It is a widely held view in the West that the veiling of women in the Islamic world represents oppression. But many Muslim women say they find refuge and freedom under the veil. A recent conference in New York encouraged participants to look beyond cultural stereotypes to gain a better understanding of differences among women in different societies. Correspondent Beatrice Hogan files this report.
New York, 14 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As a young girl in Afghanistan, Roya Ghiasy remembers her grandmother saying she wore her chador to feel free. But when her family moved to the West, she realized that there the veil, which is worn by Muslim women across western Asia, symbolizes not freedom, but oppression.
Women who make the transition from the Islamic to the Western world sometimes find themselves struggling with Western stereotypes. Among them is the perception that Muslim women who wear veils are oppressed by their husbands, culture, and religion and have limited freedom of choice.
But as Ghiasy and others point out, many Muslim women consider their veils liberating because they release them from male scrutiny and the standards of attractiveness. They find that a woman's inner character -- not her outward appearance -- is more valued when she wears the veil.
The significance of the veil and the problem of stereotypes were the theme of a conference last week in New York city on International Women's Day. Ghiasy, an artist, was on a panel made up mostly of Afghan-American women who described their experiences negotiating these cultural stereotypes. Participants -- an assortment of women students, professors, and professionals, and a few men -- were asked to shed their preconceptions, their "invisible veils," at the door and listen with open minds.
At the heart of the matter is perception: the difference between how a culture views itself and how outsiders understand it. Ghiasy calls this phenomenon the "duality of the veil" and says she always thought of the veil as a choice. But in the West, she says, it has become a symbol of oppression, identified with Muslim women.
Growing up in America while retaining Afghan traditions is not easy. Shekaiba Wakili, a schoolteacher from Long Island, analyzed the Afghan-American immigrant experience from a female perspective in her graduate work at Columbia University. She says a "proper Afghan girl" in the U.S. is one who wears modest clothes, learns to cook, and follows her parents' wishes.
But Wakili says that many of these girls lead double lives. At the same time they uphold conservative values inside their homes, many have boyfriends, smoke and listen to popular music outside. Maintaining two identities -- public and private, American and Afghan -- can cause pressure, confusion, and isolation for these girls.
Yet the psychological pains these women face in the United States do not compare to the physical hardships their cousins endure in Afghanistan.
Wakili called Afghanistan's ruling Taliban a misogynist group that has taken away women's rights to education, health care, and freedom. Such charges have also been made by a number of international aid and human rights groups but UN officials say they have recently seen gradual improvement in the situation, with more women being allowed access to health care, jobs, and education.
Wakili says the Taliban's oppression of women does not reflect true Islamic beliefs.
She says that a close reading of the Koran, the holy book for Muslims, shows that Islam gives women full rights. According to its teachings, man and women are equal, and should not be judged according to their gender, beauty, wealth, or privilege. But Wakili says the interpretation of the Koran by men distorts its original intent to accord equality to women.
Lida Ahmady, another panel speaker, lived in Afghanistan until she was 11 years old. She says that before the advent of the Taliban women played an important role in Afghan society, particularly during the struggle against the Soviet Union. For 25 years, she says, women ran Afghanistan while their husbands fought as anti-Communist rebels or were part of the Afghan communist government. By forcing women to rescind their public roles, as teachers, doctors and nurses, she says, the Taliban has punished the entire society.
Separating custom from belief, politics from religion, and stereotype from reality is only the first step toward cultural understanding. Removing that metaphorical veil -- not letting assumptions and preconceptions cloud one's judgment about different people -- will require the efforts of both Muslim and Western women.