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July 12, 2008

I Married a Terrorist

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Her interest piqued, Maureen raised the subject with the wife of Rachid’s new best friend, the budding jihadist. She told Maureen that wearing the burka would be the ultimate show of faith, and handed over one of her own. Maureen tried it on, then stepped outside to meet her husband, feeling a little rebellious. “I was afraid of his reaction,” she says, watching me closely as she speaks. “He asked why I was wearing it, and I said, ‘Because I want to.’”

She tells me all this very matter-of-factly, her hands calmly resting on the table, as if it’s not unusual for a young Western woman to swap her miniskirts for the burka. But she felt the garb gave her a certain power, and a sense of mystery. “People look at you, but they don’t see you; men don’t know if you’re pretty or not — they don’t see anything at all,” she explains. “But some people think you’re dangerous or crazy.”

That included her own parents, who stopped speaking to her immediately after she married. Eventually, however, they grudgingly agreed to attend their daughter’s civil ceremony (necessary under Belgian law to legalize a marriage). “My own mother was scared of me when I arrived at the town hall in my burka,” says Maureen. “She started to cry and was telling me, ‘Take it off! Take it off!’ My father was like, ‘Why have you done this? Why? Why?’ It was very hard for me and for Rachid.”

Maureen’s social universe very quickly became restricted to the wives of Rachid’s new circle — and only the wives, because the group believed in segregation of the sexes. But she didn’t miss the company of men much. “It’s strange at first, but you have to adapt,” she says. “Then it’s beautiful: a quiet life, a nice life. We spoke about children, food, meals; we laughed a lot. We were all the same age, in our 20s.” She particularly appreciated the tight-knit group’s support structure.

After prayers at the town’s mosque, the wives would stream into the adjoining medieval market square. “We’d say hello to people in the street, but everybody was scared of us,” she recalls. One day, while shopping, Maureen bumped into a passerby. “Go back to your country!” he snarled. “But this is my country! I’m Belgian!” she shouted back. Complaints flowed in to the local mayor, Jan Creemers. Eventually, to assuage the concerns of residents, the town started a controversial fine of 120 euros (about $180) for women caught wearing the burka — a symptom of fear of Islamic extremism after 9/11. The feeling of being under siege only deepened Maureen’s sense of separation from society.

Rachid, meanwhile, influenced by his new radical friends, became more zealous in his views, reaching a point where he couldn’t tolerate the idea of other men seeing his wife at all — even in the burka. Over the months, the marriage grew strained, and sometimes even violent, if Maureen did something to displease him. Soon she was a virtual prisoner in her own home. “He forced me to close all the curtains,” she says, “so nobody could see me inside.”

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