Four years ago, I wrote a column on Islamic dress for women. At the time a statement by Jack Straw, then the British foreign secretary, had created considerable controversy in that country. Mr. Straw said he refused to meet his Muslim women constituents in his office if they declined to remove the veil.
To him, he said, it was important that he talk to them face to face.
Shortly thereafter, a Muslim teacher was let go from a junior high school in Britain when she refused to remove her veil in her classroom.
Now the controversy has resurfaced in France, where a parliamentary commission has recommended a partial ban on veils.
If the parliament accepts the recommendations, a veiled women still could walk on the Champs Elysees but will be denied services at public places such as hospitals, schools, and transit facilities. President Nicolas Sarkozy wants a total ban instead of a partial one.
One wonders whether the Europeans are going crazy with their xenophobia. Or are immigrants poking self-righteous fingers in their eyes?
A little bit of both.
But first a clarification of terms that are being tossed around. A scarf covering the head is just that — a scarf. A hijab covers the head in such a way that no strands of hair are visible. A veil, called a niqaab, covers the whole face. A burqa is a tentlike garment that covers a woman from head to toe with an opening in front of the eyes for visibility.
At the heart of the controversy, which at times reaches the outer limits of absurdity, is the question of what really constitutes proper dress for a Muslim woman. Is it a one-design-fits-all garment or is there any flexibility in the matter?
Three pertinent references in the Qur'an lay down some guidelines for Muslim women. They are advised to cover themselves appropriately when they are outside the home. The underlying principle is to dress modestly and not be walking sex symbols.
Muslim women are asked to guard their private parts and not display their beauty, their embellishments, and their adornments.
Pardon my gaze, but I have often seen adornments and embellishments on open display while hair is tightly covered.
Dress variations among Muslim women are widespread. Some women wear a burqa, others a long robe that covers the body but not the face.
Still others partially cover their hair with a scarf. For a great majority of Muslim women, however, it is modesty in dress that is important, whether it is western dress, African dress, or dress worn in the Indian subcontinent.
In the absence of a unifying central religious authority, Muslims, mostly Sunnis, interpret the scripture according to their own cultural background. There is a plethora of competing and contrasting opinions.
Anyone with a megaphone and a strong opinion can get on a soapbox and start telling others what is Islamic and what is not.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of the hijab and the niqaab among educated young Muslim women living in the West.
Some of them, like the schoolteacher in Britain and a Florida woman, a convert, who wanted a driver's license but refused to be photographed, have chosen to wear the niqaab as part of their religious identity. Some of them call it Islamic feminism.
It is interesting that some of these women were raised in the West and in families where neither the hijab nor the niqaab was part of their upbringing. This retrograde feminism, and here I refer to the niqaab only, with an in-your-face attitude, adds yet another layer of suspicion in the minds of the non-Muslim majority.
It seems to shout, louder than words ever could: “I am different and I couldn't care less about others around me.”
Such pseudo-religious issues add credence to the widely held notions that Muslims are averse to change and that many of them still cling to traditions that are archaic and out of step with the world around them.
If some Muslim women are determined to shroud themselves from head to toe, as is their right, then they should give up their right to teach in public schools or drive a car. A civil society has the obligation to be sensitive to the religious practices of its minorities. But a line has to be drawn for the overall good of society to outweigh the religious whims of a few.
Out of 5 million Muslims, both males and females, in France, only 2,000 women cover their faces in public.In France, the line is being defined and drawn.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org