Vilifying The Veil
Presumably well-meaning Westerners declare, “The veil is oppressive to women everywhere!” These pronouncements are based in ignorance. The veil exists in places where sexism is rampant, true, but the veil itself is not oppressive. On the contrary, it’s an exquisite religious symbol claiming a rich history that Westerners do not often grasp. They do not have to understand, thanks to Western and Christian privilege, how insulting these types of comments are.
What is considered “normal” to Westerners?
To understand where Islamophobia, and consequently, fear of the veil, stems from, we have to understand the basics of privilege. The “mythical norm” is a taken for granted identity or experience that subliminally marks the universal, ideal person. In America, this norm is usually understood as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. The veil threatens at least three of these categories. Non-white, non-Christian women are the people most often seen wearing the Islamic veil. We believe that because we are Westerners, a privileged status, we know what’s best for those wearing the veil. A woman’s independence in America presents itself as the freedom to wear skimpy clothing, so we translate to mean that every place on this green earth should follow suit.
What is the veil?
When we colloquially discuss the Islamic veil, we are subconsciously referring to the hijab, which is what is most commonly spotted in the West. The hijab is a square scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face open. It’s by far the least conservative of the different types of veils, and can come in many different colors. The most concealing veil is the burka, which covers the entire face and body, leaving a mesh screen for the eyes. The burka and niqab are sometimes confused and interchangeably used, but have a critical difference. The niqab does not have a mesh lining for the eyes, leaving the eyes uncovered.
There are several other types of veils, but they are less commonly talked about, particularly in the West. The Al-Amira is a veil out of two separate pieces, with a close-fitting cap, and a loose scarf. The Shayla is a long scarf, popular in the Golf region. It’s wrapped around the head and pinned into place at the shoulders — the neck does not have to be completely covered. The khimar covers the hair, neck, and shoulders completely, leaving the face exposed. The chador is a full-body garment, often worn with a smaller headscarf underneath. Many Iranian women wear it outside of the house or in front of male visitors.
Why wear the veil?
This is where moral superiority and tricky answers come into play. The veil can be worn for religious reasons or cultural reasons, but the decision to go veiled is always a deeply personal one. Culture presents itself differently around the world. In some countries, the veil can be used as an oppressive tool, and anti-veil activists clutch onto this particular utilization. A possessive husband may insist his wife wear the burka because he doesn’t want anyone else to see her. He believes her looks are only for his eyes. But, crucially, while he certainly makes his possessiveness clear using the veil, the veil itself is not the problem. The real problem is an oppressive marriage and a possessive husband. Possessive behavior transcends religion — they are found in every society and culture throughout the world. Controlling relationships are frighteningly prevalent in the United States, as well.
No matter what kind of veil a woman decides to wear, however, the religious reasoning boils down to the Qur’an, which emphasizes the sanctity of a woman’s body and importance of conservative dress. Hair, in particular, is considered sacred. A woman in Egypt expressed her thoughts to me on the matter, explaining that the hair on our heads may match the hair “down there.” It’s improper to show others the hair on our heads in order to ward off sexual thoughts, because the Qur’an is clear in its demands for privacy.
Opinions clash when it comes to discussing the burka, however, a conversation even more relevant nowadays. One of the lines in the Qur’an tells women to “draw their veils over their bosoms,” interpreted by many as instruction to cover up their hair, neck, and ears. Some argue that the Qur’an doesn’t require people to conceal their faces. So, even those who “accept” the hijab, feel the need to offer their ideas about the burka, arguing that because it’s not specifically required in the Qur’an, it must be oppressive and therefore, outlawed.
First of all, there are multiple possible ways to interpret a text as vast as the Qur’an. Additionally, you shouldn’t need me to tell you that there can be, and often are, various reasons to do any one thing. It should come as no surprise that choosing to wear the veil is no different. Outside of religion, there are historical, personal, and cultural reasons that impact a person’s decision to sport a burka.
The Qur’an demands modesty. It’s up to a person’s individual comfort as to how much modesty is required, past a headscarf, which is specifically asked for in the Holy Book. Many Muslim women cite one of their reasons being to ward of the gaze of na-mehram, or men whom a woman is permitted to marry but whom cannot see her without her veil. Many women cite comfort as a key reason. It gives them peace of mind to know they are not attracting a man’s unwanted gaze, because every bit of them is covered up. And if something brings another human comfort, we should collectively celebrate that, not shame it, just because it isn’t necessarily a choice we would make ourselves.
History of the veil
Of course, there are historical interpretations of the veil, as well. Islam came into existence during the 7th century, around 610 C.E. However, perhaps surprisingly, scarves and veils predate Islam. Today it’s used as a generic symbol of Islam and consequently, terrorism. But historically, veils are another example of clothing that represents social classes of the time. Assyrian kings secluded women in the royal harem by introducing the veil, but prostitutes and slaves were punished if they wore the veil. The veil was a reflection of this time period’s values and social statuses, rather than a religious symbol. Hiding a person’s face using a veil and the practice of seclusion presents itself in Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia, and in India among upper caste women. Early Muslims were more relaxed about modesty than today’s. As the religion spread globally, different cultural practices were adopted, including veiling the face, originally used as a symbol to indicate the upper classes. Similar to how being fat used to be a status symbol; a woman living in seclusion and under a veil indicated that she and her family were able to afford such a lifestyle.
In fact, the veil did not become common practice until much later, in the Middle Ages. Laws were established during this time that disproportionately affected women, and were far stricter than previous laws. Modesty became more important, and peoples’ ideas of what was considered appropriate narrowed. Men were encouraged not to interact with “unseemly” women who dared to show their wrists, effectively backing women into a corner — abide by these rules, or accept exile.
The last few centuries have brought with them backlash to the veil. Highly educated individuals and activist groups, primarily led by men, at first, sought to devalue the veil in an effort for women to reclaim their independence. The argument was that the veil was not required by Allah, but rather was integrated into the religion through cultures throughout time. The men on the forefront of this cause tried to enlist women, to empower them. Many of those resisting this movement were women. They worried about men telling them what to do; they argued the problem wasn’t (and isn’t) the veil at all. Rather, the empowerment comes from the choice to wear a veil or not. Part of that lesson needs to be directed toward men — they needed (and need) to learn not to harass unveiled women.
It’s worth noting that many religions detail suggestions regarding modesty. Amish women wear bonnets, Mormons wear sacred underwear, and many churches don’t permit sleeveless clothing inside the Holy House. Additionally, Islam is hardly the only religion that recognizes devotion through items on the head. Judaism comes to mind, in which the hair is considered sacred and wearing a kippah is seen as honoring God.
When all is said and done, this debate boils down to the ability to choose. To an outsider looking in, the veil is oppressive. But, when we step outside our bubble for a minute and consider what the West must look like to an outsider, a very different picture is painted. While we, mighty Westerners, are spending our time and energy concerned about how the veil in other cultures disempowers, isolates, and insults women, people from other cultures feel sorry for us! “How sad,” they think, “that there is such enormous pressure to be sexy all the time. A woman’s body is simply an object in America. She is so disempowered, isolated, insulted, and objectified.” Women who choose to wear the veil report a feeling of freedom. They are relieved from the pressures normally imposed on women in today’s world, they are free to be alone with themselves and Allah.
As for countries where the veil is forced, it’s not our job to step in. Roxanne Gay eloquently summarizes this in her book “Bad Feminist,” by saying she believes “women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.” There are countless examples throughout history in which the United States stepped into a crisis, uninvited, and simply made the problem worse for the locals dealing with the issue intimately. Women of Iran are pushing back against the imposed veiling in their own way, in the confines of their culture. But it’s never our job to tell someone else how they must feel. Women who choose to wear the veil can feel a million different ways about it. Seemingly contradictory feelings can exist at the same time. But, we are never allowed to speak for someone else’s experience. The choice to wear the veil requires a lot of thought. It’s not a frivolous decision. We need to stop “informing” veiled women that they must be oppressed without actually listening to what veiled women are saying. It’s time to point the same level of scrutiny to ourselves — when did empowerment become synonymous with showing our bodies? More importantly, why is the veil so threatening to our way of life? Live and let live.
Originally published at www.norashepard.com