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The veil and the challenges

world Updated: Jun 13, 2010 01:00 IST
Hebah Ahmed

Hebah Ahmed assessed the weather before she stepped out of her minivan.

"It's windy," she said with a sigh, tucking a loose bit of hair into her scarf. Her younger sister, Sarah, watched out the window as dust devils danced across the parking lot. "Oh, great," she said, "I'm going to look like the flying nun."

Hebah, who is 32, and Sarah, 28, do wear religious attire, but of the Islamic sort: a loose outer garment called a jilbab; a khimar, a head covering that drapes to the fingertips; and a niqab, a scarf that covers most of the face.

Before the shopping trip, they consulted by phone to make sure they didn't wear the same colour. "Otherwise, we start to look like a cult," Sarah explained.

Raised in what she described as a "minimally religious" household by parents who wore typical American clothes, Hebah used to think that women who wore a niqab were crazy, she said.

"It looked like they were suffocating," she said. "I thought, ‘There's no way God meant for us to walk around the earth that way, so why would anyone do that to themselves?'" Now many people ask that same question of her.

She is not a Muslim Everywoman; it is not a role she would ever claim for herself. Her story is hers alone.

"I just kept thinking ‘Why would they do this in the name of Islam?'" she said. "Does my religion really say to do those horrible things?"

So she read the Koran and other Islamic texts and began attending Friday prayers at her local Islamic Center.

While she found nothing that justified the attacks, she did find meaning in prayers about strength, piety and resolve.

She saw them as guideposts for navigating the world. "I was really questioning my life's purpose," Ahmed said.

"And everything about the bigger picture. I just wasn't about me and my career anymore."

She also reacted to a backlash against Islam and the news that many American Muslim women were not covering for fear of being targeted. "It was all so wrong," she said.

Wearing the niqab is "liberating," she said. "They have to deal with my brain because I don't give them any other choice."