From Tunis to Tehran, the great veil debate
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.