No Veiled Threats

Heidi covers her face when she leaves the house. So do an increasing number of Muslim women in Houston. But don't call them terrorists -- or oppressed.

But the interpretation of these verses is vast. Some believe that read in this day and age, the text means only that a Muslim woman should dress modestly within the confines of the culture she lives in. But others feel the words "ornaments" and "bosom" refer directly to a woman's hair and neckline, leading many Muslim women to wear a hijab in addition to loose-fitting clothing that covers the arms and legs.

In addition to the Qur'an, the traditions of the prophet also speak to covering.

"There is a prophetic tradition that is very clear," says Mahmoud El-Gamal, a Rice University professor of Islamic economics who is active in Houston's Muslim community. "The prophet's sister-in-law walked in wearing a transparent dress, and the prophet pointed to her hands and face." The prophet then told the woman that when she reached puberty, only those two parts of the body could be exposed.

Ethem Dogan, a Muslim cleric, asserts there is nothing in the Qur'an that says a woman must cover her face.
Deron Neblett
Ethem Dogan, a Muslim cleric, asserts there is nothing in the Qur'an that says a woman must cover her face.
In Rice professor Mahmoud El-Gamal's native Egypt, some women started covering to show their opposition to Westernization.
Deron Neblett
In Rice professor Mahmoud El-Gamal's native Egypt, some women started covering to show their opposition to Westernization.

"The face is another matter," says El-Gamal. "To cover the face, there is absolutely no text to support it." Dogan agrees, but adds that choosing to veil the face often comes out of a woman's desire to be nearer to God.

"If you really like someone, you do the thing you think he or she would like to get close," says Dogan. In this case, Dogan believes women who freely choose to veil their face see it as getting one step closer to Allah.

But why is such modesty necessary at all? The answer is simple. A woman's beauty can be tempting to men, which can lead to inappropriate sexual activity.

"Islam puts much importance on a healthy community," says Dogan. "Islam in practice tries to separate its community from all negative influences and things that will be unhealthy to that community. The Qur'an looks negatively on fornication as something that destroys a community. For this reason the Qur'an tries to get rid of, or block, the path to fornication." But Dogan stresses that the burden does not rest only on the woman -- the Qur'an instructs men to control any inappropriate gazing, and to treat women with respect. The Qur'an also enjoins men to dress modestly as well, and Islamic tradition urges men to cover from their knees to their navel.

But covering was a cultural tradition even before Islam (as Dogan points out, many Christians readily accept the image of Jesus' mother, Mary, covering her hair). Covering was often a social norm, and sometimes a sign of high status. Even today, non-Muslim women in countries such as India and Pakistan wear veils, although they may use transparent scarves or wear a scarf in such a manner that some hair is showing. And the idea of covering for modesty's sake is not just an Islamic concept -- Orthodox Jewish women often wear wigs to hide their real hair.

Covering, or not covering, is sometimes the product of a merger or clash between culture and religion. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, where the government requires women to cover, the practice has moved beyond any sort of religious choice to become the law of the nation.

Those countries "took patriarchal society and adopted local customs and integrated it into their religion," says El-Gamal. But it can work the other way too. In secular states such as Turkey, covering is not allowed. And only two years ago a fierce debate erupted in France when Muslim girls were not permitted to cover in their classrooms, because French law denies any display of religion in its public schools.

And in El-Gamal's native Egypt, covering became more popular in the 1980s, with many college-educated, upper-class women taking up the practice. Some scholars believe it was in part a statement that Egypt would not allow itself to be completely Westernized.

But despite the many preconceived ideas non-Muslim Americans have of covered Muslim women, Dogan says that Islam offers women many rights.

"Women may gain private money and it's her money, her husband can't touch it," says Dogan. In addition, he says Muslim women usually keep their own last name when they marry and under the Qur'an have the right to divorce.

But the point he wants to be clearest about is that veiling is not the ultimate proof that a woman is a good Muslim. When it comes to covering, there are more important things in Islam. If there were two women, says Dogan, one who covered but never prayed and one who prayed but never covered, Allah would prefer the one who prayed. Dogan understands that there are extremely conservative imams who would disagree with him. For instance, there are those who consider Osama bin Laden to be their imam, and bin Laden's position couldn't be more different from Dogan's. But as far as Dogan is concerned, the true faith of Islam cannot be demanded of anyone.

"Nobody can force you to do anything," says Dogan. "There is no compulsion in religion."

Even though she was raised a Methodist, Heidi says as a little girl growing up in Houston she always liked the idea of Catholic nuns. She was fascinated by how they dressed, in long, sweeping veils that covered their hair and their bodies. She saw their outfits as a symbol of a deep dedication to God. That it made them stand out only made their faith more apparent to those who saw them.

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