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. dreamer

    ahmmm...islam came to america before you did redneck. you go back home, were here to stay... read about the first country that accepted u.s as a country, read about the first colonist and what thier faiths were, read about native americans who were muslims before you butchered them. Infact, You whom say "go back" are not welcome in this country, leave, perhaps antartic is not a bad place...

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

      Dreamer, what history books are you reading? Indians were muslim? What's with the redneck comments Dreamer? I bet you are a progressive liberal who still lives with your parents aren't you?

      April 2, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • crawbar

      Hey dreamer, your post just supports my point about muslims and Islam. Oboxious and impudent.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • crawbar

      I forgot: ....and stupid.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Abudu Rahman

      Oh, by the way, I know you won't have much to say other than I copied some of what posted. So what, it's true and it proves you are ignorant to much history of the world.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  2. Doc in Riyadh

    I think some people in the west are naive and ignorant when it comes to understanding Islam. All they know is what they receive from some hateful western media, like FoxNews channel and the like! The United States military has committed hundreds of terrorist activities in the world more than any terrorist oranization has done. Muslim women are free to wear the type of clothes they like; don't you call for freedom? Or is it only "freedom from clothes" is what you want to see?!! If you can't understand why and how someone practices their religion, get some education or shut up! 🙂

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

      Really Doc, just watch any fricken news channel and you can see just how stuck the middle east and Islam is in the 7th Centrury. Just look at Iran. I am sick of liberals and CNN trying to defend Islam. Where are all the moderate Muslims? Why don't they start standing up and go after the radical elements od Islam? Answer: There is no moderate Islam.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • crawbar

      Doc in Riadh, there is a number of smooth talkers like you who want to put a good face on Islam. There are people who studied Koran pretty well and they were terrified what it preaches. When such quotes are brought here in blogs, people like you say "it is a different version of Koran". I actually do not care at all what Islam and Koran say. All I know is that they weapon muslims for terrorism and for spreading Islam and waging the cultural and ideological war against our culture.
      Your, muslims', behavior in the western countries including USA is revolting. You deserve to be thrown out of the host countries. If you want sharia laws, go to your beloved muslim countries and practice it there.
      If I was a muslim, I would probably be ashamed to put the symbol of religion which wages an attack on the civilized world. BTW, I do know muslims who think like me.

      April 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Doc in Riyadh

      @because, Islam is a moderate religion. And by the way, Iran should not be considered when talking about Islam and the Muslims. The ruling system in Iran is a Magi that is attaching itself to Islam and distorting the image of Islam and Muslims. What makes some Muslim individuals commit acts of terrorism is the west's support of the oppressing dictatorships in the Muslim and Arab countries. This has gone for decades and you could see the result in some individual Muslims or zealous organizations that wanted to retaliate by striking what they see is the protector of these dictatorships. This is in addition, of course, to the injustice that is done by the West against Arabs and Muslims for the sake of Zionists in Palestine. In the absence of justice, the voice of moderate Muslims is hardly heard!

      April 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Doc in Riyadh

      @Crawbar... I refer you to my earlier post. I also encourage you to read more about Islam from its true sources. If you cannot see the good face of Islam, this does not mean it doesn't have one! You may need to check your eyesight. Clear some particles that prevent you, and those like you, from seeing the true face of Islam.

      April 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • because

      Doc, show me anywhere in the world and its history where Islam is a moderate religion? What a joke... And stop blaming the West for all your problems. The middle east countries should be one of the most powerful and rich people in the world from all the years in making $$ from oil. Why don't the poeple of Iran stand up and revolt? Yes, the insane president of Iran would kill them, but at least that would stir up support throughout the world to change Iran's regime. As far as I am concern, Islam is a cancer and until I see the moderate Muslims stand up and fight the radical elements, there will be concerns. If Islam is so moderate, why the hell would they insist in building a large Mosque at ground zero in NYC. Give me a break.

      April 2, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  3. because

    what I want to ask these daughters in the video is how does covering up your body because of Islam empower you? Islam treats women like dogs, how is that empowering?

    April 2, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  4. Isaiah Horbert

    I think she should wear it. I know people here want to be critical of Muslims but I think they get a bad rap in this country because we have media that is biased against them. Our media always paints Americans and Anglo-saxons in general as the heros and people of color as the enemy. As a person of color I see this all the time, the criminals are in the minority whilst the "normal" people are in the majority but there are far more stories about the criminals than there are about the "normal" people. But I guess it's people's nature to see themselves and those who look like them as good and anyone different as bad.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • peacppl

      thank God for americans like you bro

      April 2, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Isaiah Horbert. All the races (note 1:27 of Genesis) were created on the 6th day. On the 7th day, God rested. On the 8th day, God created Adam and Eve which started the lineage to bring forth Emmanuel (God with us), son of Mary, called Jesus Christ.

      Genesis 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

      Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his [own] image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

      Genesis 1:28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

      Genesis 1:29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which [is] upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which [is] the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

      Genesis 1:30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein [there is] life, [I have given] every green herb for meat: and it was so.

      Genesis 1:31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, [it was] very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.


      April 2, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  5. peacppl

    peace to all

    April 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  6. MLZ

    It used to be that women would get dressed up decently just to go out and get the mail; now, you'll find 'em wearing pajamas to go shopping. The headscarf is a religious symbol but it is also, at the very least, a sign of clean, decent dress in public. Go take a trip to Target and see how well "modern" garments look–too-tight and ripped jeans, stained shirts, sweaty pits–and then try and argue that modern American dress is SO much better.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Mom of Three

      Look, I don't want to see some whale's c-section scar any more than you do, but at least she can choose to look like a fool. Muslim girls–I'd like to see them refuse to wear the hijab to their fathers and mothers. Can you say honor killing? Too Westernized?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  7. Genius

    Wearing a hijab is just like being nationalistic. It's being proud of a country or religion because you happened to have been born into that country or religion. In other words, it's an extremely vacuous and unenlightened way of expressing yourself and is based on nothing even remotely logical. This goes for crazy things that are done in other religions as well. "Showing Pride"= "Having an insecure Ego."

    April 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  8. Mike

    So a couple of muslim women want to wear a hajib in Tennessee – the 'Bible belt' and THIS is news because they get dirty looks and cat calls?? What about the plight of the Coptic Christians in Egypt or the Christians in Baghdad? They got a lot more than 'Cat calls' for their offense of going to church. Wake up CNN!!! the US is THE MOST TOLERANT COUNTRY IN THE WORLD- despite a few vocal, ignorant knuckleheads that love using your exposure for personal gain. I dare CNN to compare the 'plight' of american muslims to ANY minority religion in ANY country ANYWHERE ELSE in the world. Lets have a REAL story.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  9. MLZ

    Maybe people in this country see it as outdated, but I know that I'd rather see a woman walking around in a headscarf than in a raggedy bikini top and short-shorts, with the button fly top slung so low that you don't even have to ask how well she waxes herself! The garment shows a lot of respect for one's self, one's appearance, one's family and one's religion–which are lessons that your average Wal-Mart shopper might be able to learn from...

    April 2, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  10. peacppl

    many of u sound as brainwashed as the fanatics over there

    April 2, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • crawbar

      peacppl, your calling Israeli actions war crimes characterizes you as either not informed, or prejudiced, or brainwashed. I recommend you study what Israelis are doing, how they are doing, and the reason they are doing it. Also study what Palestinians are doing all along and their Arab brothers are doing. Also study how those lands became under Israel umbrella with no Arab country willing to take them back. In general, study the conflict more thoroughly and put yourself in Israeli shoes.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  11. crawbar

    America in no longer a melting pot. Muslims are scoria, slag that takes over. They are enemy of the USA always being on the side of the Islamists. You may say not all of them. I will agree when I see those other ones fighting with me against Islamists, and who undestand the offence the Islamists are inflicting trying to build a mosque next to Ground 0, and who understand that Israel is our ally and who condemn Hamas and Jihadists and Hezbullah instead of blaming Israel.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • peacppl

      israeli war crimes are not a good example bro

      April 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Mom of Three

      Ask the French how much the muslims "blend." Give me a break. Ask England. They don't blend, they oppress and destroy.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
  12. Brandt

    Some of you people need to turn off Nascar and investigate history yourselves. Maybe The American Dream has as much of a hold on you as the imperfect religion of Islam does on some guy from Baghdad. Unless I spew some kind of moronic rhetoric I won't get any reply. The only truth is found in investigation and faith. This afternoon try something useful and new. Try reading. http://www.infowars.com http://www.biblegateway.com Peace, I'm out.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Charles Darwin

      Gee you almost had me going until you mentioned infowars. Alex Jones is a consparicy nut. I remember him as far back as early nineties. Back then I think it was about how the UN was going to be taking over the United States and was going to be imprisoning Americans in concentration camps all over the US. Guess that didn't really work out.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  13. bb

    You are correct on Crusaders, but that is one side of the coin. You must also talk about the crusades of Ottoman Empire upon Europe and the massacre of Armenians. The truth is that more blood has been shed in the name of God than any other cause. Although HE warned us not to kill. "Order by GOD, Chaos by men".

    April 2, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  14. Cruchot

    Real bright people with an amazing reasoning ! I wander why the 1.7 billion muslims in this world still leave and think like it's 622.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  15. peacppl

    we need to be the best example in the world....

    April 2, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  16. peacppl

    The freaks are a minority....most just want what we have.....freedom and happiness for them and their families

    April 2, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • bethe123

      LOL...Islam is VERY cruel to women. Evidence below.

      Try learning something : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6Wrhivp7eQ

      April 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • peacppl

      these people are ignorant about islam....it is cultufal bias against women that exist everywhere....these people are cavemen...nothing muslim about them....read about womens rights in the Quran ...read surah an- anisa in english you will be surprised....islam puts women in high regard...believe it or not...up to you

      April 2, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • bethe123

      Methinks the appologist for evil complains to much. (LOL)

      April 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • peacppl

      lost cause...a waste of a brain beth...so sorry for your children

      April 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • bethe123


      April 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • bethe123

      - When you have re futed Aya_an Hi -rsi Ali, then we can talk.
      You are certainly enti tled to your opinion, but the fact is you don't know what you are talking about.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • bethe123

      [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6Wrhivp7eQ&w=480&h=390%5D

      April 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  17. Southern woman

    I don't have any bad feelings against the sisters but why is there a story about them on CNN? This is America and you can dress, think and behave pretty much as you wish. I think that the reason that wearing a hijab bothers some women in this country is that it seems to be a statement that women are second class citizens and not as valuable as men are. During my younger years women had to fight for better pay, being treated as an equal and with respect. When I see the hijab on a woman I think that the woman doesn't see her own value that she is treated with less respect than the males of her religion. Why would a woman want to be constricted by religious beliefs and thought up as a lesser being, I don't understand this. All religions have rules and all religions were written down by man. Men's bias's are written into the religious rhetoric. I see the hijab and other forms of female confinement as a way to control the females of the religion and in these modern times why would you choose to be a second class citizen.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Southern woman, get over yourself. It's about modesty. Do you even have a clue what what modesty means?


      April 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  18. peacppl

    Eurpe was in the dark ages when islam was at its peak.....now the islamic world needs to catch up to the rest of the world....which is why these tyrants in the mid east are falling like dominos...they need to be educated

    April 2, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  19. BL

    Hi Posters,
    Are head scarfs "empowering" because they cover female characteristics such as the hair line and the lack of Adam's Apple?

    April 2, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  20. crawbar

    There is nothing to be proud of. She actually should be ashamed of the hell that muslims created in their countries and in the world.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • bethe123

      Finally some clarity.

      Isam is vile, but women suffer the worse..

      April 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • scoob766

      you're an idiot.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • peacppl

      @beth123...unfortunatly u are vile....these two women WANT to be chaste....in america...u can not make a woman do anything she doesnt want to do...get an education for all our sake

      April 2, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • bethe123

      LOL...No...The hijab is an affront to women's equality.
      Thanks for playing

      April 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • MLZ

      Yes, and here in America, we should be ashamed of all the violence that we have unnecessarily stepped into and all the useless wars we got ourselves involved in. But are we? No, we're arrogant enough to believe that we were in the right with every conflict that we were involved in. Maybe, just maybe, other countries and religions express the same arrogance? Just a thought.

      April 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • peacppl

      @beth123...is a strip club an affront to womens equality?

      April 2, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • peacppl

      riddle me that batwoman!

      April 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Mom of Three

      They're like a cancer. They ruin where ever they go.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
    • lina

      you dont like
      be he a dings
      su ici de bom bin gs
      and oppr es si on?
      IS LA M A PH OB E!!!!!


      April 3, 2011 at 1:15 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.