From Tunis to Tehran, the Great Veil Debate

November 8, 2006

Author: Dan Murphy

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

CAIRO - When former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted last month that female Muslim constituents show their faces when meeting with him, he set off a fiery debate about whether the face-covering niqab should be allowed in Britain's multicultural society.

But often forgotten amid such controversies in Europe - which tend to center on allegations of "Islamophobia" or the desire of Western nations to control a minority community - is the fact that nowhere is the debate over the Islamic veil older or more heated than in Muslim societies themselves.

From Morocco and Tunisia, to Turkey and Iran, majority Muslim states have at various times restricted, and in some cases banned, women's head coverings. To varying degrees, such restrictions stem from a view that public exhibitions of religious commitment are a political, not a personal, act - and hence a potential threat to the government.

"The niqab ... an imported innovation used by political extremists,'' screamed a recent headline in an Egyptian weekly. Here, government-linked newspapers are waging a heated campaign against the increasingly popular Saudi-style niqab. State TV stations ban their newscasters from wearing the garment, which leaves only a slit for a woman's eyes, and a top university recently followed suit.

But for most women who cover their hair, it's simply a matter of bowing to the will of God. "I wear the scarf because it's what God wants me to do,'' says a 20-year-old music student in central Cairo, whose pink scarf tops a matching form-fitting shirt and jeans. "I'm not making a statement about politics."