- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

The veil has symbolized mystery and purity throughout history and across many cultures. Its roots are in the East, tied intimately to religion and ethnic customs, but it has moved gradually into Western pop culture.

Today, the veil "has become so ubiquitous that everyone seems to have formed an opinion about it," says University of Texas Middle Eastern studies professor Faegheh Shirazi. "The various connotations it has, the many emotions it arouses, testify to its continuing, perhaps even growing, significance in the modern world."

One example is the way the veil is portrayed in Western cinema, which Ms. Shirazi says has joined the East to "use the veil to tantalize and arouse the spectator."

In Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film "The Sheltering Sky," the heroine uses a veil to pass as a man in the Tuareg tribe of North Africa, where men still wear veils. Veils also had notable roles in British adventurer and author Sir Richard F. Burton's 1888 translation of "The Arabian Nights," the British Broadcasting Corp.'s "Death of a Princess" documentary and the 1998 film "Shakespeare in Love."

"Some people think of the veil as erotic and romantic, others perceive it as a symbol of oppression, still others consider it a sign of piety, modesty, or purity," Ms. Shirazi writes in her 2001 book, "The Veil Unveiled."

Innocence is what the veil signifies in weddings, the only place in Western society where women traditionally have been expected to don a bit of demure tulle. But even that symbolic modesty has morphed to more revealing tiaras, flowered headpieces or hats.

In the Middle East, the veil has evolved to the hijab, which covers the neck and head. This working veil symbolizes religious orthodoxy and humility, but until recently, Ms. Shirazi said in an interview, many American-born Muslims rejected the garment as "a symbol of foreignness and a sign of oppression and/or backwardness."

Since September 11, that trend has reversed to where Muslim women are suing for the right to wear the hijab at their workplaces. Last month, for instance, a Muslim policewoman and a Jewish policeman in Chicago won a case allowing them to wear religious garb a hijab and a yarmulke, respectively with their uniforms.

Rebecca Balint, an incoming law student at George Washington University, was one of many who started veiling herself six months ago as a sign of religious solidarity.

"After 9/11, I looked around and didn't see enough unity in our community," says Miss Balint, 20, who converted to Islam 2½ years ago. "I wanted to show people the reality of my faith rather than what they've been seeing on television and in the news."

"Modern girls who would not wear a hijab two or three years ago are wearing them on American campuses right now," says Faiz Rehman of the American Muslim Council, a Washington-based advocacy group. "Women wearing hijabs weren't a common part of the American cultural landscape before September 11, but they are now."

Ms. Shirazi said she doesn't expect veils to become fashionable here anytime soon, but she hopes their resurgence will shatter the popular myths of Middle Eastern women that Americans have long encountered through Western erotica, advertising and cinema.

"The veil today does not symbolize the same things for Muslims as for those in Western culture," she says. In one sense, it is just another article of clothing, a normal part of getting dressed.

"On the other hand, it carries thousands of years of religious, sexual and political significance within its folds."

Centuries before the spread of Islam, veiling and seclusion were marks of prestige and symbols of status" in the Assyrian, Greco-Roman and Byzantine empires as well as in pre-Islamic Iran.

"Only wealthy families could afford to seclude their women," she says. Not only was the veil a sign of a good, pure woman, it showed a lifestyle free of manual labor.

"Slaves and women who labored in the fields were not expected to wear the veil," Ms. Shirazi says, which would have impeded their every movement."

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the colonization of several Middle Eastern countries by the British, veils started seeping into the Western mentality.

Erotic magazines such as Penthouse, Playboy and Hustler latched onto the veil for their own purposes. Veiled models and cartoons in these publications, Ms. Shirazi writes, incorrectly gave Western men the idea that Muslim women embodied "Oriental submission and Western dominance at the same time."

A Playboy writer, James Bovard, offers a simpler explanation.

"The important thing is that the cartoons in Playboy are funny," he says. "Ms. Shirazi also forgets that veils come in very handy for overfed women and for women of a certain age. It's a photographers' trick as much as anything else."

But Ms. Shirazi says erotica is hardly the only medium through which Western culture portrays veiled women. "Veil appeal" has been used in advertising campaigns for IBM and Jeep Cherokee.

"These stereotypes are then tailored to the segment of the market that is targeted by the advertiser," she writes.

Ms. Shirazi points to one IBM ad in particular, set in Morocco and subtitled in English, in which two Arab businessmen sit discussing transactions.

After their conversation ends, the camera focuses on the figure of a completely veiled woman in the foreground.

Ms. Shirazi says IBM, like other companies, uses the veil a sign of female inaccessibility as a "sexual" way to "send the message that its products are so easy to use that even people who are not known for their technological adeptness can use them."

"I can't say we aim at realism, because we work in television spots," says Roy Schecter, an IBM advertising manager. "But we actually received many calls from Arab Americans after that ad ran in 1995, thanking us for a 'realistic' portrayal of Arabs as something other than knife-wielding thugs or rug salesmen."

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