Veil, in Middle Eastern and North African Cultures

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Veil, in Middle Eastern and North African Cultures


The veilor hijab is attire that is said to be womens religious duty as well as a cultural requirement of personal modesty. Across the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the veil takes varied forms: the head-scarf, loose jacket, and long skirt ensemble seen in Egypt; the black cloak (chador ) in Iran; the brightly-patterned silk scarf and long coat worn by Islamic women in Turkey; and the full niqab that covers the face and hands, which is worn by women affiliated with Islamist movements as well as many women in the Gulf countries. Not all Muslim women veil, and governments have taken different positions on veiling. For example, veiling in government agencies and universities is forbidden in Turkey and Tunisia but is compulsory in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Still, polemics surrounding hijab abound in every country, and scholars have written about the increasing observance of the veil in the Middle Eastern and North African countries. Immigrant communities in Europe and North America also have seen veiling, leading to national debates and policy formulations. Commentaries and popular images depict the veil variously as symbolizing womens oppression or as a Muslim womans cultural right.

During the era of early modernization and postcolonial nation-building, when national progress and the emancipation of women were considered synonymous, the veil was associated with national backwardness and with female illiteracy and subjugation. This viewpoint entailed discouragement of the veil and encouragement of schooling for girls. At certain times in Middle Eastern modern history the veil has been convenient to militants and political activists. In the Algerian war for independence against the French in the 1950s and the Iranian revolt against the shah in 1978, women used the veil to hide political leaflets and arms. But a paradox of the 1980s was that more and more educated women, including university students and working women, donned the veil. In Egypt, hijab included both modest dress and the more extreme niqab (Badran 1994).

Observers have raised a number of questions about veiling. Is veiling merely a matter of convenience and individual choice, or does social pressure play a part? If veiling is a voluntary identity marker of The Muslim Woman, what larger message does it send about womens bodies and hair? What is the relationship between veiling/reveiling, the growth of Islamist movements, and the policies of Islamist states? In the case of compulsory veiling, veiling is clearly tied to state policy and its patriarchal gender regime. But what of the expansion of veiling in Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, and among the Palestinians, where veiling is not mandated by the state?

One response has been to emphasize Muslim womens agency in the decision to veil (El-Guindi 1981; Hoodfar 1991). In this view, veiling permits public roles for women from conservative families that would otherwise not allow their women access to higher education or employment. Hijab is a form of protection that allows the educated, professional woman to participate in public life and be both modern and Islamic. There is also some evidence that voluntary veiling is not always an expression of affiliation with or support for an Islamist political movement; it could represent rejection of parental and patriarchal authority among rebellious young women. Some young women from nontraditional families who adhere to hijab aspire to personal autonomy and a more serious mien, especially at coeducational colleges.

Others have argued that the response of some women who are compelled to work for low wages has been an intensification of traditional modesty markers, such as veiling. Reluctantly working outside the home, and thus exposed, middle-class and low-income women must use every symbolic means at their disposal to signify that they continue to be respectable and worthy of protection. Arlene MacLeod (1991) called this accommodating protest.

The expansion of Islamist movements and the ideology of political Islam have led to increased veiling in at least three ways. First, Islamism places a high premium on sex segregation, a preference for the confinement of women to the private sphere of the family, male guardianship over women, and the veiling of women in public or before men who are not closely relatednorms that Islamists in power have legislated. The wives, daughters, sisters, and other women supporters of Islamist movements all have been veiling. Second, the ideological exhortation that to be an authentic Muslim woman is to veil has created a political environment and cultural climate that have compelled many non-Islamist women to veil. The insistent message that veiling is a moral and religious requirement constitutes an effective ideological pressure. Third, in some instances Islamists have used intimidation and physical force against unveiled womenthis has occurred in Algeria and among the Palestinians (Moghadam 2003).

Veiling reflects and encourages notions of womens vulnerability, of their difference, and of the presumed dangers of the female body. Fatima Mernissi has pointed out that womens bodies and their sexuality are regarded as potential sources of fitna (moral or social decay) and as such, veiling is meant to protect men, not women. In the same way that many feminists have decried the under-dressing of women in Western contexts (Hollywood, the fashion industry, MTV, and so on) because of the way that this reduces a woman to her sexuality, so feminists regard the veil as reinforcing the idea of womens bodies as sexual, dangerous, and a source of temptation (Mernissi 1987; Sabbah 1983).

Other scholars have noted that womens bodies are the site of contestation over religious, national, and cultural identity (Kandiyoti 1991; Moghadam 1994). Islamists in Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, and elsewhere have exhorted women to veil, to have more children, and to steer clear of alien ideologies. Women who do otherwise are branded as cultural traitors, morally repugnant, and religiously damned. The concept of gharbzadegi widely used in postrevolutionary Iran and variously translated as Westoxication or Westitisillustrates this point. Through those members who are struck by the West, notably women, imperialism can penetrate the society and wreak havoc on the culture. The claim was made that by depriving women of chastity, modesty, and honor through notions of autonomy, sex appeal, and so on, colonialists and imperialists had been able to weaken Muslim cultures. This is said to have happened in Algeria under French colonialism and in Iran during the rule of the pro-American shah. It follows that the main antidote to the virus of gharbzadegi is the veil. Furthermore, veiling must be compulsory in order to protect the cultural identity and integrity of the group and of its female members (Najmabadi 1991; Tohidi 1994). A similar exhortation was made by the Ikhwan Muslemin (Muslim Brothers) of Jordan: How can Gods victory prevail when women adorn themselves openly and mix with men, and when defiance of Gods law continues day and night? The enemy relies on you, my sister, to strike at this nation from within, as if the stabs we receive from the outside were not enough (Taraki 1995, p. 660).

Faegheh Shirazi (2001) notes that veiling is heavy with meaning; it has been a symbol of cultural identity, religious assertion, gender oppression, and sexual mystery. The fetishism of the veil is found among Westerners and Islamists alike. She argues that while the veil has semantic versatility it often serves political agendas. In Iranian politics, and especially during the war with Iraq in the 1980s, the connection between hijab and jihad was maintained through the strategic use of postage stamps, posters, banners, billboards, and other print material depicting veiled women as strong supporters of the war. She also describes the preoccupation with bad-hijabi (malveiling) on the part of the Islamic authorities in Iran.

In its most innocuous form, veiling is a sign of piety and a form of protection against the male gaze. Increasingly, it is the line of demarcation between the Islamist/Islamic community and non-Muslim communities, a shield against the slings and arrows of imperialists, and protection against the dangers of female sexuality. Veiling can symbolize the imposition of identity and morality. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, even non-Muslim citizensChristian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian womenhave been forced to veil in public. Whether compulsory or encouraged, veiling has been a mechanism of social control: the regulation of women.


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Valentine M. Moghadam