FOR MORE THAN a year after converting to the Muslim religion, the 20-year-old Houston woman had worn her short, blond hair under a scarf in accordance with Islamic rule. Then on Sept. 11, fearing reprisal, her family of devout Christians barred her from leaving the house.
When she ventured out a week later, the woman had taken a further step in her religious journey. She had drawn a veil across her face, allowing only her eyes to peep through.
"My family ... wanted me to stay home," the woman, who now is married and baby-sits at her local mosque, recalled. "They wouldn't let me go out and get fresh air or groceries and live my life. I wanted to show that I wasn't scared."
The woman is one of a number of young Muslim women in Houston -- students, professionals, homemakers, old or new adherents to the faith -- who choose to wear the modest Muslim attire. Like most of the 10 women interviewed, Leslie spoke on condition that she be identified only by her first name.
For some, the events of Sept. 11 prompted them to don the hijab, which reveals only the face and hands, or the niqab, which shrouds all but the eyes like the burqa, a term that may be more familiar to Americans recently attuned to Islamic customs. Most of the women interviewed said they had increased how much they cover after Sept. 11 and report more of their friends are doing the same.
Muslim scholars are still debating the extent of how much a Muslim woman should cover up for the sake of modesty. They agree that Islam mandates women should at least wear the hijab.
The Sept. 11 attacks jolted Muslims as it did the rest of America. As the churches and synagogues filled, so too did the mosques. Muslims tried to find comfort in God and answer painful questions, such as whether their faith could sanction such an atrocity, and how they could respond to general misconceptions.
"I think Sept. 11 gave me a nudge. Misconceptions surfaced (about Islam), and I felt I needed to represent Islam," said Delanna Garcia, 18, a University of Houston psychology student who has long covered her hair, but since Sept. 11 has been wearing the niqab from time to time.
By occasionally wearing her niqab on campus or out shopping, Garcia, who converted to Islam at age 12 with her mother, hopes that she balances the television images of Afghan women who were ordered by law to reveal only their eyes, and who were barred from working and getting an education.
"By wearing niqab, people would see I didn't wear it by force," she said. "Hopefully I eliminated some misconceptions."
Surprisingly, perhaps, these women, who have lived all or most of their young lives in the United States, are often choosing to wear the veil or niqab against the will of their families, who immigrated from Muslim countries.
Ramza Abdul-Wahid, 20, a UH nutrition student from India, concedes that her parents "were not fond of ... me wearing niqab," and asked her to "think long and hard" about it before deciding to do so.
The women said their actions were more than simply a response to Sept. 11. They cover, they said, not for their husbands, fathers, brothers or any male relative, but to submit completely to God's will.
"In Islam, we veil for Allah, not for our husbands," said Susan, 21, a Hispanic convert and homemaker who wears a black niqab. "If you veil for your husband, there is no point to it."
Another merit they cited seems akin to modern-day feminism: Being shrouded forces people to judge them for their personalities and abilities rather than for their appearance or sexuality.
"I'm not judged as a woman ... whether I'm fat, blond, rich, poor," Leslie said. "(People) have to know me and how I think. I've never experienced as much freedom as I am now."
Still, covering up does draw attention.
"When I wear the hijab, people try to be extra nice to show that they are not against Islam," Garcia said. "But the niqab is strange to them still. I don't immediately realize why people are staring at me when I wear it. I forget that I look strange to them."
Susan recalled feeling uneasy one day as suspicious -- or merely curious -- shoppers stared as she carried a fast-food box through a department store.
"Everyone's eyes were on that box," she said. "I thought, `It's only hot dogs!' "
And Sarah Ahmed, 20, an Egyptian-American who wears a black niqab, said she has heard children in stores innocently asking their mothers whether she is hiding, or if she's a monster.
"Sometimes, if no one is looking, I'll flash (the child) my face to show them I'm human," she said.
The women do not believe they are alienating themselves from society. They concede their lives are different -- they don't date or go to bars, have given up makeup and perfume, and confine their salsa and meringue dancing to all-women parties. But they say they participate in school functions, take part in activities such as cancer walks or international fairs, or volunteer at various hospitals. One woman said she works out in a gym in sweats -- and a scarf over her hair.
"I hope (mainstream America) would think of me as part of the society, as a normal person who has the right to express their religion, because that's what is guaranteed to everyone who lives in America," said Abdul-Wahid.
"If you go to the beach you'll find people wearing all kinds of clothing, and no one stops them. This is my way of expressing myself with how I feel about my religion."