Symbol of both oppression and freedom

Even when Shaban Omary is shouting, she is hard to hear.

At a jam-packed forum here on "Women in Islam," she rises to respond to a panel of Arab academics and human rights activists expounding on Muslim customs - especially the veil - as a source of women's oppression.

"I represent the free, modern, Muslim woman!" yells Ms. Omary, a graduate student whose entire body is enveloped in black.

But her words are difficult to understand. They sound as if they're coming from another room, muffled by the thick black veil that covers her face, except her eyes.

Here in Gaza, where even a simple headscarf is optional and most public spaces are mixed, the increased popularity of hijab - an all-encompassing term for the various coverings women wear in deference to the Koran's counsel to "guard their unseen parts" - ignites debate: Does the veil, like the fabric filter over Omary's voice, mute the rights of women?

On the contrary, says Omary. "This way, I'm not defending myself against the looks of other people. I express the genuine face of the true Muslim, who comes out into the world not as a woman, but as a human being."

Arab feminists have argued against women's beauty being held responsible for society's foibles for decades. But simple formulas that equate throwing off the veil with liberation, which might have been met with applause 25 years ago, now seem to arouse more contempt and calls for an end to emulation of the West.

From the height of the Palestinian intifadah, or uprising against Israeli rule that began in 1987, to the upsurge in Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, the veil has become a socially obligatory part of the dress code for many who hadn't worn it before.

Women here and in other moderate Arab countries say they feel an increased pressure to veil for both political and social reasons. But proponents, like Omary, argue that the veil is a central part of God's protection against the mistreatment of women - and that gender relations will only improve when more women obey the call to cover themselves.

"These traditions have become a means of increasing injustice against women," says Violette Dagguerre, of the Paris-based Arab Commission for Human Rights. "Even during the life of the Prophet [Muhammad], the number of women wearing hijab was limited," says Dr. Dagguerre, whose comments drew angry reactions from the audience.

To veil or not to veil

The 20th century often saw the veil hijacked for political purposes. Nationalists from Turkey's Ataturk to Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted the hijab to come off. Fundamentalists in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Lebanon's Hizbullah, and the Palestinian Hamas wanted it back on. Leaders who went overboard in their pro-Western orientation found themselves facing a backlash.

"Hijab was used as a symbol of the backwardness of Muslim women by the nationalist movements in the early part of the 20th century," says Omaima Abu Bakr, of Cairo University in Egypt. "It was an apologist trend. In the later part of the 20th century, there was a reaction to that which said, 'We don't want to copy the culture of the West.' "

Today, reasons for veiling are as varied as the types of covering women wear, from the long robes and colorful scarves in the North African countries to the black-on-black garb of the conservative Gulf states.

At the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon, young women who wear hijab stand out, and say they often feel disdained for it.

"I think I had more respect for what I wore when I lived in America," says Manal El-Fakhani, a freshman who recently returned to her native Lebanon to study. "I know I'm doing the right thing. Wearing it stops you from doing bad things, because people expect more of you," she says, as an unveiled Muslim girlfriend next to her rolls her eyes. Explaining the pale blue veil over her casual pants and top, she adds: "I think it's a signal to guys that this is a girl who doesn't like to mess around."

Stories of young women donning veils their mothers and even grandmothers fought to take off are abundant.

Nadia Tewfiq, an Egyptian journalist studying Islamic political thought in London, was devastated to find on her last trip home that her 15-year-old niece, Nihal, had started wearing hijab.

"In the beginning of the 20th century, women took off the veil in Egypt, because it was seen as a veil on the mind itself," says Ms. Tewfiq. "It was a symbol that you're a piece of meat, a sex object. But today women are putting it back on, voluntarily."

"A woman's body is like honey," Nihal told her aunt, "and you have to keep the flies away."

Many reasons to cover

Tewfiq spurns such adages, regaining currency among Egypt's poor and well-educated classes alike.

The motivation to cover, analysts say, is multifaceted, often meaning very different things in different countries. In some places, it is social insurance; in others, quiet political protest.

"In Gaza they wear scarves they didn't have to 10 years ago because they don't want to be harassed by thugs," says Karma Nabulsi, a politics fellow at England's Oxford University.

"In Syria, the veil became a way of showing displeasure with the regime," Dr. Nabulsi says. "It was the only thing you could do to show opposition."

For some, the act of rebellion is a family affair: choosing to cover in a household of women who don't, or refusing to veil in a family of women who do. At one Kuwaiti suburban home, for example, Nura el-Enezi's daughters differ. She and her two older teenage girls wear hijab. But 14-year-old May refuses to wear the veil, even though most girls her age do. "It's too hot," says May al-Enezi, smirking at her sisters, who tell her God will punish her for disobeying.

What is or isn't off-limits to the rest of the world can be a difficult question for outsiders to understand. At the Prestige dress shop in Kuwait City, where a Tunisian designer creates custom-made gowns, all the women who stroll into the store are covered in hijab.

Some also wear face veils, which contrast starkly with the rich and colorful fabrics they examine for their dream dresses, which run $2,000 to $3,000 each.

Inside the fitting room, a male Lebanese tailor fits a crepe and sequin cocktail dress onto Suad el-Martigi, who needs something for the party to celebrate the birth of her first child, a girl. Pinning the fabric along the contours of her body is ok, she and her mother say, but she wears a long-sleeved shirt beneath the fancy cap-sleeve dress and leaves on a snug headscarf. At the party itself - where no men are allowed - it will be a much more revealing story, with exposed arms and ballerina neckline.

"In Europe and America, they dress for the outside," says shop owner Monira Ibrahim. "In our culture, women dress for themselves." Adds the new mother: "But everyone is free to do whatever they want."

Maintaining tolerance

Ekbal Doughan, the president of The Working Women League in Lebanon, says that is the key to maintaining tolerance. Mrs. Doughan, a lawyer who prefers business suits, was recently invited to debate hijab on a television talk show run by Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed Party of God. She was surprised to find that when she arrived at their studio, they wanted her to don a veil before going on air.

"I am a religious person," says Doughan. "I love the religion as a message, as a belief, not as a political party."

Rima Fakhry, the director of Hizbullah's women's association, disagrees. "A woman who accepts Islam but not hijab is not really accepting Islam."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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