When President Barack Obama gave his 2009 speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, he stated, "The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."
It was a curious statement-a leader of the free world speaking of the "right" of women to be hidden, excluded.
Hijab literally means "veil" or "curtain" and was inaugurated to distinguish the prophet Muhammad's wives as his property. Later, the caliphs housed their women in harems to shelter them from public view. Both harem and hijab fell out of fashion early in the 20th century, but with the rise of Islamic radicalism in the 1980s, the hijab (with the modern addition of the niqab, the fully veiled face) made a comeback.
For many Muslim women, going about veiled-from a simple headscarf in some Muslim cultures to a head-to-toe burqa-is not a sign of free expression but of oppression. It's deeply tied to the Islamic practice of wife beating (encouraged in the Quran) and female genital mutilation, i.e., circumcision. The Egyptian feminist writer and physician Nawal el Saadawi-now in her late 70s-was a sensation when she took her uncovered head to join demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square in February. Saadawi says that Muslim women who claim to wear the hijab by choice are "either lying or ignorant."
But head coverings have been on the rise in Egypt, along with other countries toying with democratization, like Syria and Jordan. To gauge how truly democratic are street protests in these and other countries, then, the thing to watch is how the women dress. Will CNN and Al Jazeera show us more black-cloaks or more colorful, varied, and possibly unveiled Muslim women?
In Egypt, where protesters cast off the bonds of oppression in February, that question already is answered with threats: In late March text messages circulated in Cairo demanding that women be veiled "in proper Islamic manner," according to Barry Rubin, who directs the Global Research in International Affairs Center. Nermien Riad, who works with the Christian nonprofit Coptic Orphans, told me that some groups distributed fliers in Egypt warning both Muslim and Christian women they would be burned with acid if they ventured outdoors without head covering.
Despite the obvious pressure, Westerners are muddled over the issue. We support "the right" to wear the hijab if we believe that it's somehow similar to a woman's right to wear boots without socks or too-short skirts. But if we understand that the implications of wearing the hijab are more profound, and political, we may respond like France and others. The hijab has been banned in French schools since 2004, and starting on April 11 the full-face Muslim veil, the niqab, is banned in public places in France. Dutch and Belgian lawmakers are calling for the same.
For now the United States has skirted the debate only because such disputes primarily have arisen locally, in predominantly Arab communities. In 1990 the Fordson High School yearbook showed seven seniors wearing the hijab in class photos. By 2006, 78 seniors at the Dearborn, Mich., school were wearing the hijab for yearbook photos. Muslim groups have succeeded in convincing the Michigan High School Athletic Association to allow female athletes to wear headscarves, over the objections of coaches and referees.
But that's changing with action in Washington by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under Obama it has filed increasing numbers of lawsuits on behalf of women who insist on wearing the hijab in the workplace. Prominent are cases against Disney and Abercrombie & Fitch. Although Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for about 25 percent of over 3,000 religious discrimination claims filed with the EEOC in 2009. Quietly U.S. employers will find they are required to accommodate hijab-wearing employees-if the debate remains veiled.
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