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From Tunis to Tehran, the great veil debate

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Shirazi remembers hearing from a Turkish professor friend that women in Turkey are sometimes barred for covering their hair during exams.

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"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."

Disagreement about what Islam says

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."