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. annie

    ajd-teach us?

    April 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  2. Kodiaks12

    I don't have a problem with muslim women covering themselves. If they are in room with all women they will take the scarf off. The ones that annoy me are the ones who wear a ton of make-up, paint their nails and husbands drink and gamble. Not to mention, the liquor stores they own. The wives are all covered up. Seriously?! what's the point!? I'm a christian and I've read the Qur'an. very intresting how most of them do whatever they want, and make their own rules. The muslims I no are very nice and giving people. A couple we are friends with, the wife always stays covered around my husband. But if we are alone she takes it off. We never talk about religion and they respect us, and we respect them.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  3. ajd

    I'm still trying to figure out why CNN has been promoting the Muslim religion on their website so much lately?

    April 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  4. Soren Kierkegaard

    People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • chuckmartel

      I knew Soren Kierkegaard. Buddy, you are no Soren Kierkegaard.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Soren Kierkegaard

      Is your point to brag about having known Kierkegaard, or is it to prove that you do not recognize one of his quotes.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • chuckmartel

      I knew him for biting the heads of wippets when he was with old Dimsy. Didn't recognize the quote though. Are you sure its him?. The Pirhanna gang is bad news.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Soren Kierkegaard

      No, I was on BBC2. The expose of the Piranha Brothers on Ethel the Frog was on BBC1. But your Llyod Bentsen imitation was pretty good.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  5. I The Sky Ferry Say Follow Me

    Suckers all suckers who believe in a magical ferry in the sky

    April 2, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Only a dry bones, spiritually walking dead among us would write a statement like yours. You can stay the fool. Obviously, no one in your life has stopped you or cares enough to do so.


      April 2, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  6. Bob WIlson

    The last witch was burned by the Church in 1801 which tells us Islam is about 200 years behind Chiristians in becoming civilized.
    Muslim Missionaries are moving here to establish Islam in the US and convert as many Americans as they can to their religion. However, you don't dare establish a Christian missionariy in a Muslim country.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      The so called witches burned at the stake were mid-wives being a pain in the side of physicians of the time a run for their business.


      April 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  7. Cathy Kayser

    Islam is now where Christianity was about 800 years ago – remember the Crusades and the Inquisition? That is where Islam is now. The problem is some Islamic countries are trying to get nuclear weapons and have formed terrorist organizations which must be dealt with. Undoubtedly several hundred years from now Islam will have come of age.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  8. Wiseguy

    Are you going to KABOOM me if I burn the Quran?

    April 2, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  9. annie

    america for the free, i thought. if i wear a scarf where would you like to send me. i am second generation american on one inside and pioneer (unknown number of generations) on the other side. are we so callous, hateful. why do we pick on innocents. why is dress such a big deal.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • norcalmojo

      It's not a big deal, but neither is people picking on people for it. Look at the comments. Everyone insults everyone. There's nothing in the article that suggests they're being persecuted in any way. We live in a multicultural society. Sometimes there is friction. It's just part of life. We all deal with it.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  10. Ernesto

    You American Muslims obviously have a problem in your own community with regard to how the Qu'ran should be interpreted. Also, your fellow non-Muslim Americans would like to see a little more enthusiasm in your denunciations of those who have hijacked your religion in so many places around the world. This is America, the Land of the Free and the Brave!, you are Americans, speak up, be Brave!

    April 2, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Mark


      April 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  11. norcalmojo

    I wonder what Dima and Lema's father would think of them marrying an Irish Catholic.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  12. MissV

    Such a ludicrous double standard–if we should ever (God or Allah forbid) move to an Arab state, we are forced to dress more modest in order not to draw attention to our female bodies (they prefer young boys anyway); however when Muslims or born again Muslims throughout the Western world decide to wear the Hijab aka barrier, it's O.K. and we're suppose to clap as they walk past or show up to work in a head cover. They refuse to respect the country they have chosen to live in or have taken shelter since most of them move heaven and earth to get the hell out of where they came from!! I say get the heck out of the U.S. or wherever they're not happy being who they are and go elsewhere. I am just so over the whole Islam thing, I don't care what religion anyone is–just don't shove it down our throat. Crying wolf can only lead to trouble. We already have animosity towards radical Islam, do you really want to keep the world's focus on "we're being mistreated", "we don't get respect"...Well you can discuss that with Rodney Dangerfield..That's his trademarked shtick!

    April 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  13. Mark


    That is the most original definition of a Christian that I've seen yet. Kind of says it all.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  14. Wolf

    “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.

    (P.S. They don't whistle now because they can't see you and figure you aren't receptive to the compliment. How do you know the whistle is disrespectful...some men mean it as a compliment to beauty. I s l a m is so presumptive!)

    "When you put on a scarf ... [you] know that people can’t look at you as a s e x u a l object. The first time I put it on I felt more comfortable in my own skin.”

    (People still look at covered women as s e x u a l objects..you can't control what is in a person's mind....and being covered is no insurance it only blocks the physical appearance. Another failed presumption.)

    Also, who the heck wants to cover their head in 98% Humidity and 110 degree heat? Oh well, to each their own, I guess. Just take it off at the DMV and don't make a stink about it!

    April 2, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  15. Jax

    You people make me want to knock your heads together. The religious intolerance you people spew makes me wonder if you guys ever look past your own narrow views and realize that Christianity has just a bloody and barbaric past as Islam does. Anyone remember the crusades? You know, those horrific wars that were instigated by the Popes in order to bring more cash to the church, oh, and free the holy land...nice excuse to slaughter women and children in the name of a benevolent god.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • That guy

      Nobody is talking about a bloody past, people are concerned with a bloody present.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • norcalmojo

      Why do people always present this argument as if it's something that everyone else has missed?

      It's been tried for years. It's tired, it's old, it's irrelevant.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Excuse me Mr. Hypocrite Jax, is there a war going on today? Do you exist today? Therefore, if there is a war going on and you are still sucking up oxygen, you are involved in the war. I wonder what the generations 2000 years from now will think of you.


      April 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • HistProf

      Oh Jax...please stop. You are like the Chicago Cubs touting they won a pennant back in 1945! We are in the here and now. Quit crying about an obvious mistake from the past and lets talk about the mistakes being made today.

      April 2, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  16. Tom

    The head scarf is an insult to me and many other Americans. I agree with France, do not wear the rag in public.
    Every other ' – American' has joined and has been absorbed into one society.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • peacppl

      does the beenie,turban,etc bother you .....you are NO MORE AMERICAN THAN THESE TWO GIRLS.....

      April 2, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • bethe123

      Tom - Agreed.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Jayz66

      What if someone said The cross necklace is an insult to me and many other Americans. I agree with Saudi Arabia, do not wear the ugly chain in public. Every other ' – American' has joined and has been absorbed into one society.
      Everyone has a piece of their cultural heritage, why shouldn't Muslims?

      April 2, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • hamza

      you mean,we should all become europeans?what isan american?are menonites americans?what about their scarves?how about hats cowboy style?should we all get 7.000 tatoos,take drugs,drink excessivelly,be promiscous,hate everything non-european,sing "sweet home alabama" and live in a trailer with christmas lights on?

      April 2, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • gmoney

      Tom – I have a better idea. How about all we ban all women from wearing mini skirts that show off their crotch in public? Or all white men from wearing mullets and wife beaters? Or all black men from wearing saggy baggy jeans and du-rags? If im starting to sound ridiculous, that's exactly what you sound like. This is America baby (not France), land of the free. If Muslims want to cover themselves that's their perogative. I'll take that over being forced to stare at a crotch any day.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Wow Tom. Tolerance isn't included in your belief system.


      April 2, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  17. LB

    You need to understand that there is a huge difference between radical, extremist Muslims and regular Muslims. You want to talk about the Quran? Those texts were written ages ago! No one follows the Quran literally in this day and age, it's not possible. And I found many, many questionable passages in the Bible as well...let's talk about that too, shall we?

    April 2, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • gmoney

      Much of the Bible was written ages ago but does not make it any less true. When reading the Bible it is important we take what is being said in its context. Anything else would be misrepresenting and/or misreading theBible.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • To LB

      I don't know if you will read the comment section again but I read your responses and am glad you're full of levelheadedness. As more and more Muslims integrate into society, both here and elsewhere people will start to see Muslims are like anyone else. The whole issue of a Hijab is another story. Just do away with extremists in any religion or issue and you'll see the true side of things. We as a people like to look at the bad side more than the good. That's why most people here point out only the negatives of religion, not the positives.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • FifthApe

      gmoney – what context possible could make stone children, women or keeping slaves, or forcing a woman to marry her rapist? Provide ANY context you like. The bible is filled with nonsense and evil.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • hamza

      lb,you are trying to do impossible,you are trying to convince those who decided long time ago that they hate muslims.the more you try to prove that many muslims are peace-loving people,the more will they attack.christian americans are kind of people who don't care for justice nor they respect others.one has to force them to respect you,like vietnamese did.that is why muslims in the middle east and central asia fight them.if they shut up,americans would terrorize them israeli style.what needs to be said to americans is:if you attack other nations,those people there will fight you back and we muslims will not fight your wars.when your cousins come back home fom iraq/afghanistan,show them murfreesboro,tn/gainesille,fl footage,let them decide if that was what they wanted to achieve when they enlisted.please,keep your dignity and stop trying to be friends with those who spit on us all here.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • IsmAtEm

      FifthApe: You forgot about God sending bears to eat the children mocking the prophets. Are you mocking prophets?

      April 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Wiseguy

      that is what we called 'denial"....will you KABOOM me if burn the Quran?

      April 2, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      LB, any time you want to discuss the Bible with any Christians on this blog. Feel free. Don't expect to get a true answer from a non- believer who will never have a clue about life if they don't learn to shelf their egos.


      April 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • HistProf

      I'm ready LB...give it your best shot. Tell me about the contradictions. I'll even let you start.

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

    No mater what religion it is, to me you loose I.Q. points just for fallowing it.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • FifthApe

      Yup, goes without saying. I mean this is what people think:

      Definition of Christianity: the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Kate

      Sounds like your IQ is a bit low Nate...

      Fallowing...what kind of word is that?

      April 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Jam

      If you have to say things like that, please improve your spelling.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Ryan

      Said the guy who can't even spell. Did you grow up in the "unreligious" public school system or what?

      April 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • IsmAtEm

      The phrase, "symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically" should read, "symbolically eat his flesh, drink his blood and telepathically" – Yes, that is exactly Christianity and what I believe. You got a problem with what I believe?

      April 2, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Scott

      ok, so you made fun of the Christians... not that hard to do because the threat of death is not there, now tell us you sarcastic opinion of Islam and Mohammad ,, oh wait I forgot that you only make jokes about the "safe" "peaceful" religions that teach you to turn the other cheek. very brave of you........A$$hat

      April 2, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Nate, big egos with nothing to back it. Not only lost all points, you're not even in the ball park.


      April 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Scott, turn the other cheek doesn't mean to take abuse (verbally or physically) from others. Actually, it means to stop explaining Jesus' truth to non- believers who have no eyes to see nor ears to hear and insist on being a fool.


      April 2, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  19. Yassen

    To Az Zaqqum:
    You are lying ! Al hijab (scarf) is mentioned in Al-Quran obviously, and I am Arabic and know what is mentioned in Al-Quran.
    By the way: many people here hate muslims people and like them to be 'non muslims', and this is also mentioned in Al-Quran

    April 2, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  20. LB

    I am a Muslim chic, born and raised in the U.S. My Muslim cousins are enlisted in the U.S. Army, fighting for our freedoms. I don't wear a head scarf nor am I very religious. There are tons of Muslims like me out there, living here in the U.S. Betcha didn't know that! But I do have friends who wear the head scarf and are a bit more religious than I am. Guess what? We don't clash. They are as American as we are! Just because someone wears a piece of clothing...which symbolizes modesty (not oppression)...all of a sudden you think you know someone in and out? How they think? What they feel? What their views are on politics, life, etc? You think all Muslims are on a mission to inflict violence? Lol. Do you know how ludicrous it sounds? I often read these comments and wonder how easily people jump to conclusions about followers of Islam. Honestly? I feel sorry for you. Your ignorance is apalling. My religion teaches me peace and love. Majority are like me. We work, study, have families, go to concerts, watch movies, and chill. Don't put a label on me or others for that matter.

    April 2, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • hamza

      european americans think that they are only real americans and that everybody has to wear european style clothes,etc.the conflict is not religious,it is political.european americans would like others,especially muslims,to go and fight their wars,so that only casualties are muslims,and that european americans can live like their grandfathers did-no work,lots of money,governing and supervising only.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • chuckmartel

      You and your friends are disease and I am well aware of muslim soldiers contribution to our military; mass murder of fellow soldiers. I think you are a liar anyway.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • David

      It's my opinion that humans of any particular culture are fearful of change. Everyone knows–"Ignorance breeds fear". In general, we tend to take little interest in other cultures until they are shed in a bad light. It's no different than non-latin Americans being angry and fearful of Hispanic immigrants pouring over the Mexican border into the US. Cultures that tend to be non-conformist are frightening to the majority. We ask ourselves, "why do they not act like us? Why do they not talk like us, dress like us? Do they think they are better than us by not conforming? Do they judge me? Are they going to try to make me change?" These might sound like ridiculous ideas, but, again, my opinion, people are thinking these things. Personally, I fear some of these things myself. I must remind myself, "the branch that doesn't bend in the wind, snaps". The "west" i knew growing up, (I grew up in Canada), will not be the same when I am old or my children are old. So, to cut this short, even something as simple as a headscarf can be "alien" to some and invoke thoughts of fear and anger. The media can really fuel this fire or as this article has done, try to calm it. I hope we can all live together in peace, but somehow, I don't have a lot of faith in humanity. Good luck, sincerely!

      April 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Peter

      The US is a Christian majority country. Don't expect to get understanding from them.

      I'm atheist and I personally think you and the other Christian faith are the ones who are ludicrous. Having to fall for lies is what makes me laugh.

      April 2, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Peter, non-believers with big egos that believe only what is in it for them destroyed my life as I knew it. I've never had a problem ever with a religious person who lives a humble life.


      April 2, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Peter


      Yeah a "humble" and restricted life.

      You only have one life to live. Live it to your fullest (within social acceptable terms of course). You dont need to believe in a God or a faith to "do good".

      Just be good for goodness sake. You don't have to read a book to be told that you know?

      What is more important than "religion" is family customs and values.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Peter, what you non-believers don't know about truth is incredible. You seriously believe that this life is all there is and when you die, that's it. Your body goes to burial. Nice lie to believe in. The truth is, all our souls have known God from the beginning. We were with Him. This world (2nd earth age) is to make our decision to go against what Lucifer and the 1/3 fallen angels did to rebel against God. It's our only chance to love and follow Him so that we can dwell with Him through eternity. All those that do not know Jesus (by reading the Bible) and comprehending what they read in His blueprint He sent us, along with abide in His spiritual teachings will not dwell with the Lord for eternity if they don't change their ways. I know this is not only going over your head because you don't believe nor care to know His truth, but it is His truth just the same. Same goes for all those that follow other religions. All false, devised to lead children of God astray so they don't know they are follow satan (the liar) who deceives all.


      April 2, 2011 at 7:29 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.