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Lifting the veil


May 30, 2008 - 9:36PM

It's a stereotypical image, to be sure: a Muslim woman covered head-to-toe, her head held low in apparent subjection.

Maybe it's a common scene in some parts of the world, but in the U.S., it's a different picture. Certainly, some Muslim women in the U.S. wear traditional dress, such as the head scarf known as the hijab, but most do not. And though many unequivocally accept Islam, plenty of Muslim women in the U.S. feel comfortable enough to question its customs.

"America is a good place for Muslims to freely explore issues," said Louay Safi, executive director of the Islamic Society of North America, which in 2006 named Ingrid Mattson as the association's first female president. "Given the freedom this country offers, there is room to have meaningful debate on important issues."

Such as?

Well, mosque culture and the Quran, for starters.

Aneequa Rana, a 42-year-old Colorado Springs entrepreneur, has no qualms talking about her belief that Islamic culture skews heavily toward men and colors the way the Quran is interpreted.

"There are passages in the Quran that can be interpreted any way you want, and (Islamic culture) being a male-dominated society, it is interpreted as what males want," she said.

Yet Rana is OK with the segregation of the sexes at the Islamic Center of Colorado Springs, where women enter the mosque through a door separate from the men and hear services in a room apart from the main prayer hall.

No doubt, American women of other faiths also have issues with some of their religions' practices while accepting others. Consider the Catholic woman who might agree with the church's stance on abortion but not on birth control. Or the Jewish woman who lights the Sabbath candles each Friday but doesn't keep kosher.

But other religions rarely carry the same baggage in a post-9/11 world, where stereotypical images of cloaked Muslim women continually play out in the media, yet have little to do with being a Muslim woman in the U.S.


The most visible accoutrement of the Muslim woman is the traditional dress that includes the hijab and nikab, a face veil - garments often viewed by non-Muslims as oppressive. But only in conservative Islamic countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are women required to wear them, Safi said. In much of the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere, wearing the garments is a choice.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, some Muslim women choose to wear the concealing garb to shield themselves from the roving eyes of men.

"I want to be respected for who I am and not for a beautiful hair and body," said 36-year-old Nissreen Abukhdeir, owner of Jerusalem Cafe in Manitou Springs, who always wears a hijab in public.

"In America, we judge by how someone looks," Abukhdeir said. "But in Islam, you respect her for who she is."

Saba Nizamuddin, a Colorado Springs mother of three, is typical of Muslim women in the U.S.: She chooses to dress modestly - her arms and legs covered and garments loose - but she doesn't wear a hijab.

"I can represent Islam without wearing traditional clothes," she said.

Neither Abukhdeir nor Nizamuddin requires her teenage daughters to wear the head scarf.

"If the time comes you want to wear it, and it comes from the heart, then you do it," Abukhdeir told her 16-year-old daughter.


More problematic to some Muslim women is something deeper than dress: the practice of segregating the sexes in mosques.

It's not something mandated in the Quran, Safi said, but traditionalists say it's done to avoid distraction during prayer and retain a woman's modesty during full-body prostrations.

The practice doesn't take place in all mosques. The Islamic Society of North America estimates that 55 percent of U.S. mosques allow men and women to worship together.

"We have been encouraging Islamic centers to allow women to have access to the main prayer hall," Safi said. "This sort of segregation is not part of the Quran."

Allowing women to be spiritual instructors and part of the governing body of mosques is also encouraged.

"Muslim women were instructing men in the 12th and 13th centuries," Safi said. "It is not prohibited by the Quran."

But it's unlikely the setup will change at the Islamic Center of Colorado Springs, said center Imam Mahmoud Sarhan.

"These things do not hurt the woman," Sarhan said. "Women have their own door and room."

Rana, a wife and mother of two, is not overly distressed by the Islamic Center's stand. In Islam, she points out, women's attendance is optional at mosques, while men's attendance is an obligation. Rana only occasionally attends mosque services and events.

But Nizamuddin wants the walls to come down.

She's been at mosques where men and women worship together in the main prayer hall.

"There was no distraction," Nizamuddin said. "There was no dating going on."

Similarly, the treatment of women in various Islamic states is cultural, not theological, Safi said.


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