Reasons Vary for Wearing a Veil

For some women in the Muslim world, the veil they wear is a symbol of oppression. For others, it's a symbol of freedom.

Veils have been worn in many cultures, but today they are associated mostly with Islam. The veil may be anything from a scarf tied over the hair to a full-length robe, known as a chador or burqa, which covers both face and body.

In some Muslim countries, whether or not to wear a veil is regarded as a woman's choice. In others, it's a requirement.

A Requirement of Religion, or the State?

Neguin Yavari, a professor at Columbia University in New York, left Iran in 1979. In Iran, the state demands that all women wear veils, she says.

The Koran, the Muslim holy book, does not require women to wear veils, according to Yavari. The Koran teaches that both men and women should dress modestly. In Iran, the state decides what constitutes a woman's modesty, Yavari said.

"There are no verses in the Koran that say 2 inches of hair can show, tie the bow in a certain way. There are no specific examples, no specific guidelines, but there is a general reverence for observing a certain ethical code and appearing modestly in public," she said.

In Iran, some believe the sight of an uncovered woman might provoke sexual desire, said Yavari.

"Every man to whom you could be legally married under Islamic law could be potentially aroused by your unveiled presence. Therefore when in the company of any man — a butcher down the street or a suitor or your cousins, if cousins come to house — you have to be veiled," she said.

Not a Universal Practice

In Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen, even non-Muslim women (including visitors) must cover their heads.

When ABCNEWS' Diane Sawyer traveled to Afghanistan in 1996, she wore what the ruling Taliban militia requires for all women: a veil that covers the body and the face. Under the Taliban's strict laws, violators are punished by beating or stoning.

Afghan women are forbidden to show their hands, ankles or faces. Sawyer found the heavy dress somewhat cumbersome. Some Afghan women told her they found it difficult to work in.

Wearing of the veil is not a universal practice among Muslim women. In Tunisia, for example, it's extremely rare to see women wearing any type of head covering these days. In Jordan, veiling is a personal choice.

"The fact that Islam is very tolerant means that it doesn't impose anything on other people," Jordan's Queen Rania said recently in an interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

"You are supposed to behave in a certain way or dress in a certain way out of convictions, not because somebody imposed their ideology on you," the queen said. "So I believe that one's relationship with God and how one chooses to practice religion is an intensely personal choice."

Some women say the veil is liberating. Arab-American Diba Rab says she chooses to wear a veil because it acts as an equalizer.

"I want people to see who I am — for who I am — and not for how I look and not for my physical features, but rather my intellectual capabilities," she said.

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