Scarf chokes debate on women's rights
By MONA ELTAHAWY  iThe Washington Postj
@      NEW YORK --When Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi held a news conference in Paris to mark her Nobel Peace Prize | the first time, in the prize's history that it went to a Muslim woman -- every article I saw about her momentous achievement included the same line: She did not wear a head scarf. I long for the day when that line is unnecessary and a Muslim woman is neither the sum nor the absence of a head scarfD
A      Ten years ago, at the age of 25, I took off my scarf in Cairo and went out in public with my hair showing for the first time since I had turned 16. It is difficult to overestimate the guilt I felt.
B      Putting on and taking off the scarf, or hijabCwas my choice. I was not an oppressed Muslim woman. In fact, I became a feminist at the age 19 while at university in Saudi Arabia. I came across the work of Muslim women who questioned the centuries-long interpretations of Islam that favored men. They convinced me that reinterpretation of my religion was possible.
C      The hijab was my way of choosing what to do with my body. I showed what I wanted to show. Why could a woman wear a mini skirt and consider herself a feminist while I had to defend my choice? I was the poster child of the articulate, educated Muslim woman.
D      I am the daughter of Egyptian physicians who moved my brother and me to Britain when I was 7. We spent almost eight years there and I became fluent in English with a British accent.
E      I put on the hijab at 16 because I thought it was what God wanted of me. We lived in Saudi Arabia then, but I continued to wear it when I moved to Egypt to finish university. Many people would do a double-take when they heard me speak English. My accent always tripped them up.
F      I tried to understand their confusion but resented being asked how I could be so well-traveled and educated and yet wear the hijab. My mother, with her Ph. D., wears one. The two were never mutually exclusive in my life.
G      As I grew older, I increasingly questioned whether the hijab was obligatory. Some clerics cite Quranic verses and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed that, they say, enjoin the head scarf on women as a way of promoting modesty. I was always aware that the head scarf was not exclusive to Islam, of course.  Women of other religions sometimes cover their hair. But as I read the work of female Muslim scholars such as the Moroccan Fatima MernissiCI began to believe that I could be practicing Muslim without wearing the hijab.  
H      Mernissi and others have pointed to the hijab's cultural rather than strictly religious underpinnings and have barged head long into the interpretations and religious traditions that favored men.

I      Also, I had, become increasingly frustrated with the expectations that Muslims and non-Muslims alike poured onto that piece of cloth. For both groups, the scarf loomed larger than I did. I was simply the muhajjaba - a woman who wore the scarf.
J      For the West, the scarf means  oppression and patriarchy. The only thing anyone asks about Afghan women now is “have they taken the burka off?” Yet the West's obsession with the hijab is not only misguided, it is misplaced. Far graver matters weigh on the minds of women in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

K      For the Muslim world, the hijab has become a bold statement that Islam is thriving and does not bow to the cultural imperialism of the West. Yet this obsession with the hijab is misguided and misplaced. Muslim women would have much better lives if Muslims put the effort with which they emphasize the importance of the head scarf into making sure that women enjoy the rights the Quran gives them.
L      Taking the hijab off freed me. I was not the walking embodiment of the Quran | who could carry such a burden? -- but an ordinary Muslim earnestly trying to make sense of her faith.
M      While interviewing one of Egypt’s leading feminists once, I found myself defending women who wore the hijab. She claimed such women were brainwashed; I cited the many educated women I knew who chose to wear it. Now I find myself defending women who choose not to.
N      There are only two Quranic references to women's dress | they have been interpreted variously | and yet the hijab has become the ultimate definer of Muslim womanhood. When women become the sum or absence of a head scarf, it is impossible to further the debate on women's rights. The scarf becomes the box whose corners we circle again and again.
O      ( Mona Eltahawy is the New York-based managing editor of Arabic Women's news.)
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