French President Jacques Chirac has been sharply criticized by Muslim clerics around the world for his recent call for a ban on the Islamic head scarf, or hijab, in French public schools. Mr. Chirac's move has been attacked as a curtailment of personal freedom and an assault on Islam.
But the proposed ban has also kicked loose a debate among Muslims everywhere. Indeed, a growing number of Muslims worldwide are coming forward to say the hijab is not a valid symbol either of freedom or Islam.
"Neither the Koran, nor the hadith [the sayings of the prophet Muhammad] require women to wear a head scarf," says Gammal Banna, the Egyptian author of several works on the rights of Muslim women and brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the influential radical Islamic movement with offshoots worldwide. While telling Agence France-Presse that he did not support the French president's interference in the personal choice to wear a head scarf, Mr. Banna noted, "The head scarf is not an obligation, but derives from an erroneous reading of the Koran."
Nor is the hijab a good symbol for freedom. Throughout the Islamic world the hijab is often something girls and women wear because they're forced to - a symbol of restriction and intimidation, not freedom. Millions of women worldwide are daily threatened - and substantial numbers even assaulted, maimed, or killed - for refusing to wear whatever the local male authorities decide they should be wearing.
In countries such as Saudi Arabia, special religious patrols beat, insult, and arrest women who aren't covered according to their stringent specifications. In Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan, hundreds of women have been blinded or maimed when acid was thrown on their unveiled faces by male fanatics who considered them improperly dressed. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, women have been raped for daring to think they could now go without theburqa.
In March 2002, 15 Saudi girls ran for their lives when their school caught fire, without wasting precious time to first wrap themselves in their abayas (black robes that are mandatory female attire). Better dead than bare-headed, the religious police decided, and forced the girls back into the burning building and fiery deaths.
For most Muslim women, a head scarf is just a small part of oppressive attire that includes large, bulky garments that impair vision, impede movement, stifle breathing, and are unbearably hot in the summer. This, too, is un-Islamic. "God desires ease for you; he does not desire hardship for you," the Koran states.
As a "symbol," the hijab says that women's bodies are sinful, that women really shouldn't be out in public, that there can be no innocent interaction between women and men, and that the obligation for guaranteeing public morality rests on women alone.
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.
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.