In the past two weeks, the veil debate has caught fire and spread east to Italy. Prime Minister Romano Prodi has denounced the niqab, and last Friday, a television talk show exploded when conservative M.P. Daniela Santanchh declared that the veil was not required by the Quran, and her fellow guest, an imam, called her an infidel. On Monday the BBC reported that Santanchh had been provided police protection and feared for her safety.
The debate is also roiling among Italy's Muslim leaders. Mohammed Nur Dachan, the president of Italy's largest Muslim group, has said that the niqab "is against Italian law" and voiced support for Prodi. On the other side, one conservative cleric framed his defense of the veil in terms of women's rights: Abd al-Hamid Shaari, the president of the fundamentalist Institute of Islamic Culture, reportedly told the Italian news agency Adnkronos International "a woman should be allowed to wear whatever she wants if it poses no obstacle to her identification."
From across the ocean, the current veil debate can be compartmentalized as just another war of words in which Europeans rethink their notions of religious intolerance and multiculturalism. But come on -- the notion of any fundamentalist religion invading Europe's generally liberal, modernized culture is more than a matter of much ado about head dresses. And no matter how women who embrace the veil feel about it, Muslim veils have become a symbol of gender inequality, pure and simple. That doesn't mean veils always will be seen this way -- in the 19th century, corsets embodied the feminine subjugation of the moment; now, if some dungeon mistress decides to wear corsetry at her S/M club, it's her lifestyle. But as long as there's a coercive government or husband or imam compelling women to wear the veil, it's not going to be seen as merely a matter of personal choice or religious freedom.
As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli noted on Wednesday, the Italian veil debate comes on the heels of the murder of a young Pakistani woman who had left her conservative family to live with an Italian man. After her body was found buried in the garden of her family home, her father, uncle and a brother-in-law were charged with her murder. A random incidence of violence, or an honor killing? It's too soon to know. But it was with relief that I heard Poggioli's report that the Italian government was considering a new standard that has less to do with women's clothing or religious symbolism and more to do with the cultural issues behind the veil. "In a sign of increasing frustration over the perceived reluctance of some Muslims to be part of mainstream society," Poggioli reported "the Italian government plans to require that new citizens sign a Charter of Values that includes a recognition of equal rights of women and men." Bravo.