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Veil or not to veil?


 By BRIAN MURPHY, AP Religion Writer

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Earlier this year on an Arabic Web site, a Muslim woman scholar posted an open letter to the Islamic world.

"Take off the veil, sister," began Elham Manea, a Yemin professor who researches Islam and politics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland

Her opinion that head coverings for women are not mandated by the Quran or Islamic tradition is nothing new, but her impassioned tone quickly grabbed attention. Supporters hailed it as a timely manifesto against Islam's conservative tide. Traditionalists scorned it as the ramblings of a Muslim blinded by the West.

Both sides agree that the question of whether Islam demands a veil is hard to answer.

With no central Islamic theological authority -- such as the Catholic's Vatican -- Muslims are left to interpret Quranic passages, sift through stories about the Prophet Muhammad, known as hadiths, and study competing religious edicts over the various coverings. They range from fashionable head scarves to the shroud-like burqa and the full-face veil called a niqab, which may only show a woman's eyes.

The veil is increasingly seen as a political statement against perceived injustices to Islam.

Those supporting it cite a hadith from Sahih Bukhari, a ninth-century theologian, urging women to "cover themselves" in public. The Quran tells women to seek modesty and "draw their cloaks close around them" (Surah 33, verse 59) and "draw their veils" over their chests and necklines except around their husbands and close relatives (24:31).

Some prominent Islamic voices, including Egyptian-born cleric Sheik Yusef el-Qaradawi, say some form of Islamic covering is supported by Muslim law and customs, but most don't go beyond advocating some variation of head scarves and body-covering clothing.

Far fewer leaders -- outside ultraconservative bastions such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan -- believe Islam requires veiling a woman's face and hands, saying that both are exposed during prayer and that a woman's face should not be covered during the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca.

But many other Islamic scholars find flaws in demands for the veil, often called the "hijab," saying phrases in Islamic texts are too vague to make it a religious requirement. The veil, they say, reflects the cultural norms of the seventh-century life of Muhammad and later centuries -- in the same way that the Bible and Jewish sources offer guidance now widely considered a matter of choice, such as a passage in I Corinthians that says women should cover their head during prayer.

Last week, a Turkish court acquitted a 92-year-old archaeologist, Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, who was charged with insulting religious feelings in her book that claimed Islamic-style head scarves were first worn more than 5,000 years ago by priestesses initiating young men into sex.

Turkey's strongly secular laws ban head scarves in schools and public offices, but more Turkish women and Muslim European immigrants are wearing them in daily life..

In the West, the veil feeds into the insecurities of our globalized world, the fears about a hostile stranger in our midst, says Dogu Ergil, a professor of social and religious trends at Ankara University in Turkey.

Tariq Ramadan, a leading scholar on European Islam, told a London conference last week the veil was part of a deepening "them versus us" attitude.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution imposed strict dress codes in Iran that allowed either a head scarf and formless coat or the billowing black chador, which covers all but a woman's face. Since the late 1990s, however, young women have been continually pushing the limits with the so-called "bad hijab." Now, it's possible to get by with a body-hugging tunic and a scarf that can reveals more hair than it covers.

Iranian religious authorities know an edict re-enforcing stricter hijab would be countered by liberal clerics acknowledging the desires of the young. Instead, the theocracy backed a fashion show in July that displayed their concepts of chic-but-conservative coats, head scarves and chadors.


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