Threatened by veils

France's ban on wearing hajib in public schools is, I think, one of the least constructive ways to respond to the issue of Muslim immigration into Europe. It's rather like banning all public reading from the Qur'an because of Osama bin Laden's rhetoric. Megan K. Stack of the Los Angeles Times has written a fascinating survey of the debate within Islamic cultures about the meaning of head scarves, veils and other Muslim garb. She begins by introducing a 25-year-old ex-journalist in Cairo:

She got married and ended up divorced the same year. Then the stigma set in. Men knew she wasn't a virgin and stalked her as easy prey. She lost her job when the editor of her newspaper was jailed. Two years ago, lonesome and aimless, Hoda Abdel Wahab fell into a depression so deep she was afraid of becoming paralyzed.

"I thought, 'Nothing is worth it in this life, so I'll go to God,'" she says. Penniless, she sold her gold jewelry to buy a head scarf and abaya, or cloak.

Once she took the veil, the harassment stopped. On the streets, she gets only occasional murmurs from religious men: "Peace, sister."

Stack describes the various meanings of hijab across the world:

Amid anger over the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and ongoing bloodshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the hijab has emerged in the Middle East with deep political significance. For some, the scarves express defiance of American aggression, silent protests against Arab governments that cooperate with Washington or a retort to Westerners' phobia of Muslims.

To many a wary eye, the hijab symbolizes the systematic degradation of women and provokes fear that Islamic fundamentalism will seep into Western societies. In France, which has struggled to assimilate its Muslim communities, the head coverings and other religious garb were banned from public schools last year. Officials cited a desire to defend the country's secular tradition.

Muslims around the world -- even those who shun the hijab -- poured into the streets in protest. Militants in Iraq threatened to behead their French hostages unless Paris reconsidered. But in Egypt, the nation's most powerful cleric scandalized his followers by preaching in favor of France's banning of the veil.

There are Muslim countries where women have no choice but to cover their heads. Religious police in Saudi Arabia and Iran hunt and even beat bareheaded women.

Yet in Turkey and Tunisia, there is the opposite pressure. The hijab is banned from public schools and offices, and veiled women complain of ridicule and abuse.

One thing comes through clearly: the tradition of wearing hajib is too deep and rich for France's ban to achieve much more than a symbolic denigration of its Muslim citizens.

Stack closes her story with remarks from Hala Dahroug, a 33-year-old who works in Egyptian television:

"What I care about is my daughter's mentality, not what she wears," she says. "Being unveiled doesn't necessarily mean you are more intellectual or smarter. I meet unveiled girls who've got nothing in their brains, and I meet veiled ones who care about the world."

Despite, or perhaps because of, her youthful struggles to bare her head, Dahroug turned up at the French Embassy in Cairo last year to protest Paris' ban on head scarves in public schools.

"The important thing here is freedom of expression and the freedom to practice whatever rituals you believe in," she says. "Women should choose to wear it or not."

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