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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. Heather

    How about people just live and let live? If I want to wear a hijab, let me. I understand why I am wearing it and I can take it off at any time. I choose not to. I don't care what you wear or lecture you about your faith. Freedom is the ability to make choices and live life in your own way. God loves us all, so why can't we?

    April 2, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
    • Jazzpianist

      So wear the hijab, already.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  2. SpiderCNN

    .. and yes she looks very pretty and glamorous in that head scarf. 😉

    April 2, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  3. SpiderCNN

    Thanks for sharing your experience. And thanks CNN for the coverage. Infact media outlet need to reach more often to real Muslims living in USA so that we could better understand what Islam is really about.

    April 2, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  4. Joe USA

    More Information on this

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YPaDFd3TYo?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1

    April 2, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  5. Charles

    Right now as I type this Muslims are burning Christian churches in Africa and the middle east. Muslims demand tolerance of their religion but won't give tolerance to other religions. Don't be fooled by their lies and doublespeak.

    April 2, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
    • lina

      How refreshing to see somebody point out the painfully (and horrendous) hypocracy there. Amen.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:02 am |
    • lina

      *painfully obvious

      April 3, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • The Curious Sofa

      Charles, with every kind of distress/destruction in progress in countries like Africa and Saudi Arabia, do you truly believe that people are having bonfires in churches?

      Also, you can name muslims whatever your heart desires, however, do consider that not everyone who thinks themselves a muslim is a practicing muslim and that not every muslim reads and can comprehend the Arabic language.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:10 am |
  6. Joe USA

    Help Stop this scam

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YPaDFd3TYo&w=640&h=390%5D

    April 2, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
  7. viking

    One of the things the Taliban was emphatic about was that the education of Muslin girls be llimited to what amounted to an early grade school level. Wait till they show up in a Muslin area with a college education. Then they will learn what their religion is about.

    April 2, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  8. noname

    "The Infidels guide to the Koran"... READ IT

    April 2, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  9. Sir Craig

    If these girls think wearing a headscarf is somehow "empowering," I imagine wearing a straitjacket would make them feel like little empresses. It is foolish to think that something which is meant to enforce modesty (which logically means you have to hide something shameful) is in some way an "empowering" experience. It is foolish brainwashing and outright denial, and in this Islam is no different from any other religion.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • S

      If girls are stupid enough to think that wearing stilettos and mini-skirts and tank tops is "empowering," they have clearly been brainwashed into thinking that their entire life's purpose is to be attractive to men. We have push-up bikinis for 7 year olds being sold. You can't go through a mall without seeing a woman in her underwear (I'm talking V.S. ads). A little modesty certainly wouldn't hurt...

      April 2, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • Sir Craig

      S: Sorry, that is a non sequitur. I never said stiletto heels, push-up bras, and bikinis for kids was acceptable. They are, however, not mandated by any kind of law: Religious, secular, or otherwise. People can and should be able to choose for themselves what is and isn't an acceptable level of modesty and should never have it thrust upon them.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
    • bethe123

      "that is a non sequitur."

      Well, 99% of the Muslim posts have been non-sequitur.

      In any event, I would never do business with a woman who wore the hijab. The hijab is a symbol of oppression of women. Therefore, anyone woman who freely wears is either uneducated, stupid, brainwashed, or all of the above.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:20 am |
    • Hana

      Who ever said that being modest is hiding something shameful???? That is a remnant of Christian teachings. Islam does not say that the human body is shameful or that desire is wrong. It just teaches that those things are meant to be shared between a married couple, not everyone else.

      The point is to dress and act in a way that expresses a pure intention of interacting as civilized human beings, not an intention of trying to attract lustful desire from every person on the street.

      For both men and women, dressing modestly and keeping your gaze down is a direct indication that you place the fidelity of marriage and faith in God above short term fantasies based on eye candy.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:21 am |
    • bethe123

      @Hana,

      I read your post, and I cannot believe anybody could believe such drivel...but you apparently do. I am not remarking on Islam, just you. You seem genuinely stupid. Actually, I hope that is not the case, but hope you are merely repeating the stupid drivel you have been told.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:28 am |
    • Hana

      Bethel123, I can assure you that I am well educated in both the literal educational sense and in the topic of Islam specifically. I dont need anyone to TELL me what to think.

      But, as I can not read your mind, to know what about my post you find so repulsive, I guess I will just have to expand on all of it.

      If you actually take the time to read and study Islam, you will find that Islam teaches that each person is responsible for their own actions and intentions. If your intentions or actions are to do harm, break the rules, or whatever, you can still carry those intentions as added sins. Likewise, if your intentions or actions are pure and good, you gain blessings. Then when we face Judgement Day, those actions and intentions are weighed out. People simply make mistakes and sin... but if you honestly try to do good and submit to God, then you can earn your way into Paradise. God also has the choice and can show mercy even if you carry more sin than blessings. He is the judge, not us.

      Dressing modestly starts with an internal choice to do so. No matter what the social dress codes are, people will find a way to push those boundaries and flaunt themselves if they choose to. It is about intention, dress, and action all in combination. And that intention shows in the actions taken.

      Now, dressing and acting modestly outside in front of strangers or people that are not your spouse is a clear signal to everyone that you are not looking for flirtation and advances. I have watched it happen time and time again, where one person who is lovely simply looks like they have a wall up and people just dont approach them. While those that want the attention get it in spades. You see it referred to over and over again in dating advice sites... about sending out the right signals that you are available but not desperate, etc. They are social clues that tell us who is worth our time talking to or not.

      A respectful marriage is one of fidelity. Showing the world that you are not available or looking is a major aspect of that.

      Now, if you are upset by my claim that the human body is not shameful in Islam or that desire is encouraged in Islam. Take some time to look up Islamic Jurisprudence on the topic. You will find it to be eye opening. Both a man and a woman have the right to pleasure in the marriage. The act of pleasing your spouse is an act that can result in a great number of blessings from God. (paraphrased Hadith) Refusal (without legitimate reason) to please your spouse in such a way is ground for divorce, and either the man or the woman can request that divorce. Islamic scholars have written great amounts on the topic and encourage this level of desire and release. It is also not just encouraged for procreation, but also as a way to build strong bonds of love and devotion between the couple. Even Muhammed (pbuh) is reported to have bathed with his wife Aisha.

      So, why is it so shocking to you that I would express that Islam encourages desire between a husband and wife? Or that modesty is more about intention?

      April 3, 2011 at 1:18 am |
    • bethe123

      @Hana,

      Claiming to be educated, and then repeating and even expanding upon the drivel you believe, is hardly a good advertisement.
      I stand by my original opinion, you are just stupid.

      I understood your original points. Expanding upon them as if they were complex and needed clarification was not needed. What you believe is clear. It is just so stupid as to be unbelievable that you believe it, unless you yourself are stupid, which I am content to believe is the case.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:32 am |
    • Hana

      Bethe1234

      I only offered an expansion out of the benefit of the doubt that you just misread or misunderstood my intention. But, as you offer no real argument or information to discount what I said, just resorted to name calling like we are on some school yard... well, the words speak for themselves.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:30 am |
  10. Ted Ward

    Hey CNN ! Replies are not being posted as replies but as new posts ! So these comments aren't making sense!

    April 2, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • Hana

      Yeah, that threw me off for a bit too.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:13 am |
  11. Ted Ward

    You should love them and pray for them. But you also have to clearly point out and confront them on their really bad ideas. It would be wrong not to. Hate their bad hurtful, deceitful ideas and practices. Love them.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  12. to any Muslim

    42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46 Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” JOHN 8:42-47

    April 2, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
    • paperjihad

      Well, according to the Gospel of John, anyway. By the way, can you prove it was actually penned by that apostle?

      April 2, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • to any Muslim

      can you prove it wasn't ?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
    • S

      The Bible has been edited numerous times over the course of history. Honestly, who even knows what was originally written?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • paperjihad

      @to any Muslim

      No, but then it's not my book so it's not important to me. But if it were me, I'd want to follow something I could actually demonstrate a level of authentic connection to its subject matter.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • Right

      All liars and all murders belong to their father the devil (Satan)

      April 2, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • Sir Craig

      Sorry, to any Muslim – it is up to you to prove the "apostle" John wrote it. You cannot prove a negative, only a positive, and until such time you can present proof there was even a "John" who wrote such things it is merely a fable. Logic: Please brush up on it.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • to any Muslim

      can you prove the Koran was penned by Mohamed ?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
    • hillbilleter

      I thought Mohammed couldn't read or write. Who wrote what he's supposed to have said?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Hana

      Hillbilleter

      There were litterate men who lived in the community. Some of them scribes many simply memorized it. But, mostly the book was written down within a couple of decades after Muhammed (pbuh) passed as they realized many who had memorized it were starting to die. But, it was still within the life time of many who could not only recite from memorization, but corroborate each others recitation.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  13. The Curious Sofa

    JR, the Qur'an does not force the head-scarf upon anyone; it's a choice. If a muslim women does wear the head-scarf, she's symbolizing that she has accepted her faith and belief in God totally.

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

      I never claimed the koran forced it on any non muslim. That goes without saying.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • hillbilleter

      I'm from the South, and it used to be commonplace for a woman to wear a scarf or bonnet in public, but only because she didn't want her hair mussed, didn't have time to wash it, or didn't want to get freckles. When young girls wore scarves, one assumed they had headlice. The same with shaven headed boys – headlice. Oh how times have changed.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  14. Matthew

    All type of Muslim clothing should be BANNED in the United States and all Christian countries! Us Christians can't wear cross in public too in most muslim countries. Wear it in Saudi Arabia, you get killed.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Crusader

      If you go to Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, they require you to wear their religious clothes like scarves and they will punish people for not obeying it. Then they come here in the US and they don't want anybody messing with their religious right when they mess with yours in their own country. That is so messed up. They don't even want to take off their head scarf for the authorities becaus of "Religious belief" and yet they don't care about your religious belief when you are in their turf. That is so insane.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • S

      Maybe we should just throw out that oh-so-pesky Bill of Rights and have an official religion, too. (That's sarcasm, if you happened to miss it.)

      April 2, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • Sir Craig

      Holy carp! We live in Saudi Arabia?!? When did that happen?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • Saied

      Who's the last person Saudi Arabia has executed for wearing a Cross? Hmm, can't think of no one can you. Maybe becuase it's never happened. Ignorance is all you people care for and reality is what you won't get. Your children will only want to know the truth for themselves one day cause any rational person wouldn't believe any of this nonsense your spreading. So thanks for helping spread the message of Islam. We're looking forward to our new brothers in faith and good works. Peace!

      April 2, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • Hana

      And how many Muslim countries have you been to? Speak with experience? NOPE.

      Saudi is a whole other ball game. Most Saudis who come to the US dress in Western clothing, even the women... only a minority still layer up here. I dont agree with the practices in Saudi.

      But, there is great pride among the Christians in the Muslim countries that I have been to. Wear crosses, have priests and nuns in full habbits and appliqued coats with the crosses on them, large beautiful churches, and some with crosses tattooed on their hand. Lets see, I have been to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey so far.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:08 am |
  15. to any Muslim

    Please tell me what you think about this verse in the Koran that says 'the rocks and trees will cry out "O Muslim there is a Jew hiding behind me come and kill him" ?

    April 2, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • paperjihad

      Yeah, that verse doesn't exist in the Qur'an.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
    • to any Muslim

      where does it come from ?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • Sir Craig

      Umm, yeah, that isn't in the Qu'ran – that's in the Hamas Charter. Different book.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • paperjihad

      It's taken from a hadith, which I believe is reported to be sahih (sound). The meaning is clearly figurative, since trees don't actually speak. Though I am not really qualified to interpret it, I'd say as a Muslim we are obliged to act in accordance with the sunnah of the Prophet rather than at the bidding of stones and trees.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
    • ExposingLies

      True. That verse is nowhere to be found in the Quran, but was said by Muhammad:

      "The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews." (related by al-Bukhari and Muslim).Sahih Muslim, 41:6985

      Saying that the verse does not exist in the Quran is not enough and merely hiding the truth. Although Muslims follow Muhammad fervently, most do not have full understanding/knowledge of Muhammad and the things that he has done. This is very fortunate, because these are what we know as moderate Muslims. Terrorists are simply following the footsteps of Muhammad.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • Saied

      This is not a command in Islam to kill anyone, but a prophecy that we believe will come true. So as long as the trees and stones don't talk you obviously have nothing to worry about. Muslims have protected the entire Jewish nation from the Roman Catholics and if if wasn't for us they wouldn't even be here right now. But looking at how the Jews are treating the Muslims and Christians in Palestine and seeing how they demonize us in the media, how do you think the Jews would react towards Hitler if the rocks and trees commanded them to take revenge?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
    • paperjihad

      @Saied,

      I'm still inclined toward a more figurative interpretation, which is quite common in both the Qur'an and ahadith. The Qur'an compares the hypocrites as 'blocks of wood' (al-munafiqoon: 4) and the unbelievers as stones (al-Baqara: 74), so it seems more probable to me the reference to trees and stones represent some kind of person. Again, as Muslims we don't act on the biddings of stones and trees; we act in accordance with the tenets of Islam.

      Peace.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  16. TM

    What we really need is the end of ALL religion.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  17. Wayne

    You are fooling yourself if you think a scarf will quell a man's desire.

    April 2, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Saied

      The headscarf compared to daisy dukes and a tube top. Oh yes it does make a world of difference, but you wouldn't comprehend that cause you'll never travel outside the U.S. Just turn on the Simpsons and everythings going to be O.K.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  18. Lived with muslims for 26 years

    Again I am not comparing here religions because simply everyone thinks he/she is right, but Islam is only religion that does NOT allow any conflict with…and the only religion that judges the other based upon their beliefs. For example, any other religion will look at others as non follower, but in Islam , you are infidel, and Infidels according to Qiran, are deserved to be killed. Islam plays in a very smart point that if you don not agrre with me so you are my enemy and of course the enemy of God, and God “Allah” is supporting any one who kills an infidel.
    For example, Osama Ben Laden, according to Muslims, Qiran is a HERO. He is the perfect example of brave, honorable Muslim that fight for ALLAH. Can anyone tell me why God asks people to kill for him? Either that God is capable (never) or he is the devil that loves to see blood and killing.
    The behavior of Muslims here in USA is not showing clearly just because they are MINORITY…see what Muslims really do in Islamic Country when they have the power…
    My last question why every Muslim get so happy to spread Islam…why they want to increase their numbers…they are so proud on how many people convert to Islam. This comment about how many women in USA has converted to Islam... is that making you feel better? Now you are %100 feeling secure about their religion. Btw, Just small hint ” one of our friends converted to Islam because she married a Muslim 3 years ago and she converted later to Buddha when she dated a man from China. And that explains why converters are mainly women.
    You can not debate and argue or convince a Muslim simply because Islam shut down their minds…, I do not care if you gonna live your whole life deceived..All I care about is “do not kill my son because he is not Muslim, Do not hate USA because we are against Terrorism.. Do not explode Christian Churches in Middle East because they are not Muslims while they are praying in peace, Do not make war with Israel because they want to have their own Jewish state…PLEASE learn how to accept the OTHER and live in peace…

    April 2, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • bethe123

      "The behavior of Muslims here in USA is not showing clearly just because they are MINORITY…see what Muslims really do in Islamic Country when they have the power…"

      Well said.
      No matter what the Islamists say, they can say nothing to refute your statement that is valid...because the experiement has been done, we know what Muslims in the majority produce.– Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc

      April 2, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Saied

      You are obviously lying about your claim simply because the muslim you lived with for over 25 years obviously never tried to kill you, otherwise you wouldn't be around spreading these lies about Islam. I'm a practicing Muslim for 10 years, so Everyone get ready for some Great News! Islam protects the rights of all human beings and does not Allow any Muslim to even steel or lie or even hit a non-Muslim. Also the word infidel comes from the Roman Catholic Church. The word to describe a disbeliever in Islam is the word Kafur. Hey guys you can celebrate now, Muslims have no desire to hurt anyone. Just don't go try to hurt a Muslim and you'll be just fine, otherwise he does have the right to defend him or herself. Peace!

      April 2, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • bethe123

      Saied
      - You are the one lying.

      Simply read Ayaan Hirsi Ali or listen to her youtube videos to see the dangers of Islam.
      Never, never, never, underestimate the dangers of Islamists in large numbers, if you value your country.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  19. Jakatta

    All the people who want to protest and kill innocent people in the process need to line up in a field armed with only swords and sheild ( like old school days ) and fight to the death. You people only know violence and it fuels your evil human intentions. You all better hope there isnt a god...

    April 2, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • hillbilleter

      Yes, I think you are right that all the Jihadists, dictators, white supremecists, and whatever, who espouse violence in reaching their ends should line up in a field and fight each other. The rest of us get along with each other just fine, whatever our religious beliefs. God created us all and we appreciate that. Blessed is the peacekeeper.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  20. texasmuslim_rangersfan

    The article is good, but the comment here is pretty nasty, but being living in the states for long time now (Texas), I would like to point out that American people are not like these comments (in-case people from other country reading this and thinks American people are like this.. noo there aren't).Muslim, Christian and Jews are living well in Texas anyways.

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

      Ahhh Yes the people of this Country are like that, we do not want your stupid religion in this country take it back where it came from. Wherever you people go Trouble follows. And just what we need another muslum studying Chemistry, Great.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • paperjihad

      @bubba,

      Not sure what your concern is. How many Indian and Pakistani physicians do you see in your local hospital? I'd think you'd want them to know a little about chemistry.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
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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.