I remember a time, not so long ago, when wearing a veil was seen as unacceptable – at least in certain social circles. Educated women, it was thought, did not wear veils. Only five years ago, when a friend decided to don one, it was the main item of gossip in town. In hushed and shocked tones, friends spread the word that Samia tahajabit (put on a veil). Many felt awkward around her and Samia sought new friends.
Two years ago another friend who lives in the US suddenly decided to turn religious and donned the veil. In a fury, her mother flew across and talked her out of it. ‘No daughter of mine puts on a veil,’ she told me sternly.
But since 11 September 2001 things have begun to change. It has become more acceptable for middle- and upper-class women to wear veils. As one put it: ‘With all this anti-Islam in the world, I began to take more of an interest in my religion. And one of the duties of Islam is to wear the veil.’
Yasmine Dabbous, who is 26, couldn’t agree more. There was a time when she wore shorts, tanktops and swimsuits. Exploring her religion, she made a point of wearing long skirts. Then she began covering her arms. Finally she donned the veil. (In Lebanon, veiling is restricted to covering the head and hair – the face is usually left uncovered).
‘This is a personal decision,’ she said. ‘No-one has forced me.’ Her father was livid. ‘He thought my veil would tarnish the family’s image. He saw the veil as primitive and barbaric.’ So she held off until she got married. Her sister soon followed suit.
‘It’s beginning to be acceptable now,’ said Yasmine. ‘I don’t think the events of 11 September are the main reason for the change in people’s attitudes. But it’s certainly part of it.’
Her husband, who was studying in the US at the time, grew a beard as if to challenge the anti-Islamic feeling that swept the country. He immediately shaved it off upon returning to Lebanon.
The new shift in attitude is completely unnoticed by Nabil, a taxi driver, who frequently chauffeurs me around the city. To him, all Muslim women should be veiled. ‘It’s their duty,’ he told me. ‘My wife is veiled.’
He had been asking his teenage daughter to don the veil for several years, meeting each time with refusal. ‘God is certainly frowning on me for letting my daughter leave the house with her head uncovered,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
One day, Nabil picked me up, his eyes shining. ‘My daughter has agreed to wear the veil,’ he said in excitement. ‘Her only condition is to wait until after she is married. I have agreed.’ A few months later, the 17-year-old girl was wed. A month later, she donned the veil. ‘I am so relieved,’ said Nabil. ‘I have succeeded as a father. God will reward me.’
I never really understood the pride that accompanies wearing a veil until I met 13-year-old Nawal Youssef. Her poverty-stricken family lived in a Palestinian camp crowded into two small rooms. They only had one bed and this was given to Nawal. The child had brain cancer and was paralyzed after a faulty operation. She could barely mouth a few words. A few weeks before she died, Nawal asked to be veiled.
At her funeral, her father couldn’t stop talking about it and seemed to draw comfort from it.
‘No-one expected it,’ he said. ‘She was a very sick little girl. But she insisted. So we got her a veil. She even fasted during Ramadan. We begged her not to but she was a believer. I know that God has welcomed her into heaven. I’m so proud that my daughter wore the veil.’
It hadn’t occurred to me to ask my unveiled Muslim friends why their heads were uncovered. When I did, Rula stared at me blankly. ‘Well,’ she hesitated, ‘I don’t know. It’s not something I ever considered or thought about.’
She called her mother over. Afaf, in her late fifties, is a practising Muslim who prays and fasts but is not veiled.
‘I would be miserable if my daughters wore the veil,’ she said. ‘There is absolutely no mention of the veil in the Qur’an. This is all about men containing women. The men were in charge of making the laws. It’s all about power, nothing more.’
As the veil becomes more popular, new businesses have crept up: stylish clothes tailored to the veiled woman, scarves decorated with new twists and even a sea resort where men and women are segregated for swimming then reunited for dining and family activities.
But a word of warning from Yasmine. ‘Wearing the veil doesn’t mean fundamentalism,’ she says. ‘I am against it. Islam preaches moderation not extremism. We are still the same people. We’re just veiled. That’s all.’