Veiled Messages; Modern Culture Uncovers Mystery of Ancient custom.(NATION)(CULTURE, ET CETERA)

Article excerpt


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 21/2 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. …