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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Behind the Veil: Why Islam’s most visible symbol is spreading

Behind the Veil Why Islams
It liberates. It represses. It is a prayer. It is a prison. It protects. It obliterates.

Rarely in human history has a piece of cloth been assigned so many roles. Been embroiled in so much controversy. Been so misjudged, misunderstood, and manipulated.  This bit, or in some cases bolt, of fabric is the Islamic veil.
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NON-MUSLIMS TEND TO REGARD VEILING as a sign of women’s repression. That is true in highly patriarchal societies like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where women have second-class status and are required to cover both head and body when outside the home.

But most Muslim women, including most in the US, voluntarily opt to wear the head scarf out of religious commitment. They believe they are following God’s wish, and reject suggestions that their head covering means they have less autonomy at home or on the job.

“It’s something that you love to do because it makes you feel that you are closer to Allah, that you’re doing the right thing,” says Reem Ossama, an Egyptian mother of three who covers her head when she leaves her home here. “Allah ordered us to wear the scarf … to protect our dignity, to protect women, [so we would] not be looked at just as a beautiful body, a beautiful face, [so others would] look at our minds and our personalities.”In addition to religious reasons, many Muslim women have adopted the head scarf to show pride in their faith, particularly in times like these when Islam is under attack from non-Muslims. It’s a way for women to say, “I’m proud to be a Muslim and I want to be respected.”

Islamic religious scholars disagree on whether Muslim women must cover their faces. In Egypt, Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, head of Cairo’s Al Azhar University, a renowned center of Islamic learning, recently reprimanded a girl for wearing a niqab when he visited her school. He ordered her to remove it, saying that it “has nothing to do with Islam and is only a custom.”

In France, where the Islamic head scarf (and other “conspicuous” faith symbols) was banned from state schools in 2004, President Nicolas Sarkozy says there is “no place for the burqa” in his country. But after studying the issue, the French parliament last month decided not to formally ban the burqa, though it may recommend against its use in some public places, news agencies reported.

The Islamic head scarf, however, is another matter. As the most common type of Islamic veil, it now occupies a prominent place in both Western and Muslim majority countries as a statement of religious values.

Not to mention as a fashion statement, as Reem Ossama is eager to demonstrate. She opens a drawer to retrieve several issues of “Hijab Fashion,” a Cairo-based glossy magazine full of models in colorful, ankle-length dresses and pantsuits – all with elaborate matching head scarves.”We have fashion of our own, we Muslim ladies,” Ossama says while flipping pages. “You can cover and be beautiful.”

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