Over the phone, Maureen Slater sounds like a soccer mom. She uses words like “jammies” instead of pajamas and laughs at her own jokes (“I’m smarter than my husband, ha-ha-ha”), some of which aren’t really jokes (“but seriously, he’d tell you the same thing”). She lifts weights two or three times per week on a home gym set up on the patio of her Paradise Hills home. Her hands are large and strong-looking, the nails cut to the quick, and she wears one thin band of diamonds at the first knuckle of her index finger. But few people will ever see her hands.
The most the general public will see of Maureen is the amber brown of her eyes and the smudge of liner she wears beneath her lower lashes. The rest remains covered — hands, feet, face, hair, all of her — when she shops for groceries, picks up her children from school, travels to and from work, or during any of her other daily activities outside the home.
Typically, Maureen wears a black, ankle-length, robelike covering called an abaya (in conversation, she refers to it as a “coat”), a black hijab (which covers her head and hair, her shoulders, and everything else down to her knees), and a niqab (a veil) over her face, leaving only a slit for her eyes. On her hands, she wears black gloves, and on her feet, a pair of cowboy boots or Doc Martens.
At our first meeting, however, Maureen is between hospice patients, and so she’s “dressed down” in a white knee-length tunic and matching pants, a bright-green scarf covering her head and hair, and a black veil covering her face. Her hands are bare, exposing the ring, the short nails, and her white skin. She leans forward, into my personal space, firmly grasps my hand in hers, and shakes.
Hidden though she is in what she calls her “private little room,” Maureen is candid and outspoken, the antithesis of what many assume of Muslim women, whether they choose to wear a face veil or not.
The 46-year-old mother of five converted to Islam from Catholicism 27 years ago — under her own conditions. “I was still going to wear makeup and wear bikinis and go to the beach and have a beer occasionally,” she says.
By the time she converted, she’d been married to her Egyptian Muslim husband for six months. He agreed to her conditions, saying that once she took the Shahada (the oath declaring belief in the oneness of Allah and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s prophet), he trusted God to guide her if it was His will that she conduct herself differently.
Every step she’s since taken, graduating over the years from the masar (which covers the hair but leaves the neck exposed) to the hijab, and, finally, to the niqab (each step covering more of herself in public), has been her own choice. Although she’d once sworn she would “never, ever” wear the niqab, Maureen says the first time she wore one out in public “was like being on the computer and doing some work at home while you’re in your jammies.”
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“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.” (Qur’an 24.31)
Some Islamic scholars teach that the face veil is mandatory, while others believe that a woman covering even her hair is a personal choice, but all agree that modesty is an important part of the Islamic faith.
On the website IslamForToday.com, Syed Rahman published an article titled “Seven Conditions for Women’s Dress in Islam.” Women’s clothing, he writes, must cover everything but the hands and the face; the material must not be transparent; it must hang loose to hide the shape of the wearer; the design must not resemble men’s clothing or that of nonbelieving women; it must not consist of bold designs; and it should not be worn for the sole purpose of increasing one’s status or reputation.
My friend Ifrah explains Rahman’s “Seven Conditions” in her own words.
“You should wear something that’s not form-fitting and something that covers you up, so that when somebody looks at you, they can’t talk about your body shape or your beauty or what you lack or don’t lack.” The purpose, she says, “is for a woman to be judged on her abilities, her knowledge, her education, and her mind, not for how sexy she looks.”
To dress as such is to observe hijab. Not every Muslim woman interprets this modesty in the same way. In City Heights (home to many Muslims), some women wear black, brown, or dark-green solids, their long, shapeless head-to-toe coverings reminiscent of a nun’s habit. Others wear bright colors and patterns, kitten heels visible beneath their long skirts, topped off with gauzy scarves and giant, trendy sunglasses, all of it giving them a look somewhere between Erykah Badu and Audrey Hepburn.
For those born into Islam, most begin with a small, child-sized hijab between the ages of five and nine.
Dumb Questions, Mean Friends, and Transformers
A Tuesday morning in June, less than a week left to go in the school year. A fourth-grade classroom at Oak Park Elementary buzzes with a restlessness not typical of independent reading time. Whispers rise to a hum, and the teacher calls out from the back of the classroom, “I like the way Amal is reading quietly.”
Amal, a creamy brown-skinned girl in a black-and-gray hijab set with silver sequins, smiles behind her book. The rest of the class quiets down. When the teacher turns her attention to the reading group she is facilitating at the back of the class, Amal and the girl whose desk faces hers begin to kick each other under the table and giggle quietly behind the books still propped up in front of them.
Ten minutes later, the children line up for recess. Outside, some run to jump rope or to join four-square games already in progress. Amal and several other girls crowd around the backpacks, where one classmate is passing out Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.