No Veiled Threats

Heidi covers her face when she leaves the house. So do an increasing number of Muslim women in Houston. But don't call them terrorists -- or oppressed.

"Take that thing off your face!"
The command came out of nowhere, but it was loud and it was angry. Heidi spun around to see who was issuing it. There, pulling up in a car behind her, was a stranger -- another woman -- sticking her head out the driver's-side window and screaming at her.

"Take that thing off your face!"

Heidi stared back in shock. Why the hollering? She wasn't doing anything revolutionary, just loading up her groceries in the parking lot of a Fiesta supermarket. As a wife and mother of three, Heidi goes grocery shopping a lot. But here was a woman she didn't even know, making it her business to tell Heidi what to do.

Monica Fuentes

Heidi, an American convert, has worn the niqab for seven years.
Monica Fuentes
Heidi, an American convert, has worn the niqab for seven years.

Heidi looked at the woman from behind her niqab, the veil that covers every feature of her face except her green eyes. She said nothing and stood her ground. The woman kept screaming, but Heidi remained still. Eventually, the incensed driver sped off.

"She was so angry," says Heidi as she recalls the experience. "I guess she thought I was oppressed and she wanted to help me get out of it by screaming." Heidi smiles a little at the thought.

That's because oppressed is the last word Heidi would pick to describe herself. Curious, sure. Passionate, definitely. But not oppressed.

She knows, of course, that oppressed is exactly what many people in Houston are thinking when they see her walking down the street or driving her car or taking her kids to the park. They're thinking poor thing. Or her husband must beat her. And they're probably thinking that more than ever now that American televisions and newspapers have been flooded with pictures of shrouded Afghan women under oppressive Taliban rule. But 30-year-old Heidi knows that even though she is dressed very similarly to those faceless women in their blue burqas, her life is very different from theirs. And that's because her niqab is a choice, made of her own free will. Nobody is making her do anything.

In fact, it could easily be argued that even her religion isn't demanding Heidi wear what she wears. Covering is not one of the five pillars of Islam, the five things absolutely required of every good Muslim. Many Muslim women who cover choose a much less extreme version than Heidi does, one that allows them to wear Western clothes and to show their faces. And a large number of Muslim women believe veiling of any kind is a minor detail and, depending on how you interpret the Qur'an, not necessary at all. But some, like Heidi, believe they are called by a deep faith to dress this way. And because her clothing is such obvious, tangible evidence of that faith, it gets a lot of questions.

But there are two things Heidi wants people in Houston to understand about her and other Muslim American women who dress like her.

"We're not terrorists," she says. "And we're not oppressed."

As Fatima speaks, she plays with the long black braid that trails down her back. Few men ever get to see her jet-black hair because, like Heidi, 26-year-old Fatima wears a niqab. But unlike Heidi, an American convert to the faith, Fatima was born in Bangladesh and has been a Muslim all her life. She arrived in Houston as a young girl and attended public school, and she has had to navigate the complicated life of growing up Muslim in a town where Muslims are the minority.

"A lot of Muslims feel this way; they don't feel like they belong anywhere," she says from the living room of her northwest Houston home. "You really feel lost."

Fatima's story is a complex mix of American and Muslim influences. As a child, she never covered, considered herself a tomboy and listened to U2 and Jane's Addiction in high school. But at the age of 18 she entered an arranged marriage. She now has two daughters, ages six and five, and a three-year-old son, and has plans to start a small school in her home that will teach young Muslim children Arabic and the basics of Islam.

"I dressed like an average American kid for most of my childhood," says Fatima, who notes that there has been a definite increase in young Muslim girls covering since her days in school. Fatima's mother covered her hair but not her face, and Fatima doesn't consider her family especially devout.

When Fatima was 15, the United States entered the Persian Gulf conflict, and anti-Islamic sentiment was running high throughout the country. Fatima thinks it was this awareness that made her confront her faith and examine what she truly believed. She began to feel a stronger pull toward her religion, and toward God. She realized she also felt drawn to the idea of covering but was scared about what other people would think if she did so. Ironically, her fear was the catalyst that drove her to cover.

"It was the big push," says Fatima. She scolded herself, saying, "Look at you, you believe in it, but you're scared to do it."

Fatima started wearing long sleeves and a bandanna in her hair. As she progressed to the hijab, a scarf that covers the hair and neck, her parents expressed some dismay, although they let their daughter wear what she wanted.

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