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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Veil Stokes Religious Debate

ATHENS -- Earlier this year on an Arabic web site, a Muslim woman scholar posted an open letter to the Islamic world. "Take off the veil, sister," began Elham Manea, a professor of Yemeni descent who now works in Switzerland.

Her opinion was not new -- that head scarves and other coverings for women are not mandated by the Quran or Islamic tradition. But the essay's impassioned tone quickly grabbed attention. Supporters hailed it as a timely manifesto against Islam's conservative tide. Traditionalists scorned it as the ramblings of a Muslim blinded by the West.

Both sides could agree, however, that despite all its cultural twists, the question of the veil is a religious one, and one that is stubbornly hard to pin down -- just what does Islam demand?

With no central Islamic theological authority -- such as the Vatican for Roman Catholics -- Muslims are left to interpret Quranic passages, sift through stories about the Prophet Mohammed, known as hadiths, and study competing religious edicts over the various coverings. They range from fashionable head scarves to the shroud-like burqa and the full-face veil called a niqab, which only shows a woman's eyes.

"It's become such a charged topic," said Manea, a researcher on politics and Islam at the University of Zurich. "I received hate mail and e-mails with very threatening tones. But, on the other side, messages supporting my views also were overwhelming."

In the West -- particularly Europe -- the veil has been drawn into hot-button debates such as immigrant integration and worries about radical Islam. In many Muslim countries, it can represent a potentially life-shaping decision for women in which the veil is increasingly seen as a political statement against perceived injustices to Islam.

"There are so many pressures now to decide whether the veil is right or wrong," said Tarafa Baghajati, a leader of the European Network Against Racism in Brussels, Belgium. "The problem is that it's an impossible task."

Credible cases have been built in several directions.

Those supporting the veil often cite a hadith from Sahih Bukhari, a ninth-century theologian, that urges women to "cover themselves" in public. The Quran, too, contains sections that tell women to seek modesty and "draw their cloaks close around them" (Surah 33, verse 59) and "draw their veils" over their chests and necklines except around their husbands and close relatives (24:31).

Some prominent Islamic voices, including Egyptian-born cleric Sheik Yusef el-Qaradawi, say some form of Islamic coverings is supported by Muslim law and customs. But most do not go beyond advocating some variation of head scarves and body-covering clothing.

Far fewer leaders -- outside ultraconservative bastions such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan -- believe Islam requires veiling a woman's face and hands, saying that both are exposed during prayer and that a woman's face should not be covered during the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

But many other Islamic scholars find flaws in any demands for the veil, which is often called by the Arabic term hijab.

They believe the phrasing in the Islamic texts are too vague to make it a religious requirement and reflects the cultural norms of the seventh-century life of Mohammed and later centuries -- in the same way that the Bible and Jewish sources offer guidance that is now widely considered a matter of personal choice, such as a passage in I Corinthians that says women should cover their heads during prayer.

"The hijab these days goes beyond religion into politics, culture and social," said Ahmed Nazeer, of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture in Concord, California. "These pressures are all coming down on Muslim women -- to make a statement in favor of the one vision of Islam or another."

Earlier this month, a Turkish court acquitted a 92-year-old archaeologist, Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, who was charged with insulting religious feelings for her book that said Islamic-style head scarves were first worn more than 5,000 years ago by priestesses initiating young men into sex.