Muslim Women, the Veil and Western Society At a time when Western countries are increasingly engaged with the Muslim world, to what extent should the cultures accommodate each other when they are on common turf, and what does this mean for the veil?
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Muslim Women, the Veil and Western Society

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Muslim Women, the Veil and Western Society

Muslim Women, the Veil and Western Society

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Last month, former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw reopened debate on Muslim women and the veil. Straw said that when women visited his office with their faces covered, he asked them to remove the veil because he believes it makes communication much easier. A female staff member was always present.

Some British Muslims agreed with Straw. Others protested, and there have been similar debates in Italy, in France and in this country as well. We should note that there are several different types of veils worn by Muslim women, and, of course, many Muslim women don't wear veils at all.

In this case Jack Straw referred to the niqaab, a garment that covers a woman's head and face, leaving only the eyes exposed. You can see pictures of different veils at the TALK OF THE NATION page at And part of this argument is over cultural standards about what types of veils are acceptable in Islamic and in Western countries. In many Western countries - including this one - Islam is growing fast, so to what extent should the cultures accommodate each other, and what does this mean for the veil?

Later on in the program, retired Major General John Batiste - former commander of the Army's First Infantry Division in Iraq - joins us as we continue our series, Rethinking Iraq. But first, the new politics of the veil. Has this been an issue from either side of the veil in your life? We'd like to hear from you. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail us:

Our first guest is Ummabdallah El-Din, and she's an American who converted to Islam back in 1989, and she wears the niqaab. She joins us now from our member station in Seattle, KUOW. Nice to have you on the line.

Ms. UMMABDALLAH EL-DIN: Thank you very much. It's nice to be here today.

CONAN: And why do you wear the niqaab in the United States?

Ms. EL-DIN: Well, I wear the niqaab because I studied Islam, and I have found that when the Quranic verses were being revealed, that the Muslim women at the time around Prophet Muhammad - peace be upon him - they immediately covered their faces with pieces of cloth that they had. For me, this was about worshipping God in a better way. It was a personal decision that I made, and I wear it no matter where I am.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. EL-DIN: If I'm traveling overseas or I'm living here in America, which is my home country, it just - it is a matter of my choice and what I do between me and God.

CONAN: And this was a process, as I understand it. When you first converted, you didn't even wear the hijab, the scarf around the hair.

Ms. EL-DIN: Yes, actually, I wanted to, and the first day that I did convert to Islam, I did put it on. But people who are around me, new immigrants from overseas, they told me that I shouldn't wear it - I'm young, I should live my life however I want to, and they discouraged me from putting it on. And so therefore, I found I did not have any support in order to do it. I did not know any practicing Muslims when I converted to Islam.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And I wonder, how did you find that people reacted to you? Was it different when you wore the niqaab?

Ms. EL-DIN: Absolutely. In 1995, when I began wearing the niqaab, it was a very different experience from people that I had when I just covered my hair with the hijab. People, when I would go to the store, they would look at me like -almost like, you traitor. That's how their looks would be.


Ms. EL-DIN: Very insulting to me, looking down at me. And when I put my niqaab on, which covers my face and leaves only my eyes visible, people were coming up to me asking me why do you cover yourself? I could hear their children asking their parents. Their parents would come to me and try to talk to me. People would open doors for me. Some people, instead of giving me really bad looks, would just turn away. So actually I got the opposite response than I normally think that I would have gotten.

CONAN: You would have thought that it would have been somewhat more respectful.

Ms. EL-DIN: Well, when I was wearing hijab, just was my face exposed, I would think that that would be almost like more acceptable than if I were covering my face - that I would get a more severe reaction, which that is not how it happened.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, more conservative veils like the niqaab are a highly divisive issue within the Muslim community. Joining us now to share a different perspective is Asra Nomani. She's a Muslim-American and author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Pilgrimage into the Heart of Islam, and she joins us now from studios in Morgantown, West Virginia. Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Author, Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Pilgrimage into the Heart of Islam): Thanks so much.

CONAN: And you're opposed to full veils like the niqaab. Why?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, my hijab is my hair. I completely disagree with the notion that the hijab amounts to even hair covering, or particularly a face veil. To me, the personal is political. And if you wear a face veil, it's the public symbol of ideology that is quite frightening in its rigidity and in its Puritanism.

When you interpret the Quran to say that a woman must have her face covered, you're very likely to also accept literal readings of troublesome verses that say that you cannot be friends with the Jews or the Christians, or it is the Jews and the Christians that have strayed from the straight path - or most troubling, that we have to kill the pagans, or the nonbelievers.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NOMANI: And so to me, the veil is a public symbol of ideology. It's sort of like gang colors, and I think that we need to really understand it on a deep level.

CONAN: And I understand you've also called for changes within Mosques to allow women to enter through the front door rather than through the rear door and worship together with the men. So I wonder, how do women who do wear the niqaab react to you?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, in Morgantown, we had a visiting preacher who said some of these alarming verses that I've just recited to you, literal readings of them. And the next day, we had a study session with him. There is a woman in town who covers her face with the full-face veil, and my mother and I politely covered our hair in front of him.

And the woman then lectured us and recited all of these citations about life at the time of the prophet and the prophet's wives and how they spoke to men who weren't their husbands from behind a veil. And she basically harassed us so that we would feel like we weren't good enough and pious enough because of the choice that we had made.

So ironically, while many Muslims are fighting for the right of Muslim women to wear the scarf and even the face veil, in the larger world we don't even have our rights for personal choice protected in places of worship in our Muslim world.

CONAN: Let me ask Ummabdallah El-Din, is this something that you feel - is this an issue that you think you wear the niqaab, should other Muslim women wear the niqaab, do you think?

Ms. EL-DIN: Well, this is something that has been debated, actually, for centuries. And, you know, one thing that I don't agree with with sister Asra is that I do not go around and literally interpret the Quran and - on what she's talking about on the other verses into it. Islam is a very beautiful religion, and it is full of mercy and love and compassion, and that is something I think that is - it is so - it's such an integral part of the faith, and it actually is missing from a lot of our Muslim community.

So I feel bad that she was harassed by this woman in the mosque. I do not go around and tell the women that it is obligatory or required for women to cover their faces. I do believe it is something that a Muslim woman, it is recommended for her to do, but it's not something that should be forced upon her. Nor do I look down on women who do not cover their faces.

I don't feel that this is even my right to do so. I became a Muslim to submit to Allah and his word, and that's a choice I made in my life. And it's not for me or any other Muslim to go around and point fingers at anybody else. We don't know what is in anybody else's heart.

And a lot of us, we're all on this - in this journey called life, and everybody has their own way to Islam and through Islam. And so like I said, I think we need to practice more mercy among ourselves and not finger-point at everything. And just because a woman wears a niqaab, it does not translate that she goes and she takes Quranic verses literally, such as kill the pagans or anything like this.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. EL-DIN: I, myself, I cover my face. I feel strongly about that. I feel strongly about communicating with Christians and Jews. I have friends who are Christian. I have no problem with this, and I know other women who veil their face, they have the same - they live the same kind of life as I do.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation: 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And we'll begin with Sarah. Sarah's calling us from Portland, Oregon.

SARAH (Caller): I just - assalamu alaikum, to these sisters. I wanted to call in and just put my input in a little bit. I became Muslim about five years ago. I'm American, and I wear a niqaab. I didn't start out doing that, but I - and I don't believe it's obligatory. But I do believe that the hijab is obligatory, and I believe that it is the best thing to do.

I just wanted to let people know that I used to believe that America was a very welcoming place. I used to think that particularly Portland, Oregon, was a very inclusive place, and we were, you know, welcoming to everybody. I started covering up, and now I have a very different view.

I - people have thrown garbage at my family. People have driven by and yelled at me to take my clothes off. I have had soldiers come up to me, telling me that they just came back from Iraq and Afghanistan and they got - they just came back from killing my people. I used to have a very different view of the world than I do now, and it has made a big difference in my covering up.

CONAN: Hmm. Asra Nomani, I wanted to ask you, clearly from Sarah's experience and - there are intolerant people on both sides of this issues, perhaps.

Ms. NOMANI: Absolutely, and ultimately, I think that there's ideological intimidation on all sides. What we have to be able to separate, I think, is ideology from choices. And unfortunately, I don't think that the veil and the hijab can be separated from the politics of the Muslim world in the current day. It may be very personal choice to many people. They may have very different practices in terms of the ideology that is very fundamentalist and puritanical in our Muslim world.

But at the end of the day, we cannot pretend that it is simply this sartorial meditation cave that women go into, or this sartorial, you know, signal of humility and modesty. It is much wider, much deeper. All you have to do is read any of the literature that comes out of Saudi Arabia to see how clearly the hijab has become a Sixth Pillar, added to these Five Pillars of Islam that we have invoking us to piety and goodness. And sadly, so many of the issues related to women are about controlling us in either what we wear or how we drive or who we can hang out with or where we can go.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, Sarah, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

SARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: And when we come back, we'll continue this conversation. We're talking about Muslim women and the veil, and again, there are several different types. If you'd like to see some pictures that illustrate that, go to our Web site at, the TALK OF THE NATION page.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking today about veils worn by many Muslim women and the debate over what types of veils are acceptable in Islamic and in Western countries and to what extent cultures might want to accommodate each other. Our guests are Ummabdallah El-Din. She's an American who converted to Islam in 1989, and she wears the niqaab. Also with us is Asra Nomani. She's the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Pilgrimage into the Heart of Islam.

If this has been an issue in your life from either side of the veil, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And let's get Kevin on the line. Kevin's with us from West Bloomfield in Michigan.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi. Yeah, in Dearborn, Michigan here, just last week or week before last there was a case where a woman had a civil case, and she had the veil on, her face covering. And the judge asked her to remove it so that he could see her face to get a feel if she was being truthful...

CONAN: Yes, I…

KEVIN: …and she refused to remove it. And I guess my question is, you know, when it comes to the veil, is it of such significant priority to wear it that, you know, that we, you know - I guess I can use the word deviate from, you know, these - our social order or our norms or our customs here in America? Or was she just, you know, do you, you know - and I was wondering, was it just a matter of her just being, you know, just defiant - just to, you know, just to be defiant?

CONAN: There was another case in Florida where a woman refused to have her picture taken for her - take off the veil to have her picture taken for her driver's license picture. Ummabdallah El-Din, is this something that you feel that strongly about?

Ms. EL-DIN: You know, it - this reminds me of when I went to go get my driver's license. You know, I did remove my niqaab for the driver's license because I know that I do live in this country, and I know there are certain things that I have to comply with, and I understand that. I think, though, that - I don't know the case regarding the woman in Dearborn, Michigan and why she was defiant in not removing her veil. I don't know what the case was particularly about, but…

CONAN: She said - it was not connected to the veil - but she said in testimony, she said that this was religious issue for her and that she would not remove it.

Ms. EL-DIN: Mm-hmm.

KEVIN: And she also did offer to take it off in front of a woman representative.

CONAN: A woman judge, yes, but…

KEVIN: Well, yeah, a representative, yeah. Well, she didn't say judge. She said representative. But the judge, you know, was the one that was dealing with her case, and I guess, you know, I guess, you know, when it comes to the veil, you know - not when it comes to be able to pray or worship - but when it comes to the veil, you know, is it that significant of a matter that, you know, that we be defiant in court or in certain other situations? You know what I mean?

CONAN: And I guess to some women it is, Ummabdallah El-Din.

Ms. EL-DIN: Mm-hmm, absolutely. It just depends. You know, there are many - actually in - among Muslim women, there - like you had said before, there are some Muslim women that they don't wear the veil at all. There are some that just cover their hair. There are some that they wear the niqaab, the face veil, and within those - within the women who wear the face veil, there is a group of them that wear it because it is recommended and it is a good thing to do and a very pious act for them to do in front of God.

But they also understand about being in different cultures and having to comply with certain laws of government regarding court cases, driver's license, these types of issues. And then there are other women that wear the face veil that are very staunch, very strict. It is required. It's a sin if you take it off. So it just really depends on who the woman is.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And let me ask Asra Nomani. I mean, there are some women for whom this is identification, and that's their choice to make, they feel.

Ms. NOMANI: Right. I mean, this conversation about the veil in American society is, I think, reflective of sort of like the classic American dilemma, which is personal rights versus public good. And I definitely believe that when public good regarding safety, security, the rule of law is at risk, then this religious excuse can't be used as a cover, because it is a cover.

I mean, ultimately, the notion that a woman must cover her face is an interpretation of Islamic law that comes out of the Saudi, Wahhabi, and the Salafi schools of thinking that are the most puritanical. If we define our community by those laws, then we ultimately sacrifice a lot of issues that I think are important to us as a society, like safety and security.

And I would just - I just wanted to point out a couple of things. When I went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the law of Saudi Arabia is that the visa must show the full face of the woman. And when you go on the Pilgrimage of Hajj, you are actually forbidden from covering your face. And so ironically, this cover that is used here in America is one that the most puritanical regime in the world on this point doesn't even practice.

CONAN: Well, certainly in every other time in Saudi Arabia it's practiced.

Ms. NOMANI: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NOMANI: Exactly.

CONAN: All right. Well, joining us now to explain some of the textual and cultural underpinnings of veils in Islam is Asma Barlas. She's a professor of politics and director of the Center for Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College in New York and joins us now from her office there. Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor Asma Barlas (Politics, Ithaca College; Director, Center for Culture, Race, and Ethnicity): Well, thank you.

CONAN: What is the Quran say about veils?

Prof. BARLAS: Well, I think it's important to point out right at the outset that the Quran doesn't use the word niqaab or hijab in connection with women's clothing, and that there are only two sets of verses dealing with what we are broadly speaking calling the veil…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BARLAS: …one of which speaks about women casting the jilbab over them as they go out into the public arena so that they're recognized as free women and not as slaves and therefore not molested. And the assumption is that non-Muslim men in slaveholding societies will be the molesters.

The other is a more specific verse, and it speaks about - it's addressed to both women and men, and it asks the men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty, which is kind of not very specific. And it tells the women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty, but then it also says - and here I'm quoting from a translation, of course - that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear.

CONAN: And again, that's not exactly specific.

Prof. BARLAS: That's not specific - and that they should draw their himad(ph) or khumur over their bosoms. So what is specific in the Quran is that the bosoms should be covered. It does not specifically speak about covering the head, the hair, or the face.

CONAN: Now is the tradition of the veil, though, connected to what the wives of the Prophet Muhammad wore?

Prof. BARLAS: The wives of the Prophet Muhammad, it's - what we derive about their lives is from narratives about the Prophet's life, and there is no general agreement about what are the authentic narratives - or hadith - and which are not.


Prof. BARLAS: So there is disagreement on that. But I should also point out that veiling or covering the face and secluding women is a pre-Islamic, pre-Christian, pre-Judaic practice. And therefore, I think it's important to interrogate the intersections between religion and culture very carefully, and not just assume that everything that Muslim women are doing comes directly and straightforwardly out of the Quran. It is a question of interpretation.

CONAN: And I know that many scholars have read the Quran and say it is a liberation for women, and others say look at the way women are treated in Islamic societies - particularly in places like Saudi Arabia - and it's an element of control over women.

Prof. BARLAS: Well, as Asra was pointing out, unfortunately - and not just in Saudi Arabia, but in many other cultures and societies - religion has been used to control women and women's sexuality. And…

CONAN: And not just Islam, I should point out.

Prof. BARLAS: Yes. Not just Islam. So yes, I mean, there's nothing specifically Islamic about the use of religion to oppress women or to control them.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And the niqaab and the burqa - the more extreme coverings - where do they come from?

Prof. BARLAS: Well, I'm from Pakistan, and I've seen them in Pakistan. There are some Bedouin people in the Middle East and in North Africa that also cover - you know, use something like a hijab. I'm not sure exactly what they call it. I'm unclear as to the origins of this form of quote, “veiling,” but as I'm trying to suggest, it's not in the Quran. And as Asra pointed out, when women perform the Hajj - which is the holiest ritual in Islam - they have to do it with their faces uncovered. So, then again, what the precise genesis of the niqaab and burqa are is not clear to me. And it does not originate specifically and only with Muslims.

CONAN: And one more question, and that is we've been hearing about different interpretations. Obviously, there could be different translations of the Quran, and that is important if you're reading it in English and not in Arabic. But there's also interpretations of the Quran. Are women involved in making these interpretations?

Prof. BARLAS: Women are involved informally, and some of us are attempting to engage the Quran in libratory ways. But unfortunately, women's work is very much marginalized and silenced. But I should also say that even when we are speaking about the Quran in English, we have to dwell on the meanings of the word jilbab and hmar, and one of the things that Amina Wadud has pointed out is that what the Quran means, to generalize, is the notion of sexual modesty and not specifically out of the dress.

And I think that also important to keep in mind while people may feel free to interpret the Quran in different ways, of course. Some interpretations are contextually more legitimate than others, and so one can't just pass off everything as, well, this is just my interpretation.

CONAN: That was Asma Barlas. Thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Prof. BARLAS: Thank you.

CONAN: Asma Barlas, a professor of politics and director of the Center for Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College in New York, and she joined us from her office there.

Let's get another caller on the line, and this Haleed(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - from Ann Arbor in Michigan. Hello?

HALEED (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead, please.

HALEED: Yes. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

HALEED: I just - as a Muslim person, I want to say that I actually agree with Jack Straw's presumption that the niqaab is generally hostile. I think if we were to ask any group of people within society to say that you must cover your faces, whether they're an ethnicity or whatever, then we will see that this is a hostile act toward them. And if any group of people decides to cover their faces, I think that would be anti-social act.

CONAN: Whether that was the sunglasses or, in this case, the niqaab. Jack Straw I don't think used the word hostile. He said he said it was a barrier to communication. But let me ask Ummabdallah El-Din about that. Do you find the niqaab to be a barrier to communication?

Ms. El-DIN: I don't actually. The hijab, it is to be able to prevent women to be molested; it is actually a protection for a Muslim woman. And that's what God has stated in the Quran, that women cover themselves and actually that they stay in their homes, actually. And when they come out, they are to cover themselves so that they will be recognized as free, respectable women and not be molested. So it is actually looked on as a protection for them.

I do not feel that if I'm walking on the street that if - the way that I'm dressed, it might put some people off but if I - do I have to show myself and my beauty and my face and my hair and everything so that other people are looking at me on the street and I can communicate with everybody or put myself in a very awkward position for people to feel that I'm available?

The hijab does give a message. It does say do not treat me like you would treat other women who are not veiled, who are not modest, because I am not like them. I am a respectable women. I believe in God. When you approach me, be cautious how you approach me. It's just for people to think before they approach but I - the way that I've lived my life, and I go out and I speak also to non-Muslims in colleges who want a speaker and who wants to ask questions about Islam. They warm up to me after a while, after they're speaking with me and they know that I'm educated and that I'm from here. And they warm up to me quite well.

So I feel that, you know, it is a symbol to be treated with respect and to get to know me for my intelligence, not for how short my skirt is, what color my hair is, or what style I'm wearing today. That's not how I want people to interact with me.

HALEED: But is that the only way…

CONAN: Excuse me, Haleed, I'm just going to ask you to pause for a moment.


CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Haleed(ph), please go ahead, I apologize.

HALEED: Yes, but is that the only way people can communicate? I mean if people can only communicate in an intelligent manner by completely suppressing their appearance, what does it tell us about the affect of female bodies presence in public and male sexuality? I mean if I think that you cannot appear in public unless you protect me from you, in a sense, unless you cover your body -because the only relationship between us is that if you cover any part of your body that I'm going to attack you or molest you, what does that tell you about me? Or what does it tell us about the relationship between men and women if women have to be completely sort of a piece of blackness in the air that nothing appears of them?

And what does it tell us about the possibility that we can communicate in a way that is not necessarily shrouded or not necessarily - that we're not constantly sexual in our approaches to each other? It seems to me like the niqaab and this whole covering issue, it tells us that there is no way for us to communicate unless we have no appearance. And is this…

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, Haleed. I just wanted to get a response, get Asra Nomani back into this conversation.

Ms. NOMANI: Well, we're only two steps removed then from what the Australian imam said, which is that a woman who is dressed immodestly invites rape and sexual molestation. And this was not an exception. I mean this is the prevailing assumption of the ideology that believed that a woman must cover in order to protect herself in society. And this is completely a myth; this is mythology.

Women are not more protected because they cover. I mean the cases of marital rape alone in countries where these assumptions are made are staggering and troubling. And so we just shift the area of subjugation and exploitation. There is a middle path. Islam is about a middle path. It doesn't have to be Britney Spears versus the woman in black. I mean there is a middle path for modesty, and that is really where I believe Islam teaches us to walk. And thus walk away from extremist interpretations.

CONAN: Haleed. Haleed thanks very much for…

HALEED: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

HALEED: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're going to have to end it there, because we're running out of time. But I wanted to thank Asra Nomani for her time today. Asra Nomani is the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Pilgrimage Into The Heart of Islam, and she joined us today from studios in Morgantown, West Virginia. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. NOMANI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Ummabdallah El-Din, we appreciate your time as well.

Ms. El-DIN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Ummabdallah El-Din, an American who converted to Islam in 1989 and wears the niqaab. She joined us today from the studios of our member station KUOW in Seattle. And again, if you'd like to get a look at the pictures and illustrations of different kinds of veils that many women wear in Muslim societies, you can go our page at, the TALK OF The NATION page.

When we come back from a short break, our series Rethinking Iraq continues. We'll be speaking with Retired Major John Batiste, who was the commander of the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

If you have questions for General Batiste about the future of Iraq, the way ahead, give us a call. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail,

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF The NATION from NPR news.

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