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.

"They were concerned about my safety," says Fatima.

After she began covering at school, not only was she approached by other Muslim women who told her they wished they had the courage to cover as well, but she says American girls told her they were jealous she no longer had to worry about making sure her hair looked good.

Fatima is married to a man 12 years her senior who is also from Bangladesh and works as a systems analyst. She says she always knew she would enter an arranged marriage.

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

"I don't know if you're ever really prepared if you're raised here," says Fatima. But not participating in an arranged marriage wouldn't feel right to her, she says. She is floored by the Western idea of marrying whomever you want, even if your parents hate your future spouse.

"In [our culture] you have a respect and attachment to the parents," says Fatima. "In Islam you're not able to close off relatives." Fatima notes that a girl can never be forced into a marriage, and if it is discovered that a girl married against her will, Islam requires the marriage be annulled.

Shortly after her wedding Fatima started wearing the niqab that veils her face. For her husband, "that was a very radical idea for him, it was really strange." Fatima says her husband never forced her to wear the niqab -- it was completely her idea. While studying philosophy at the University of Houston, Fatima also began an intensive study of Islam and the Qur'an. And she started to believe her faith required her to cover her face. She describes wearing the niqab as an act of worship.

"I'm a very extreme person, I get very into things," she admits. Fatima understands that there are many Muslims who feel covering the face is unnecessary, but just like Judaism or Christianity, she says, there are bound to be different interpretations of holy scripture.

"There are masses of people, and they're not all going to feel the same way," she says. "Some are literalist, some are revisionist."

The issue of whether a Muslim woman should cover is a complex one, and there is no shortage of opinions on the matter. A simple Internet search reveals several essays and message boards devoted to the topic, and nearly every voice is represented: self-proclaimed Muslim feminists who cover and self-proclaimed Muslim feminists who do not. Women who believe covering the hair and neck is necessary and that the niqab is not, and others who believe both are acceptable as long as no woman is forced to wear anything. The reasons women offer for covering are as varied as the opinions about covering, and the history of the practice is long and diverse as well. In fact, covering predates the birth of Islam in 622.

Ethem Dogan, director of religious affairs for Houston's Islamic Dialog Foundation, offers perhaps the only definitive statement on the matter: "Despite the many different interpretations of Islam, we can say with certainty that there is the idea of covering in Islam." But when and how much is where interpretations come in, says Dogan, and that's when things get complicated. Dogan, who is from Turkey, is an imam, a Muslim cleric who studies, either formally or informally, and preaches to fellow Muslims. Through his work with the foundation he strives to foster better communication and understanding between different religions through lectures and panels on Islam.

The large amount of discussion about whether a woman should veil often leads many non-Muslims to believe that veiling is one of the most important things a Muslim woman does or does not do. But according to Dogan, "It is one of the secondary issues of Islam, a detail. But since it is something everybody sees, it is considered to be one of the fundamentals. But it is not."

Muslims take their idea of covering from their holy book, the Qur'an. Considered to be the last revealed word of God to the prophet Muhammad, the words of the Qur'an hold more importance than any other Islamic sacred source. Muslims also form opinions on covering from reliably transmitted reports of what Muhammad did or said. These stories about Muhammad are called hadith, and they are often passed down through oral tradition. Muslim scholars devote much time to studying hadith, and certain prophetic traditions carry more weight, depending on how they were passed from person to person. It is not uncommon for prophetic traditions to contradict one another.

The idea of covering is mentioned prominently in the Qur'an in two places. Surah ("chapter") 24, verse 31, reads: "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty…" The verse goes on to list the men who may see the uncovered woman -- essentially any man Islamic law says she cannot marry.

Covering is again mentioned in Surah 33, verse 59, which reads in part, "O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad)." The verse continues on to explain that this will prevent women from being molested when outside their homes.

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