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Veil not a tool of Western protest by Islamic women

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  • Veil not a tool of Western protest by Islamic women

    By Laila Saada -- Special to Newsday
    04 December 2003

    This past summer, I went back home to Egypt. I expected to see rampant resentment toward U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast. What I didn't expect, however, was a radical shift in people's attitude toward me, as an Arab and a Muslim now living in the United States.

    It was obvious from conversations with friends and family that because I now live among the ''others,'' I have an obligation to educate them about my religion, to resist their demonization of Islam and, more importantly, to be visible in my protests. And what could be more obvious than taking on the veil?

    I have always thought that religious belief and its practice are matters of personal choice, veiling included. But is wearing the veil as a sign of solidarity no longer optional in a post-Sept. 11 world, where the whole faith seems to be under assault in the West?

    In Egypt, I found that the veil had become increasingly central to women's discourse and identity. I found that faith, once largely private, was forced to take on a public face and be used as a statement. On the personal level, I found myself repeatedly judged according to such new standards of piousness, or at least the outward signs of it.

    Back in New York, I discovered that the veil, which is really tangential to the practice of Islam, has taken on importance for Muslim women living in the United States as well. Now I wonder: Does the fact that I will not wear the veil mean that I do not show enough solidarity with Muslims here?

    I raised these questions with my cousin, who lives in Los Angeles and wears the veil. Two years ago a driver cut her off, forcing her to swerve off the road and nearly fall off the edge of the highway. It was during the wave of backlash against Arabs that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. She wore the veil, even though the Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in Egypt, had issued a decree allowing women to take it off to protect their lives during those trying times.

    For my cousin, a mother of a 3-year-old, keeping the veil was more crucial than her safety. It's the first thing people see, she said.

    She dismisses as ridiculous the notion that veiling means backwardness or repression, as the U.S. media have suggested in its portrayal of the Afghan burka, which was required of women under the Taliban and became optional after they were overthrown.

    I applaud my cousin for her courage. Yet, I feel uncomfortable when a piece of head covering becomes the focus of political expression. Is this piece of cloth Islam's best first line of defense against Western backlash? Especially when it can take so many different forms: head scarf, burka, niqab (the Egyptian version of a burka), Bedouin head cover and so on.

    It's not so true inside Egypt, where most people are Muslim, but by obsessing about the veil in the United States, Muslim women reinforce the notion that Arabs are a different breed. Muslim women in effect wrap their scarves around their community, alienating all ''others.'' This alienates us too, Muslim women who don't necessarily want to wear a veil. Yet it does not absolve us from our responsibility to shed more light on Islam and one of its core values: tolerance.

    While I agree with the principle of nonviolent protest and expression of solidarity, I don't approve of the veil being mobilized to reclaim the image of Islam in Western eyes. To me, Islam is much more than just an image and the symbols that go with it.

    I'm afraid that until women focus more on interaction and open dialogue with non-Muslims, and less on positioning ourselves as ''us vs. them,'' all we do is stretch the boundaries that separate us without ever actually taking down the barriers.

    Saada is an Egyptian graduate student in journalism and Near East studies at New York University.
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