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Muslim women say veil is more about expression than oppression

Sunday, October 28, 2001

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sitting in Starbucks in Squirrel Hill, dressed in J. Crew and sipping a latte, Lani Siddique is the very picture of a sophisticated, educated modern Muslim woman.

The 26-year-old daughter of Muslim parents from Bangladesh, she grew up outside New York City, attended school in Switzerland and at Brown University, and is currently an intern at an optometry practice in the South Hills.

Lani Siddique, left, and Aaisha Haque are both Muslims who say the traditional hijab is a sign of piety and modesty. They also find wearing it to be liberating. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

But on the day after Sept. 11, Siddique didn't dare venture out of her North Hills home, afraid that people would harass her for what she wears every day -- a scarf called the hijab swathing her head.

"I had Muslim friends calling me saying, take your scarf off, you're going to get killed," Siddique said. "It was very difficult for me. I didn't want to, but I was afraid."

Perhaps the most visible manifestation of a Muslim woman's faith, it goes by many names -- hijab, niqab, abaaya, burqa, chador. It can be anything from a simple scarf draped around the face and neck to a shawl, and, more rarely, at least in Pittsburgh, a full cloak or shroud that covers the head and everything, in fact, but the eyes.

But in the first days after Sept. 11, this form of traditional Muslim dress became a target for some angry Americans. Some women had their scarves ripped off, or had cigarette lighters thrust at their heads. In Pittsburgh, women wearing the hijab were taunted at bus stops. A Muslim reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who donned a veil to see for herself how women were being treated was pushed into the path of a truck.

Two days after the attacks, Siddique did go out, wearing her head scarf, and nothing happened, although while driving to her job she saw something that made her quake.

"There was a man on the street in West Mifflin carrying a sign that said, 'Nuke 'em all,' and he stared straight at me. I couldn't help but feel threatened."

Different meanings

Today, the hijab -- or "the veil," as it's referred to in the Western media -- has taken on a multitude of meanings, perhaps more than it was ever meant to carry.

While some Muslims consider it an expression of modesty and piety, others say such emphasis on the scarf as a religious symbol is overstated. And while some Americans recoil from the sight of any form of Muslim dress as a symbol of terrorism and aggression toward non-Muslims, many feminists, mostly American but some Muslim, invest the hijab with another kind of significance -- oppression of Muslim women.

That last assumption has been fed by television images of women in Afghanistan, shrouded in the burqa, being beaten for showing an ankle or part of their face. And while Muslim men also are required to dress modestly -- with a turban or a cap, and flowing garments -- women's dress is seen as symbol of the greater restrictions they labor under in some Muslim countries.

"They are wrong," said Izdihar El-Hilal, a native of Syria who has lived in the Pittsburgh area for 27 years and is an American citizen. "This is my choice. I am not oppressed."

Aside from the diaphanous white scarf around her face, El-Hilal looked very much like any other woman shopping for her grandchild at Monroeville Mall. Her attire, which included a blue wool jacket over a long dress, attracted no stares, no double-takes from other shoppers.

Nonetheless, she declined to speak on the record about herself, citing her wish for privacy.

She was not alone. A number of women expressed reluctance to speak to a reporter for this article, citing fears of "trouble," or insisted that it be without attribution.

It is estimated that about 10 percent of the female Muslim population nationally wears the hijab, although those numbers may be growing as more people convert to Islam. It's not clear how many women do so among the 10,000 Muslims living in the Pittsburgh region. But nearly all of those interviewed stressed that wearing the veil was a personal decision, a far cry from the coercion experienced by women in Afghanistan.

In fact, the Quran, the Muslim holy book, doesn't require that Muslim women cover their heads, although it asks both men and women to "lower their gaze and guard their modesty."

"The idea behind that was that the sexuality of one didn't influence the other, so that men and women would treat each other like equal human beings," said Zieba Shorish-Shamley, an anthropologist and Muslim feminist who heads the Washington, D.C.-based Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan.

Because the Quran's injunctions are open to many interpretations, Islamic laws in different countries vary widely in what they define as modest dress -- from the extremes of Afghanistan to the sartorial freedoms of Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and even Iraq.

Even in countries where the hijab is not required, today more younger Muslim women are covering their heads.

"When I was in Pakistan recently, for the first time in some years, it seemed like at least half of all the girls were wearing it," said a young woman from Pakistan who is studying for an advanced degree at a local college and asked not to be identified by name.

While Pakistan has experienced a strong revival of fundamentalism in recent years, the renewed practice of covering one's head may be as much an expression of education as a return to old traditions, Middle East historian Christina Michelmore says.

"I think that for many young women, it's a symbol they are attached to their culture, they're proud of their religion, and they see it as part of their identity as separate from this globalized McDonald's world," said Michelmore, associate professor of history at Chatham College.

Expression or oppression?

Indeed, many Muslim women consider the head scarf a form of feminist expression, because it forces people to judge them by their character rather than their looks.

"I look at wearing a hijab as liberating," said Jennifer Fadel, an American who converted to Islam 10 years ago and who is married to a native of Lebanon. "It protects my dignity. I don't have to worry about looking good and doing my hair all up just to impress others."

While the hijab is usually worn after puberty, Siddique didn't cover her head until her junior year at Brown University, when, she said, "I saw some really dynamic, brilliant Muslim women I respected covering their heads, and I realized it's possible to be liberated but modest, too."

Still, some American feminists have difficulty with this concept.

"I know many Muslim women who are fighting for equal rights who will not wear the hijab, and some Muslim feminists who do, and it's their choice. But it's submission, let's be real," said Eleanor Smeal, president of The Feminist Majority Foundation. "And when it becomes forced, as it is in some places, you know you have an anti-women's regime in there,"

Since 1997, Smeal's group has waged a public relations campaign against the forced wearing of burqa, a head-to-toe shroud, along with what it calls "gender apartheid" in Afghanistan.

"The scarf is not the problem that the burqa is, let's put it that way," Smeal said. Still, feminist movements in Muslim societies have always "fought like hell to get rid of the veil," she said. The Shah of Iran banned the veil, and in Afghanistan, the king's wife took off her veil, an act "which in Muslim cultures has always been seen as a symbol of progressive feminism," Smeal said.

Michelmore said such acts are as much an embrace of modernism as feminism. In Turkey in 1922, the nation's founder, Kemal Ataturk, supported women removing their veils, while also mandating that all men wear hats with brims, a decree designed to emphasize Turkey's status as a modern nation.

And what might seem like gender discrimination to an American feminist may not feel that way to a Muslim, Michelmore said.

"For many Americans, cultural restraints on individual behavior automatically look like oppression," she said. "I think that's a very American look at the world. For lots of cultures, communal standards aren't seen as inhibiting individual freedoms. They're seen as part of belonging to a group whose cultures and values are important to those individuals."

Educating America

In its purest form, scholars stress, Islam is the most progressive of all religions when it comes to women's rights. The Quran permits them to own their own businesses, to inherit wealth, choose marriage partners or divorce them, although those freedoms have been severely curtailed in some countries, depending on local customs and traditions.

The burqa is not a religious invention, but rather one with roots in the pre-Islamic cultures of Persia and India. In fact, scholars note that middle-class Muslim women in the seventh century began covering their heads because it was the tradition of the Christian Byzantines, who wanted to distinguish themselves from the masses.

The Quran's direction to women to "draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty" except to the male members of their families was a protective response to the slave trade that existed before Islam, rather than a patriarchal one.

"Before Islam, women were bought and sold and used as sex objects," Shorish-Shamley said. "Female infant children were buried alive. This was designed to ensure that women would not be molested, but protected."

In fact, for every nation like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, where women must cover themselves from head to foot, are prohibited from driving and may not move about the country unaccompanied by men, there are Muslim countries such as Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia that have elected women as their leaders.

"This is not about men and women doing the same things, it's about a culture that values women," said Aaisha Haque, 22, a fourth-year medical student who is interning at Allegheny General Hospital and who grew up in Louisiana, the daughter of parents born in India.

"The notion that by choosing to cover her hair a woman is somehow oppressed is as ludicrous as to say that a woman in a long-sleeved shirt is oppressed in comparison to those in a tank top," said Haque. Muslim women fighting for equal rights are fighting oppressive governments, not Islam itself, she said.

"My mother is one the staunchest advocates for women's rights I know, an educated woman who chose to cover on her own. And when I was a little girl, she gave me a book about women in Islam, and that's how I found that some of the greatest writers, historians and scientists were women.

"I'm glad I cover, even now when it causes people to pass severe judgments on me, because when I am in the hospital, people realize that one can be dressed this way, be American and be free, and that not all Muslim women are oppressed or controlled by men."

Some find the American preoccupation with their headwear irritating, even when it's well-intentioned. They assume women in veils can't speak English, or that they don't like having their heads covered.

"People are always asking me if I'm hot," said Parunchana Pacharn, 26, a student at Carnegie Mellon University. "I go to the bank, and they say, aren't you hot?"

For foreign Muslim students living in Pittsburgh, the frustrations run deeper. Two of them, one from the West Bank, another from Pakistan, said they had felt a sense of alienation, of apartness from their peers at school, because of how they dress, while in their home countries, one torn by war, the other by a rise in militant movements, wearing the hijab confers a sense of belonging.

"I am the only one in my family who covers her head, but my family is happy that I am doing it," said the Pakistani woman. "In my mom's generation, in my grandmother's generation, they didn't do that. My grandmother had no education at all. But my generation is trying to learn more about what our religion is saying, and my family is pleased. They see it as a source of dignity."

There is a recognition, though, that this embrace of tradition can backfire.

In Iran, many of the women who insisted on covering their heads in protest of the Shah of Iran's regime grew to regret their decision under the Ayatollah Khomeini's rule, which required that women cover themselves.

And during her college years in the mid-1990s, when Siddique saw increasing numbers of her female friends at Brown, Harvard and Smith, most of them from elite backgrounds, covering their heads, she asked why.

"They'd say, America is one of the best places on Earth to follow our religion, because we are free. And I feel that way, too.

"The U.S. is still one of the only parts of the world where I may practice my religion, wear what I choose and be respected for my choices. To me, that is real empowerment."

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