Veiled intentions

The burqa is a powerful symbol misused by Islamists and Western feminists alike.

By Norah Vincent
Published February 1, 2002 11:06PM (EST)

When Westerners talk about misogyny and the fate of women in Islamist countries, they fall at once for the decoy, the surface indicator by which all fundamentalist regimes are measured and judged. It's the same decoy that Islamists use again and again, in every country they dominate, to draw their own countrymen's attention away from the real social, economic and political problems at hand -- problems they came to power promising to solve, but rarely do.

That decoy is, of course, the veil, the abaya, the burqa, the chador, the jalabiyya, and every other possible version, extent or form of hijab that women are expected, and often forced, to wear throughout the Middle East and in some parts of Africa.

The veil is the common currency of subjection, or so the West considers it, and it is the yardstick of Muslim purity, or so the fundamentalists have conceived it. It is a pawn in the propaganda war between the major players in Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations, or what Ian Buruma has dubbed the Occidentalists (those who demonize the West) and the Orientalists (those who demonize the East).

Both sides see the veil as the centerpiece of their causes, but both are wrong. The Islamists are wrong because the veil isn't Islamic, and the West is wrong because the veil isn't necessarily repressive.

The veil is a symbol manipulated both by those who would willfully misread the Quran to suit their political ends, and by neo-crusaders in the feminist free world who misunderstand its original, and some would say true, meaning and purpose. The Western feminist obsession with the burqa as symbol of oppression is everywhere. Take the Feminist Majority Foundation, the new publisher of Ms. Magazine, for example. On its Web site, it offers, I kid you not, a "Burqua Swatch," which one can purchase as a "symbol of remembrance of Afghan women" for the low, low price of $5. "This swatch of mesh represents the obstructed view of the world for an entire nation of women who were once free," according to the foundation's ad copy. Gift packs of 10 and 20 are also available.

The veil has been an instant, though superficial, indication of reform in either direction, toward or away from the West. When Kemal Ataturk came to power in Turkey in the 1920s, for example, he banned the veil in order to banish what he saw as Mideastern backwardness, and to ally himself culturally and politically with the admired West. Turkey remains the one ferociously and consistently secular government in the Islamic world.

Likewise, during the war in Afghanistan, shedding the veil became a kind of ceremony of freedom for the country's harshly sequestered second sex. The Western press reported that the first thing many Afghan women did after being liberated from Taliban rule was to tear off their burqas, walk outside and feel the sunshine on their faces for the first time in years.

Elsewhere, the veil has been used to quite different effect. During the lead up to the 1979 revolution in Iran, for instance, female supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini donned the veil voluntarily as a form of protest against the reigning shah. Doing so was considered a pledge of support for the harsh religious reforms Khomeini espoused as a means of purifying the country of the debauched Western influences he blamed for the corruption and mismanagement of the shah's regime.

So what should we make of this symbolically loaded change of clothes? It has been said more than a few times lately that Islamist dress codes are really all a sham, and that they have nothing to do with the Quran.

As Jan Goodwin has written in "Price of Honor," her extensive treatment of women in the Islamic world: "The severe restrictions placed on women by the Islamist movement, such as confinement or complete veiling, have no basis in the Koran or the teachings of the Prophet ... veiling the face is an innovation that has no foundation whatsoever in Islam."

Many among Muslim experts say the same. According to Islamic scholar Zaki Badawi, the Quran is quite simple and direct on the matter of veiling. Women, it says, should not show "their adornment except what normally appears." Among literalists, "what normally appears" has generally been accepted to mean the face and hands, and sometimes the hair, but has varied according to local custom. One thing is certain: Shrouding the face is specifically never mentioned in the Quran.

The Quranic pronouncement most often quoted to justify the veil (Verse 53 of Sura 33) is known among experts as "the verse of the hijab," and is related to an instance in the prophet's life when several male guests had lingered too long after a wedding supper, and thereby invaded the privacy of the prophet, who was eager to be alone with his new wife. Thus, he said:

"[W]hen ye ask of them (the wives of the prophet) anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain [hijab]. That is purer for your hearts and for theirs."

According to Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, however, this verse is often misunderstood:

"The verse of the hijab 'descended' in the bedroom of the wedded pair to protect their intimacy and exclude a third person -- in this case, Anas Ibn Malik, one of the Prophet's [male] Companions ... The veil was to be God's answer to a community with boorish manners whose lack of delicacy offended a Prophet whose politeness bordered on timidity."

Some of the prophet's other utterances regarding women -- which are, conveniently enough, never quoted by extremists -- reinforce Mernissi's interpretation of Mohammed's vision for proper, but not necessarily rigid, relations between the sexes.

"He who honors women is honorable, he who insults them is lowly and mean."

"Treat your women well and be kind to them."

And finally, in an admonition to both sexes, Mohammed pronounced: "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty ... and say to believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty." Clearly the onus of sexual purity falls as much on men as it does on women.

But if the veil is not a requirement of Islam, where did it come from? Goodwin, among others, argues that far from being a religious mandate, the veil "originated as a Persian elitist fashion to distinguish aristocracy from the common masses." Mernissi supports this view, and offers historical support for the surprising notion that early on, men, not women, donned the veil. "The Encyclopedia of Islam tells us that the hijab is among other things the curtain behind which the caliphs and kings sat to avoid the gaze of members of their court."

Nonetheless, despite what Westerners like to think, not all Islamic women revile the hijab. Many are grateful for it, and wear it willingly and devoutly, as a form of personal religious observance, a grateful submission (Islam means "submission") to God, even if it's not mandated by the Quran. Catholic nuns and Orthodox Jewish women all over the world, including in the West, do the same, and for similar reasons. What's more, they do so as a matter of choice.

Muslim women also often make what sounds conspicuously like a Western feminist argument for wearing the veil, and it is a surprisingly cogent one. When they are covered, some Muslim women say, not only are they freed from petty concerns about painting their faces for male approval, they are likewise hidden from the often oppressive intrusion of the male gaze. Not such a bad idea when you think of it. After all, what Western woman hasn't sometimes wished to be invisible when walking through a gantlet of whistling construction workers on their lunch break, or working out in a coed gym when she's 20 or 30 pounds overweight? Considered in this context, the veil is, arguably, freeing, even a welcome encumbrance.

One Iranian woman, Zahra Rahnavard, expressed this same opinion when she told Goodwin: "The veil frees women from the shackles of fashion, and enables them to become human beings in their own right ... Once people cease to be distracted by women's physical appearance, they can begin to hear their views and recognize the inner person." In practice, this isn't always what happens, but then again, in practice, Western women's "liberation" is not always what it should be either.

As American feminists made so clear during the sexual revolution, women's fashions are an expression of, and a vehicle for, perpetuating power. Male power. The same is true in the Muslim world, and has been since before the prophet accommodated the disparate, fiercely patriarchal Arab diaspora to his vision.

Mernissi elaborates: "If women's rights are a problem for some modern Muslim men, it is neither because of the Koran nor the Prophet, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite."

This is the rock bottom truth the veil both hides and reveals. In the end, there is no denying the link between what has been called sexual apartheid in the Muslim world and Islamist fanaticism. But neither female abuse nor fanaticism bears any necessary connection to Islam. The Islamist disease (characterized by misogyny and murderous jihad) is not in the Quran, but in the warped souls of those who use religion and women for their own corrupt ends.

Ultimately, the fate of women in the Muslim world is far from sure. The answers will come slowly and at great cost to the individual women who live there. Because so much cultural baggage comes along with the religious provisos modern reactionaries are always invoking, if the West intervenes in women's lives, it must do so gingerly. Our role must be minimal, because change in these cases must, for the most part, come from within. With the help of organizations like the Human Rights Watch, and with the guidance of venerable documents like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, we can nudge and assist grass-roots women's movements that already exist in Muslim countries and around the world (including the Women's Action Forum, the Arab Organization for Human Rights, and the Muslim Women's League, to name only a few.

But we must do so lightly and respectfully.

It's convenient to forget that many Muslim women have as hard a time imagining living their lives in our part of the world as Western women do contemplating what their lives would be like in the Middle East. Most of us in the West thank whatever God we believe in that we had the monumental good fortune to be born in countries where women enjoy freedom of choice, whatever their manner of dress, career (or lack thereof), family life or religious observance. It's nearly impossible for us to see even the best that Islam has to offer as anything less than slavery.

But we cannot allow such feelings to cloud our judgment to such an extent that we can no longer tell the difference between what it means to free people from an oppressive culture, and to impose what we consider to be our superior norms on them. This is not moral relativism. In any culture, freedom is indeed the sine qua non of any life worth living, no question, but it must be remembered that freedom includes exercising one's right, and that includes choosing to veil oneself from head to foot.

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

MORE FROM Norah Vincent

Related Topics ------------------------------------------