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. Trent

    The reason there haven't been any US terrorist attacks in the past 10 years is because the radical Muslim groups know there would be a backlash against US Muslims.

    April 3, 2011 at 4:57 am |
    • paperjihad


      I really don't think extremists care about anyone but themselves and their own ideas. There were a lot of Muslims working in the WTC; it didn't seem to stop the attacks.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  2. John we

    Although there are very paid bad media in U.S, people transfer to Islam everywhere.

    April 3, 2011 at 4:37 am |
  3. mikael

    im atheist, why, because of Muslims!!!
    since i'm a little kid, i see Muslims Fanatics on TV, blowing themselves up, stoning womans, hiding their woman behind clothes in warm countries!! etc...

    and today for the 1st time, i'm actually thinking of reviving my Christian Faith, because i think i'm starting to realize, that if Muslims are prevailing like this, it might be because our young people are more and more heading toward atheism!!
    at 1st, i thought that was good, finally living in a world free of religionS, therefore no more hatred.....
    but i was wrong, the more Christian young adult go atheist, the more Muslims young adult turns extremist!!!!
    it's like for every christian person going atheist, it's one more Muslims!!!!!!!
    Or, Christians who go atheist, but then to later on convert to Islam!!!!! what????

    Enough with this!!! America is Christian, and so is Europe, even if the Christian faith is fading, it's not to be replaced by Muslims!!!! No matter how atheist i can be, i still celebrate Xmas, or easter, because its my culture!!!! and i have no intention to ever participate in a Ramadan or any Muslims holiday!! unlike our poor French friend who are slowly letting Muslims Fanatics impose their holidays and culture!!!

    Islam Will Destroy us, and i want to let all the Muslims that i'm ready to take arms, when things get out of hand with u guys!!
    and i will revive my christian faith!!!!

    April 3, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      please read the posts of some of us Christians, and go to other recent religion.blogs.cnn to read them as well. God who created you wants you to know Him. There are so many voices out there, all leading in different directions. But God wants you to know the truth. Man's opinions come dime-a- dozen, and are worthless if they don't align with Truth. God's Word, the Holy Bible is the testimony of God to human kind. Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, who came in the form of man, to live among us, to partake of our humanity so the would become th sacrifice for our sins to a holy God who is without sin, therwith becoming the high priest interceding to the Father our Creator for us. No man will ever see God without putting his faith in the finished work of His Son Jesus Christ. He wants you to know Him. And He said if you seek Him with all your heart, He will reveal Himself to you. He will not be silent to those who come to Him humbly and with repentant heart. And here is what He says to those who come t o Him :
      "If any man is in Christ he is a new creation. Old things pass away, behold all things become new.... Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him... He wants you to find this outt for yorrself.... Go to the NEw Testament, starting with the Gospel of John, and read it with opemn heart. You'll se what God will do!

      April 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  4. Clyde

    Muslim women in America have the right to cover their heads. It looks terrible but they can do it. However wearing garments that conceal the face or cover the whole body should be forbidden as it is in France. Everyone knows only criminals cover up. And it's very common for Muslims in other countries to dress like women to commit crimes or evade the police. We don't want that here.

    As for Muslims being "unwelcome" in the U.S. that's not a big surprise. When I visit the home of another person I try to be on my best behavior (not behead or stone anyone) otherwise I know I will not be welcome in the future. The idea that anyone no matter how barbaric can come to the U.S. is stupid. Would you let somebody in your house who was a follower of, say, Charles Manson? Muhammad and Charles Manson have a lot in common (read the Koran and Helter Skelter if you don't know what I'm talking about)

    April 3, 2011 at 4:12 am |
  5. Ismail

    The problem is, Christians have failed to follow the example of Mother Mary. If, they did they too would be wearing a Hijab. Show me a picture of Mother Mary not covered? And, I will show you a 'LIE".

    April 3, 2011 at 4:11 am |
  6. SaintoftheSouth

    There is nothing to be proud about by hating Jesus. There is nothing to be proud about in a religon that hates Jews and Christians and is leading millions astray.

    April 3, 2011 at 4:02 am |
  7. john

    yeah! woman's right

    April 3, 2011 at 3:46 am |
  8. freewords

    Muslims should thank Jesus who brought light to this world; they emigrate to the Western world carrying misery from home land, and want to be compassion to their faith. They infested Muslim’ countries with destroying cancer which we call ignorance in faith to live free and enjoy family and freedom, for God (Allah) let Adam and Eve free and work and increase multiply.
    There is one God Allah and no prophet had said to demonize Eve (The woman), and Muslim’ men are hateful to woman and degrading her role in civilization which is the most important role to raise a nation.
    I just cannot believe some of the stories I hear about burning beating and killing for honour. A headscarf but not the burning heat of the black dress.

    April 3, 2011 at 3:24 am |
  9. Lily

    I am an X-Muslim who was never religious or practiced but read the Quran over dozen times and educated my self about Islam, its teaching, and history. I had to study Christianity as well just to understand how religion works...the outcome of my research is that i became an Athiest. All religions are ugly, oppressive, and bloody. Christians should not feel superior to Muslims and Muslims definitely shouldn't feel superior to any other religion. One day religions will be abandoned, too bad it won't happen in my life time!

    April 3, 2011 at 3:13 am |

      Hi Lily,
      We already leave in a pstmodern world, a world where Laplace said that "Sir, the God hypothesis was not necessary" or Nitche's "God is dead", so a world, onthologicaly speaking, in "nulibism" (nulibi ese=God is nowhere) and epistemolgicaly in total relativism, a world of multiculturalism (cultural Babel Tower) and political corectness (totalitarian control of private thinking and freadam of speach), so what do you expect?
      Kind Regards,
      Adrian C.

      April 3, 2011 at 4:13 am |
  10. lewis

    How do you like this!

    April 3, 2011 at 3:08 am |
  11. Jhate them

    The level of ignorance and hatred for that which we know nothing about is absolutely astounding. Those who post vitriol against Islam and Muslims here are so far removed from reality that it amazes me that they can function in society at all.

    April 3, 2011 at 2:45 am |
    • bethe123

      Do you have any evidence to back up that claim?
      Yes, that is what I thought.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:47 am |
    • B.lok

      "evidence to back up that claim"
      Yea. How about the fact that EVERY religion has extremism existing within them (crusades anyone?). I am a Christian, a Jesus follower, but I do not stand with christians who act contrary to the love, peace, and compassion that we, as Christ followers, are called to.

      April 3, 2011 at 3:14 am |
    • john

      ignorance is blessed!

      April 3, 2011 at 3:40 am |
    • john


      April 3, 2011 at 3:45 am |
    • Richard

      What rock have YOU been living under?

      April 3, 2011 at 3:58 am |
    • Matt can't spell

      evidence? Just read all these racist posts on here against Islam. Only the blind man can't see.

      April 3, 2011 at 4:00 am |
  12. Fady

    I beleive Muslims can build a mosque in the heartland of America if they let christians build a church in Saudia Arabia, where a person caught worshiping outside of the islamic faith can be stoned to death. Islam is like cancer, it will fester for a long period of time and when detected, it will have already reeked havock within its host. It's time we woke up!

    April 3, 2011 at 2:44 am |
    • B.lok

      America is founded on freedom of religion. Perhaps Muslims came here to escape the extremism in other countries. I'd rather welcome peaceful Muslims over the violent Christians that protest them ANY DAY.

      April 3, 2011 at 3:10 am |
    • Garrick

      Listen, genius - we are talking about Americans here. This is country, and they have every right to build a place of worship.

      Now, should Saudi Arabia allow ALL faith to build a temple or a church, of course. But TWO WRONGS doesn't make it right.

      April 3, 2011 at 3:29 am |
  13. Robert Stephens

    Islam-cloudlessly, like everything else................

    April 3, 2011 at 2:43 am |
  14. John

    I'm a white muslim, and i'm proud to say this. No matter what hate i get. I converted to islam because the hate on islam made me curious about this religion. And when i studied it, its the complete opposite than what the media say about Islam. Islam freed the slaves and gave woman rights before thousand years ago, and the usa, just gave their right only about 100 years ago. Hitler was a christian and he killed millions of innocent Jews. I found ISLAM is a way of life that i missed or didn't had when i was Christan

    April 3, 2011 at 2:41 am |
    • Ali

      great! I am glade that you found the way that you feel more comfortable with!

      April 3, 2011 at 3:04 am |
    • Steve

      @john, be happy with what your mindset is, strap yourself with a suicide vest and blow yourself up and be in heaven with 72 ..vargins....I admire your idea of converting, nice to see your mind get poluted with stinks all evil and dangerous stuff. please look around and tell me what you see in the islamic world today, there is bloodshed and hatred, if you have picked this religion by choice, then good luck with it. And I blame your parents for your upbringing, ask your mullah in the mosque you need to convert back to Chistianity, and let me know what is his answer. Islam will remain a religion of blood thirsty people, islam will be spread thru the sword, and you would call it a religion of peace. I laugh loud and clear. Islam had killed more people in the world today then probably all the deaths thru wars and hitler's rampage. You need to read some more books, you are way way behind ...you lack some sensible judgement. you are a looser ..and you would die as a looser, you will never be a man again ....!!!

      April 3, 2011 at 4:54 am |
  15. American Muslim Guy

    I often forget why our country is declining. Then I hear these little hateful, white nationalist, Fox News inspired tea baggers and remember why. 99% of the garbage and accusations leveled at my religion is typical misinformation that is spread around and believed by the same people that elected G.W. twice into office. Stupid tea baggers. You are the face of the decline of the U.S.

    April 3, 2011 at 2:35 am |
    • bethe123

      An empty post.

      State what you think is the wrong information about Islam that has been posted...

      Bu you cannot, you see. If you do, we will provide FACTS to back up the claims.
      That is why you have to make general, empty statements.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:41 am |
    • Lem

      Muslim is a hate religion. Here is what I found in your koran, there is a lot of hate scriptures in your koran. I am giving you scriptures.

      "Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them.” Koran 2:191
      “Make war on the infidels living in your neighborhood.” Koran 9:123
      “When opportunity arises, kill the infidels wherever you catch them.” Koran 9:5
      “Any religion other than Islam is not acceptable.” Koran 3:85
      “The Jews and the Christians are perverts; fight them.”... Koran 9:30
      “Maim and crucify the infidels if they criticize Islam” Koran 5:33
      “Punish the unbelievers with garments of fire, hooked iron rods, boiling water; melt their skin and bellies.” Koran 22:19
      “The unbelievers are stupid; urge the Muslims to fight them.” Koran 8:65
      “Muslims must not take the infidels as friends.” Koran 3:28
      “Terrorize and behead those who believe in scriptures other than the Qur’an.” Koran 8:12
      “Muslims must muster all weapons to terrorize the infidels.” Koran 8:60

      D. A. M. N.
      Deport All Muslims Now

      Do we need any more reasons to wash our hands of these sand monkeys and concentrate on what we need here at home? Until america is PERFECT we shouldnt spend one dollar to help out these foreign situations which have little to do with us. If we spend one dime on this little uprising its one dime too much. Watch, wait, but dont care and DONT spend money on this. It isnt our fight to care about. Good for people demanding to be treated like humans at home but they can get what they want real easy. Its one plane ticket out of the "middle east' away. Go where theres no muslims. It seems peaceful there!

      April 3, 2011 at 2:50 am |
    • Um..no

      Those quotes are all taken out of context, so of course they're going to read like that. Why don't you actually read the passages surrounding those quotes? It makes a lot more sense.

      I'm an Atheist, but find religions interesting. Read before you make crazy accusations.

      April 3, 2011 at 3:47 am |
    • Steve

      well there is nothing good in islam today, burning of koran is an offence, but how come burning of the bible is ok, yes if you burn an American flag or a bible, we will definately burn your koran, or even flush it in the toilet. Islam had only moved forward with the spread by the sword, it needs to be checked and controlled, if not the non-beleivers will become non-existent in the next century or so. Islam is not a peaceful religion, the mullahs have hijacked this religion, and the end is soon.

      April 3, 2011 at 4:43 am |
    • bethe123


      - You are an idiot.
      Taken out of context may, or may not, impact the meaning...the onus is on you to provide the context and refute his claim,which you did not.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  16. Perlenspiel

    > and wash themselves with water as opposed to toilet-paper.
    and in the process get infected on the left hand. But you don't have to read medical literature, muslem. All those texts are from crusader pigs. Yeah, I know, there may be an isolated islamic medical thinker in 1210 or so. Apparently they were not impressive enough to get you on par in hygiene and medical know how.

    As regards the headscarf: their mothers did not wear it. So the whole act is not religious or cultural: it is just as political as the swastika, the David star or a KKK carved in a tree.

    April 3, 2011 at 2:32 am |
    • adnan

      You must have heard of the Invention of SOAP !! I guess ... I Think they would rather use it than having a sticky infected whole ... !! lol

      April 3, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  17. Dev

    I see CNN is continuing is vile propaganda for the brutal cult of Islam...well done CNN....you lying morons.....
    Posterity will be awful to you liars!

    April 3, 2011 at 2:24 am |
    • adnan

      Cult !! ... 1.5 Billion Muslims and to you they are cult !! ... Amazing Ignorance.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:52 am |
    • bethe123

      adnan - Look who's talking.
      'Cult' has various meanings, including a bizarre religous practice and/or a religous practice involving mind control.
      Islam is bizarre, and killing somebody for changing their mind, while of course bizarre, is also a form of mind control.
      So yes, in the above meaning, Islam is a cult.

      April 3, 2011 at 3:00 am |
  18. ms

    before you say anything about Islam,,,,, go back and see its history,,,, Muslims, Christians, and jews lived in peace together for many years in Jerusalem.

    April 3, 2011 at 2:20 am |
    • Julie in Austin

      That's not at all true. Read the Treaty of Omar - Christians were second class citizens and Jews were last class.

      April 3, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  19. Truthseeker

    The more CNN keeps rubbing these muslims and islam in our faces, the less I like them. They follow a backward, hateful and racist ideology (islam) and the koran is full of anti-semitic verses. There's more hate crimes against Jews in the US than against anyone else. And the muslims are the ones who abuse Jews the most worldwide. So it is hard to understand why CNN keeps promoting such a racist ideology. If CNN was consequent, it should also promote the KKK and National Socialism, they are not any less racist than islam.

    April 3, 2011 at 2:14 am |
    • bethe123

      Yes, we are all (except the Muslims that is) getting tired of CNN's stories on Islam in America.

      "There's more hate crimes against Jews in the US than against anyone else"– I hope that is not true, but if so, it certainly tells us what we already knew, CNN is biased towards Islam.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:17 am |
    • Su

      Point #1, clumping all muslims in with the KKK is like saying all Germans followed Hitler, all pro-lifers share the same ideology as those who blow up abortion clinics, and every Italian has relatives in the Mafia. Point #2, this was an article about one young woman wearing of a head covering, no more and no less. Point #3, it's people like you who should adhere to the ruling of "silence is golden" rather than exercising your First Amendment right to free speech.

      April 3, 2011 at 5:12 am |
  20. Matt

    Stop showing me stories about Muslims in America. No matter what you say, I'll never care about there lives

    April 3, 2011 at 2:09 am |
    • Zeidan

      Matt...i have to say me being a muslim i truely do not like this attention, this is only promoting hate and fear towards muslims and its unfortunate because CNN knows this well and keeps barbarding the viewers with more and more islamophobic articles.

      Shame....this is what Media has become today, its not free-press and its being controlled to give a certain opinion. No wonder USA is losing the information war today. Hateful indirect messages won't help you CNN.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:27 am |
    • Zoh

      You have no respect to other people.. how would you feel if we don't care about your health, fear, or religion. Otherwise, you need to take a course called " RESPECT ALL PEOPLE "

      April 3, 2011 at 2:59 am |
    • Mashki1

      "their" not "there". Learn proper English so that you don't have to show your ignorance so publicly. This would be a better use of your life than hate and bigotry !

      April 3, 2011 at 3:04 am |

      I don't care if you are pro or anti muslim but if you realy want to know the trouth about Islam and Sharia law all you have to do is to SEE what "inocent" muslims do in the most democratic enviroment on the Earth (France, Germany, England, Netherlands, Italy, etc.) and if you like it, so be it, but if you think that Middle Ages mentality in 21st century is an abomination than I think you are right and Soledad O'Brian should be the one living in the same neighbourhood with the most peaceful religios people on this planet (see all North of Africa and Middle East!)

      April 3, 2011 at 3:18 am |
    • Garrick

      Go find yourself a rock to live under. What an idiot

      April 3, 2011 at 3:24 am |
    • Matt can't spell

      their. not there. Your argument was already dumb; using the wrong word makes you look even more stupid.

      April 3, 2011 at 3:52 am |
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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.