Silent and demure, Sohaila briefly lifts up her face veil to introduce herself to me in a barely audible whisper. Not only must she hide her face, she must also keep her voice down, as that, too, is part of her "aura" – the thing that must be guarded from the public. Where, I ask, did she hear of such a commandment? "It is in the Qur'an," she says at a recent social gathering. "The Qur'an exhorts a woman to conceal her beauty from strangers," she continues. "It is for her own good. If her voice is too alluring, she needs to hide it."
Moments later, her husband lovingly brings her a glass of water. Once again she lifts her veil and turns her face away so that other men cannot see her.
Women like Sohaila appear to be growing in number around the GTA. Many have wondered why, especially when no express injunction enjoining the full veil exists in the Qur'an. I searched the holy book for confirmation of Sohaila's rigid and extreme interpretation. I found none.
Later, at another social event, I was advised that the Qur'an is quite explicit in exhorting women to hide their beauty from strange men, except "that which is apparent thereof." What would fall under that definition? A lady named Sabiha explained that it meant a woman's physique and height, which even the full veil could not conceal, but that a full veil was nonetheless required by Islam.
She went on to quote oral tradition, where Aeysha, the prophet's beloved child bride, is said to have observed the full veil. "She is a role model for Muslim women," Sabiha continued. "If Aeysha observed the full veil, so must we." I was stunned to hear these views.
Needless to say, the burka evokes many responses, from fear and awe to mystery sympathy, as well as contempt. It has come to be regarded as a symbol of an oppressive culture and a medieval mindset – one that defines a Muslim woman's identity by reducing her to a sexual object that must be concealed.
According to professor Nikkie Keddie of the University of California, however, the full veil was imposed on Muslim women only gradually. Her contention is supported by history. She states that initially, in the early periods of Islamic history, women had considerable freedom to roam unveiled.
Moreover, Bedouin men and women were both accustomed to covering their hair to protect themselves from the scorching sun, a practice that had nothing to do with religion.
Additionally, she points out that the full veiling of women, in fact, predates Islam. It is therefore not intrinsically Islamic and is rooted more in ancient Greek and Byzantine culture.
Among these rather elitist cultures, women were secluded based on class and social standing – the underlying assumption being that women of nobility would have far more to lose if they were dishonored.
When Islam spread to these lands, it adopted some of the local customs and mores. Qur'anic injunctions on modesty, though quite vague in their terminology, came to be interpreted in light of these cultural practices. Nevertheless, slaves and nomadic peoples were barred form veiling entirely. In fact, if they violated this rule, they were duly punished.
A universal decree stipulating the face veil for Muslim women came much later around the time of the Mamelukes of Egypt who ruled the country in the 13th century. These rulers issued several decrees imposing the full veil on women when they appeared in public. Hence, what was once a mark of aristocracy and nobility, now came to be imposed on the commoner as religious dogma.
The rigid observance of these edicts has never been challenged since. Many parts of the Islamic world abound with women who, were they to appear in public without the full veil, would surely suffer dire consequences under the law, apart from experiencing social ostracism.
Moreover, once the practice of the full veil came to be firmly established, interpretations of the Qur'an that would endorse its continuation began to emerge from the conservative elements of Islamic society. Salvation for Muslim women came to be vested in their anonymity and invisibility.
The strictest applications of these interpretations are now to be seen in Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive because they are fully veiled.
Similar interpretations have made their way into Canada, where a school run by female theologian Farhat Hashmi endorses this philosophy. Practices that were originally cultural and tribal have come to assume a fundamentalist religious tenor.
The subject of much heated debate, as seen in the recent Elections Canada decision that allowed burka-clad women to vote without removing their face veils, the burka has come to be sanctified, both by conservative forces within Islam and the Western left that endorses it in the name of multiculturalism.
The historical antecedents of the burka or full veil are rarely invoked in these debates.
[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]