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Lifting the veil of misunderstanding

Three major events within the past two years _ the war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and, of course, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 _ deepened the distrust between most Americans and Muslims.

Many American Muslims cringed when they heard about Sultaana Freeman, a woman from Florida who maintained that removing her veil for a driver's license photo violated her religious beliefs. For most non-Muslims, veiling has become synonymous with Islam. So, although the Muslim convert last month lost her lawsuit against the state in an Orlando court, the controversy promises to contribute negatively to the atmosphere of misunderstanding that already permeates our society.

The institution of veiling is complicated and diverse, and the tradition has meant different things to different people at different times in history. "Hijab," or veiling, is a reference to a modest form of clothing for Muslim women. The standard use of the term is in reference to covering the entire body, but not the face and hands.

Contrary to popular belief, covering the face is not a common form of veiling in the Muslim world. In fact, Muhammad Sayid Tantaw, the highest cleric in the theology school of the University of Al-Azhar in Egypt, the oldest and most respected Islamic seminary in the world, states that the covering of a woman's face with a veil is not a requirement of Islam. According to the mufti, "Wearing a face veil or covering the hands with gloves are not required by Islam, but we will not discourage those women who chose to do so."

In the Koran, the most quoted passage regarding the veiling of women is in Chapter XXIV, Verse 31, which contains a direct reference to modesty:

"And say to the believing women

. . . that they should . . .

Draw their veils over

Their bosoms and not display

Their beauty except

To their husbands, their fathers,

Their husbands' fathers, their sons,

Their brothers or their brothers' sons."

Clearly the religious text is ambiguous, since one can argue that drawing the veil over the bosom does not mean drawing the veil over the face or even the hair. Because of this ambiguity, readers of religious texts and commentators of the Koran form various opinions and interpretations.

If one accepts the point that a driver's license serves as an important identity card, then wearing a face veil obviously defeats the purpose of such a card because it conceals one's identity. The law, to an extent, can reasonably accommodate personal religious beliefs. But a good citizen must likewise accommodate certain laws created that clearly benefit all while not violating fundamental religious obligations.

Unfortunately, many Westerners are under the impression that Saudi Arabia, where face-veiling is a cultural tradition, is typical of Muslim societies. The Saudi practice is not. Furthermore, veiling of the body and face predates Islam. It was a cultural tradition of pre-Islamic eras in Arabia.

Just as it is unfair to judge Christianity by the actions of the Crusaders or the Rev. Jim Jones, it is likewise unfair to judge Islam by the actions of al-Qaida and all the Muslims by the decision of any single Muslim _ that is, Sultaana Freeman, an American who converted to Islam.

And being a good Muslim does not necessarily mean to look and adopt the Saudi Arabian culture, inclusive of the native dress code. Islam is in the heart of the believer, not in the piece of cloth wrapped in various fashions based on cultural practices. It should be noted that even in Saudi Arabia, women's faces are unveiled on their passports, for the same reasons given by the lawyers for the state of Florida.

Faegheh Shirazi is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures in the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Special to Newsday; distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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