The many-layered veil question

To veil or not to veil? Fifteen years ago, as a young American teaching in Pakistan, I asked myself that question. Recently, after reading about a global campaign to wear scarves in a stand against anti-Muslim hate crimes, I asked it again.

I think back on my experience living in Gujranwala, Pakistan, where a friend and I opened a women's center in our home. Our focus was to bring women together, but we also had a selfish reason: We wanted to meet more women.

In time, the center became a haven for women who had rare occasions to socialize outside their circle of sisters, aunts, and cousins.

My friend and I taught English conversation, Western cooking, even aerobics. After class, we would sit around our living room drinking sweet and spicy chai. This was when the real learning took place. With the veils left at the door, our students became young women just like us. They had many questions about life in the United States: What did we think about "love marriage" as opposed to the traditional arranged marriage that most girls anticipated? Was it lonely living without our extended families?

We had as many questions for them. But as much as we loved the people we met, we felt confined. We hated depending on male colleagues to perform tasks we could easily do ourselves. We chafed at having to be accompanied to the bazaar or restaurant.

Did our students feel the same? The women we met - brought by their husbands, fathers, and brothers, who waited patiently outside - said no. They felt that the shielded life in purdah - wearing head-to-toe burqas and being separate from men - was a fair exchange for security and respect. Rather than feeling stifled, they felt the anonymity gave them the freedom to walk through the bazaars with their sisters.

My friend and I actually felt a bit jealous of that anonymity. We could not leave our small compound without attracting the attentions of men. For many, we were just a curiosity, but others had little inhibition about brushing our bottoms or touching our arms. For a while we considered wearing burqas ourselves, but were told we would offend our Christian friends. Besides, anyone would know we were Westerners by our walk.

We did have to wear the sawal kameez - baggy pants and long tunic, the ubiquitous garb of Pakistani women - but we didn't mind; it's so comfortable. What we resented was the long silk or chiffon scarf, or dapata, that had to be worn with it. Always. We never learned to wear the dapata with the grace of our Pakistani friends. Instead, we were constantly readjusting or tossing it off our shoulders.

But the real issue for me is the veil. Is it a symbol of love and tolerance, as the organizers of Global Scarves for Solidarity would hope, or a way of protecting male honor at the expense of a woman's autonomy? Although the Koran calls on women to appear modestly in public, there is wide interpretation of what that means.

We may think we are showing solidarity with American Muslim women, but the gesture does nothing for women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. And even though many women in those countries say they're comfortable in a veil, it does ultimately limit their freedom.

If women must be protected from the gaze of male eyes, then they are also "sheltered" from the ability to choose a career, access higher education, and debate men. Like much that we are learning about Islam in the United States, issues around the veil are layered and complicated.

I want my Muslim friends to know I support them, but I won't wear a scarf.

Instead, I'll support their businesses and celebrate the fact that in America, we have the right to separate the religious from the political.

Kaarin Marx Smith is a freelance writer.

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