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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The case of Jenna Muhammad is just one of several recent confrontations between Muslim women who cover their faces and state authorities in the West. A teacher's aide in England lost her job after insisting on wearing her veil in the classroom. British MP Jack Straw drew an angry response when he asked his Muslim constituents to remove their veils when speaking to him in his office. The incidents fuel the debate across Europe about the veil and the integration of Muslims in Western societies. We're going to spend the next few minutes exploring the origins of this custom and examine why the veil has become such a potent symbol.

Modest attire is mandated by the Koran. Anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco of Hofstra University has studied the veil's origins and says women covered up long before Islam.

Professor DANIEL MARTIN VARISCO (Hofstra University): There are historical records of people who put - women who were from higher status categories, they would wear some sort of veil, some sort of covering, particularly of their face. We have that from ancient Assyrian records going back 1200 years before the Christian era, and there's pretty good evidence that, again, the elites were sometimes given this higher status in Iran through the Parthian Period, the Seleucid Period, right up to the Sasanian Empire, which was prior to Islam.

ELLIOTT: Scholars believe the women in the prophet Muhammad's family covered themselves, and three or four generations later the practice spread more widely among all classes. Today, Varisco says, believers use the Koran as a guide.

Prof. VARISCO: One of the most commonly cited Koranic passages is from a chapter called The Light, or Al-Noor, and particularly verses 30 and 31, where women are told to lower their gaze, not to look at someone with a desirous intent. And this comes exactly after a verse which told men to do the same thing. And they're to protect their private parts, which is talking about not engaging in illicit sexual activities. They're not to show off their adornment, except for that which is apparent, and most scholars say like your eyes, you need to see with that, your hands and your feet.

ELLIOTT: So does that mean a headscarf or a full veil covering a woman's face?

Prof. VARISCO: As all sacred scriptures, the Koran and even the statements of the prophet, is open to interpretation and has been hotly debated, that there is actually a tremendous amount of ink that has been spilled, we might say, over this issue or what people are supposed to wear.

ELLIOTT: One of those who believes full veiling runs contrary to the Koran is Imam Sayed Moustafa Al-qazwini, an Iraqi born cleric in Orange County, California. He has sympathy, though, for women who choose to cover their faces.

Imam SAYED MOUSTAFA AL-QAZWINI (Cleric): I think this is a personal choice. If people want to interpret the Koran this way, then you can't do anything about it, because this is a matter of faith. This is, you know, you have no control over it. And I think this is their personal freedom. I would not ask my wife, my daughter, or my sister to cover her face, because first of all, it is not mandated by God, and second, it would not help, you know, promote our faith and our Islam in the West.

ELLIOTT: In the West, the veil has its own connotations, according to Daniel Martin Varisco.

Prof. VARISCO: The veil, like the issue of the harem, like the issue of polygamy, these are seen as signs that Islam is inferior to Christianity, that the people who live in this part of the world are backward, that they don't give women equal rights.

ELLIOTT: Imam Qazwini acknowledges this custom does come out of a certain tradition.

Imam AL-QAZWINI: In some countries in Asia and the Middle East, since people live in a patriarch society, where the society is dominated by men, and therefore women are perceived as second class citizen and they are suppose to serve men, therefore they are also asked to cover their faces to avoid any negative temptations.

ELLIOTT: Lately he's noticed Islamic dress adopted more widely in the West.

Imam AL-QAZWINI: I think after 9/11, 2001, we witnessed the reemergence of the Islamic awareness among the Muslim communities in the West, especially in North America. And the issue of hijab is not only a matter of, you know, following God's commands, but also it's a matter of national and religious identity. And this is way its gained as much importance and significance. And in some countries it has become like a fashion, a fashionable trend, you know, especially among young people, the youth. So it is not only a matter of religion and faith; it's also a social, you know, a social consideration.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Writer): I see that as an indicator that puritanical Islam is winning in this war of ideas in the Muslim world and that progressive interpretations of Islam is not winning the hearts and minds of Muslims. For me, that is frightening and something that causes me great concern and keeps me awake at night.

ELLIOTT: Writer Asra Nomani believes the veil has become a political symbol, much like the Afro during the Black Power Movement of the '70's.

Ms. NOMANI: And so while Muslims feel besieged and assaulted because of foreign policy, wars that are happening in the world, they can retreat to these symbols and find comfort and identity in them. And so what we have to think about, I think, as a society both on the side of the progressive Muslim world and the West, is how we can stop that alienation, you know, how it is that we can stop forcing folks to retreat into an identity that is pretty hardcore so that we can actually know each other and actually be interconnected.

ELLIOTT: Others believe Western society should be more tolerant of Muslim women who choose to wear face veils, like the British schoolteacher who lost her job. Ingrid Mattson is president of the Islamic Society of North America.

Ms. INGRID MATTSON (Islamic Society of North America): I think what's important is that we listen to what people say, and what I find most disturbing in this whole controversy is how freely certain people, particularly in this case British politicians, seem to be able to assume motives on behalf of women in a very, what I consider a paternalistic fashion. I believe that they should listen to these women and have them explain what this dress means to them.

ELLIOTT: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED will have more on Islam and the West in a series this week by NPR's Guy Raz. He'll be looking at some of the language that's gained currency since the September 11th attacks.

Mr. DOUGLAS DRUSAND(ph) (Historian): The terms jihad generally means jihad fisabulala(ph), striving in the path of God. And simply by its very definition, striving in the path of God is a good thing to do. If we are calling them, people who strive in the path of God, in other words if we are calling them meritorious Muslims, then we are implying that we are fighting Islam, even if we're saying we're not.

ELLIOTT: That's historian Douglas Drusand, one of the voices we'll be hearing in this week's series, The Language of Our Times.

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