CAIRO — When former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted last month that female Muslim constituents show their faces when meeting with him, he set off a fiery debate about whether the face-covering niqab should be allowed in Britain's multicultural society.
But often forgotten amid such controversies in Europe – which tend to center on allegations of "Islamophobia" or the desire of Western nations to control a minority community – is the fact that nowhere is the debate over the Islamic veil older or more heated than in Muslim societies themselves.
From Morocco and Tunisia, to Turkey and Iran, majority Muslim states have at various times restricted, and in some cases banned, women's head coverings. To varying degrees, such restrictions stem from a view that public exhibitions of religious commitment are a political, not a personal, act – and hence a potential threat to the government.
"The niqab ... an imported innovation used by political extremists,'' screamed a recent headline in an Egyptian weekly. Here, government-linked newspapers are waging a heated campaign against the increasingly popular Saudi-style niqab. State TV stations ban their newscasters from wearing the garment, which leaves only a slit for a woman's eyes, and a top university recently followed suit.
But for most women who cover their hair, it's simply a matter of bowing to the will of God. "I wear the scarf because it's what God wants me to do,'' says a 20-year-old music student in central Cairo, whose pink scarf tops a matching form-fitting shirt and jeans. "I'm not making a statement about politics."
While the niqab remains relatively rare in most Muslim countries, the simple head scarf has made a stunning comeback in recent decades as both a public sign of piety and, in many cases, a fashion statement. In 1970s Egypt, for example, head scarves were donned mainly by rural women. Today, on the streets of Cairo, at least 80 percent of women cover their hair.
There is little hard data on how many women cover their hair in Muslim societies, but what is certain is that the rising popularity of the head scarf is increasingly bumping up against both official and societal resistance:
•In Turkey, where the head scarf is banned in government offices and universities, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer last week refused to allow women wearing the scarf to attend a ball marking independence. He said "compromise" on the issue would undermine the secular state founded by Kemal Atatürk.
•In Tunisia, Foreign Minister Abdel Waheb Abdallah recently described the covering as "inspired by sectarianism ... foreign to our culture and our traditions.''
•In Morocco, Islamist activists complain that women who wear the head scarf, usually called a hijab, are hounded out of jobs and schools.
Part of the discrepancy among countries may be due to the fact that veiling – a term used here to refer to a whole range of practices from covering the hair to concealing everything but the eyes – stems from various cultural traditions that predate Islam. Faegheh Shirazi, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, points out in her book, "The Veil Unveiled," that the practice has ebbed and flowed in importance throughout the ages.
Ms. Shirazi, who was born in Iran – where the head scarf has been required since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 – says she is just as concerned about admonitions against the veil as she is with requirements that it be donned. In either case, she argues that freedom to make that choice should be paramount in any just society.
"Whenever states get involved with it, it gets worse,'' says Shirazi, who doesn't cover her hair. "Take the example of the Islamic Republic [of Iran]. When you push women so far, they become very innovative; They come up with things that Khomeini never would have predicted."
Just as in countries where the veil is frowned upon, some women have taken it up as a way to distance themselves from what they feel is illegitimate or immoral, so, too, do many women in the cosmopolitan parts of Iran push the boundaries of what is allowed by the state, artfully draping their head coverings to reveal as much hair as they can get away with.
Women are, of course, just as artful in fighting restrictions on the veil. After Turkey in 2000 banned wearing head scarves for driver's-license photos, many women simply took to using computer programs to insert images of hair over their scarves.
Shirazi remembers hearing from a Turkish professor friend that women in Turkey are sometimes barred for covering their hair during exams.
"I thought that was very interesting," she says. "It's covering her hair, not her brain. You're barring her from education for this reason? That's not empowerment."
That's just the tip of the seeming contradictions surrounding veiling practices.
Commonly seen by Westerners as a means of controlling or even oppressing women, veiling, in its own way, is also a practical means of increasing influence and access in some cultures.
Farzaneh Milani, a literature professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Veils and Words," points out that veiled women today are much more integrated in society.
She contrasts the Iran of her grandmother's time, in which many women withdrew from society after Reza Shah banned the veil in 1936 – going to public baths only in sacks on the backs of their husbands or sons – with that of modern Egypt, where the choice of women covering their hair puts their families at ease about the fate of their daughters out in public society.
"The veil of my grandmother was different from the veil of the women you see on the streets of Egypt today, who are out seeking education, working, having their pictures taken," she says. "It's a very different issue."
In Egypt in the past 20 years, some middle-class families have watched aghast as their daughters have taken to covering their hair under the influence of popular television preachers like Amr Khaled.
A young woman in Cairo from a wealthy family, who asks to be called Heba, recalls how she went from being a Michael Jackson-obsessed teen to covering her hair at 16 and listening mostly to religious tapes.
"My parents were furious; I think in some ways it was a kind of declaration of independence from them,'' she says. "A lot of my friends were doing it, and I felt it made me a part of something bigger, and somehow more moral than my parents. And it was also practical: It stopped men from calling at me in the streets."
Now 22 and holding a law degree, Heba is unusual among her peers in that she has since abandoned the hijab. "I read more and I thought more about it, and decided this isn't the essence of Islam."
But there is widespread disagreement about what Islam does require on the issue. The Koran does not make clear reference to covering a woman's hair, though there are some hadith, or traditions of the prophet Muhammad, that quote him as saying this is required. Some Muslims take these hadith as evidence the veil is required; others consider these stories apocryphal.
The Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation of the Koran instructs, "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty ... that they should draw their veils, cover their bosoms, and not display their beauty, except to their" close family members. Another verse says faithful women "should cast their outer garments over their persons [when out of doors]: That is most convenient, that they should be known and not molested."
There are no commands to wear the niqab anywhere in the Koran, however. In fact, women are commanded to reveal their faces when making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ms. Milani argues that behind that requirement lies much the same logic that led Britain's Mr. Straw to insist on seeing women's faces when he talks to them. "Why the command to uncover the face? It's exactly the same argument," she says. "It's a public setting, and people need to know who's standing next to them."
She says that doesn't mean women should be barred from making their own choices, but that with those choices, they will have to reasonably accept some limits.
"I don't have a problem with the head scarf, or even the niqab,'' she says. But in the specific case of the niqab, she argues that it's a clear sartorial choice to set a woman apart that has implications beyond the personal, since it makes it hard for security officers in an airport, for instance, to identify the wearer.
"When you're in public and want to be a modern citizen with all those rights, that comes with certain responsibilities," she adds. "You also have to accept there are limitations."
Nevertheless, Straw was attacked by many members of the Muslim right. Mahdi Akef, the Supreme Guide of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful Islamist opposition group in the Arab world, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse that Straw's comment "reveals the absence of any respect for Muslims."