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.

"It's the man's problem, and the woman shouldn't have to worry about it," she says of typical Western thought. But Islam acknowledges the tension between the sexes, she continues, and provides easy rules to get rid of it.

"People think of Islam as impractical, but it's very practical," says Fatima. "Women should cover more and men should look less." If the idea of modesty and mutual respect were more common in American culture, Fatima doubts sexual harassment in the workplace would be such a huge issue.

The whole fascination with women's bodies is a very Western concept, says Fatima. She thinks it's strange that in America, whole industries are based around a woman's nails and cuticles.

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.

"Girls are taught to care very much about how they look and to get attention from men," she says. "That's how they are rewarded." She wants to raise her daughters differently and plans to teach them to dress modestly from a young age. She goes on to joke that her sexual politics might be more in line with those of a militant feminist friend she had in high school. The girl was not a Muslim but an atheist.

Fatima realizes there will be those who disagree with her, but she stresses that her beliefs are her choice. To force beliefs or practices on anyone would not only be wrong, it would be un-Islamic, she says.

"Someone once told me, 'You're in America, you don't have to wear that,' " Fatima remembers. "I appreciate they have compassion, and it must be perplexing to see this and think I didn't have a choice. But you have the freedom here to choose, and if you hear the message, you do it."

Heidi is sitting in her dining room with her one-month-old infant daughter sleeping in her lap. Heidi loves being a mother, and she believes she will raise her three children to be good Muslims. She gets up to fetch the Houston Prayer Timings calendar hanging in her kitchen, to explain how she keeps track of what times of the day the family members should say their five prayers. Certain prayers need to be said before the sun goes down, and the calendar keeps track of the exact time of sunset each day.

Will Heidi dress her tiny daughter in a niqab when she is old enough? Heidi says that demanding her daughter wear anything would be unwise, because it would only make her want to rebel against it. But she does hope her daughter will follow in her footsteps.

"As for the niqab, that's her choice," Heidi says. "As far as the other coverings, I don't think it will be an issue because of how I'll raise her." She says she has heard of Muslim women allowing their young daughters to wear whatever they want until they reach puberty, when they are suddenly expected to drastically change their dress code. Understandably, the daughters resist. But Heidi plans to dress her daughter in modest clothes from an early age so that when she begins to cover she will be accustomed to it. And, more important, she will understand the concept behind covering.

And that's what matters, says Heidi. The beliefs behind her covering are the important part, not so much the covering itself. And that goes not only for her but for all Muslims whether they cover or not, she says. She echoes imam Ethem Dogan's words: Allah asks first if a woman prayed, not if she covered. If actions are not based on real faith or conviction, they are empty, like those actions forced on people by the Taliban.

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