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 two friends seemed comfortable with wearing the niqab, she says, and it was their opinion that Islam required them to dress this way. Neither woman had been pushed by their husbands into covering their faces. In fact, Heidi says that most Muslim women she knows in Houston who do cover their faces decide to do it on their own -- sometimes to the dismay of their spouses.

"There are a lot of men who will tell their wives, 'No, don't do it,' because he doesn't like it or he doesn't know how it will be practical," says Heidi. While Ahmed knew his wife would do what she wanted -- Heidi isn't the type of person who can be pushed around -- he seemed a bit surprised that she thought about wearing the niqab. But he knew it was her choice.

"She's not doing this for anyone but God," says Ahmed. And both Ahmed and Heidi say that it was Heidi's conversion and deep dedication to her faith that drew Ahmed closer to Islam as well. But Heidi stresses that just because she wears the niqab, it doesn't make her a better Muslim than a woman who does not cover like she does.

"It's not the extra A-plus stamp," she says. And while she admits she'd like to see more Muslim women cover, if a woman doesn't feel driven by faith to do so, then no one can force her to. And forcing her would be wrong.

Heidi has been wearing the niqab for seven years now. The mother of boys ages nine and five, as well as a newborn daughter, she is often on the go shuttling her sons to the Islamic school they attend, running errands or taking her children to the park. Ahmed is a cab driver, and the family lives in a modest gated community in southwest Houston where there are other Muslim families nearby (the Islamic Society of Greater Houston estimates there are between 75,000 and 100,000 Muslims in the entire Houston area). Heidi's family doesn't own a television (she prefers listening to talk shows and the news on the radio), and the Qur'an sits on the shelves of her home right next to her sons' many board games.

"I've never felt embarrassed, because I believe in what I am doing," says Heidi. She knows she gets a lot of stares and double takes, but incidents like the one in the Fiesta parking lot are few and far between. Once, trapped in traffic on a Beltway 8 feeder, some teenage boys yelled "Bomb Iran!" at her from the car next to hers, and one got out and banged on the back of Heidi's car. But she just stared straight forward, and they eventually left her alone. Another time, at the Museum of Natural Science, a young boy saw Heidi dressed completely in white. He went screaming and running for his mother.

"He was scared of me," says Heidi. "He said, 'Mom, it's a ghost!' "

But even though she gets a lot of attention, Heidi says there is one type of stare she never gets anymore. Even during the early years of her marriage, when she still dressed in Western clothing and covered only her hair, men instantly stopped harassing her on the street. She no longer gets catcalls or wolf whistles, and men can't ogle her at all. Heidi thinks it's ironic that some Western feminists think her outfit is a symbol of the oppressive patriarchy, when in fact she thinks it's quite the opposite.

By covering, says Heidi, "you're saying, 'You can't judge me by the way I look, I'm not going to allow that!' And that's a very feminist concept."

There are, of course, inconveniences to dressing the way Heidi does in Houston. Although her outfits are made of lightweight material, the summers can be sweltering. When she eats out, she makes sure to wear a niqab that fits loosely so that she can bring food up to her mouth without staining her clothes. Most times, she says, the family goes to restaurants where there are other Muslims so they won't get so many stares. Like other Muslim women who veil, she makes special arrangements to get her hair cut by a woman in a private room at a salon. Some women have hairdressers come to their homes, she says.

Islamic law allows Heidi to go uncovered in front of other women, her husband and men she is not permitted to marry (her sons, father and uncles), and she often wears regular clothes inside the house or hanging out with her women friends. But the concept of modesty extends to her interactions with men she is not related to. Heidi does not shake hands with men, and she goes to a woman doctor. At parties, the women socialize with other women, and the men hang out by themselves.

But Heidi is pragmatic about her beliefs. If she was ill and the only doctor she could get to was a man, of course she would go to him, she says. If a Muslim woman had to feed her child and the only job she could find required her to work alone with a man, the woman would be right to take the job. Covering, she says, is not an excuse to keep women out of the public sphere or prevent them from employment, education or health care.

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