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To veil or not?

Muslim tradition faces question in modern times

13/11/2006 10:02


Earlier this year, a Muslim woman scholar posted an open letter to the Islamic world on an Arabic website.

"Take off the veil, sister," began Elham Manea, a professor of Yemeni descent who now works in Switzerland. Her opinion was not new that head scarves and other coverings for women are not mandated by the Koran or Islamic tradition. But the essay's impassioned tone quickly grabbed attention.

Supporters hailed it as a timely manifesto against Islam's conservative tide. Traditionalists scorned it as the ramblings of a Muslim woman blinded by the West.

Both sides could agree, however, that despite all its cultural twists, the question of the veil is a religious one, and one that is stubbornly hard to pin down just what does Islam demand?

With no central theological authority, such as the Vatican for Catholics, Muslims are left to interpret Koranic passages, sift through stories about the Prophet Muhammad and study competing religious edicts over the various coverings, which range from fashionable head scarves to the burqa and the full-face veil called a niqab, which shows only a woman's eyes.

"It's become such a charged topic," said Manea, a researcher on politics and Islam at the University of Zurich. "I received hate mail and threatening e-mails. But, on the other side, messages supporting my views were overwhelming."

In the West, particularly Europe, the veil has been drawn into hot-button debates such as immigrant integration and worries about radical Islam.

In many Muslim countries, it can represent a potentially life-shaping decision for women in which the veil is increasingly seen as a political statement against perceived injustices to Islam.

"There are so many pressures now to decide whether the veil is right or wrong," said Tarafa Baghajati, a leader of the European Network Against Racism in Brussels.

The Koran contains sections that tell women to seek modesty and "draw their cloaks close around them" and "draw their veils" over their chests and necklines.

And prominent Islamic voices, including Egyptian-born cleric Sheik Yusef el-Qaradawi, say some form of Islamic coverings is supported by Muslim law and customs.

But many Islamic scholars find flaws in demands for the veil.

They believe the phrasing in the Koran is too vague to make it a religious requirement.

"The hijab these days goes beyond religion into politics, culture and society," said Ahmed Nazeer, of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture in Concord, California. "These pressures are all coming down on Muslim women, to make a statement in favor of the one vision of Islam or another."

Even under Iran's conservative Islamic government there's debate surrounding the veil.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution imposed strict dress codes that allowed either a head scarf or the billowing black chador, which covers all but a woman's face. Since the late 1990s, however, young women have been continually pushing the limits with the so-called "bad hijab." Now, it's possible to get by with a scarf that can reveal more hair than it covers, twinned with a body-hugging tunic.

Iranian religious authorities are tongue-tied. They realize any edict re-enforcing a strict dress code would be opposed by liberal clerics who acknowledge the desires of the young.

Instead, the theocracy has tried a stab at vanity backing a July fashion show of chic-but-conservative coats, head scarves and chadors.


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