The 31-year-old wife and mother in one apartment above a park filled with children was not happy to see an AOL News reporter at the door, asking about the new law that went into effect Monday barring Muslim women in France from wearing the Islamic face veil in public.
"I'm angry," she said. "The law is humiliating -- and it's ridiculous. It's just part of a bias against us, and it's going to backfire."
Despite her reluctance to speak, a friend who was with her encouraged her to invite a reporter into the spacious, book-filled apartment she shares with her husband and four children.
During a two-hour conversation, Ummasa Karim (the pseudonym she preferred to use) and Abir Charif, 35, an Arabic teacher and mother of twins, spoke about living in a world they say misunderstands young French Muslim women -- many of whom are more serious about their faith than the previous generation.
France is home to about 5 million Muslims, the biggest Muslim population in Europe. Only an estimated 2,000 women wear the full-face veil, and some feel the new law, set in motion by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009, symbolizes anti-Muslim sentiment.
The law bans the wearing of a niqab, the full-face veil, or the burqa, which covers the entire body except for the eyes, in public. Women risk a $215 fine and unspecified "citizenship lessons." At least one woman was ticketed Monday outside Paris for wearing the full-face veil and told to pay the fine, The Associated Press reported. Another woman was brought to a police station but released without being fined, the AP said.
Karim, who was born in France of Tunisian origin, grew up in a home where her parents were Muslim in name only.
She began wearing the jilbab, which covers the whole body except the face, and sometimes the burqa, after she was married at 22. Her parents and her husband opposed it.
Charif, who was born in Tunisia but is a French citizen, said her parents were practicing Muslims. But at 16 she embraced her faith with an intensity she says is typical of her generation in France.
Charif wears the head scarf but had never worn a jilbab or burqa until Monday, when Karim offered both garments for her and the AOL News reporter to try on in front of a mirror.
Karim: I felt like crying. I still do. It's hard. Having it be an actual law makes it so much more serious. Why be so biased against us? Especially when so few women even wear the full-face veil. It hurts especially to think that [former first lady] Madame Chirac lobbied for nuns to be able to wear their veils when they had official photographs taken. Why are we treated differently?
Charif: So much for equality, liberty, fraternity. It's a way to stigmatize Muslim women even more. And it's totally unfair. To tell women in France they can't wear a burqa is just as scandalous as telling women in Afghanistan they have to wear one. We ought to have the choice to wear what we want.
What's been the fall-out of the new law?
Karim: There's a lot of confusion about what it means. So even when I go out without the full-face veil, I get insults. People say, "Go back to Afghanistan." Today two [Muslim] women stopped me from going into the supermarket because they said what I was wearing was against the law -- and it wasn't. I dread going into the city center. The insults will probably be worse.
Charif: I think it will make many Muslims even more defiant and even stronger in their faith. I don't wear the veil, but if tomorrow there was a demonstration by women wearing the [full-face] veil, I would put one on and go out there and support them. But what a lot of people don't know is that there are very few Muslim women in France who wear the full-face veil, and a lot of them are French women who have very recently converted to Islam.
What's the biggest misconception about Muslim women like you here in France?
Charif: They think that we're submissive to men. We're not. Our husbands don't tell us what to do. We make our own choices. We submit to God, that's it. (Points to Ummasa and laughs.) I can tell you she's not submissive. She's tough. I'm her friend, but I'm a little afraid of her!
What made you become so much more religious than your parents?
Karim: The goal of that generation was to work, work, work -- get money, get a house. My mother wore the head-covering, but she didn't really know what it stood for. I studied the religion and I learned the deeper meaning. But my real conviction came about seeing how my brothers and sisters in Palestine were treated. I felt a solidarity with them. A lot of us did.
Ummasa, why is wearing the jilbab and sometimes the face veil important to you?
Karim: I was very flirtatious and wore a lot of makeup before I met my husband. After we got married, I stopped wearing makeup and dressing up, but I still got attention from men and I didn't like it. I felt much better behind the veil. It's a barrier between me and men.
How did your family react to your decision to wear the veil?
Karim: It was like a big catastrophe in my family. My parents have only recently begun to accept it. My husband was against it. He said, you're too young. But I'm not guided by my husband. I make my own choices. You can ask him.
Do you think you're both typical of younger Muslim women in France?
Charif: Yes. A lot of us are well-educated and we read a lot, especially about Islam. I grew up in a very happy family, and when I was 16 I began reading the Bible, the Talmud and the Koran. I was fascinated by what they all had in common. I was very touched by what I read, and I was also happy to realize what being a Muslim really meant and that I'd found my path. I started wearing the hijab [head scarf], and my mother was shocked.
Charif: The thing about Islam is that there is a lot of divergence in it and people who follow different paths. Islam is about democracy and choice. But there are basics in Islam that all Muslims follow.
What would you say to President Sarkozy about this new law if he were sitting with us now?
Charif: I would tell him that there are a lot of young Muslims in France who now think Islam is more democratic than the French government.
Karim: I would tell him I feel insulted. I would also say that the Muslim women who still dare to go out in the full-face veil in France are very courageous.