The Right to Veil

France's ban on Islamic dress

by by Ellora Vilkin

France’s September decision to ban full-face veils will define relations between Islam and the West for some time. The ban forbids Muslim women to publicly wear either the burqa, a full-body covering with mesh paneling to allow for vision, or the niqab, a similar garment that leaves an open slit for the eyes. France already limits wearing the less conservative hijab, a headscarf that conceals the hair and shoulders, as part of a 2004 law banning conspicuous religious symbols from public schools. The new burqa ban, which further stigmatizes Muslims by explicitly targeting Islamic dress, has only intensifed the already difficult situation of Muslims living in Western nations; French president Nicolas Sarkozy explained the ban by saying that the burqa “hurts the dignity of women,” and Belgium, Denmark, and Spain are considering similar legislation.

These states say that the veil is dangerous, yet many Western Muslim women maintain their right to veil, arguing that it is a personal choice. It would seem as though the dialogues from either side of those controversial, whisper-thin squares of fabric don’t quite match up. The disconnect between political discourse about the veil and the human experiences of those who wear it is great, so it is no wonder that these pieces of cloth have become objects of mystique, sources of confusion, and even labels that—to the uninformed—single out the women who wear a form of the veil as meriting pity, scorn, or hatred.

symbol of faith
For many Muslim women who wear the veil—whether burqa, niqab, or hijab— it’s a way of expressing faith. In a New York Times article published last June, Hebah Ahmed, a New Mexican woman who began veiling soon after 9/11, explained her choice: “‘I do this because I want to be closer to God, I want to please him and I want to live a modest lifestyle . . . I want to be tested in that way.”

For Ahmed, 9/11 sounded a call to arms. Confused and shaken, she turned to the Qur’an and other Islamic texts to search for answers. Eventually, she adopted the veil—a niqab—as a defense of her religion against the extremism linked to the terrorist attacks. Veiled, Ahmed sees herself as a peaceful ambassador, a proponent of the “strength, piety, and resolve” she finds in her faith as a member of Islam’s peaceful majority. She says, “The niqab is a constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s God-consciousness in my face.”

Ahmed is not the only Muslim to adopt the veil in response to 9/11; in her 2003 book The Muslim Veil In North America, researcher Homa Hoodfar has observed that with “heightened awareness of ‘Muslimness’” since the attacks, many Muslims have decided to dress in a way that clearly associates them with their faith to maintain their presence in society. By veiling, these women become unmistakably Muslim; their actions take on new significance in shaping how others perceive their religion. For them, the veil stands as a personal and public reminder that radical Islam is not the only Islam.

unmaking sex
Pamela K. Taylor, a mother and graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, first began veiling when she converted to Islam some twenty years before the towers fell. For Taylor, who lives in Indiana, the decision to cover up was an in-your-face feminist statement. In her essay “I Just Want To Be Me,” she defends her choice to veil, explaining that it was “an unambiguous rejection of the objectification of women by men, by advertisers, by the beauty and fashion industries and Hollywood.”

By covering her head with the hijab (covering her hair), and wearing a long, loose-fitting dress, or jilbab, Taylor has sent a silent but powerful ‘screw-you’ to some of the most potent determinants of how women feel about themselves. Refusing strangers the opportunity to assign her worth by sight alone is, Taylor says, “a clear statement that I [do] not want to be judged by my body, my beauty, or the lack thereof, but as an individual, for my personality, my character, and my accomplishments.”

Egyptian anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi’s research on the evolution of the veil within and beyond Arabia includes similar claims as to its potential as a feminist statement; “contemporary veiling,” she explains, “is more often than not about resistance.” If it seems counterintuitive, think of the way Taylor subverts the Western meanings assigned to the veil—oppression, inequality, and misogyny—to insist that others consider her not as a sexual object but as a person. El Guindi says that the veil enables women to both ally themselves with the tradition of Islam and keep their sexual identities out of the public forum. The veil thus empowers women, allowing them to refuse our looks-based society its chief criteria for judging women’s worth. Some Muslim women, then, might choose to veil so that their sexuality can remain a matter decided by individuals rather than dictated by advertisers’ airbrushed billboards and oversexed reality TV scripts.

<3 mom + dad
And then there are the family ties woven into the fabric of the veil. Fatema Zerin B’14 moved from Bangladesh to New York when she was five years old; when she was ten, she asked her mom if she could start wearing a hijab. “My mom wore it,” she says. “So I just said, ‘Why not?’” Zerin has kept her hijab on ever since, even after her mother was targeted for wearing a burqa after 9/11. “People would try throwing glass bottles at her,” Zerin said. So why not just take it off? “For someone like my mother, she wants to keep it on,” Zerin explained. Taking if off would be “[like] taking away a part of her. That’s what she believes.” If family was Zerin’s initial reason to start wearing hijab, she says her motives for keeping it on are more personal: “I’ve made different friends wearing the hijab. People saw me for who I was, it wasn’t just the surface.”

While Zerin’s parents let her decide for herself, many women feel they must veil in order to stay connected to their families. In a survey of Muslim-Canadian women, researcher Homa Hoodfar found that many women cover up to show that they “are not relinquishing Islamic mores in favor of ‘Canadianness.’” Many said they wore hijab so that they could pursue college degrees and careers without estranging their families. In this case, the veil seems almost a concession: a kind of license required for women to move beyond their family’s comfort zone and challenge traditional ideas of what Muslim women can and cannot be.

laws and order
In countries where hijab is required by law, the question of what it means to the wearer gets decidedly thornier. Many Muslim nations incorporate some aspect of Shariah, Islamic law, into their legal systems to reflect God’s will as it is expressed in the Qur’an and interpreted by legal scholars. Modest dress is often required as part of Shariah. Currently, Saudi Arabia requires women to wear the niqab, Iran insists on hijab, and there remains a strong incentive to wear the burqa in post-Taliban Afghanistan. These kinds of compulsory veiling often correlate with decrease in women’s rights. Iran provides a prime example. After the 1979 revolution, new laws stripped women of civil rights and required them to remain within the home, completely veiled. Here, veiling was one aspect of broader trend against women’s rights. Thus, the stereotypes linking veiling with oppression are not unfounded. Where the veil is imposed upon women from the top down, it is often part of a political system more concerned with maintaining patriarchy than advancing equality. But the Qur’an does not expressly require veiling; it has been states acting in the name of Islam, not the ideology itself, that have used the veil to limit women’s freedom.
Free women in the West are able to challenge these negative associations of the veil by contributing to the living tradition of Islam. But as Hoodfar points out, this self-assertion can make dominant ethnic groups feel uncomfortable, even in societies where “differences are expected to be tolerated, if not understood and celebrated.” Take France as an example—any woman with enough spunk to picket for her right to dress modestly would seem to have ample dignity and self-worth.

Yet France’s reasons for banning the veil, namely that it is oppressive, inegalitarian, and degrading, reflect a stubbornness to see the veil as anything that could be positive or progressive. Instead, France’s ban perpetuates the stereotype it purports to overcome—of veiled women as so weighed down by their religious observance that they are incapable of acting as individuals. In banning the veil, France threatens to dismiss Islam as a religion lodged in the past, incompatible with the modern world. Instead of leaning on narrow-minded stereotypes, we should consider the ways in which Muslim women have drawn power and strength from the established traditions of their faith. Zerin says, “I feel like now I’ve definitely become mature, and I thank my hijab for that . . . but people should have the freedom to cover or not cover.”

ELLORA VILKIN B'14 is not relinquishing.