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'Tainted Veil' looks at both sides of the hijab headdress

The hijab, the traditional headdress worn by Muslim women, is the subject of the documentary "The Tainted Veil," a lively debate among ordinary citizens, scholars, politicians, activists and religious figures from different beliefs and countries.

Muslim women — and, indeed, secular women within predominantly Muslim communities — often find themselves pressured by societal standards to wear religion on their sleeves (and heads) or to conform to Western beauty ideals. Islamophobia since 9/11 only further complicates matters, as the hijab gets banned in many public spheres.

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The film proves most compelling when two Westernized women and three hijab wearers engage in a candid on-the-street powwow about their personal choices. The film is less interesting when hard-line scholars spew rhetoric — especially men who don't have to suffer through the consequences.

"The Tainted Veil" resists taking a stance, and both sides of the argument are compelling and persuasive. Ahmed Barkawi, former dean of the philosophy and social studies department at Damascus University, says the hijab helps to deter the objectification of women, but it's also a means for a male-dominated religious authority to exert control over women.

"At the end of the day, it's a 3-foot-square piece of cloth for goodness' sake, you know? Let's not overblow it," says Sarah Joseph, editor of Emel, a British magazine on Muslim lifestyle. "As long as women are wearing the scarf through an informed choice, they are choosing to do this of their own free will, and people recognize that, then I think we can move forward on this."

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"The Tainted Veil"

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.

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