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Sheema Khan on Muslims, the veil and fitting into Western societies Add to ...

Sheema Khan: Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity to participate.

When I entered Harvard, I immersed myself in scientific inquiry. In particular, physics was my passion. However, with time, I realized that it failed to fulfil an inner spiritual need. Furthermore, the scientific community was quite hostile to belief in God. I never saw a contradiction between the two, and was happy to know that such a contradiction never existed in Islamic history.

Furthermore, the spiritual dearth in a rarified atmosphere such as Harvard was taking its toll on me. I wanted to know where I came from, what was my purpose in life, and what would happend to me when I died. I wondered if universal truths existed.

At the same time, the U.S. had bombed Lybia. I was appalled at the ignorance of so many Harvard students about basic facts of Islam and Muslims. So I became involved in the Harvard Islamic Society to increase their awareness of us. But in fact, it was my awareness that increased. I realized I knew so little about my faiith. I searched more and more in the Koran.

The more I read, the more I humbled I became, realizing that all that I had - my intellect, my health, my financial and professional success - were all at the mercy of a compassionate creator.

It was I who had to change - who wanted to change - in appreciation and in humility of God's favours.

The first step was to observe the five daily prayers, and to understand their meaning. The rest followed, including the choice to wear the hijab, which I believe is part of Islamic teachings of modesty.

The spiritual journey is still continuing, I am happy to say. And I am grateful to have lived in lands of peace (Canada and the U.S.) where such a journey can take place.

A.D., Toronto: Why does it matter so much what some people choose to wear? While I personally wouldn't wear a veil, I would be as offended by someone telling me I couldn't wear one as I would be if you forced me to wear one. I have heard some people say that the veil is like the bikini or miniskirt, but at the opposite end of the spectrum - worn to made a statement. But if society banned those forms of clothing, it wouldn't have the undertones of xenophobia that banning the hijab or niqab does. Shouldn't Western countries allow newcomers to integrate at their own pace and not force them to abandon any cultural or religious practices?

Sheema Khan: Thank you for your insightful comments. The question of integration is complex, and each country's policy varies. In Canada, our official policy of multiculturalism essentially allows newcomers to integrate at their own pace. Immigrants are allowed to retain cultural/religious practices, provided these do not contradict our Charter (an example of an exception is the cultural practice of female genital mutilation). This allows people to gradually adapt to the new society, which, I beleive, makes for a more deep-rooted citizenship. Personal identities are a continuum. We can't expect people to simply discard their cultural identities at the drop of a hat.

Kitty Kat, Edmonton: Dear Sheema, thanks for taking questions on this controversial and timely subject. Until quite recently, nuns in the Catholic religion were required to wear headscarves full-time, and Catholic women worshipping at church on Sundays were required to cover their heads as well. So I don't think the issue of women being required by a religion to cover their heads belongs just to Islam.

Here's my very basic question. Do we think God makes mistakes? Do we think God made women beautiful by mistake? Did God give women luxurious hair without thinking about the consequences? If we answer by saying that God is all-knowing and perfect, then I think we have to rethink why we are so arrogant to think we should be covering up one of his most perfect creations. God made us in God's image. Why should we cover ourselves up in shame? Or in modesty? Or in safety? No other creature on earth covers themselves up, not the gorgeous leopard nor the lowly brown mouse. Why should women?

If the answer is that men will be tempted, then perhaps men should cover their eyes and be secluded, because then they are far too driven by emotions to run the world. I would love to hear your comments. Regards, Catherine.

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