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. Judy

    I am so sick and tired or hearing about freedonm of choice....if that is the case we should all have it. When we go to their country we are forced to dress their way so why is it not true in our country. Enough of the freedom crap, it's not for those of us who were born here only those who immigrated

    April 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  2. JeanPaul

    "But to American-born Muslim sisters Dima and Lema Sbenaty, the hijab is a source of pride." EXCEPT that they DO NOT wear it day to day but hope someday to wear it some day????? But they mother does wear it and so other women so whar is this story about?? not wearing the Hijab ( basically scarf) which is not a Burqa or Niqab which are banned in France and do appear a security problem and oppresive to women-

    April 11, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  3. Jim Youncofski

    Wear the head scarf all you want, just don't wear it in the United States. Adapt to our culture or leave. That simple.

    April 11, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • *SIGH*


      Adapt or leave!

      April 11, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  4. mm

    Islam is a dangerous religion. You liberal tolerant goody goody types better wake up fast.

    April 11, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  5. Shahrazad

    I'm a radical feminist & Muslimah hijabi... and proud of it. Make no mistake; in America one of the most radical, feminist acts a woman can make is to deny the male gaze! I'm laughing all the way to my scarf drawer.

    April 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Huh?

      In a true Muslim society, you would be killed for your "feminist" views.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  6. cactus0912

    I say let them wear it. It will make it easier to identify them when the time finally comes.

    April 6, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  7. PRISM 1234

    P.S. The post above was meant...

    @ eki

    It went to wrong place! CNN blogs are real pain!

    April 5, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  8. brad

    I am the father of three daughters. All of them tell me they are constantly leered at, hit on, hooted at, etc. I tell them two things: 1) a lot of men simply don't respect women, 2) in spite of modern trends, dress modestly and they won't attract unwanted attention. The feminists, in response to my second piece of advice, would be "OH! So it's HER fault !" Since common sense no longer exists in this matter, I applaud Muslim women who respect themselves enough to wear headscarfs. One gets the impression that in the west, any form of clothing women have to wear is a sign of oppression.

    April 5, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Mairo

      Right on Brad! If people really thought about it they would come to the same conclusion. Our society thinks it is right and "normal" to put everything out there and show yourself off to the world. It has truly been forgotten what it means to keep your private life private, and to protect the things that are most imporant appropriately. Women somehow think they have attained "equality" in the West, but really they have mainly only attained to a new height of objectification.

      April 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  9. PRISM 1234

    Here is something for those of you who are constantly referring to Crusades as proof that Christianity can be equaled to islam..... Those whom you refer as Christians in Dark Ages were NOT true Christians, they kept the Holy Bible hidden from ordinary people, and imposed their own twisted laws, persecuting anyone who opposed their twisted doctrines.. The whole Catholic Church was a POLITICAL POWER, and was infiltrated and overtaken by workers of satan himself, who were impostors wearing long religious robes, standing at the door, baring the ma-sses of people from the knowledge of God's Word, yet they not entering themselves into the knowledge of Him.... They persecuted the true Christians, and anyone who exposed them and oposed their rule.
    So how can any of you compare the Christianity with islam? Here is the difference: in Islam, the ones who are going by "The Book" are the ones who oppress, and are the ones who are counted to be true muslims. The ones who don't go by their book are not even considered true muslims. What we see today is the face of true Islam. It's the most oppressive religiion on earth! My heart goes out to all those who are born into those dark oppressive lands. Oh, How they need te delivering power of risen Lord Jesus Christ! And I thank OG d that many are getting to know Him, even in those dark lands that are overshadowed by dark cloud of islamism.
    It would be good for those who love to glamorize the hijab and origin of it, to rent themselves the movie "Not without My Daughter" and see the glamor of it......It's no fairytale, it really happened, and it's an every day reality in those lands! And spare yourself the effort trying to claim otherwise!

    April 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Know What


      Re: Movie "Not Without My Daughter" - not taking sides here, just reporting FYI:

      Mahtob's father, Seyyed Bozorg Mahmoody, later told his view of the events in the doc.umentary film "Without My Daughter" (2002).

      Be careful and thorough before you decide what to believe.

      April 4, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      LOL! Yeah, right! Everyone who went through hell like that woman simply lied! Oh, how can they?! How can they insult such wonderful, noble, righteous societies?!
      No! you and your islamic propagandist are not pulling wool over no one's eyes!

      April 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @PRISM 1234,
      " Those whom you refer as Christians in Dark Ages were NOT true Christians, they kept the Holy Bible hidden from ordinary people, and imposed their own twisted laws, persecuting anyone who opposed their twisted doctrines.. "
      You claim to know not only who is a true Christian but also who is a true Muslim, how is that possible? Even if you were an expert on the Bible, the Koran, and the Sunnah(?), you still may be interpreting them wrong.
      For example, if allowing the "ordinary people" access to the Bible is a requirement for true Christianity, how could anyone be a true Christian before c1439, when Gutenberg invented his printing press? And that just an obvious issue, what about all the subtle linguistic issues in all three texts, are you 100% accurate on them?

      April 4, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      I have no desire to shout back and forth with you! From the other posts of yours which I've read, you can not understand nor tell the difference between many things! And if I or anyone else tried to explain to you the things you demand explanations for, it would only fall on deaf ears, because all you do is keep parroting the same old worn out phrases: but you don't know... no one knows.... Well, some of us Do KNOW, and it is because we believe, know, love and have relationship with the One who knows all things and He reveals them to those who honor His Name, and the Name of His son, Jesus Christ whom He has sent. Till you get to understand what I'm saying here, there is no point to try to explain anything else to you!
      Good evening to you!

      April 4, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @PRISM 1234,
      Very well, I have no desire to shout back and forth with you either, and since civilized debate is apparently not an option I won't expect a response.
      However, while it may seem to you that I "can not understand nor tell the difference between many things," have "deaf ears", and "keep parroting the same worn out phrases," I would suggest that expecting everyone, or anyone for that matter, to trust you and trust that you "KNOW" certain things *before* attempting to understand what you are saying is a little unrealistic. Most people, in my experience, want a little more information before trusting that someone 'knows' something. In fact when someone claims to "KNOW" something but can't explain how or why it is true, that usually indicates that they don't really 'know' it; they just 'believe' it to be true. At least that's the way it seems to me.

      Thanks and have a nice day.

      April 5, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  10. mehmet

    To attribute to Christianity the virtues of civilization, which are not its property, and to show retrogression, the enemy of Islam, to be its friend, is to suggest that the firmament is revolving in the opposite direction.

    April 4, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  11. Janae

    its oppression to make a law that says that a woman cant wear something. women walk around half naked these days and people want me to feel ashamed because of a scarf. i absolutely love my hijab even though my family doesnt. it makes me feel like a woman valued for her mind and not her body. what happened to the good old days when american women valued modesty?

    April 4, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  12. Avg. American

    Wow, get a life people (and read some books while doing so).

    April 4, 2011 at 12:21 am |
  13. Hany

    Not surprising that Lema Sbenaty was a lier, when O'Brien asked her about beating women in islam she said "no quran doesn't say that'. Quran clearly list beating the wife as one way to chastize her. Also the contradiction between Ivy and Lema regarding hijab, Ivy say it is in the package of islam. Lema says, hijab is optional and you decide on when towear it. Obviously Lema is using "Tiqyyah" which is concealment of believe to confuse the enemy.

    April 3, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  14. meiguoren11

    I applaud modesty, but I hardly think that showing one's hair is immodest.

    I don't think Ivy is being completely honest when talking about not being seen as a s exual object...if all she changed about herself was adding a hijab and that effectuated a change in the number of wolf-whistles I will be truly shocked. Islam demands a high standard of modesty; I don't oppose modesty, but the standard demanded might be a little too extreme, even where a burka is not required.

    In any event, I think it is disingenuous to claim that the difference between a woman being seen as s exual object depends on whether her hair is showing.

    April 3, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  15. Fady

    Not every muslim is a terrorist, but EVERY terrorist is a muslim! Why aren't any islamic leaders comming out and condeming terrorism?

    April 3, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • GenCnslr

      Forgotten the IRA (Irish Republican Army) already?

      April 4, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Maryam

      You should start opening up your eyes and cleaning out your ears, and actually go out and meet a practicing Muslim. We hate these terrorists more than you ever will, ever realized that our religion has been hijacked, and to help this cruel injustice spread, people force themselves to be ignorant and end up unintentionally aiding these radicals by spreading hatred ever more

      April 4, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • April

      NOT TRUE Timothy Mcveigh and hitler were not muslim.....in fact most serial killers, pedophiles, and serial rapist are white american christian men. your perverse ideology is like stating hitler was a german so all germans are nazis. In fact some of the nicest people I have met were Germans.

      April 5, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • VAJill

      And why aren't YOU coming out against right wing "Christian" terrorists who think it is okay to murder doctors and blow up synagogues????????????

      April 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  16. CMC

    If the woman in this article feels more respected because she wears a headscarf, that is certainly her ideal to believe. However, if wearing headscarves actually made a woman more respected, the women in the Middle East wouldn't be among some of the most repressed and degraded in the world. Clothing doesn't make someone worthy of respect or not. Whether someone is in a burqua or a miniskirt, they should be respected no matter what simply because they are a human being.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • April

      and what is so empowering and respectable about american women standing on street corners and having children at 13?
      what is so empowering about american women starving themselves to be thin. Working in massage parlors and gentlemens clubs? Yes that is true freedom...LOL

      April 5, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  17. Redd

    The human race is a cruel breed.regardless of religion, political ideologies or nationality. we always look for some excuse to kill one another. even if you take away all the weapons we have, we'll kill each other with our bare hands!!!

    April 3, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Nonimus


      April 4, 2011 at 3:06 pm |

    No needs to wear a headscarf to feel CONFIDENT....it depends on how you were raised, if you were raise afraid, with someone voice telling you what you can and can't do, and being underestimate because you are a women and that you need to be submitted and that God will love you more for that …of course you will have to hide somewhere…to me the reason of the hijab is insecurity, to hide bruises, to make happy family members, and to make sure other men don’t see their women, since they really like to see other women, a man is a man, no matter what!…stop that, be yourself, and if you want to change religion, do it…be you…not your family…they chose they fait…now is your time!!! GOD IS LOVE, no matter if you use, shorts, pants, skirt, hijab, dress, etc…everything is in your hearth and brain!!

    April 3, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  19. Reality

    John Muslim,

    The truth about how male Muslims treat women:

    o From- Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography, "Infidel".

    "Thus begins the extraordinary story of a woman born into a family of desert nomads, circu-mcised as a child, educated by radical imams in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, taught to believe that if she uncovered her hair, terrible tragedies would ensue. It's a story that, with a few different twists, really could have led to a wretched life and a lonely death, as her grandmother warned. But instead, Hirsi Ali escaped – and transformed herself into an internationally renowned spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women."

    ref: Washington Post book review.

    four excerpts:

    "Some of the Saudi women in our neighborhood were regularly beaten by their husbands. You could hear them at night. Their screams resounded across the courtyards. "No! Please! By Allah!"

    "The Pakistanis were Muslims but they too had castes. The Untouchable girls, both Indian and Pakistani were darker skin. The others would not play with them because they were untouchable. We thought that was funny because of course they were touchable: we touched them see? but also horrifying to think of yourself as untouchable, desp-icable to the human race."

    "Between October 2004 and May 2005, eleven Muslim girls were killed by their families in just two regions (there are 20 regions in Holland). After that, people stopped telling me I was exaggerating."

    "The kind on thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia and among the Brotherhood of Kenya and Somalia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves the feudal mind-set based on tribal concepts of honor and shame. It rests on self-deception, hyprocricy, and double standards. It relies on the technologial advances of the West while pretending to ignore their origin in Western thinking. This mind-set makes the transition to modernity very painful for all

    April 3, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • April

      Reality don't forget the abuse of american women by american men on us soil. My father regularly beat my mother and brought GF's home. He was and still is a Christian. Besides do u really care how muslim women are treated, really?

      April 4, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Reality


      Does not everyone almost want to vomit when they hear about the way Muslim women are treated? I sure do and I am sure you do to.

      With respect to your father, he is not a Christian.

      April 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • April

      I want to laugh when my fellow Americans ask if my muslim husband beats me.

      April 4, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Reality


      You are a Muslim and dated a Christian and yet you are still alive? Lucky girl!!!

      April 5, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • April

      NO I used to be Baptist

      April 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Reality


      And we assume the following is why you are no longer a Baptist?

      Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

      The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

      For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

      Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

      Based on the following, however, we wonder why you converted to Islam?

      Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

      This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

      And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

      Current crises:
      The Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

      April 5, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  20. kamikaze

    France made these things illegal and so should we. It's about oppression. Oppression of women.

    April 3, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • Sarah

      What part of "modesty" don't you understand? It is not about oppression. Also France has not outlawed hijab. You talk about freedom, doesn't that also include freedom to cover or not to cover?

      April 3, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Hana

      So, you will be a hypocrite and demand a law forcing women who choose to wear the hijab to remove it on American soil... sorry honey, but that IS oppression.

      To force someone to dress a certain way IS oppression, which ever direction that standard is swinging.

      April 3, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Behrouz

      Freedom of expression is God given right to humanity, which includes covering one’s self from head to toe if one wishes to do so. Now having said that, no place in the Quran do you find commandments mandating that women shall cover themselves as practiced by most muslim women today. Such practice is nothing but religious innovation and/or tradition. The Quran asks that women maintain a dress code that is “modest”, so long as they cover their chests (24:31) and lengthen their garments (33:59). The best garment in the sight of God, is the garment of righteousness (7:26).

      April 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Just out of curiosity, what is appropriate?
      I live in an area where headscarves are pretty rare and I've yet to see a burka, however, the other day in a store there was a woman in a niqab, at least I think niqab is the correct term for a headdress with only eyes visible. Now how is one supposed to react, keeping in mind that it is definitely not a social convention in this area? If it is her choice, then I should respect that and treat her like anyone else, but if it's not her choice wouldn't it be appropriate to offer help of some sort, perhaps a family services number or domestic abuse organization. Although, if it is her choice then just finding out if it's her choice might be viewed as prejudicial and/or derogatory.

      I think some here are Muslim women, what do you suggest?

      April 4, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • April

      Why don't we as a nation comment on young teenage girls who walk out of the house practically naked.
      Its acceptable for american women to walk round half naked but God forbid she cover her hair, legs, and arms!
      I grew up baptist and it was accepted for me to walk around with short shorts, miniskirts and a tanktop that showed
      practically everything. Then one day I became a Moslem and covered most of my body and my whole family thought I lost my mind.

      April 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Dean

      So, does this mean that Catholic nuns will be forbidden from wearing veils too? Although I don't believe that women should be forced to wear a veil, I certainly don't feel that they should be forced not to wear them either. The hallmark of a truly developed nation is tolerance, and France has clearly demonstrated that it has none whatsoever. Please Europe, whatever you do, don't follow in the footsteps of this phobic and anachronistic country.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • JeanPaul

      So, Both Sisters DO NOT wear the Hijab day to day right? But – " to American-born Muslim sisters Dima and Lema Sbenaty, the hijab is a source of pride" what??? so why not wear it- is just a scarf- and is a source of pride but they only hope to wear it someday??? so what is this story about then???

      April 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • JeanPaul

      FRANCE only made the Burqa and Niqab illegal cause they are masks over face but not the Hijab or Chador which are essentially scarfs– much less than a Nun's outfit .By the way, the Koran, the holy scriptures of Islam (Muslims), does not say anything about covering the face of anyone- it only says that people should dress with modesty !!

      April 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm |

      it is actually kinda ridiculous and oppressive for women to wear these outfits. its about toning down a women natural beauty for their ignorant insecure men did not have to worry about another man taking their property... i mean wife. also about being able to cover up their face and should be aloud to do what they want. what if what they want isn't good for them they just don't know it? should i be able to go around wearing a ski mask that covers my face? see how well that goes over with me walking into a bank wearing a full faced ski mask. french are doing it for security reason and the greater good should win out, especially in light of everything that is carried out for their religion.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:47 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.