HUNTSVILLE, Ala.--Growing up here, Matinah Lewis often hid that her family was Muslim. Today, Lewis--now Hediyah Al-Amin--proudly displays it by veiling not only her head, but her face as well.
A former high school dance team member and vice president of the StudentGovernment Association, she believes she is much more "beautiful" now withher hijab (head covering) and niqab (face veil).
"I think we have it all backward in America," said Al-Amin during arecent visit to relatives here. "Here, we get all fixed up for people wedon't even know, and at home we wear our hair in curlers and look our worstfor our family. It should be the other way around -- we should look our bestfor the ones we love and not matter to other people how we look."
Al-Amin, who lives in Qatar, said the veil is "not a symbol ofoppression. I've never felt more beautiful in my life. I love it. I stillwear my mini-skirt and my toe rings when I'm at home. I reserve my beautyfor my husband."
Her husband, Akil, is from North Carolina where they met when she wasattending Bennett College, an all-women private school in Greensboro. Shemajored in education and began wearing the hijab while a junior in college.That year, she was named to the school's homecoming court and also gotmarried.
After graduating from college, Al-Amin and her husband decided theywanted to live in a mostly Muslim country. They searched the Internet andfound an advertisement for English teachers in Doha, Qatar.
"As a teen growing up here, I wanted to be accepted, so I didn't embraceMuslim practices until I went to college," said Al-Amin. "I would go tochurch events with my friends, and I was on the dance team and ran track. Ifelt so alone here. I had to get to a place where I could be confident ofbeing a Muslim. I have always been a minority. I wanted to see what it waslike to live in a Muslim country where no one stared at me on the street."
Until Sept. 11, few Americans understood the meaning of Ramadan, theIslamic month of fasting. Rather than explain to her friends why she wasfasting during high school lunch period, she told them she was saving hermoney or was just "not hungry" when asked why she wasn't eating.
After moving to the Middle East, Al-Amin decided to change her name toHediyah, which means "guidance."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, she was afraid to return to herhomeland not only for fear of being harassed for her faith, but because herson carried the same Arabic name as the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind -- Osamabin Laden.
"When it (Sept. 11) first happened, my husband told me something wasgoing on in America and to check the Internet to see what it was," Al-Aminrecalled, tears welling in her brown eyes. "I thought, `It can't be real,and how can I go home?"'
She was especially concerned her son would be teased and criticized forhaving the name Usama -- the same as Osama -- in Arabic. It is a commonMiddle Eastern name meaning "lion" or "strong."
Usama had some medical problems when he was born, which she thoughtmight cause their son problems later in life. "I'm very particular about thenames of my children, but we especially wanted my son to have a name whichmeant strong, so that's why we chose Usama. I was afraid he would be teasedhere, but so far no one has said anything."
Although Qatar is one of America's strongest Middle Eastern allies,Al-Amin said she began to feel some tenseness among the Qatar residentsafter Sept. 11.
"I believe there is good in everything that happens, even the most evilthing," she said. "I felt some anti-Americanism among the Qatar youths, so Istarted talking with them as an American Muslim and they accepted us. I feltlike that's what I had to do."
While she felt fear about coming home last year for the first time sinceSept. 11, her parents assured her her family would be safe.
"No one said anything to us, and that's one of the best things aboutAmerican culture," she said. "I guess maybe it's just good old Southernhospitality or manners."
At the same time, she said she welcomes questions from strangers,especially children, about her beliefs. "I want people to ask me about my faith," she said. "That's the best way to explain it to them. I don't argue with people. This is just what I think. We are all sons and daughters of Abraham. Can't we just all get along?"