IYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — It liberates. It represses. It is a prayer. It is a prison. It protects. It obliterates.
Rarely in human history has a piece of cloth been assigned so many roles. Been embroiled in so much controversy. Been so misjudged, misunderstood, and manipulated.
This bit, or in some cases bolt, of fabric is the Islamic veil.
For non-Muslims, it is perhaps the most visible, and often most controversial, symbol of Islam. From Texas to Paris, it has gained new prominence and been at the center of workplace misunderstandings, court rulings, and, in Europe, parliamentary debates about whether it should be banned.
The veil’s higher profile stems from several factors, including greater awareness and curiosity about Islam since 9/11, US military interventions in Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rising visibility of Muslim immigrant communities in the United States and Europe.
It has also become a magnet for trouble in times of distress, as Illinois resident Amal Abusumayah discovered when a woman upset about the Fort Hood, Texas, killing spree tugged Ms. Abusumayah’s head scarf in a grocery store.
“The veil has become a clichéd symbol for what the West perceives as Muslim oppression, tyranny, and zealotry – all of which have little to do with the real reasons why Muslim women veil,” says Jennifer Heath, editor of the 2008 book “The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics.”
All this attention on the veil brings immense chagrin to Muslims because their faith means so much more to them than what women wear on their heads. But the veil – in its many manifestations – also gives rise to disagreement among Muslims. And their contemporary debate about it, while not yet widespread, raises fundamental questions relating to free will, women’s status in society, and even how to interpret Islam’s holy book, the Koran.
IN ITS BROADEST SENSE, the “Islamic veil” refers to a large variety of coverings. The most widely worn is the head scarf. Covering hair and neck, it can be black and simple, or colorful and sweeping, as in Cairo, where scarves are tightly wound around women’s heads and then cascade luxuriously to their waists.
The head scarf is often referred to as hijab or hejab, an Arabic word meaning a covering or a screen. Mujahabat means “women who are covered.”
There is sweeping consensus among Islamic religious scholars around the world that Muslim women are required to, or at least should, cover their hair. So the head scarf, or some type of head covering, is widely viewed as mandatory in Islam.
Other coverings worn by Muslim women also fall within the category of “veil.” Depending on the country, these outfits can be regarded as either optional or compulsory. Often they are said to be required on either religious or cultural grounds – categories that overlap in most Muslim countries.
Iran’s traditional covering, for example, is the chador, an ample black cloth that fits over the head and reaches to the ground. Women often hold part of it over their face in mixed company. The more modern Iranian cover is a head scarf accompanied by a longish, coat-type garment.
Women in Saudi Arabia wear an oblong black scarf flipped twice over their heads, along with the abaya, a loose black robe. Many add the niqab, a square piece of cloth that covers the mouth and nose, or sometimes hides the entire face with only a slit for the eyes.
The most restrictive covering by far is the burqa of Afghanistan, a long billowy smock that totally covers a woman from head to toe, including her face. She sees the world only through a small square of cloth webbing.
NON-MUSLIMS TEND TO REGARD VEILING as a sign of women’s repression. That is true in highly patriarchal societies like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where women have second-class status and are required to cover both head and body when outside the home.
But most Muslim women, including most in the US, voluntarily opt to wear the head scarf out of religious commitment. They believe they are following God’s wish, and reject suggestions that their head covering means they have less autonomy at home or on the job.
“It’s something that you love to do because it makes you feel that you are closer to Allah, that you’re doing the right thing,” says Reem Ossama, an Egyptian mother of three who covers her head when she leaves her home here. “Allah ordered us to wear the scarf … to protect our dignity, to protect women, [so we would] not be looked at just as a beautiful body, a beautiful face, [so others would] look at our minds and our personalities.”
In addition to religious reasons, many Muslim women have adopted the head scarf to show pride in their faith, particularly in times like these when Islam is under attack from non-Muslims. It’s a way for women to say, “I’m proud to be a Muslim and I want to be respected.”
This is an especially strong sentiment in Muslim countries where people feel their Islamic identity is threatened by the global spread of Western culture. For many women in these countries, being “authentic” means wearing the Islamic head scarf.
Other reasons for veiling involve less freedom of choice. Some women, especially in developing countries, say they put on the head scarf to avoid harassment and stares from men, especially in crowded spaces such as public transportation systems.
More commonly, there is family pressure from fathers, husbands, or brothers who want their female relatives to be seen by society as a “good girl” or “good woman.” These men are responding to their societies’ prevailing norms, which presume that veiled women are obeying Islam’s prohibitions on dating and extramarital sex.
Some men ask their relatives to veil because they “are jealous,” says Ms. Ossama’s husband, Mohamed Gebriel. “They don’t like other men to see their wives.” Mr. Gebriel, who is managing director of a Riyadh business consultancy, isn’t one of these men. But he says that, like the “vast majority” of Muslim men, he respects women who cover because “we see that as a sign that she appreciates herself, that she has some dignity, that she’s not into that materialistic thing and trying to be a sex symbol.”
At the same time, Gebriel stresses that he has “many Muslim friends, female friends, who are not wearing hijab and it doesn’t bother me … because at the end of the day, it’s one small thing that represents the entire entity … of this human being.”
GENERALLY, ISLAMIC RELIGIOUS SCHOLARS cite two verses in the Koran to support their consensus that Muslim women must, or should, cover their hair. The first is Verse 33:59, addressed to the prophet Muhammad and his family: “O Prophet! Tell Thy wives and daughters And the believing women, That they should cast Their outer garments over Their persons (when abroad): That is most convenient, That they should be known (As such) and not molested.” Verse 24:31 states, “And say to the believing women That they should lower Their gaze and guard Their modesty; that they Should not display their Beauty and ornaments except What (must ordinarily) appear Thereof; that they should Draw their veils over Their bosoms.”
But, writes sociologist Ashraf Zahedi, a scholar in residence at the University of California, Berkeley Beatrice Bain Research Group, “[T]hese citations emphasize modesty and covering the bosom and neck. There is no reference to covering female hair or to the head veil.”
Ms. Zahedi is among a small but growing number of female Muslim scholars questioning the long-held consensus on head covering. Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud, and Asma Barlas, to mention others, argue that because most interpretations of the Koran throughout the ages have been done by men, the holy book’s support for gender equality has been obscured.
As Ms. Barlas, a professor of politics at Ithaca College in New York, said in a 2006 address at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, “I am among those … who argue that the reason the Koran has been read as a patriarchal text has to do with who has read it, how, and in what contexts. To make it clear, historically only male scholars have read the Koran … always within patriarchies. That is why I call the dominant reading of Islam a misreading, which implies, of course, that I believe there can be a correct reading of Scripture.”
In a phone interview, Barlas noted that the Koran also calls on men to be modest (Verse 24:30). But, she said, “we never talk about Muslim men’s sexual morality…. That’s why I get upset sometimes with all the discussion of the head covering because it seems to me that men benefit from this a lot.
“It basically lets them off the hook from having to talk about what might constitute good behavior on their part….” she said. “There’s no discussion of how they should be dressing or behaving…. Why is the onus always on women to be the custodians of the community’s morality or identity?”
Other Muslim women are using the political arena to challenge the dominant view that Islamic modesty requires a head covering. Last May, four women made history when they were elected to Kuwait’s National Assembly. Conservatives, outraged that two of the women – Rola Dashti and Aseel Al Awadhi – do not wear head scarves, petitioned a court to bar them from parliament because they violated Islamic law by not covering their heads.
In October, Kuwait’s highest constitutional court handed the women a legal victory when it dismissed the petition, ruling that the country’s Constitution guarantees gender equality and freedom of choice in religion.
MODERN HISTORY OFFERS MANY EXAMPLES of how men and male-dominated political regimes have used veiling as a way to control women, and by extension society, as well as a means to promote ideologies, whether secular or Islamic.
In the first half of the 20th century, for example, secular-oriented leaders in Turkey and Iran who were keen to modernize their countries along Western lines banned the veil in public – to the great distress of many devout Muslim women. In Iran, women who refused to unveil were forcibly removed by police from public establishments. Many refused to leave their homes, Zahedi noted in her study of veiling in the fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies.
Today, Turkey still forbids head scarves at state-run universities. In Iran, the 1979 Islamic revolution reversed the veil ban and went to the opposite extreme, requiring a complete cover of head and body for all women, even non-Muslims. The point was to vividly demonstrate that Islam – not the West – was the controlling reference point for Iranian society.
Zahedi noted that Iran’s revolution brought to the fore deep-seated notions about the erotic nature of female hair. One conservative male writer had opined that “it has been proven that the hair of a woman radiates a kind of ray that affects a man, exciting him out of the normal state.”
Veiling was justified by “the need to control female sexual power,” Zahedi added. And instead of “questioning the … uncontrollable sexual appetite of some Iranian men,” she wrote, “the regime forces Iranian women to conceal their hair and bodies to protect those men.”
Similar rules were imposed when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996. They made the burqa, long worn by traditional women for both cultural and religious reasons, required for all Afghan women. During Algeria’s bitter civil war in the 1990s, radical Islamists killed unveiled women. And in Hamas-controlled Gaza, schoolgirls have been told to don head scarves. (Meanwhile, a few miles away in Israel, the Orthodox Jewish community requires its married women to cover their hair.)
Barlas also accuses Westerners of politicizing the veil when they use it as a symbol for Islam, usually to critique women’s repression in Muslim societies. “I have been challenging many Western audiences to tell me what they think a ‘typical’ picture of a US-American woman would be,” she wrote in an e-mail. “When they find it hard, I ask why they pick only a ‘veiled’ woman to represent all Muslim women.”
TODAY, IT IS THE MOST severe forms of the veil – the niqab and the burqa – that are generating heated debate in Europe and some Muslim majority countries.
Islamic religious scholars disagree on whether Muslim women must cover their faces. In Egypt, Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, head of Cairo’s Al Azhar University, a renowned center of Islamic learning, recently reprimanded a girl for wearing a niqab when he visited her school. He ordered her to remove it, saying that it “has nothing to do with Islam and is only a custom.”
Indeed, the niqab was never an indigenous form of dress in Egypt. But in recent years, it has been adopted by young women who have turned to a more conservative, Saudi-style practice of Islam. The Egyptian government, citing security, has banned it from female dormitories at universities.
“We all agree that niqab is not a religious requirement,” Abdel Moati Bayoumi, an Al Azhar affiliated scholar, told the Associated Press. Noting that the “Taliban forces women to wear the niqab,” Mr. Bayoumi added that “the time has come” to confront the idea that the niqab is mandatory.
Even in Saudi Arabia, where the niqab has deep roots in tribal customs and is widely worn, women have different opinions about it. “What is the most beautiful part of a woman?” asks Saudi newspaper reporter Laila M. Bahammam. “It is her face and her hair. So this beauty should be covered.”
But Ahlam A. Al Qatari, a Saudi physician, says that she “would launch a campaign against the niqab” if she could. While she is “a hundred percent” with covering hair, she adds, the niqab “is different…. It’s a tradition rather than an Islamic ritual or rule. In Islam, you cover your hair, not your face, and I think for civilized communication between different nations, different people, to know others actually, you have to expose yourself face to face, with eye contact.”
In Western countries, the face veil has become problematic for a variety of reasons. In an age of increased security, it is necessary for policemen, airline ticket agents, judges, and even teachers in schoolrooms to identify those in front of them.
Also, it challenges the widespread assumption in Western culture that masks usually denote deceit or something to hide. In societies where high stock is placed on face-to-face communication, the face veil can be a high barrier to assimilation, not to mention a cause for anxiety. Former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has called the niqab a “visible statement of separation and difference” that is “bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult.”
Several European countries have considered proposals to ban the niqab and burqa in public, and a leading Muslim organization in Canada recently urged the government to pass such a ban.
In France, where the Islamic head scarf (and other “conspicuous” faith symbols) was banned from state schools in 2004, President Nicolas Sarkozy says there is “no place for the burqa” in his country. But after studying the issue, the French parliament last month decided not to formally ban the burqa, though it may recommend against its use in some public places, news agencies reported.
The Islamic head scarf, however, is another matter. As the most common type of Islamic veil, it now occupies a prominent place in both Western and Muslim majority countries as a statement of religious values.
Not to mention as a fashion statement, as Reem Ossama is eager to demonstrate. She opens a drawer to retrieve several issues of “Hijab Fashion,” a Cairo-based glossy magazine full of models in colorful, ankle-length dresses and pantsuits – all with elaborate matching head scarves.
“We have fashion of our own, we Muslim ladies,” Ossama says while flipping pages. “You can cover and be beautiful.”