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.

Her interest in nuns wasn't unusual for a little girl whose mother describes her as "an old spirit, an old soul." As a child Heidi was intense, says her mother, Pam, and very inquisitive. She loved the arts and music, and as she grew older that interest extended to politics and religion.

"She was different, and she was okay with it," says Pam.

And she was also passionate. When she took up the oboe, she practiced all the time, enough to be accepted at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. But after her sophomore year, the strong-willed Heidi decided she didn't want to be in a traditional school anymore, because two more years of doing the same thing seemed redundant. So she dropped out, got a job as a cashier and earned her GED. Then she decided dance was her calling, and she began to take classes at Houston Community College. But to really study dance, she figured, she had to go to New York. So at the age of 18 she left for Brooklyn to take dance classes at Kingsborough Community College.

Selina Ahmed, shown here in traditional Bangladeshi dress, is one of the many Muslim women in Houston who choose not to cover at all.
Monica Fuentes
Selina Ahmed, shown here in traditional Bangladeshi dress, is one of the many Muslim women in Houston who choose not to cover at all.

"I moved to New York on a week's notice," says Heidi, smiling. As Heidi tells her story, she speaks with eloquence, and her demeanor is warm and funny. When asked if her outfit is uncomfortable, she laughs out loud and sticks out her arm, inviting her visitor to touch it for herself.

While living in Brooklyn, she discovered a small Middle Eastern restaurant near her apartment. There, she was taken by two things: the delicious falafel-and-hummus sandwiches and an Egyptian employee named Ahmed.

"He was the do-it-all guy, the unofficial manager," says Heidi. He was also a Muslim.

"I was in the arts crowd in Houston; no one was following a religion," says Heidi. She no longer considered herself a Methodist. And although Ahmed was not especially devout, he still thought of himself as a Muslim.

"It was interesting to meet someone who actually called himself something," says Heidi.

Ahmed was older than Heidi, and his friends thought she was just an American kid, and maybe not right for Ahmed. But he didn't care what they said.

"It was a feeling of something inside her," says Ahmed, of why he fell in love with Heidi. "She didn't act like a teenager. She wants to be a good person."

As Heidi and Ahmed dated, the ever-inquisitive Heidi began to ask him questions about Islam. She admits that she didn't know much except that, at first, "when I said the word Islam I got a negative feeling." Like many Americans, her image of a covered Muslim woman was one of being locked in the house with her mouth taped shut. But as she learned about the faith, she became more curious. With the approach of Ramadan, the holy month that requires Muslims to fast during daylight hours, Heidi thought she would try it.

"I was just curious what would happen to me," she says. What happened was the extensive fasting left her weak, and she was unable to continue her dance classes. She never went back. Heidi kept informally studying Islam, sometimes speaking with an American woman convert who had married a friend of Ahmed's. A few months after Ramadan, when Ahmed asked her to be his wife, Heidi covered her head with a scarf and married him in a small brownstone mosque in Brooklyn. But she was not yet a Muslim.

During the couple's honeymoon in Egypt, Heidi says, she became thirsty for knowledge about her husband's religion. She asked Ahmed's relatives as many questions as possible about Islam. One thing that irked her, she says, is that under Islamic law a man is permitted to have four wives. But only, she learned, if he could treat them all equitably.

Ahmed was supportive of her interest, but he never pushed her. And when she asked him questions he did not know the answers to, he would try to find them for her.

What was it about Islam that attracted Heidi? Ironically, she says, much of it came from the fact that Islam had a specific list of things she had to do -- like praying five times a day, for example. She was drawn to those specifics. Here was a girl who never followed the rules, who didn't consider herself to be someone who even liked the rules, and yet she was attracted to this new faith with so many of them. It gave her life a structure it needed.

"Christianity, it will make you a nice person, but it doesn't give you concrete steps," says Heidi. "This was more than just on Sundays, this was a lifestyle."

At the age of 19, Heidi decided to become a Muslim. It was a simple but powerful step, one that required Heidi to stand before a witness -- in this case, her husband -- and say that she believed there was no other god but Allah, and Muhammad was his prophet.

But even at first she did not cover as she does today. She started off with a scarf tied around her head in much the same style that a Western woman might wear one. Her job was in a stockroom at a dime store and she didn't want to freak the people out too much, she says. But she believed that the Qur'an and the prophet's teachings required her to cover in some way. As the months and years passed, Heidi began to cover more and more. First she started to wear a jilbab or an abaya, loose-fitting dresses that disguised the form of her body. She also wore the hijab. When the couple moved back to Houston, where Heidi eventually earned a degree in political science from the University of Houston, she became friends with a Saudi Arabian woman and an Egyptian woman who both covered their faces. This intrigued Heidi. And as she thought about it, she came to the conclusion that if the purpose of covering was to be modest, then the female face seemed like one of the most necessary things to cover.

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