I was looking recently at some photos of female students at Cairo University, taken over the last few decades. I noticed that in the 1960s and 70s no student had her head covered, but, starting in the 1980s, an increasing number of heads were covered, so that in the most recent photos every head is covered. What has been happening?

The normal headscarf covering the head only is called the hijab which is worn by most Muslim women nowadays, in both East and West. A minority wear the burka,which covers the face, apart from the eyes. Variations of that are the nikab, the chador and the abaya, all of which involve the complete covering of the body as well.

Muslim Women's Dress Multiculturalism, Doctrine and Culture

The veil issue is part of a wider debate in Europe about multiculturalism, taking in the sensitive topics of minority rights, religious freedom, female equality, cultural diversity and social integration. While the hijab is generally tolerated, the burka gives rise to a lot of resentment and debate. This face mask is regarded by many (including liberal Muslims) as an extreme expression of fundamentalism that hides a woman’s personality, insults her dignity and separates her from the rest of society. It has already been banned in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, with Italy following suit.

What does the Koran say about veils? In 24:31 we read: “Tell the faithful women to lower their gaze, guard their modesty, conceal their beauty (except what is apparent of it) and extend their scarf to cover their bosom.” A rather ambiguous statement, and religious scholars have never reached a unanimous interpretation of its meaning. Similar Koranic instructions are given regarding Muhammed’s wives and daughters.

Hence cultural divergences have developed. But during the last three decades (and following many years of secular rule in most Arab countries) a very strict movement has swept the Islamic world, calling for “reform”, meaning going back to the customs of the early generations of Muslims in the 7th and 8th centuries. This fundamentalist movement is often referred to as Wahhabism or Salafiyya, with its offshoots, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Qaeda.

One of its objectives is the subjugation of women, particularly in places where the Shari’a is being applied, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia. Women from these countries bring their strict customs with them to Europe, including the dress code, which they abide by, whether out of loyalty to their beliefs or fear of their fathers and husbands. An increasing number are now covering their faces as well as their heads, and many of these are converts who are sending a public and deliberate message about their new Islamic identity and its superiority to the “decadent” culture of the West.


Naturally many here in the West feel intimidated and bewildered by such  imposition on their culture. They argue that this is 21st century Europe and not 7th century Arabia, and that matters of national identity, social cohesion and peaceful coexistence are at stake. Can interfaith dialogue help resolve the issue? Well, it can certainly get parties together to talk and exchange views. But can Muslims themselves reach a compromise to  at least discourage covering the whole face, for the greater good of society as a whole and as a sign of fuller integration into European culture? That remains to be seen.  

(© JS, 2012, article previously published in Catholic Today, 10 September 2011, reproduced here with permission)

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