The Veil and What It Holds

Beyond a cultural relativist perspective

by Orwa Mohamad

Illustration by Dorothy Windham

published February 9, 2018

Rising nationalist sentiments in Western countries have put religious freedom under attack. With President Trump placing a ban on the entry of nationals of several Muslim countries, including Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and the increasing prevalence of far right and anti-Muslim rhetoric  in Western Europe and the US, activists have mobilized to protect the religious freedom of those under attack. Muslim residents and citizens of these countries are feeling increasingly unsafe in practicing their religion. While the entire Muslim population bears the brunt of this discrimination, Muslim women in particular have struggled with wearing the veil in public settings, as it is a clear visual representation of religious identity. 
As women in the West struggle for the right to wear a veil, Iranian women protest against the restrictive practice of wearing the same piece of clothing. Last week, Iran witnessed a large protest movement against the mandatory Hijab law, resulting in the arrests of 29 women. By no means did these women renounce Islam in totality, but they protested the strict imposition of Islamic law on Iranian women, as part of a greater wave of anti-government protests that began at the end of December 2017. To put this in perspective, Iranian police have warned, arrested, or sent to court over 3.6 million women on charges of ‘bad Hijab’ in 2017 alone. These contrasting politicizations of the veil are worth studying. While the Hijab has become a symbol of anti-imperialist, Muslim resistance in the West, it still embodies a system of state-sponsored patriarchy to many Iranian women. 
The prevalent Western depiction of the Hijab as a symbol of oppression is rooted in the West’s history of imparting an Orientalist gaze on Eastern subjects. Orientalism is a complicated concept, with a range of differing meanings. First, Orientalism is a Western discipline of scholarly work, that encompasses the study of languages, religions, art, law, philosophies and cultures of Eastern nations. The discipline was  established in the early 18th century by British, French and later American scholars because of their countries' colonial interests in these regions. Second, it is a worldview, a set of representations of ‘The Orient’ by ‘The Occident,’ or to quote postcolonial scholar Edward Said, “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’”. Third, Orientalism is a powerful political tool for domination. While these three understandings are different, they are also products of one another. The colonial interests of Britain and France in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia sparked a movement of scholarly work to understand these regions. 
Orientalist writings of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century were influenced by the colonial interest itself. This prevented an objective study of these cultures, and instead created a misguided perception of the East. This perception, which is rooted in political intellectualism, is defined as the psychological process of self-affirmation of European identity in contrast with the fictional image of ‘the Orient.’ Rooted in European supremacy and eurocentrism, Orientalism depicts the Orient as being primitive, irrational, violent, despotic, and essentially inferior to the West. Hence, Orientalism suggests that progress can only be achieved through the adoption of “progressive” and “modern” ideas that are a product of the West’s “enlightenment.”
Although significant steps have been taken to counter Orientalist views in academia, this progress has mainly occurred through the adoption of cultural relativism, resulting in an apologetic, highly sensitive, and weakly critical analysis in an attempt to understand these cultures. Cultural relativism states that one’s beliefs, values, and behaviors are highly influenced by one’s own culture and must be understood as such, rather than being judged according to some external criteria. The principle of cultural relativism was created as a method for conducting an objective academic analysis of non-Western cultures. It promotes a self-critical approach towards one’s own pre-existing biases to avoid the imposition of Western cultural, moral, and academic paradigms on non-western peoples.
Following September 11, 2001, a number of Western scholars expressed their concerns regarding ways in which Muslim women have been portrayed to be oppressed by their own culture. The veil became a symbol of women’s oppression in the Middle East and the Muslim World. Muslim women have been called “women of cover” to allude to the similar status of oppression as “women of color.” For example, in 2001, Laura Bush claimed that Afghan women were “rejoicing” for American liberation. The West has instrumentalized Orientalist tropes to promote and rationalize Western intervention in the Middle East under the mission of rescuing Muslim women from their culture. Media representations of Muslim women are saturated with images of difficult living conditions, as they focus on extreme cases of women’s rights abuses. These representations attribute the abuse in large part, if not solely, to Muslim culture. This has constructed an image of the East as the antithesis to the progressive, liberal West and its emancipated women. 
In response, cultural relativists, such as anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, argued that it is misguided to assume that these images and representations of Muslim women are sufficient to understand the various realities they experience. Furthermore, Abu-Lughod claimed that it is even more misguided to attribute these supposedly oppressed realities to some cultural influence.
Out of this approach, and triggered by the rising misrepresentation of Muslim women in Western media, some culturally sensitive scholars undertook cultural relativism to explain the veil as a socially significant object, rather than a sign of oppression. Abu-Lughod points out that women in Afghanistan did not throw away their veils once the Taliban was gone; the burqa was not invented by the Taliban, and instead was a traditional garment symbolizing modesty. The burqa, like some other forms of ‘cover,’ has, in many settings, marked the symbolic separation of men's and women's spheres. This separation posits that women belong at home with family, not in public spaces where strangers interact with one another. Anthropologist Hanna Papanek explains the veil as “portable seclusion,” allowing women to enter a public sphere that was once restricted to men only. 
However, it is crucial to understand how the veil functions in relation to patriarchal ideology. What distinguishes ideology from other apparatuses, French philosopher Louis Althusser explains, is that it conceals itself to those working within it. No one can ever understand or recognize their ideological position from within but can only recognize the ideology in which others are placed. As Althusser writes, “ideology never says, ‘I am ideological.’ It is necessary to be outside ideology, to be able to say: I am in ideology.” He also notes that “the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself.” It is precisely for this reason that it is important to scrutinize and criticize the role of the veil. 
The veil functions as a structure of ideology that enforces and maintains a patriarchal social structure, that in turn enforces specific power relations. Such understanding of the veil is absent from culturally relativist discussions, as they seems to be much more critical of Western perceptions of the veil than they are of the veil itself, strictly defining it as a cultural object and disregarding its ideological function. The veil is undeniably a cultural object, but it is precisely because the veil is so prevalent within Middle Eastern societies that we must question the ideology behind it. 
Due to their focus on cultural significance, anthropologists such as Lila Abu-Lughod fail to be critical of the veil. In the essay “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?,” Abu-Lughod seeks to counter the narrative that the veil is an oppressive apparatus, and explains its function as a highly practical cultural object. In the Pashtun region of Afghanistan, Abu-Lughod claims that the veil functions as portable seclusion. Later, referencing an article in the New York Times, she quotes an Afghan female refugee street vendor in Pakistan, who said: “If I did [wear the burqa] people would tease me because the burqa is for ‘good women’ who stay inside the home.” Abu-Lughod interprets this as a sign of the cultural significance and connotation of the burqa as a symbol for respectability and social status. However, the quote clearly implies that the definition of ‘good women’ in this society is a sexist one that deprives women from the right to seek work and be active members of their society. This ideological function is concealed under the guise of symbolizing a higher social status. This is a perfect example of Patriarchal ideology concealing itself under the guise of culture. Abu-Lughod also references Egyptian women “pulling the black head cloth over the face in front of older men” as a “voluntary act by women who are deeply committed to being moral and have a sense of honor tied to family.” Indeed, it is a voluntary act; but because the ideology of the veil is so deeply embedded in the culture, and because these women are within this ideology, they are often not able to recognize the system of oppression they are being subjected to. 
Culturally relativist accounts fail to expose ideology because cultural relativism is inherently unable to do so. In order to conduct a study of a foreign culture, cultural relativism requires one to understand the values, beliefs and traditions of the culture and work from within its context. If the study is conducted from within the culture itself, adhering to its social and cultural conventions, the culture’s ideological state apparatus becomes inescapable. If we recall Althusser’s analysis of ideology, one cannot realize one’s own position in ideology, but can only realize the position of others. According to this, most culturally relativist analyses will inevitably fail to consider culture’s ideological underpinnings.
The women who rose in protest against the imposition of Islamic law in Iran are aware of the ideology that the veil embodies. Wearing a veil is not a voluntary act rooted in ideology, but a practice that is necessary to undertake, or else face harsh consequences. Conversely, many Muslim women still wear the veil voluntarily. This is not to say that the solution to dismantling this patriarchal system of oppression is to ban the veil. Instead, the solution is to learn to live within this cultural framework while exposing the patriarchal nature of its ideological underpinnings. 

ORWA MOHAMAD B'20 thinks Laura Bush is wrong.