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Debate Grows Over Muslim Women Wearing Veils


The controversy over Muslim women wearing veils or headscarves is increasing in some parts of the world. Recently, Jack Straw, a prominent member of Britain's parliament, ignited a debate in his country when he said that Muslim women who visit his office should remove their veils. He said it would improve communication, and called the veil a visible statement of separation. The issue of veils, and sometimes the Muslim headscarf, is also heating up in other places, including the United States.

In England, a Muslim teaching assistant was suspended in October after she refused to remove her veil, called a niqab, during school lessons. She filed a lawsuit against the school. The court dismissed her claims of religious discrimination and harassment but she won a victimization suit against her school. Her case became part of a debate over the religious identity of British Muslims.

Reacting to the case, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the veil a mark of separation that prevents Muslim women from fully integrating into society. More than one-and-one-half-million Muslims live in Britain.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. Four-and-one-half-million Muslims live there. In France, veils are banned in schools along with other religious clothing and articles.

In Tunisia, a Muslim country, women are prohibited from wearing the Muslim headscarf, or hijab, in public. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ali says the hijab came to his country as an uninvited sectarian form of dress.

That ban on the hijab sparked a recent Muslim protest at Tunisia's embassy in Washington. A group of American Muslims called the prohibition a violation of Islamic women's rights.

"Regardless of what soil we stand on, we feel the injustice of the Tunisian women," said one protestor.

Asma Hanif is head of the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations in the Washington, DC area.

"By Tunisia being a Muslim country, that it seems illogical and irrational, first of all, for something like that to even occur, as well as even to know why they would do it,” she said. “The other thing is, that just in general, no country has the right to take away someone's civil rights or their religious rights."

In the United States, the veil issue has also been addressed in courtrooms. One case took place in October in the midwestern city of Detroit, Michigan, which has one of the country's largest Muslim populations.

Muslim businesswoman Ginnnah Muhammad went before a judge to contest a bill from a car rental company. The judge dismissed her case when she would not remove her veil.

"When the judge asked me to take my veil off in court, I felt inhuman," she said. But Judge Paul Parah said he needed to see her face to judge her truthfulness. "I have to balance that. These are very delicate issues."

In the southern state of Florida, several women were told they could not wear a veil for their driver's license photo.

Khadija Athman, from Kenya, works on Muslim civil rights issues for The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a Muslim civil rights group. "I think in terms of drivers licenses and passport photographs it's reasonable to ask a person to have their face shown because it's a form of identification,” she said. “There is no other way you can identify this person as this is the person who is in this picture in the first place."

Ibrahim Hooper, Communications Director for CAIR, says the Muslim holy book, the Quran, indicates women should dress modestly. He says many Islamic scholars say women should cover their heads. He also says they have the right to wear a veil.

"The vast majority of Muslim scholars, both past and present, have determined that the requirements for a Muslim's women's attire is to cover everything except the face and the hands. We're against any restrictions on religious attire, or any time that the state would try to impose a particular form of dress."

But some Muslim women, like author Asra Nomani, say the veil is a sign of oppression, making women faceless and powerless. She has written about her experiences being a Muslim woman in the U.S. and says she has been harassed by people at the mosque she attends for not wearing a headscarf.

"To me, the veil is a very, very frightening expression of control of women."

But Ginnnah Muhammad says, for her, wearing the veil is liberating. "This is my choice. I'm free. I'm happy."

Ibrahim Hooper says what a Muslim woman wears should be her choice. "No one should be forced into any particular attire. But if somebody chooses not to wear what is commonly regarded as Islamic attire, that's their choice, and they shouldn't be attacked or abused because of that."

The controversy over Muslim women's dress is not likely to end any time soon as the Muslim population continues to grow in the U.S., Britain and France and several other western countries.

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