Prague, 6 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Esma began wearing the hijab when she was 13. For her, the traditional Islamic head scarf is her way of showing her religious identity in a non-Muslim country, Britain.
"As a Muslim, it's part of my religious beliefs," she said. "It's an observance I wish to keep, and to me personally, it's also about expressing my religious identity. And I think especially now that I'm living in the West, I feel more comfortable in using it as an expression of what I believe in."
Many in Europe, however, are not comfortable with the increasingly common sight of Muslim women covering themselves in public. France, fearing a rise in Muslim extremism, wants to ban the head scarf in public schools. A vote on the issue is tentatively scheduled for 10 February in the lower house of France's parliament. Two German states are introducing laws that would ban female teachers from wearing them.
"At university, a great deal of my friends decided to start wearing the hijab despite their parents -- the previous generation -- being almost against it because they never saw it as necessary."
And many Westerners -- women especially -- say the practice of covering up smacks of the repression of women.
The practice is based on several verses in the Koran and on the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad that instruct women -- and men -- to dress modestly.
In this verse, women are told to cover more than was customary at the time of the Prophet -- implying they should also continue to cover their heads: "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; 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 ..."
Other verses say a woman's dress should be thick and loose enough to hide the shape of her body. But the extent of that covering varies. Some women wear a hijab, which covers only the hair and neck. Others wear the full-length abaya, or black cloak. Others still veil their faces.
Part of the difference lies in the interpretation of what should be excluded from the instruction to cover. That verse in the Koran says women should not display their beauty and ornaments "except what must ordinarily appear thereof." For some, that means the face and hands can remain uncovered. But another minority interpretation says the face, too, must be covered.
Farid El-Shayyal, an Islamic scholar at England's Markfield Institute of Higher Education, told RFE/RL: "It is some kind of interpretation that if you say the body, that means everything is part of the body. But definitely, we have so much supporting evidence that the Muslim women even at the time of the Prophet were not completely covered, and their face is free because it is a practical way of communicating and so on."
Ibrahim Kalin is assistant professor of Islamic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. He says variations in dress tend to reflect local cultural traditions. "The principle in dressing in Islam is to dress modestly," he said. "Now, this modesty is interpreted in different ways in different societies, and it takes on many different forms. Therefore, the basic minimum is to cover the head at least as far as Islamic law is concerned. But the way you do it, the ornaments you add to it, the things you put together with your hijab, that depends on the cultural environment in which you live. So, for example, the burqa that you find in Afghanistan and a few other places like that isn't part of the Islamic dress code as such. It's really traditional -- a cultural thing you find in Afghanistan and other places. You go to Malaysia or Bosnia -- the way women dress is different, and they take the cultural form of their respective societies, in the same way you go to Turkey and Saudi Arabia [and] you find incredible differences in the way the women wear and cover themselves."
Islamic dress codes for women are mandatory in two countries -- Saudi Arabia, where they are strictly enforced, and Iran, where the rules tend to ease during periods of wider social change.
Esma has experience in two different cultures. She spent some of her teenage years in Saudi Arabia, where women are required to wear the abaya, the long black cloak. Now that she's back in Britain, she wears the hijab along with her Western jeans and a blouse.
She says that, while it's true some Muslim women are forced to cover up, for many more it's a matter of personal choice. In fact, she says, many women describe the hijab as "liberating," and for others it's even a form of rebellion. "There are quite a lot of Muslims who don't classify themselves as feminists, but they are very adamant that at the end of the day, the wearing of their head scarf is a way of choosing to decide who gets to see their body and who doesn't, and it's up to them to dress the way they want to," she said. "At university, a great deal of my friends decided to start wearing the hijab despite their parents -- the previous generation -- being almost against it because they never saw it as necessary. So there's a huge trend at the moment with Muslim girls at university in Britain and in some of the Arab countries, as well, to start wearing the head scarf. And it's a matter of personal conviction rather than a form of oppression or something that's imposed on them."
For Muslim women like Esma, the hijab is ultimately not a big issue. She says it can't be made a measure of someone's piety. Whether someone is a good Muslim or not, she said, can't be based "on something as superficial as a piece of cloth on someone's head."