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French tussle over Muslim head scarf is positive push for women's rights

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Increasingly, Muslim women and their supporters - even in arch- conservative Saudi Arabia, where some of the most severe restrictions on women have the force of law - argue that extreme dress codes for women are not just un-Islamic, but anti- Islamic. The Koran supports their position. "There is no compulsion in religion," it states. A woman who wears the hijab out of fear acquires no merit, and the person exercising the compulsion is committing a sin.

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When the reformist Afghan King Amanullah decided to liberate his country's women from their stifling burqas in the 1920s, he called together an assembly of the country's most conservative religious leaders, handed them a Koran, and asked them to point to the passage requiring women to veil. The religious leaders couldn't do it, because no such passage exists.

There are three sections in the Koran that deal with the issue of dress. The first instructs men and women to dress modestly. All people are to cover "that which is customarily concealed," in other words, what we think of as "private parts."

A second passage advises the prophet Muhammad to "enjoin the believing women to draw their covering over their bosom. That is more proper, so that they will be respected and not molested."

A third passage deals only with Muhammad's wives. Muhammad didn't like his younger wives to be chatted up by young men who didn't recognize them as members of his household. When fundamentalists argue that Muslim women should conceal themselves, remain secluded, and not interact freely with men, they refer to this passage, which was never intended to apply to average Muslim women: "Wives of the Prophet, you are not like other women. If you fear Allah, do not be careless in your speech, lest the lecherous should lust after you. Show discretion in what you say. Stay in your homes and do not display your beauty."

Fundamentalists contend that unveiled women inspire lewd thoughts in men, leading them into sin. Islam, however, holds that no one is responsible for the sins of another. The Koran even tells Muslims how to deal with temptation: "Tell the believing men to lower their gaze, and tell the believing women to lower their gaze."

Muhammad was no proponent of sexual segregation. He enjoyed the company of women, sought their advice, nominated them to significant posts in the community such as market supervisor and mosque custodian, and named several of them as authoritative experts to be consulted after his death on the interpretation of Islam. Men and women prayed together in his mosque and attended "co-ed" entertainment there. The prudish apartheid of today's fundamentalists cannot be laid at his feet.

Ironically, France's new secular dress code may end up taking Islamic society a step forward by sending Muslims back to their own religious texts for review. They'll then discover that Islamic orthodoxy never truly required the restrictions on women that conservatives and fundamentalists demand.

Cheryl Benard is author of 'The Government of God, Iran's Islamic Republic.' She is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.