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. sirlaurel

    To the person who commented on Tim Mcviegh, He bombed Ok City in response to Waco, TX and the Branch Dividians. It was not a religious attack but an internal action of rebelion with in the U.S.. Since we want all happy happy joy ball here, lets remember one thing "With in Islam there is no tolerance for any other way then thuough Islam" that is an undisputable fact. Whine and cry all you want but it is there way or death. There is no middle ground. Don't be fooled.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  2. Brandt

    Jesus died for Muslims. Why should I love them any less?

    April 2, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Abraham's religion was and is certainly Jewish and most profoundly Christian. Jesus said,

      "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." Then the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM." (John 8:56-58; see also Exodus 3:14)

      The religion of Abraham, the Hebrew (Genesis 14:13), was both Jewish and Christian, because he is "the father of all those who believe" (Romans 4:11). True Judaism and true Christianity is actually the same religion, the religion of Abraham. Yahweh, the God who gave Moses the Torah (Exodus 24:12), the God who has a Son (Psalm 2:7-12), is the God who appeared to Abraham. Genesis 12:1, 4, 7; 15:1, 2, 4, 6, 7-8; 17:1; 18:1, 13-14, 17, 19-20, 26, & 33, all name Yahweh ("the Lord") as the One who spoke with Abraham, and it is this God that true Jews and true Christians worship. It is not Allah, the god of the Quran, to whom Abraham gave worship, but rather the Lord God, Yahweh.

      And he moved from there to the mountain east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; there he built an altar to the Lord [Yahweh] and called on the name of the Lord [Yahweh]. (Genesis 12:8; see also Genesis 14:22; 22:14)

      "Salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22), and it is the Jewish Scriptures and the gospel of Jesus Christ that brings salvation to mankind (Genesis 15:6; Matthew 4:4; James 1:21). This is the religion of Abraham, both before he died and after (Luke 16:19-31).


      April 2, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  3. Mudfoot

    Keep wearing them..it let's us know who not to trust?

    April 2, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  4. rightwingtxn

    Islam is a plague upon the earth. Nations have been fighting these nut jobs for centuries.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • FifthApe

      Correction: Religion is a plague upon the earth. All of them.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  5. They want it both ways

    Ivy said: "You can’t divide it up into little pieces and pick and choose what you want. It’s a whole package.”

    I believe you completely Ivy. BTW, you know the 'whole package' includes killings infidels don't you. This is exactly why I fear any and all muslims. Some claim that they do not believe in 'that part' of the koran. Well then, you are not a muslim. If you are truly muslim, then you believe in killing/enslaving/taxing/etc. of all infidels. You can't have it both ways.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  6. Brandt

    @Tracy: That's hilarious! 🙂 I sound Arabic because I have a cold and have some phlegm in my throat. Sorry that's like really random. Anyway, I have a good feeling about you and your posts. Keep spreading the love.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  7. seriously

    I think this religion is crap. I think most religions are. There may be one creator. Maybe not. I think with a little common sense, anyone can see this religion breeds radicals, violence and oppression. I travelled to a muslim country a few years ago. I went into a small shop where the owner could tell I was an American. He confided in me that he was a Christian but he could not say that out loud in his country or he would be persecuted. This country was Egypt. This was in 2004. He desperately wanted to come to America so he could practice freely. I feel sorry for those who are under the hand of Islam. I hope one day they can escape .

    April 2, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  8. In the house

    I am a boat. I can float. You are racist haters.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Wiseguy

      You people always say haters and racist to the people that doesn't like you...Muslim.....then you start the revenge......then you start killing people.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Ted Ward

      It's not racism to clearly recognize bad ideas. Ideas have no "race". No one falls for that shallow routine anymore.

      April 2, 2011 at 10:41 pm |

    @nina–very true, that bad thing is that when that when and if that occurs and you don't celebrate or respect Muslim traditions, you'd be killed.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  10. Elijah

    I hope the next building muslims blow up is CNN headquarters. Even then these morons would still be kissing their ass.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • FifthApe

      Words of a psychopath to be sure.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  11. alex

    dont worry girls ....not all people are judgmental... only the ignorant ones.
    and they do it so they can fell better about their own pathetic lives..
    i have nothing but respect for you

    April 2, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  12. mar1961

    Disgracefull. thats all I have to say, hey raghead, in america we dont wear diapers on our heads, but you are too proud right, and so are we, we are proud to be americans, and thats why you will never be an american, yes even though you were born here.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Chris R

      Way to make me ashamed to be an American

      April 2, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  13. Brandt

    Mohammed: God grant you success in your quest for Him my friend. Salam.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  14. norcalmojo

    Read the history. Pea, the first crusade started as an appeal for help from Christian Constantinople. (later conquered, cleansed and renamed Istanbul) It's the birthplace of formal Christianity. The first bible was commissioned from Constantinople. Muslims won, so they wrote the history. That's why everyone considers the crusaders "the bad guys"

    April 2, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Brandt

      To truly forgive is to begin to follow the path toward the heart of God Himself. God sent His only Son that the world may be saved through Him.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • standingwave

      You kinda forgot the part where the Crusaders sacked Constantinople.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  15. neochess


    Salafists in Egypt now have the courage to threat to burn the faces of noncovered women, and here in America, supposedly a country that was founded by Christians, CNN is making sure that this headscarf is a symbol of pride.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  16. Brandt

    Hey there. I'm no bleeding heart liberal. My political views align themselves more with Libertarianism / social conservativism. I happen to be a Christian. I just want to say that some of the personal attacks against people here (not Islam in general) are disgusting. Islam is, in my view a false religion. But so is capitalism and the greed for power that caused the twin towers to come down. Investigate 9/11 and who really took down the twin towers. Fanaticism was involved on some levels, but who orchestrated it? A true Christian would love a Muslim like this and recognize the pure religion/relationship these people are groping for. Absolutely, a veil / hijab can be a sign of purity. As always though Islam as a religious system has perverted it. If you want to view progress in women's rights over time look at how God has redeemed women through covenant with them, first through Abraham, then declaring us (male/female) all one in Christ. If God has patience and a love for people whose equality values have not always measured up, why not for Muslims? It is the ultimate in hypocrisy to declare Muslims misogynistic without examing the roots and the people that our own faith came from. Jesus loves Muslims.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • sirlaurel

      Brandt, love your forgiving ways. However The Savior is the way and the light of the World. he loves those who accept is Fathers way. He was very clear about this fact, you will come back with turn to the other cheek remeber this you MUST ask for forgiveness in order for him to grant it. Muslims will never take a knee to the One and as for forgiveness.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • standingwave

      God has redeemed women?You're joking right?For how long did good Christians consider women as property,as cheap labor?For how long were women denied the vote in this country?The right to take part in this country's economic life?You good Christians seem to have spent the better part of 20 centuries ignoring this so-called "redemption".

      April 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      standingwave, here's some truth for you. Every soul has always known God because we have been with Him from the beginning. After He destroyed the first earth age, He allowed us to be born of woman into this world to love and follow Him on earth, as it is in Heaven and for eternity. OK? I've already written this truth about why gender was created in this 2nd earth age. Now for a serious truth. God only chose a few to be born as the female gender because they happen to be stronger spiritually to handle what the female gender has to do. When we die, our spirits go back to God, who created ALL and we go back to our spiritual bodies with no gender.


      April 2, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  17. PRISM 1234

    P.S. above comment intended for poster who said

    "go get wasted and fall off a balconey WHITE trash"

    April 2, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  18. John in Vegas

    Religion teaches people who to hate. What better way is there to differentiate friend from foe than a costume? Proud to wear the Hijab? I rest my case.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • standingwave

      That's the problem with all religions.They are much more concerned with dividing,rather than uniting,people.All they seem to do is stress the differences.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  19. Lizzy10

    America has freedom of religion and if wearing a head scarf is part of a religion, I see nothing wrong with it. Would you outlaw any religious dress like France? That's when you start down the slippery slope to intolerance, you know what the founding fathers fought against. I like that we can practice whatever religion we wish, even not practice at all if that's what we want. Freedom of religion is one of our country's founding priciples, and you cannot pick and choose which freedom you will follow, they are a package that comes with being a citizen of America.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:37 pm |

      There are no greater "intolerant" nations than Muslim nations. Try being Jewish or a Christian in ANY Muslim nation, that's true intolerance.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Lizzy10

      @chubbygob69-but we live in America, not a Muslim nation, that's the point.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Ralph in Orange Park, FL

      @CHUBBYGOB69. Up until comparatively recently, Jews and Christians were treated better in Muslim countries than Jews and Muslims were treated in Christian countries. Try reading some history.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Tracy

      @Lizzy10 Exactly the right idea. If the hate spewing members of the Westboro Baptist Church have the right to protest at funerals, an American college student studying to be a pediatrician can choose to modest.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • rs1201

      Ralph in Orange Park, Fl
      As a Jew born in a muslim country and subjected to unspeakable treatment by the people of the religion of peace, I can speak more authoritatively than you will ever be able to do. There's absolutely nothing redeeming about muslims...they're just pure evil and will never change ...not after what I saw they did to the Fogel family in Israel a couple of weeks ago...that's what they're about...pure evil.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  20. Tracy

    Catholic nuns often CHOOSE to cover their heads for the sake of modesty. A hijab is no different. I think some posters here are confusing a hijab with a burqa. By the way, as a high school teacher in middle America my Muslim students have been some of the most pleasant to deal with on a daily basis. They come from two parent homes and often value education more than others. (I am white, 40 years old, female, Catholic and have earned a Masters degree. Feel free to pick on that as needed.)

    April 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • splasher6

      when did Catholics ram into the world trade centers?

      April 2, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Sean

      Should we consider the religion of the guy who bombed Oklahoma City? If you also consider the "Christian" soldiers who are sitting in the Middle East... then you think exactly like Al Qaeda.... Cheers. Welcome to ignorance.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:39 pm |

      What an ignorant moron, A nun is a woman who has taken vows committing her to a spiritual life.[1] She may be and who voluntarily chooses to leave mainstream society and live her life in prayer and contemplation in a monastery or convent. Catholic women don't go around wearing "nun garb".

      April 2, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Nina

      pretty soon, you'll be celebrating Ramadan and Eid instead of christmas and Easter and You will be totally ok with that.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Brandt

      @ splasher. Investigate 9/11. Check out Alex Jones. You may be suprised at the various "religions" that conspired against the American people. Maybe even your own. Muslims are not our enemy. Evil is. The truth in Jesus Christ sets us free.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • arb

      Muslims don't need facebook. They need FaceCover! However in this case, you can judge the book by the cover and you won't be wrong!

      April 2, 2011 at 1:50 pm |

      @sean, stop making stuff up and stop it with the ridiculous analogies in your pathetic attempt to justify an intolerant, violent "religion". The Oklahoma city bomber was an atheist and didn't commit his crimes in the name of any religion and the thousands of American troops in the middle east are of different religions and backgrounds.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Brandt

      Tracy: I think you are a wonderful person. All I would say is that careful that your religion does not put unecessary legalisms on you. My jihad is to be free in Christ and to know the truth which sets us free. *hug*

      April 2, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Tracy

      Kindly capitalize "Christmas."

      I simply mean that in this nation we have the freedom of choice. Not all Muslim women choose to wear the hijab. Not all nuns choose wear a habit. And before Vatican II, Catholic women were expected to wear a hat while at Mass. My aunt tells a rather funny story about a nun pinning a Kleenex in her hair when she forgot her hat on First Friday.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Brandt

      @CHUBBY: You my friend are getting closer to the truth. Whatever your political alignment is investigate 9/11, Oklahoma city etc. I'm Canadian, you presumably are American. Both our governments are corrupt to the core. Start to youtube "Alex Jones" and "Lindsey Williams". See you in the infowar.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • HistoryRepeats

      *cough* *cough* Crusades *cough* *cough*

      Plenty of "crazy" people in the world. Some are just more motivated than others to make their point. These are the people we need to be worried about, not necessarily what religion they believe in.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Sharia Lawyer

      "Say to the believing MEN that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments.”. Oh wait I forgot it is a one way street.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Soso

      Thank your for making the point..

      It is clear that there is a strong link between the level of education and tolerance in general. I live in the north east, and I have never felt any sign of intolerance toward me (and I do wear a scarf).
      There are moderate people and there are extremists (who try to promote hate and bigotry), and this has nothing to do with religion. It usually stems from ignorance. All humans are equal, regardless of color, ethnicity, or religious background.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • John in Vegas

      Obviously, your masters degree isn't in archeology (specifiically ancient Rome and the nations it occupied) or you would know that Catholic teachings contradict the known history of the era. For instance, crucifiction was the Roman punishment for criminals reserved especially rebels and insurgents (and there were many in Roman occupied Israel). You didn't earn the moniker "rebel insurgent" by being passive and meek (Currently, the situations in Afghanistan and Libya come to mind). The horror (and the deterrant to the Jews, anyway) was that the remains were not given a proper burial and left on display until it was gone. The body probably disappeared within three days but it didn't rise from the dead. Buzzards and vultures feasting over the dead carcass took care of that

      In the time of Jesus (actually Yeshua or Joshua, Jesus is an incorrect Greek translation of the Hebrew name), Israel was a nation at war. Rome was an occupier. Uprisings had the potential to happen every day. Passover was prime time for an insurgency. Pontius Pilate was a ruthless prefect. He was not going to let an uprising ruin his day. You can bet Yeshua was on his way to Golgotha before the first overturned table hit the floor of the temple. A public trial? The Roman Tradition that made Barabbas a free man?

      War is not pretty now and it was even worse then. Sanitizing it for the sake of creating a sacred man-god might have made sense when he was among other Roman and Greek man-gods. But now?

      April 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      In the 70s I lived next door to 5 Catholic nuns who ran the soup kitchen in the next town. The Catholic Church was directly across the street from my home. I only knew the 5 female neighbors were nuns and what they did daily because we were neighbors and we conversed all the time. They wore T-shirts and jeans every day except for when a Bishop died and the funeral was held at the church across the street did I ever see them in their habits. If I didn't know them personally, I would never have guessed they were nuns.


      April 2, 2011 at 8:04 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.