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Some thoughts on the Veil
Max Dashu

fully veiled Syrian womenMost people think of the veil solely in terms of Islam, but it is much older. It originated from ancient Indo-European cultures, such as the Hittites, Greeks, Romans and Persians. It was also practiced by the Assyrians. Veiling had class as well as gender implications; thus, the ancient Assyrian law required it of upper class women while punishing commoners for it. The strong association of veiling with class rank, as well as an urban/peasant split, persisted historically up until the last century. Then more privileged women began rejecting the veil, as did Egyptian feminist Huda Sharawi, while poor women increasingly adopted it as a ticket to upward mobility. (A similar dynamic occurred with footbinding in modern China.)

The contraposition of The West versus Islam certainly has historical roots, but these two systems have similarities as well as differences. Women in medieval Europe dressed more like women in the Muslim world than is generally realized. It was customary, especially for married women, for them to cover their hair with various kinds of headdresses. Paintings of urban women in western Europe often show everything covered except the face and hands. It two nunswas common to drape the neck and even sometimes the lower face in a wimple. This became part of the classic nun's garb that represents the most conservative style of female dress in the Christian world. It drew on the traditional head-veil of patrician Roman women, though the wimple may have Hunnic roots.

Peasant and working-class women who did not cover in these ways were considered "loose" and fair game for assault. This non-respectable and therefore vulnerable status of unveiled women also plays out in the Muslim context, going back to a Koranic passage which specifically designates veiling as marking out Muslim women not to be molested on the streets. Its historical roots go back further, to the neighboring Byzantine empire's enforcement of veiling codes which impute high social rank to families whose women are veiled. These were in turn based on Greek and Roman values of male honor and female shame, and of public space as male space.

The same codes are reflected in Christian scriptures calling for veiling as a symbol of male lordship over women. Tertullian referred to it as "the discipline of the veil," and denounced Christian women who protested its enforcement. He wrote that most Greek churches, and some North African ones, "keep their virgins covered." [On the Veiling of Virgins, III] Perhaps more to the point for the Arabian context are rabbinical sayings treating a woman's uncovered hair as "nudity." In the Tannaitic period, she could be fined 400 zuzim for it. As elsewhere, men were the enforcers: "Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen..." Islamic theory shares this concept of women's uncovered hair as nudity, 'awra, often extended to face, neck, and arms. In the most extreme veiling, niqab, even a woman's hands must be gloved, no matter how hot the weather, when she is in public or the presence of unrelated men.

But the Quran does not enjoin face-veiling, except when it calls for the wives of the prophet Muhammad to veil or be secluded. Other women were instructed simply to draw their cloths over their bosoms. However, the pressure of regional patrarichal custom was great, and became irresistable as the Arabs conquered countries where this was longstanding, as Leila Ahmed has detailed in Women and Gender in Islam. The process worked in the other direction, too, as more egalitarian cultures became Islamicized and have adopted hijab, patrilineage and Shari'a law. Indonesia has seen a very marked increase in veiling over the past century, for example, even among the matrilineal Minangkabau of west Sumatra. This change has happened in less than 50 years.

It is important to pull back from the polarization of the historically Christian world and the historically Muslim world. Both define themselves as superior systems, not only in relation to each other, but also in relation to cultures that do not belong to either category, and here I am signalling a whole range of indigenous cultures. Many of these societies were subjected to conquest and enslavement specifically as their colonizers defined them as "pagans" or "kafirs," legally fair game.

A fundamental pattern of colonization by both Christians and Muslims involved defining indigenous women as indecent and loose based on their dress, freedom of movement and other positive values in those cultures. This shaming of indigenous women (with rape and the threat of rape behind it) forced them, in self-defense, to give up their historic styles of dress and assimilate to the dominant culture. Often this involved covering up breasts, arms, legs, and even hair; such shifts were especially dramatic in tropical countries. Thus indigenous perspectives offer rarely-considered critiques of both Muslim and Christian modesty codes.

Hijab raises complex questions of choice. Families often demand that women, and sometimes girls too, wear hijab in the belief that it is the only way decent females should appear in public. But for some Muslim women, especially present-day working class women, the scarf opens up a mobility in public places otherwise denied them, making it possible for them to attend college or to work outside the home. It can be a strategic choice as well as a religious mandate. In some countries, hijab is imposed by the state (as in Saudi Arabia and Iran) or forbidden by the state (as in France, according to a recent law directed at schoolgirls).

State coercion clearly violates freedom of choice in both cases, but this issue is never simple. It is not only the French state that forces young women who believe in wearing hijab to leave their hair uncovered, but also young men who enforce the wearing of hijab, attacking young women who wear "non-Islamic" dress on the streets of North African banlieues in Paris and elsewhere. Self-determination can be a tricky proposition for young Algerian-French women, who face challenges of politics, identity and loyalties as they make their way in the world. Legislating behavior such as personal dress is also problematic for any country which claims to be a democracy. There are no easy answers here.

Family coercion remains invisible to the outside world, but occasionally bursts into media view when some atrocity is committed, such as socalled "honor killings." In 2007 a Canadian father and brother murdered the teenage Aqsa Parvez for refusing to wear the hijab. In many other cases, unrelated men enforce hijab-wearing on women in the public sphere. In 2006 a group called the Just Swords of Islam threw acid in a young woman's face for not wearing hijab, and issued a statement that "We will have no mercy on any woman who violates the traditions of Islam and who also hang out in Internet cafes." In 2007 the Tehreek-i-Islami group threatened Pakistani women with the same atrocity if they did not cover their heads. That year, a gunman assassinated the female minister of social welfare, Zilla Huma Usman, for the stated reason that she did not cover her head. Similar attacks were carried out in Kashmir in 2001, targeting women who did not put on a chadar. For post-invasion Iraq, Robert Fisk writes that "In Basra in 2008, police were reporting that 15 women a month were being murdered for breaching 'Islamic dress codes'." These are only a few reported examples.

total veiling in Samarkand, 1910In Afghanistan, women still face considerable danger in rejecting the much more severe form of veiling that has been current since the Taliban domination (as well as a not-too-distant earlier history). Although the US government has trumpeted the "liberation" of Afghanistan from the Taliban, outside of Kabul and a few other urban areas the burqa is still a necessity, especially for the majority of women who do not have access to private vehicles. However symbolic of oppression the burqa has become in the West, abduction, forced marriage, economic privation, work opportunities, education are more pressing survival issues for Afghan women.

The chador has been mandatory for Iranian women for a quarter century, and even in hot weather, standard women's outdoor wear requires a long coat. Khomeini's Revolutionary Guards went around attacking women on the streets for "bad hijab" (incomplete covering of hair), sometimes scraping off their lipstick with razor blades as well. Back in the 30s, the coercion went the other way. The last Shah's father decreed that all women must unveil. Women who had been veiled and secluded all their lives were suddenly compelled to appear with uncovered heads in public. For many, this felt like being naked, and it drove them deeper into purdah. Stories are told of women whose husbands carried them in sacks on their backs when they had to travel. Of course, other women welcomed the change as an opening up of social restrictions.

Ataturk imposed the same decree in Turkey, sharply reversing the compulsory dress code from veiled to unveiled. In these intense polarities, women's bodies are treated as social barometers and even as political fodder, with all kinds of agendas and implications. For Franz Fanon, veiling was only a symbol of national liberation and indigenous identity; patriarchy was not a consideration. But in a long-ago history, it too was a foreign custom, counterposed to indigenous African dress which foreign colonizers regarded as indecent. These profound changes in social norms can be recent, as for Nuba women in Sudan, or three hundred years ago -- as for Hausa women, or go back to the time of Roman domination, long before Islam -- as in northern Algeria.

cops ordering women to tighten their veilsThings can shift, even under locked-down conditions -- or maybe because of them. In Iran today, many young women resist the hijab requirement by allowing their hijab to slip back, or hair to escape from their scarves, or by wearing colors. Fundamentalists in Pakistan criticized Benazir Bhutto for being similarly cavalier in the way she wore the dupatta. For orthodox Muslim women in the West, resistance takes a different form: enduring hateful looks, disdainful remarks, and discriminatory behavior. In today's climate, wearing the hijab involves being regularly searched at airports and may mean missing a flight, or worse, facing serious personal danger on the streets.

Nawal al-Saadawi remarked that "makeup is the post-modern veil," pointing out its near-compulsory use in certain contexts. That was certainly my experience growing up in the Midwest many decades ago. It remains so in the workplace, at the employer's whim, according to a ruling by the California Supreme Court in 2000. The judges upheld the firing of Darlene Jesperson, a longtime bartender at Harrah's Casino in Reno, for refusing new requirements that women wear lipstick, face powder and mascara on the job. This court decision also allows employers to dictate dress, hair length, and other grooming decisions for their employees. These strictures have special ramifications for African-American women; employers often bar them from wearing their hair in natural and cultural styles (or simply refuse to hire them).

Here the rationale of enforcement is economic; in the Iranian context, it is religious. There, both the state and the family act as enforcers. Posters in Tehran explain that "Bad hijab is equal to prostitution. Lack of hijab means lack of man's manhood." With these kinds of controls in place, lipstick looks like freedom to many Iranian women, and many have taken to wearing small or narrow scarves to comply with the hijab enforcement to the minimal degree possible. The latest twist, as Ziba Mir-Hosseini writes, is a strategy of reformulating the issue of choice using religious reasoning: "In current reformist discourse, hejab is not seen as a woman's "duty," but as her "right." Many reformists oppose compulsory hejab on religious grounds, as it can have meaning and value only when a woman has the right to choose it freely." ["Is Time on Iranian Women Protestors' Side?" June 16, 2006, Online:]

Compulsion of women, whether it is legal or culturally enforced, is the bulwark of any patriarchal system. While open violence is highly effective, social pressure, ridicule, and indoctrination can be more insidious, because less perceptible to their targets. Religious fundamentalists employ these, too, but they are really the prime movers in modern US-and-globalized-empire patriarchy. From the mass-media marketplace to high school hallways to the workplace, the commercial standard is fetishized sexual display of young, thin females who are compulsorily blonde, plucked and lacquered. To complicate the analysis even further, this standard can be operative (in private) even in full-body-veil places like Riyadh.

© 2006 Max Dashu