The few U.S. Muslim women who choose full veil face mix of harassment, sympathy


Safiyyah Abdullah shops in Gaithersburg. She has worn the full veil known as a niqab since shortly after she converted to Islam in 1975. (Katherine Frey/WASHINGTON POST)
April 13, 2011

Safiyyah Abdullah glided through the produce aisle of the Gaithersburg Giant Wednesday, oblivious to the glances that followed her. She no longer thinks about the startling image she presents to other shoppers: a figure clad hair-to-heel in flowing black, at once anonymous and conspicuous amid the apples and onions.

Her face was almost completely covered, only her blue eyes visible through the narrow gap above her black veil. A little boy in the milk aisle took his father’s hand and stared.

“I really don’t notice people’s reactions anymore unless they say something,” said Abdullah, 55.

Which they do, frequently. Abdullah, a Chicago-born, Lutheran-raised social science researcher, has lived in the Washington area for more than 30 years. And in that time, almost no one has seen her face.

She wears a niqab, the same kind of Muslim veil that France earlier this week declared illegal to wear in public. At least one woman there was cited and fined under the new ban, and several others were arrested while protesting it in Paris.

In the United States, some outraged Muslims have called for a boycott of French goods, while others have quietly applauded the prohibition of a garment they see as repressive.

During a round of morning errands Wednesday, Abdullah reflected on her experiences as part of a tiny minority of American Muslim womenwho go beyond a head scarf and wear the full veil. Since she put on the niqab shortly after converting to Islam in 1975, daily outings have been a mix of harassment and compassion, comfort and alienation.

She never knows when leaving her Gaithersburg townhouse whether this will be one of the times she is called a terrorist, invited to “go back to her own country” or stopped by the police for no apparent reason, which she says has happened “dozens of times.”

“I always get pulled over, but I have never gotten a ticket,” said Abdullah, who is both deeply religious and a buster of stereotypes. “And it’s never just one squad car, it’s always four or five.”

Her experience is a familiar one to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based civil rights group. CAIR has taken about 40 veil-related cases since 2008, including ones in which banks, stores and schools have tried to ban face coverings on their property.

Just this past Friday, a woman called to complain about being hassled at the gates of Andrews Air Force Base when visiting her ill daughter, who lives there. Malikah Amatullah of Houston, who wears a niqab and whose son-in-law is deployed in Iraq, had been using a visitor’s pass for two weeks when one guard said she couldn’t enter the base. Amatullah ended up spending more than six hours in a nearby McDonald’s and the night in a motel until an officer sorted it out, with apologies, the next day.

“I don’t even eat McDonald’s, so I didn’t have any food,” she said. “I even had to make my prayer there.”

Under suspicion

Abdullah once was heading to Montgomery College, where she is studying for a degree in social work, when county police officers stopped her crowded Ride-On bus and told her to get off, she said. There had been a complaint about suspicious behavior, they told her.

“What makes me suspicious,” she demanded. “My clothing?”

But there is sympathy, too. After a drunk man harangued her on the Red Line, three other strangers apologized for his behavior.

“Really, I’m very comfortable here,” Abdullah said. “Maybe 20 percent of the time, something happens, someone says something. But most people are fine. This is a very metropolitan, diverse area.”

Her tastes are diverse as well. She is a fan of Thai food and the Cheesecake Factory, where she has perfected the knack of slipping the fork under her veil.

Airports are always an ad­ven­ture. Abdullah knows to arrive hours in advance and that she will inevitably be picked for extra screening. “I’m always the first one to be randomly selected,” she said. “I’ve thought of changing my name to Random.”

She doesn’t mind being asked to lift her veil and show her passport to female security agents, as long as it is done away from prying male eyes. “If it’s a legal request, I’m happy to take my veil down,” she said. “But if you’re just being an idiot, we’ll see who can be more stubborn.”

Abdullah, a poet who does readings at Busboys and Poets and other open-mic venues, boasts a sharp Chicago accent and a ringing laugh that lights up her eyes. If there is a matching smile, only her family and a few female friends have seen it.

She said covering herself to all outsiders lets her interact with the world on her own terms.

“When I dress this way, you are required to deal with me intellectually and that’s it,” Abdullah said.

Abdullah views the veil as a strictly voluntary part of Islam. Her 28-year-old daughter covers her hair, but doesn’t wear the veil. Her husband of 31 years (they divorced five years ago) never liked it, and she once went nearly three years without it when they lived in New York.

She did not like the uncovered life.

“People come up to me and say, ‘This is America, your husband can’t make you wear that,’ she said. “I say, ‘You don’t understand, this is my choice.’ ”

Newly veiled

Romana Kerns-Muhammad, 40, a jewelry designer in Lanham, started wearing a face veil four years ago, about two years after she converted to Islam. At the time she worked as the office manager of a Muslim community center and found it difficult to keep her conversations with men strictly limited to business matters.

“I’m a people person, and that kind of worked against me,” said Kerns-Muhammad, 40. “I prayed about it and decided the niqab would remind me and the brothers to keep our interactions on an appropriate level.”

And so one day at lunch, she went to a shop in College Park and asked the owner to show her a niqab and how to fasten it. She hasn’t shown her face in public since.

She has since met and married a Muslim man, who likes the veil. But her mother still hasn’t got used to it. “For her it’s a vanity thing,” she said. “I tell her that with or without the niqab, I’m Romana. I’m me.”

Asma Hanif, a nurse and midwife, covered her face for years.

“You do feel a sense of protection,” said Hanif, who now runs the Muslimat Al-Nisaa Home Center, a homeless shelter for women in Baltimore. “You feel as if the people recognize you as a religious person, they have respect and regard for you the way they would have respect for a nun.”

But the practice cost her her first job, a post at the former Columbia Women’s Hospital in Georgetown. Alhough she’d worn the veil to her job interview, the hospital later told her it was interfering with her ability to relate to patients.

She found other medical work, but eventually stopped wearing the full covering when it became too hard to wear sterile scrubs.

Asra Nomani, a local Muslim feminist and author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam,” is seeing more covered women in area malls and dog parks. Most of them, she suspects, are converts to Islam.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find many native-born Muslims who wear niqab,” said Nomani, who would support a ban on religious face coverings here. “It’s been mostly accepted within Islam that women are not required to wear the veil. Even these women who adopt the veil voluntarily are promoting a hard-line ideology.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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