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Voices from behind the veil

Women in conservative Islamic societies talk about their lives, and how the West perceives them.

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Reported by staff writers Nicole Gaouette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Scott Baldauf in Jalalabad, Afghanistan; and special correspondent Haleh Anvari in Tehran, Iran.

If there is a Western shorthand for Muslim women, it might look like Heba Attieh.

Veiled and cautious about encounters with men outside her Saudi family, she was married at 17 to someone she barely knew. Soon after, she was pregnant with the first of three children. She can't travel in Saudi Arabia without a man's permission, leave the house alone, or drive.

But look again.

Ms. Attieh, tall, slim with an easy sense of humor, is also a doctor at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she works fulltime alongside male colleagues.

She holds a PhD in speech pathology, does community work, and is organizing a group to work on school-curriculum issues and playground development.

"How many Western women do as much?" challenges her sister-in-law, Sahar Abdul Majid.

In these days of tension between Islam and the West, it's a question that resonates with many Muslim women. The US war against Afghanistan's Taliban regime has put Islam front and center in the American consciousness. Some of the most popular news reports are about Afghan women reclaiming their jobs, their studies, and their right to remove the head-to-toe burqa covering.

To many Westerners these moments are ripe with symbolism: In their eyes, the veil reflects Islam's oppression of women. Some commentators have even hailed the liberation of Afghanistan's women. "Muslim women see it in a slightly different light," Attieh wryly observes.

It is too early to tell how events will play out for Afghanistan's women. But the fall of the Taliban leaves just two countries - Saudi Arabia and Iran - that dictate, by law, that women cover themselves. For outsiders who hold that Muslim women need freeing from the shackles of their faith, these would be the countries to turn to next. Most Iranian and Saudi women, though, won't be having any of it. Despite differences of geography, culture, and language, the women of these two countries echo each other's tart appraisals of the West and its view of Muslim women.

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