CAIRO — She was a 25-year-old journalist with a bare head and big dreams when things started to turn sour.
She got married and ended up divorced the same year. Then the stigma set in. Men knew she wasn't a virgin and stalked her as easy prey. She lost her job when the editor of her newspaper was jailed. Two years ago, lonesome and aimless, Hoda Abdel Wahab fell into a depression so deep she was afraid of becoming paralyzed.
"I thought, 'Nothing is worth it in this life, so I'll go to God,' " she says. Penniless, she sold her gold jewelry to buy a head scarf and abaya, or cloak.
Once she took the veil, the harassment stopped. On the streets, she gets only occasional murmurs from religious men: "Peace, sister."
She found a job, too, selling head scarves and flowing robes to wealthy women in a Cairo boutique. She swears that the transformation sank all the way into her soul. "The problems that really bothered me before disappeared from my mind," says the now 27-year-old Wahab.
She is one of millions of Muslim women who each day take a very visible side on the emotional, complicated question of the head scarf. Also known as hijab, a generic term for modest Muslim dress, the scarves look like simple runs of fabric but come layered with meaning.
The hijab is an expression of personal devotion to Islam, but critics decry it as an emblem of patriarchal repression. Covered heads can be powerful political statements or simply a fashion trend among teens.
Debate simmers in Islamic communities about whether the hijab is required for women, but the scarves appear increasingly at the crux of cultural clashes -- particularly since Sept. 11, 2001.
Amid anger over the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and ongoing bloodshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the hijab has emerged in the Middle East with deep political significance. For some, the scarves express defiance of American aggression, silent protests against Arab governments that cooperate with Washington or a retort to Westerners' phobia of Muslims.
To many a wary eye, the hijab symbolizes the systematic degradation of women and provokes fear that Islamic fundamentalism will seep into Western societies. In France, which has struggled to assimilate its Muslim communities, the head coverings and other religious garb were banned from public schools last year. Officials cited a desire to defend the country's secular tradition.
Muslims around the world -- even those who shun the hijab -- poured into the streets in protest. Militants in Iraq threatened to behead their French hostages unless Paris reconsidered. But in Egypt, the nation's most powerful cleric scandalized his followers by preaching in favor of France's banning of the veil.
There are Muslim countries where women have no choice but to cover their heads. Religious police in Saudi Arabia and Iran hunt and even beat bareheaded women.
Yet in Turkey and Tunisia, there is the opposite pressure. The hijab is banned from public schools and offices, and veiled women complain of ridicule and abuse.
What is drowned out by the public outcry and political debate in many countries is the very personal nature of each woman's decision to cover, or bare, her head.
Some slip into head scarves at puberty without giving a thought to the controversial undertones. Others reach for the veil at a time of pain -- marital strife, sudden unemployment or a midlife malaise. Some women say they covered their hair when they first sensed the inevitability of death, like a lapsed Catholic groping for a rosary on the sickbed.
In Egypt, where the government prides itself on its secular rule but Islam remains the most potent force in private and public life, the hijab is more or less a matter of choice. But on Cairo's bustling sidewalks, a naked female head has become a relatively rare sight. Schoolgirls bind their heads in white cotton, charwomen use fading polyester, businesswomen look demure in beige. The short, bright scarves of university students seem an afterthought over tight jeans, lipstick and scarlet nails.
A few decades back, when a young Omar Sharif heated up the black-and-white screen and Egypt shone as the Arab world's cultural vanguard, the veil was relegated to the poor. It began to reach the middle class with the Islamist revival of the 1980s and 1990s and has only recently been embraced by Egypt's wealthy women, who once sniffed at the notion of covering their coiffures.
Cairo's Al Motahajiba, a designer boutique for head scarves, is one of many luxury shops that have sprouted in the region as upper-class women join their poorer counterparts underneath the veil.
This is where Wahab works: among pink silk carefully shredded to resemble a feather boa and yellow silk delicately embellished with red embroidery. There is cashmere of midnight blue and "Saudi crepe," a new, wrinkle-free fabric designed especially for veiled women. Silks are flown in from Qatar.