Muslim women clothing may seem very exotic, however, veiling is not foreign to Western society.
For example, brides wear veils, nuns wear veils, and widows often wear veils but we do not perceive Western women who wear veils as oppressed.
Western women are familiar with their own traditions but largely unfamiliar with Muslim traditions, therefore Muslim veiling is thought to be something completely different to what they do, something foreign and alienating.
Above: Nuns from the Tyburn Convent in Central London leave the polling station at St. Johns Parish Church, Hyde Park, after casting their votes. Photo: Dave Caulkin, AP
Westerners have come to understand the veil as an oppressive tradition, when in fact the veil is only oppressive when it is enforced as it was, for example, in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
In 1994, before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, there was no law enforcing veiling. However, most women in rural areas chose to wear the veil and many urban women also. It was entirely the choice of the individual.
The oppression the Taliban perpetrated against women has no basis in Islam. Within Islam, women are allowed to earn and control their own money, and to participate in public life.
In the USA, Muslim women clothing has always been a matter of individual choise but after the attacks of September 11th, the Muslim Women's League urged American women not to veil in public for reasons of safety due to harassment ranging from verbal abuse, threats, and vandalism, to physical assault and murder.
In France and in Canada, wearing a headscarf in a public school is forbidden because it is seen as challenging French/Canadian patriotism. In the UK, it is still a matter of choice, however, many people in England also see Islam as a threat to national unity.
An example of this trend can be seen in the actions of a group of people who marched from Whitehall along Embankment to Temple to listen to speeches in protest at what they see as the expansion of Islam into Europe and which was captured on camera by the photojournalist Terence Bunch in October 2007.
In China there is no law prohibiting the veil, and the Muslim women I spoke to gave a variety of reasons for choosing to wear it. None of them saw Muslim women clothing as oppressive in any way; rather they saw it as a way to protect their privacy when in a public space, as a kind of freedom from the often intrusive gaze of men, and also as a symbol of Islam which is their religion and something of which they are proud.
For Chinese Muslim women clothes are one way to express individual identity. The women say they enjoy shopping for new scarves, and the colour and decorative element as well as how it is worn are ways for them to express themselves as individuals as well as symbols of their cultural identity.
At times it is tempting to try to dismiss the seemingly absurd preoccupation that the popular press has with the issue of the veil. Some people, such as Imam Mohamed Magid, who heads a mosque in Vancouver in the USA, claim that the debate over Islamic clothing is misdirected. He says: "I wish there was more talk about women as leaders rather than talk about whether nail polish is acceptable in Islam. We need to move forward".
However, the issue is neither trivial nor easily dismissed especially in the light of incidents such as the Pakistani minister and women's activist, Zilla Huma Usman, who was shot dead by an Islamic extremist in February 2007 as she was about to deliver a speech.
Her assassin, Mohammad Sarwar, was a Muslim who believed that Usman was dressed inappropriately and that women should not be involved in politics. At the time of her death she was wearing the salwar kameez which is worn by many professional women in Pakistan, but she did not cover her head.
In the last few years, the popular press has seen a wave of memoirs and other writings by Muslim women (see below). According to Dr. Kecia Ali, professor of Islamic studies at Boston University in the USA, there is a huge demand for these books which has been created by the media. These too affect western ideas and can challenge or reinforce stereotypical images.
One of the more popular books is Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in which she argues that Islam condones violence towards women. In the book, which was published in 2006, she talks about her gradual estrangement from Islam, and she has antagonised Muslims by publicly criticizing their religion.
She also worked with the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was Vincent Van Gogh's great grand nephew, on a documentary called Submission about domestic abuse in the Islamic world. Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a radical Muslim after the film came out. The extreme views presented in the film may have some validity but it does little towards reconciliation between Muslim extremists and western idealists, and it certainly does not help to erode stereotypes.
Dr. Aminah McCloud, Director of the Islamic World Studies Program and Professor of Islamic Studies in the department of religious studies at Chicago's DePaul University, describes many of the works in the popular press as stories about victims. "They are either trying to talk about "it's wonderful that I wear a veil and it's very, very positive," or "my family has fought long against this sense of oppression", he says. And she asks: "Are they a 'new kind of Orientalism?", and questions whether they continue to present Muslim women as exotic others.
She also says that, in most cases, they fit a pattern: they are apologetic toward Islam and many of the authors are elites who have left their countries. Also being left out of the dialogue, she says, are African-American women who are Muslims. These are the voices that aren't being heard.
In addition, there is a paucity of information about Chinese Muslims in general and female Chinese Muslims in particular. What is needed is more diversity in the stories being told, says McCloud. Stereotypes still have to be defeated. While she acknowledges that the 'popular, difficult' books about Muslim women are getting the most attention, she notes that there is more information available now than in previous years.
PAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: I'm an affiliate with Amazon.com. If you use Amazon and would like to help me earn a little money to enable me to keep providing excellent content, click the link to browse through some great photography books. You do not have to buy a book, but I'll receive a small commission on anything you do buy on Amazon within 24 hours. Thanks for your support!