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The term hijab refers to a type of scarf worn by many -- though certainly not all -- Muslim women, but the term can also refer to a modest Muslim dress code in general. The Arabic word translated as hijab literally means curtain or cover (noun).
Muslims differ greatly in how they interpret hijab, such as which parts of the body to cover and by how much -- and many moderate Muslim women consider the term to refer to a symbolic covering rather than a piece of clothing.
Why Muslim women wear the veil
Belgium and France have banned the Burqa and the new Dutch government is considering doing the same. Critics have charged that the ban is religiously intolerant, some even claim that it’s intolerant of women, but the truth is that the Burqa is dangerous to women. Both those who wear it—and those who don’t.
Lawful Islamists use two general strategies to advance their agenda: they request that Muslims be granted special privileges and, more broadly, they seek to impose their ways on others. Take the issue of head coverings. Some Muslims demand the right to wear hijabs or niqabs in situations where non-Muslim women would never be allowed to conceal themselves, such as when testifying in court or having a mug shot snapped. At the same time, more assertive Islamists abuse their authority by attempting to force other people to cover up as well.
[W]ith the new focus on Islam and terrorism, the imagined meanings of the veil have made Muslim women targets. In cities in Australia, England, Canada and the U.S. — and here in Seattle — veil-wearing Muslim women have reported being harassed, attacked and insulted.
The anger directed at them has left those beneath the veils feeling saddened and misunderstood.
They are being defined, they feel, by a piece of clothing they proudly wear but whose meaning to others they cannot control — whose meaning, in fact, they don't even agree on among themselves.
When you look at Aliya Naim or Nadia, they don’t want you to see objects of beauty, nor do they want you to see women constrained by societal standards.
Instead, they say, they want to be judged by their intellect and personalities. They say it’s the reason they don’t show too much more.
Both Muslim American women cover themselves from head to toe in adherence to their faith’s promotion of modesty and humility. Like most Muslim women who cover, they do so only in front of men who are not in their immediate family.
Aliya, a 20-year-old student at the University of Georgia, wears the hijab, or headscarf. She also wears clothes that cover everything but her face and hands, attire that is also referred to as hijab.
“You often see in many societies women being objectified because of how they look or being disrespected,” she says. The hijab, she says, helps “force people who may be otherwise unwilling to take the focus off of our physical appearance.”
Nadia (who asked that her last name not be given) similarly covers most of her body and goes a step further by covering her face—excluding her eyes—with a piece of fabric known as the niqab.
The 25-year-old mother of two doesn’t believe it’s a practice that Islam mandates, but that it draws her closer to God.
“When you love someone, you want to be more pleasing to them,” she says. “…You want to do anything you can and constantly talk to them and know more about them, and that’s how I feel also with my creator.”
While the number of Muslim women in America who wear the hijab or niqab has never been recorded, some suggest that there was an increase in Muslim women covering after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as many wished to express their identities in the wake of anti-Muslim sentiment.
After the attacks, says Georgetown University Professor Yvonne Haddad, more Muslim women became spokespeople for their religion.
“The women have sort of become the banner of Islam,” said Haddad, co-author of Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today. “The little scarf is saying, ‘I am Muslim, and I have a presence here.’”
In modern politics, there are few trustier weapons than Muslim women's clothes. The Saudis and the mullahs in Iran have used them for decades, passing laws on women's head coverings to underscore male rulers' piety and power. George W. Bush knew the symbolic potency of the veil, too, citing the discrimination of American 'women of cover' during post 9/11 tensions. Now two Presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama, have taken up the veil, framing it as a topic in radically different ways. Sarkozy used Muslim dress as a nationalistic prop, seeing it as a threat to France's eternal values. Obama used it as a chance to set out a new approach to U.S.-Muslim relations, based on a framework of freedoms. Both attitudes are flawed; both ignore the struggles of Muslim women over matters far more formidable than veils.
Earlier this week, the French Senate adopted legislation forbidding people from concealing their faces in public. The law was primarily a reaction to the use of the burqa and niqab, two versions of a full-body, face-covering robe worn by some Muslim women. The law would require offenders to pay a of €150 (about $190); they could also be required to attend a course on "republican values."
Matthew Kaminski and Bret Stephens, both members of the Journal's editorial board who have lived and worked in Europe, took sharply different views on the ban. What follows is their exchange of emails on the subject.
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