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.

As Heidi discusses this, she begins to talk about the Taliban and its rules over women, which are so extreme that they have to darken their windows so no man can see the female form hiding inside. She speaks again about the fact that religion can never be pushed on someone. Her voice gets angry as she calls the situation in Afghanistan an Islamic facade.

"You can only oppress people for so long and they will only do it for so long," she says, banging her fist on her dining room table. "They will break out of it if they don't believe in it." She cites apartheid and communism as two similar situations where the oppressed eventually rebelled. The Taliban, she says, is counterproductive and working against its stated goal.

"It's not the way the prophet worked," she says. "He didn't go forcing people."

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 thinks that not only is the Taliban wrong, but it will have the negative consequence of turning many in Afghanistan completely against Islam. She stresses once again that what non-Muslims know about the Taliban is not her life at all.

After the September 11 attacks, Heidi's sons' school was closed for a week, and Ahmed and Pam both expressed concern for Heidi's safety outside her home -- that now more than ever people would harass her or order her to show her face.

"Lately I've been walking with her like a mama bear," says Pam, who thinks the stares and looks get more intense the farther Heidi travels outside the Loop. Her voice quivers with emotion as she talks about how much she worries for her daughter's safety after the terrorist attacks. But Heidi says that for the most part, she's getting no more notice than normal -- which of course is still a lot. Not that it bothers her.

"I'm not intimidated or shy," says Heidi with a smile. "I'm not a halfway kind of person."

Selina Ahmed is remembering the time her photograph appeared in the Houston Chronicle because of a story that had been written on her work with Kosovar refugees. The day after the picture appeared, Selina says, she got more than 100 phone calls asking how to help the people from Kosovo. But one call was different. It came from an Egyptian man living in Houston, a fellow Muslim.

"He said, 'I could see your hair, I could see your neckline, your earrings,' " remembers Selina. "I said, 'Leave me in the hand of Allah! And what Muslim brother are you, looking at me with your dirty eyes?' "

Like many Muslim women living in Houston, Selina chooses to dress in modest Western clothes and she does not cover her hair. Originally from Bangladesh, Selina is a nutritionist and professor at Texas Southern University. She has done community work with many organizations, and served as director of the Mickey Leland Center on World Hunger and Peace at TSU for four years.

"I consider myself all my life a practicing Muslim," says Selina. "If Allah thinks I am doing something wrong" by not covering, "then I am ready to get the punishment from him. But not from someone who tells me I'm doing something wrong." She believes she should dress modestly, but that a Western standard of dress is okay. And she does not believe there is anything wrong with women who do cover, as long as it is what they really want.

"I have respect for them because it is their choice," says Selina. "But it does not mean that the person who does not have all the extra clothing and covering is not as much of a Muslim."

If there is one thing Selina, Fatima and Heidi have in common, it is that they all believe a woman has to want to veil. Like Heidi, Fatima says discrimination in Houston has been minimal, and that she has spoken to the students at her daughter's school to help educate them about Islam and her clothing. But she has received some harassment. Shortly after September 11, a man yelled into her car that she should "go back to Pakistan!" Once, when she was pregnant with her oldest child, someone threw small stones at her as she made her way from the parking lot to the hospital to tour the facility. But overall, Fatima says, the city has been tolerant.

She acknowledges the same inconveniences as Heidi does. The niqab gets hot, she doesn't eat out much, and when a male delivery person comes to her door while she is uncovered, she runs to her room to grab her veil. But for her, she says, the commitment is worth it.

"It's like saying, 'Isn't it a hassle to recycle?' " says Fatima. "If you believe in it, you do it." Fatima acknowledges she isn't perfect in her practice, but she does the best she can. And she too is pragmatic. When she was pregnant and felt dizzy or overheated, she would go without the niqab.

Fatima also thinks the niqab is an antidote to the catcalls women often receive on the street. When pressed with the fact that some think it is a shame that a woman has to dress in such an extreme to avoid unwanted attention, Fatima smiles softly. She has heard this debate before. Using words that would irk many Western feminists, Fatima calmly argues that it goes against human nature to wear whatever you want and expect a man not to look at you.

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