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The veil, the Koran, and the Muslim women's movement

Muslim women who want equal rights are turning to Islam’s primary authority – the Koran. It’s a smart strategy.

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In Islam, a woman who chooses not to wear a head scarf in public has a strong defense: the Koran. Nowhere does Islam’s primary text mandate that she cover her head.

A Muslim woman, then, should have the freedom to cover her hair – or not. But that is not the case in a country like Saudi Arabia. The Koran also supports a woman’s right to own and inherit property, to be educated, and to choose her husband – but not all societies in the Muslim universe of 1.5 billion people recognize these rights.

The disconnect lies in the interpretation of Islam, done for centuries by men. In the interest of achieving gender equality, Muslim women activists and scholars are challenging the male interpretation. Wisely, they are using the Koran to do it.

Much authority in the Muslim world stems from scholarship, and so Muslim women have become Islamic scholars. Their work of the past 20 years has shed a new light of equality on texts in the Koran. They challenge, for example, the patriarchal interpretation and enforcement of the idea that males are the guardians of females and responsible for their morality.

These scholars are spreading the word in books, in conferences, and on the Internet. Grass-roots groups in Islamic countries are turning to them for guidance – and learning to use the Koran themselves to argue for greater rights.

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