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.

"Take that thing off your face!"
 
The command came out of nowhere, but it was loud and it was angry. Heidi spun around to see who was issuing it. There, pulling up in a car behind her, was a stranger -- another woman -- sticking her head out the driver's-side window and screaming at her.

"Take that thing off your face!"

Heidi stared back in shock. Why the hollering? She wasn't doing anything revolutionary, just loading up her groceries in the parking lot of a Fiesta supermarket. As a wife and mother of three, Heidi goes grocery shopping a lot. But here was a woman she didn't even know, making it her business to tell Heidi what to do.

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, 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.
Ethem Dogan, a Muslim cleric, asserts there is nothing in the Qur'an that says a woman must cover her face.
Deron Neblett
Ethem Dogan, a Muslim cleric, asserts there is nothing in the Qur'an that says a woman must cover her face.
In Rice professor Mahmoud El-Gamal's native Egypt, some women started covering to show their opposition to Westernization.
Deron Neblett
In Rice professor Mahmoud El-Gamal's native Egypt, some women started covering to show their opposition to Westernization.
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.

Heidi looked at the woman from behind her niqab, the veil that covers every feature of her face except her green eyes. She said nothing and stood her ground. The woman kept screaming, but Heidi remained still. Eventually, the incensed driver sped off.

"She was so angry," says Heidi as she recalls the experience. "I guess she thought I was oppressed and she wanted to help me get out of it by screaming." Heidi smiles a little at the thought.

That's because oppressed is the last word Heidi would pick to describe herself. Curious, sure. Passionate, definitely. But not oppressed.

She knows, of course, that oppressed is exactly what many people in Houston are thinking when they see her walking down the street or driving her car or taking her kids to the park. They're thinking poor thing. Or her husband must beat her. And they're probably thinking that more than ever now that American televisions and newspapers have been flooded with pictures of shrouded Afghan women under oppressive Taliban rule. But 30-year-old Heidi knows that even though she is dressed very similarly to those faceless women in their blue burqas, her life is very different from theirs. And that's because her niqab is a choice, made of her own free will. Nobody is making her do anything.

In fact, it could easily be argued that even her religion isn't demanding Heidi wear what she wears. Covering is not one of the five pillars of Islam, the five things absolutely required of every good Muslim. Many Muslim women who cover choose a much less extreme version than Heidi does, one that allows them to wear Western clothes and to show their faces. And a large number of Muslim women believe veiling of any kind is a minor detail and, depending on how you interpret the Qur'an, not necessary at all. But some, like Heidi, believe they are called by a deep faith to dress this way. And because her clothing is such obvious, tangible evidence of that faith, it gets a lot of questions.

But there are two things Heidi wants people in Houston to understand about her and other Muslim American women who dress like her.

"We're not terrorists," she says. "And we're not oppressed."


As Fatima speaks, she plays with the long black braid that trails down her back. Few men ever get to see her jet-black hair because, like Heidi, 26-year-old Fatima wears a niqab. But unlike Heidi, an American convert to the faith, Fatima was born in Bangladesh and has been a Muslim all her life. She arrived in Houston as a young girl and attended public school, and she has had to navigate the complicated life of growing up Muslim in a town where Muslims are the minority.

"A lot of Muslims feel this way; they don't feel like they belong anywhere," she says from the living room of her northwest Houston home. "You really feel lost."

Fatima's story is a complex mix of American and Muslim influences. As a child, she never covered, considered herself a tomboy and listened to U2 and Jane's Addiction in high school. But at the age of 18 she entered an arranged marriage. She now has two daughters, ages six and five, and a three-year-old son, and has plans to start a small school in her home that will teach young Muslim children Arabic and the basics of Islam.

"I dressed like an average American kid for most of my childhood," says Fatima, who notes that there has been a definite increase in young Muslim girls covering since her days in school. Fatima's mother covered her hair but not her face, and Fatima doesn't consider her family especially devout.

When Fatima was 15, the United States entered the Persian Gulf conflict, and anti-Islamic sentiment was running high throughout the country. Fatima thinks it was this awareness that made her confront her faith and examine what she truly believed. She began to feel a stronger pull toward her religion, and toward God. She realized she also felt drawn to the idea of covering but was scared about what other people would think if she did so. Ironically, her fear was the catalyst that drove her to cover.

"It was the big push," says Fatima. She scolded herself, saying, "Look at you, you believe in it, but you're scared to do it."

Fatima started wearing long sleeves and a bandanna in her hair. As she progressed to the hijab, a scarf that covers the hair and neck, her parents expressed some dismay, although they let their daughter wear what she wanted.

"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.

"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.

But the interpretation of these verses is vast. Some believe that read in this day and age, the text means only that a Muslim woman should dress modestly within the confines of the culture she lives in. But others feel the words "ornaments" and "bosom" refer directly to a woman's hair and neckline, leading many Muslim women to wear a hijab in addition to loose-fitting clothing that covers the arms and legs.

In addition to the Qur'an, the traditions of the prophet also speak to covering.

"There is a prophetic tradition that is very clear," says Mahmoud El-Gamal, a Rice University professor of Islamic economics who is active in Houston's Muslim community. "The prophet's sister-in-law walked in wearing a transparent dress, and the prophet pointed to her hands and face." The prophet then told the woman that when she reached puberty, only those two parts of the body could be exposed.

"The face is another matter," says El-Gamal. "To cover the face, there is absolutely no text to support it." Dogan agrees, but adds that choosing to veil the face often comes out of a woman's desire to be nearer to God.

"If you really like someone, you do the thing you think he or she would like to get close," says Dogan. In this case, Dogan believes women who freely choose to veil their face see it as getting one step closer to Allah.

But why is such modesty necessary at all? The answer is simple. A woman's beauty can be tempting to men, which can lead to inappropriate sexual activity.

"Islam puts much importance on a healthy community," says Dogan. "Islam in practice tries to separate its community from all negative influences and things that will be unhealthy to that community. The Qur'an looks negatively on fornication as something that destroys a community. For this reason the Qur'an tries to get rid of, or block, the path to fornication." But Dogan stresses that the burden does not rest only on the woman -- the Qur'an instructs men to control any inappropriate gazing, and to treat women with respect. The Qur'an also enjoins men to dress modestly as well, and Islamic tradition urges men to cover from their knees to their navel.

But covering was a cultural tradition even before Islam (as Dogan points out, many Christians readily accept the image of Jesus' mother, Mary, covering her hair). Covering was often a social norm, and sometimes a sign of high status. Even today, non-Muslim women in countries such as India and Pakistan wear veils, although they may use transparent scarves or wear a scarf in such a manner that some hair is showing. And the idea of covering for modesty's sake is not just an Islamic concept -- Orthodox Jewish women often wear wigs to hide their real hair.

Covering, or not covering, is sometimes the product of a merger or clash between culture and religion. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, where the government requires women to cover, the practice has moved beyond any sort of religious choice to become the law of the nation.

Those countries "took patriarchal society and adopted local customs and integrated it into their religion," says El-Gamal. But it can work the other way too. In secular states such as Turkey, covering is not allowed. And only two years ago a fierce debate erupted in France when Muslim girls were not permitted to cover in their classrooms, because French law denies any display of religion in its public schools.

And in El-Gamal's native Egypt, covering became more popular in the 1980s, with many college-educated, upper-class women taking up the practice. Some scholars believe it was in part a statement that Egypt would not allow itself to be completely Westernized.

But despite the many preconceived ideas non-Muslim Americans have of covered Muslim women, Dogan says that Islam offers women many rights.

"Women may gain private money and it's her money, her husband can't touch it," says Dogan. In addition, he says Muslim women usually keep their own last name when they marry and under the Qur'an have the right to divorce.

But the point he wants to be clearest about is that veiling is not the ultimate proof that a woman is a good Muslim. When it comes to covering, there are more important things in Islam. If there were two women, says Dogan, one who covered but never prayed and one who prayed but never covered, Allah would prefer the one who prayed. Dogan understands that there are extremely conservative imams who would disagree with him. For instance, there are those who consider Osama bin Laden to be their imam, and bin Laden's position couldn't be more different from Dogan's. But as far as Dogan is concerned, the true faith of Islam cannot be demanded of anyone.

"Nobody can force you to do anything," says Dogan. "There is no compulsion in religion."


Even though she was raised a Methodist, Heidi says as a little girl growing up in Houston she always liked the idea of Catholic nuns. She was fascinated by how they dressed, in long, sweeping veils that covered their hair and their bodies. She saw their outfits as a symbol of a deep dedication to God. That it made them stand out only made their faith more apparent to those who saw them.

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.

"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.

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.

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."

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.

"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.

"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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