot to you then live it and convince people that way.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  11. Chris

    Everyone who says Islam and Muslims need to come into the 21st century are not remembering the fact that Islam is about 700 years or so younger the Christianity. And what were christians doing 700 years ago, they were trying to purge the world of all non-christians. So before everyone tries to act like christians are so much more civilized compared to muslims just remember Islam is a younger religion.

    But if I had my way there would be no religions at all.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • The Curious Sofa

      What an insightful comment.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  12. Fernando1958

    am I the only man that thinks women wearing headscarf look pretty? Have you seen their eyes? Instead of focusing on the scarf why not try talking to them.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • BullzFan

      If you attempt to talk to them, her male relatives will kill you. Then, they'll kill her for being "too westernized." My thought: if you don't want your kids being westernized, don't live in the western world.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  13. debi

    When Soledad asked the woman who was helping support the stopping of the mosque if she thought sharia law would be coming here – indicating the TIME cover of the muslim girl who had her nose and ears cut off under Sharia Law, I have to say we just got through with the court trial here in Buffalo, New York of a hsuband who cut his wife's head off and left her for dead at their Muslim TV station while their 2 children waited for her in the van. She was going to divorce him he abused her so. Yes Sharia Law/Honor killings are happening. Several years ago the muslim father who killed his two beautiful daughters on Christmas while he drove them in the taxi – he killed them both because they were "too westernized"....

    April 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • Jenny

      We are all aware of this unfortunate even but even more unfortunate is the stories of the muslim men who stand up for their wives and daughters and place them on pedastals. The woman in Lybia who ran into the hotel accusing the government men of dishonoring her...what a terrible tragedy...we are told that her FATHER and FIANCE are absolutely supporting her. We are given an impression that these when these mortifying incidences occur, the woman is somehow held accountable. Clearly, here is an educated woman from an educated family, whose seems to have the complete support from her entire family, beginning with her father. As you've stated in your post, this man who killed his daughters was a taxi driver. Was he educated and frustrated with his situation or an uneducated individual just following the beliefs instilled in as a youth, from a backward culture, in a small village where this is still acceptable? This educated executive who beheaded his wife...look up previous incidences of similar homicides occuring in NON-Islamic homes where a jealous and/or militant husband kills his spouse along with the entire family rather than setting them free. Sharia law or power hungry and possessive men? Did you know women in remote Indian villages are still burned alive with their husbands if the husband passes away first. My point is, educate the ignorant and change will happen. Prime example-Egypt.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • Jenny

      Apologies...I did not complete my thought in the first sentence...I intended to say that Muslim men who are good, loving husbands and fathers sadly do not receive credit and are cattled in the same catagory as debi's examples of ruthless men. One main reason I truly appreciated this CNN show; the family men shown here remind me of my own father, of whom of course I am biased. Please, CNN and other media outlets, report as well on these numerous Muslim men who love, provide for, and protect till their dying breath, their wives and daughters. Americans need this reinforcement that not all Muslim men abide by the brutality shown by the extremists' understanding of Sharia Law.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  14. Jenny

    Amazing piece, CNN. So glad this type of bigotry and/or ignorance was brought to attention. I am a first generation Indian American. My family is Hindu and I am Agnostic. I have close friends and acquaintances from many faiths and I can't think of any Islamic individua I know , who has rooted ties in our country, who is less of an American than I or a 50th generation American. Please explain to me, CNN pundits or educated bloggers, why is there such ignorance in the US. I know it exists in middle eastern countries and even in the industrially booming India (in small villages) because of the lack of education and oppression. Those can not be excuses for Americans. Please, let us all do our part to stop the ignorance, as I still feel that a lack of understanding rather than pure hate, motivates these individuals to act (sometimes violently) against humanity.

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

      This article is not going to suddenly open anyone's eyes or change anyone's opinions because the people who are open-minded are out there in the world, learning from real life and not from a corporate-owned "news" website. If you want to know why there is so much bigotry and hate in the world, may I suggest turning off your computer and interacting with the real world and real people?

      April 2, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • RetLaEnvEmp

      Burning a book is not a crime against humanity. Fear of the unknown (a religion), turned into dislike is not a crime against humanity. Hatred is learned – very, very few people are born to hate – yet hatred, in itself, is not a crime against humanity. Hatred may cause a person to commit crimes (so many crimes – so awful) that the crimes are crimes against humanity. An example would be: mass execution of 1,000's of people because of their religion or shooting men, women and children in "ethnic cleansing" would be considered crimes against humanity. I personally do not care what a person wears or does not wear on their head. I would, however, draw the line with public display a Nazi SS helmet as adding insult to a crime against humanity.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  15. noname

    ISLAM is NOT a peaceful religion. Their main goal is to eliminate the world of Christians and Jews. Be very wary of the Brotherhood of Islam which is slowly making their way into our country.

    God help us from Islams.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • The Curious Sofa

      According to what you've stated, noname, a muslim's "main goal" is to "eliminate the world of Christians and Jews". May I assure you that a muslim's main goal is to submit to God's will, which from my studies, I've gathered, is both a Christian's and Jews' main goal as well. Also, by typing "Islams" and using incorrect grammar/punctuation you're at utter loss of credibility.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • BullzFan

      Curious Sofa: When writing a book or term paper, grammar, punctuation, proper capitalization, and spelling are important and may reflect on the writer's intelligence. However, when writing e-mails, texts, and online postings like this, it's commonly known to not be so important. Commenting on another's incorrect spelling, punctuation, etc. is petty.

      To the issue at hand, Islam is, in every sense, an evil religion. In Muslim countries, women are not allowed to vote or drive. Think about this very, very carefully: in some Muslim countries, women are not allowed to simply go outside without a male relative escort. What kind of religion has edicts like that? Young girls are forced into arranged marriages at the ages of 15 and 16 to men who are past the age of 40. There are Muslims who believe that their god wants them to kill people who are not Muslims. They also believe that if they do that, they will be rewarded for it by their god.

      What I find the most amazing is that Muslims in the U.S. have the gall to complain and protest about not being treated equally here in the U.S., when, in their home countries, non-Muslims are openly discriminated against, both officially and unofficially.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  16. K. Harper

    I just watched Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door. Very interesting. I was raised Catholic. The Pope says I have rules to follow. The Koran gives Muslims rules to follow. What is the difference? We worry about the fact that some women are "forced to wear a veil and robe. So. Penecostal women are not allowed to wear pants or makeup and must wear their hair up. So, what is the difference? A lady on the show showed Soledad a copy of TIME magazine with a young women with her nose and ears cut off. We have drunks and bullies here in the USA of every religion that abuse and disfigure and kill their wives for whatever reason they can think of. So, what is the difference?

    April 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Steve

      Just curious. If Islam is peace, then what would a violent religion be like?

      April 2, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  17. Tom Glick

    Mufreesboro is the longtime home of "Sword of the Lord" publishing company, which I view as a Baptist "jihadi" organ. "Sword of the Lord" is an epithet long used by radical Muslims. Look at this stuff on internet from Pakistan: Khalid bin Waleed Saif ALLAH (Sword of ALLAH). ...Khalid Bin Waleed (rad) is an amazing person! Sword of God! Undefeated in the battlefield!" All that from a Pakistani source. Two swords of the lord, one Christian, one Muslim.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  18. noname

    "The Infidel's guide to the Koran". Read it. Before we lose our country

    April 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • Fernando1958

      Lose your country? to what? drugs and alcohol and ignorance (not knowing what is going on in other countries or in your own)? the US needs all the Religions they can get, so they can see which is better for them. Is a matter of sensibility, spirituality.
      p.s.: by the way, I'm agnostic.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • Guest

      Absolutelly read it. Don't just read a verse out of context and twist it to promote your fear mongering.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • BG

      Read everything by Robert Spencer. Watch the video, too.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  19. simba

    well,christians in moslem country who are the real citizens can't pray in their churches and woman who are not wearing hijabs are harrased,they are killed and their churches are burnt,so what is going on with you is nothing,don't you agree?

    April 2, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • lacyrice2

      Those Islamic countries are not the United States. Stop thinking that everyone lives or should live like we do here.

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

      when a Torah is burned, Jews stage a type of funueral. When a Koran is burned muslims burn people

      April 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Fernando1958

      Joy.... so the solution is simple. Don't burn Qorans.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • Guest

      What a load of cr*p? Do you have any proof of that? Jews burns/destroyes mosques pretty much every month. Christians are destroying every single Muslim countries all over the world. Hindus in India kills Christians and burn their churchs more than any thug in Muslim countries did it. And most of the time it was done to foment political uproar.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Nonreadneck

      Simba... have you ever lived in a muslim country? in kuwait the government builds the churches for the people, and they maintain them and they are always full. We dont jugde people by their name, religion or color. We dont have homeless in the streets. The women are very spoiled and they can wear what ever they want especailly in dubai UAE. And there are still virgins over there. Here in the US the women sleep with some many men that they feel they have to lie to their partners about it. why are they ashamed about this?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  20. John

    Ah Islam the "religion of peace" Lets kill multiple people who are not even Americans for one crackpot burning the Koran. The ignorant middle east people probably automatically assumed UN = US so lets kill them. The difference between most religions and Islam is most religions are not in your face. I have never had to adapt my lifestyle and worry about being sensitive before the muslims started getting press. If I want to eat a BLT, my Jewish friends never gave me a second glance...they simply would not eat a BLT. A muslim would "freak out" and claim they cannot enter heaven if I accidentally touched a piece of bacon touched them. Really? I hope the world stops being afraid to say that muslims are overreacting to most of the world events. Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism have all moved on from the seventh century,,,it's time for the muslims to start acting like they are part of the 21st century.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • lacyrice2

      Muslims tend to be very serious about their religion. Maybe if we Christians were as serious about ours, we would not have some of the problems we face in this country. How much offense would you take if someone burned a Bible or Torah?

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

      I'm now looking forward to a CNN report on "The Christians Next Door" in Muslim countries and how they are treated. Surely there's no intolerance, ignorance or violence directed toward Christians in places like Algeria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, right? And especially in Iran or Afghanistan or Pakistan where Christianity is really flourishing.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Guest

      We muslims do believe that our lord did not screw up and there is no need to upgrade His commands. May be your God has shortcomings and did not foresee how you must conduct your life. Thus you need to bend your God's word.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • Zaphod2000

      If women in the 21st century want to live like slaves and under a man's thumb let them.
      I see some of these women walking around with their heads down and wonder why anyone would want to take religion that seriously anyway.
      Religion sucks!

      April 2, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
    • iServe

      Not that much actually. I'm not going to go to war over a group of people because they burned some paper. In fact I'm pretty sure to do so would directly go in conflict with at least 2 of the 10 commandments.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • Dan

      I love how people insist on defending this religion even though it is responsible for the deaths of thousands of completely innocent individuals... 12 yesterday. Why is it that every time people are killed in the name of a religion in recent times, it is in the name of islam, yet our presidents continue to insist that it is a religion of peace? The whole country is going down the drain with this stupid thing called political correctness. Call me a bigot, but I'd rather be a bigot than a murderer, or somebody defending a murderer.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • Steve

      If you can look past the bigotry against Blacks, the be-headings, the forced marriages of pre-teen girls, bombings of churches, honor killings, slavery, beating of wives and the ingrained hatred of Christians and Jews,then Islam is a pretty good religion.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • I'm Muslim and I respect everyone no matter what is his/her religion

      Kindly check this out :
      ISLAM : the misunderstood religion : http://www.islamreligion.com/videos/4317/

      April 3, 2011 at 9:20 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.