«Introduction The Muslim veil is an abstract concept that cannot easily be contained under one meaning. The veil, which is also referred to as ...»
MP: An Online Feminist Jounal August 2010: Vol. 3, Issue 1
Perceptions of the Veil: (Un)Veiling the Veiled Muslim Woman
By Rahela Nayebzadah
The Muslim veil is an
concept that cannot easily be contained under one
meaning. The veil, which is also referred to as “hijab”, is both material and conceptual.
As a material object, the veil is a fabric which comes in different forms, depending on
the person’s cultural beliefs and practices. Some of the many different types of veiling (but not limited to) include burqa, niqab, chador, abaya, and headscarf. A burqa is an enveloping outer garment worn by women for the purpose of cloaking the entire body. It is worn over the usual daily clothing, covering the wearer’s entire face except for a small region about the eyes which is covered by a concealing net. Niqab is a type of veil that covers the face but leaves the eyes exposed. Unlike the burqa, the niqab does not have a concealing net for the eye region. A chador is a full-length semicircle of fabric open down the front, which is thrown over the head and held closed in front. It has no hand openings or closures and is held shut by the hands or by wrapping the ends around the waist. A chador leaves the entire face exposed. An abaya is a robe-like dress which covers the whole body except the face, feet, and hands. It can be worn with the niqab.
Also, some women choose to wear long black gloves underneath their abaya so their arms are fully covered. And, a headscarf covers the hair and neck, leaving the entire face exposed. On another level, some Muslims do no translate the veil as an object of clothing that covers a woman’s hair and/or body, but rather view the veil as a concept of modesty in regards to dress, behavior, speech, and way of living. According to this interpretation the concept of modesty and the veil is holistic. The headscarf is a signifier as much as words are signifiers; the veil is semiotics. As an internalized act of modesty, the meaning of the veil is in the veil; the internal meaning is what gives meaning to the external, and only when the internalized modesty manifests itself through the external representation, can a Muslim believer truly represent the true meaning of the garment.
On a conceptual level, the veil is an indicator of modesty. In terms of dress, some Muslims1 argue that they practice veiling by dressing modestly. However, issues such as what consists of “modest dress” and “immodest dress” are raised. And, who determines what is “modest” and what is “immodest” also raises concern. In terms of behavior, speech, and way of living, some Muslims may argue that they practice veiling by acting, speaking, and living according to the practices of Islam, such as praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, taking a pilgrimage to Mecca, practicing peace and kindness towards animals and human beings, etc. In addition, others argue that a veil is a combination of both. In this thesis, I will focus on the veil as a material object that covers women’s hair and/or their bodies. My change in identity as a Muslim—from a believer that Islam degrades women to a believer that Islam liberates women allows me to contribute significantly to this field of study. Moreover, the A Muslim is an individual that practices the Islamic faith and therefore accepts The Koran (the Islamic holy book) and The Hadith (the teachings of Prophet Mohammad) as their divine source. Furthermore, a Muslim believes in the submission of Allah (an Arabic term meaning God), the oneness of Allah, and accepts Prophet Mohammad as the messenger of Allah.
MP: An Online Feminist Jounal August 2010: Vol. 3, Issue 1 construction of Muslim women’s identity, particularly concepts pertaining to veiling and unveiling, is crucial to Women’s Studies scholarship because it serves a great contribution to feminist studies: The veiled Muslim woman has come to represent a symbol of backwardness and oppression, and furthermore, a visual cue to bolster claims of the rise in Islamic militancy. The veil serves as an obstacle to Muslim women and their freedom, becoming an important area of debate in regard to “the woman question.” To many Muslims and non-Muslims, including myself, the Muslim veil in the West2 is a way of dress that represents agency and freedom. I define agency as the state of being in which one is in action or exerting power. Hence, a veiled woman has agency because of her actions and power in redefining herself by not allowing herself to be the silenced, oppressed, and backward Muslim woman. I define freedom as the state of freely practicing veiling rather than in confinement or under physical restraint. Thus to me, the veil is only a demonstration of freedom if worn by choice. However, one might question exactly how free a choice a Muslim woman can make if she exists within a predominantly patriarchal culture, time, situation, and religion. Hence, would Muslim women veil (or veil constantly) if the notion of veiling had not been introduced by religious text or cultural practice? Exactly how free a choice does a Muslim woman have?
The concept of veiling cannot escape extreme interpretations of modesty or oppression;
thus, the use of binaries and dichotomies are significant to this thesis. Moreover, one of the most significant binaries that need to be studied in this area is that of the East3 and the West as two opposing extremes: One does not have a sense of hierarchy until one has a sense of difference—an acknowledgement that the world is dichotomized between the East and the West, the “progressive” and the “backward.” Hence, Muslim women only make sense when juxtaposed with Christian women, the East only makes sense when adjacent with the West, and Oriental women only make sense when put next to Occidental women. As disputed areas of debate, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars are effortlessly “unveiling” (also a sexual act) the veiled woman by revealing further narrow assumptions of certain dominant logic that appears attractive to the West. The West knows what is best for the “oppressed” Muslim; it sends messages that rely heavily on liberal feminist rhetoric. For as long as the veiled identity is always expressed within dichotomous interpretations, the believers and the non-believers4 of The term “the West” does not apply to any specific geographical location; instead, it is a concept borrowed by Edward Said’s Orientalism (1987) to mean a society which is depicted as forward-thinking, liberal, and progressive. Furthermore, class, ethnicity, and gender also come to play in regards to determining what constitutes as “the West.” The term “the East” does not apply to any specific geographical location; instead, it is a concept borrowed by Edward Said’s Orientalism (1987) to mean certain societies (especially Islamic) which are represented as barbaric, savage, backward-thinking, and retrogressive. Furthermore, class, ethnicity, and gender also come to play in regards to determining what constitutes as “the East.” “Believer” means one who is a believer of the veil. One must not necessarily have to wear the veil, but one must believe that the veil is instructed in The Koran and a “non-believer” means one who is not a believer of the veil. One must not necessarily have to be unveiled, but one must believe that the veil is not instructed in The Koran.
MP: An Online Feminist Jounal August 2010: Vol. 3, Issue 1 the veil will always be confronted with a dialogue of struggle, a verbal argument—the believers will demonstrate the veil is an act of freedom and agency while the nonbelievers will demonstrate the veil is an act of oppression and retrogression.
However, such various acts of uncovering does not allow one to straightforwardly liberate any oppressed individual, nor do they allow one to reach any transparent truth about that person, the veiled, or unveiled Muslim woman. As a result, I wish to “veil”—or in other words, deem her garment as an act of personal, and sometimes communal, form of expression and belonging that cannot be categorized under one category of meaning—the Muslim woman who has been unveiled, and therefore falsely revealed.
However, I do not wish to unveil the correct answer behind why the veiled woman chooses to veil, but rather argue that no unveiling of the veiled woman can lead to one answer. Furthermore, I do not wish to position the veiled Muslim woman in the margins of society; instead, I intend to disrupt established notions of what constitutes sociality’s sacred centre. Why is the oppressed and silenced veiled Muslim woman an important image for the West? Does wearing the veil send as a strong message as not wearing the veil? Which veiled and unveiled Muslim women are represented in popular culture, and why? Why the need to dichotomize the veiled Muslim woman? For example: the veiled modest woman versus the unveiled immodest woman; the attractive unveiled woman versus the unattractive veiled woman; and, the veiled woman who is labelled as a believer versus the unveiled woman who is labelled as a non-believer. And finally, why are Muslims who sell certain stereotypes of the veil considered good Muslims whereas those who are critical of the stereotypes considered bad Muslims?
In addition, my theoretical approach will draw on anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and feminist frameworks. In my research, I will use post colonial and feminist critical theory, textual analysis on videos, diaries, newspaper clippings, etc., and rely on qualitative research methods. My research will also delve into other forms of visuals such as artwork, film, photography, and literature. Also, I will focus of life histories on veiled and unveiled Muslim women. Finally, I have interviewed ten women (five veiled and five unveiled Muslim women) living within the Greater Vancouver area.
The Veil before the Rise of Islam and Koranic and Hadith Interpretations on the Veil Pre-Islamic Veil The veil, which is mainly recognized as an item of clothing that signals the Islamic faith, had been present before the rise of Islam: “Indeed, prior to the nineteenth century, the veil was never viewed as a symbol of Muslim culture; the practice of the veiling and seclusions of women is in fact pre-Islamic and originates in non-Arab Middle Eastern and Mediterranean societies” (Hoodfar, 2003, p.6). Homa Hoodfar dates the veil back to MP: An Online Feminist Jounal August 2010: Vol. 3, Issue 1 Assyrian law. In the thirteenth century BC, veiling was restricted to “respectable” women only; thus, prostitutes and slaves were forbidden to veil (2003, p.6). Hence, the rules on veiling, according to Assyrian law, are arguably clearer than the “rules” on veiling specified in The Koran. In Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Leila Ahmed provides a detailed account on Assyrian law. The law specified that wives and daughters of rulers had to veil, concubines accompanying their mistress had to veil, and former prostitutes who were later married (also known as “sacred prostitutes”) had to veil (1992, p.14-5). These rules were strictly enforced so that those who did not abide by them were heavily punished: there were penalties of flogging, having water poured over their heads, and having their ears cut off (Ahmed, 1992, p.14Nonetheless, the main premise of the pre-Islamic veil was to differentiate women
into two categories: respectable and unrespectable, as argued by Ahmed:
That is, use of the veil classified women according to their sexual activity and signaled to men which women were under male protection and which were fair game. […] [This division] was fundamental to the patriarchal system and, second, that women took their place in the class hierarchy on the basis of their relationship (or absence of such) to the men who protected them and on the basis of their sexual activity—and not, as with men, on the basis of their occupations and their relation to production.
(1992, p.14-5) Misogynistic practices were also evident in Byzantine and Syrian practices. In the Byzantine, “women were always supposed to be veiled, the veil or its absence marking the distinction between the ‘honest’ woman and the prostitute” (Ahmed, 1992, p.26).
The shamefulness of sex was only targeted on the female body: “the Syrian reliefs showing a woman so heavily swathed that no part of her, not even her hands or face, is uncovered date from the early Christian era” (Ahmed, 1992, p. 35). In addition, Jews also practiced veiling to some degree (Ahmed, 1992, p.55). How the veil has turned to an oppressive Islamic uniform is worth examining, especially since the history of the veil predates misogyny.
As an Islamic phenomenon, the veil is usually interpreted as an act of modesty and the practice of seclusion. However, if the veil is a sign of modesty, this dates back to “a wide variety of communities, including most Mediterranean peoples, regardless of religion” (Hoodfar, 2003, p. 6). And, if the veil is an indication of segregation, this was “a sign of status and was practiced by the elite in the ancient Greco-Roman, pre-Islamic Iranian and Byzantine empires” (Hoodfar, 2003, p.6). According to Ahmed, segregation and the veil were even evident in the Christian Middle East and Mediterranean regions at the time of Islam (1992, p.5).
The Islamic Veil Firstly, in order to investigate the Islamic veil, one must gain a good understanding of the term “hijab.” Fatema Mernissi’s “The Hijab, the Veil” describes the concept of the
word as three-dimensional: