Monday, April 19, 2010

The veil - oppressive or liberating?

Adapted excerpt from:
 Hassem, Z. (2008). An exploration of women's groups as a tool of empowerment for Muslim women in South Africa. University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg: Unpublished Masters Dissertation.
For some women it is inconceivable that the veil can be referred to in any positive way, especially as a form of liberation or empowerment. Moghissi (1999) for instance writes that arguments and justifications made in support of the veil are inaccurate. She argues that for most Muslim women in many countries there is no free choice with regards to the donning of the veil; instead coercion into wearing it is the norm. She writes that for many women, being forced to wear the veil is a type of torture and in some countries women’s choice is between wearing the veil and death, as they are killed if they do not submit to wearing it. She indicates that only a few women choose to wear the veil because they want to turn back to a more authentic way of life, but most women who choose to wear the veil don’t do it for religious or spiritual reasons, but for other reasons such as wanting to get accepted for a job, wanting to get married or as a form of resistance against capitalist governments. Furthermore, she indicates that the veil aids in perpetuating class differences between women(Moghissi, 1999).
El-Solh and Mabro (1995) state that; “the donning of the veil is motivated by a number of complex factors” (p. 11). Some women don the veil as a form of protest, while others wear it as a form of piety; for some it may be a response to their vulnerability, while others wear it in order to assert cultural authenticity, for others, it is worn as a form of national liberation, while others are forced to wear it by their family, community and government. They argue that it has to be remembered that in contemporary Muslim societies a political factor needs to be taken into account when discussing the veil (El-Solh and Mabro, 1995).

Leila Ahmed (1992) mentions that the discourse of the veil cannot be separated from politics. Historically discussions in the West surrounding women in Islam began by the late nineteenth century as a result of “a fusion between a number of strands of thought all developing within the Western world in the latter half of that century” (Ahmed, 1992, p. 150). The narrative of colonial domination, in which all other cultures and societies were inferior in relation to European culture, combined with the emergence of the language of feminism combined to create the new centrality of Muslim women in Western discourse. The veil and seclusion of women began to be regarded as symbols of Muslim inferiority and degradation of women in Islam. In order to divert vocal feminism, which was increasing in the Victorian period, Victorian men shifted the focus onto other men, from other cultures and the treatment of women in those cultures. This resulted in the fusion between women’s issues, their oppression, Colonialist discourse and the culture of other men. It was within this framework then, that the veil began to be regarded as a symbol of oppression and backwardness (Ahmed, 1992). Protests against particular political systems therefore involved women donning the veil once again. In Egypt for instance, many women donned the veil in response to failed modernization attempts and to return to Islamic principles. As is the case in present day societies, the discourse of the veil cannot be separated from politics and the unfortunate thing is that women are most of the time at the receiving end of political agendas without being given the chance to choose for themselves.

When women do have a choice, and when they choose to wear the veil for religious reasons that are far removed from social or political ones, then a much more positive and liberating experience is described by them. Na’ima Robert is a Muslim woman who lives in London, who was brought up with Western ideals and role models. While still at university she decided to embrace Islam. In her book: From my sisters’ lips she describes her experience of converting to Islam, the challenges she faced as well as the positives that she encountered. In addition, she describes the experiences of other women, educated and brought up in the West, exposed to Western ideas and morals who like her decided to convert to Islam. She writes that she was first struck by Islam on a trip to Egypt, where she was confronted with Muslim women wearing the hijab, or headscarf as she describes it in this case. She says that one evening she met a beautiful Egyptian woman wearing the veil, and wanted to understand why. She writes; “ I asked her the question that had been burning in my brain since I had arrived in Cairo: ‘Why do you cover yourself? You are so beautiful.’ To this day her answer hits me with its clarity and simplicity. ‘Because’ she said, ‘I want to be judged for what I say and what I do, not for what I look like’” (Robert, 2005, p. 24).

Na’ima Robert goes on to describe the experience that she and the other women that she interviewed had when deciding to wear the veil. She writes that initially it was difficult because you can no longer rely on your looks to get you what you want. However, they came to learn that they no longer needed the attention of men to justify their lives and they chose to make their bodies their own private space. These women clearly indicated that they were wearing the veil as an important religious obligation because Muslim women are instructed to do so in the Qur’an. Robert (2005) writes that not only did wearing the veil encourage modesty in dress and conduct but it also gave these women a strong Muslim identity, one that gave them a sense of pride. Furthermore, Robert (2005) writes that the old ways of relating to women’s bodies were no longer applicable to them because their bodies were no longer on display. This meant that they had to be treated differently. She writes; “this endowed our interaction with men with a new level of respect and courtesy, however begrudgingly it was granted. We were clearly no longer sexual objects-we had to be treated differently” (Robert, 2005, p. 186). Finally she writes that the wearing of hijab is liberating, not only because men relate to you differently, but because as a woman you no longer have to worry about buying the latest clothes, keeping the hour glass figure or focusing on every aspect of your appearance, and you begin to understand that there is much more to you than just your appearance. In addition, these women reported that wearing of the veil made them feel more protected (Robert, 2005).

Similarly, women from Soweto who converted to Islam also mentioned that they felt more protected when they wore long clothes and the veil. For them, this form of dress protected them from harassment on the streets. “To them the clothes act as a liberating force, giving them a sense of self-empowerment on Soweto’s dangerous streets (Hadfield , 2005, p. 58).

Safia Iqbal (1988) writes that hijab is truly a weapon for women to fight exploitation in every field. She says that there is no reason that the hijab should hamper a woman’s activity. Instead, it allows her to conduct activities in peace. “She can pursue education or a career too, participate in war, drive vehicles and perform all the outdoor jobs as shopping, farming, working in factories or offices etc. as well as or rather better than any other woman can” (Iqbal, 1988, p.54). For her, hijab symbolizes dignity, modesty and elegance and at the same time it serves as a protection for women. She writes; “the hijab ensures a woman’s right to security and privacy. When it guards her privacy, it becomes a symbol of her honour. When it shields her from molestation and exploitation and facilitates her free movement outside, it becomes a symbol of ‘woman’s liberation’, liberation from the male-dominated values in modern society” (Iqbal, 1988, p.57).

It is clear then, that when the donning of the veil is not related to a particular political system or political agenda, and when it is adopted for purely religious and spiritual reasons, then women themselves view this as something positive and liberating.

Too often though a one-sided perspective is adopted in discussions of the veil and only the negative effects are mentioned without people being open to any positive experiences of the veil. In doing this, women's positive experiences are brushed aside as being unimportant and irrelevant. This type of one-sided and biased thinking does not do justice to the issue of the veil at all, and narrows it down purely to a social or political symbol.

In order to have a full understanding of this issue, it needs to be regarded in it entirety and a holistic approach which focuses on both the negative and the positive effects needs to be adopted, otherwise all that we will continue to have is biased arguments which leave out important information.

  • Ahmed, L. (2002). Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • El-Solh, C.F. & Mabro, J. (1994).Introduction: Islam and Muslim Women. In C.F. ESolh & J. Mabro (Eds.), Muslim Women’s Choices (pp.1-25). Providence: Berg Publishers Ltd.
  • Hadfield, E. (2005). Veiled Hope: Why Township women are turning to Islam. Marie Claire, April, pp.57-60.
  • Iqbal, S. (1988). Woman and Islamic Law (Revised Edition). Delhi: Adam Publishers & Distributors.
  • Moghissi, H. (1999). Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism. London: Zed Books.
  • Robert, N.B. (2005). From my sisters’ lips. London: Bantam Books


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