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Who Is Being Veiled?
By Etel Adnan
My friend Inge phoned from San Francisco to ask me if she had to buy a chador in order to visit the magnificent mosques of Isfahan and Turkey. I said that for Turkey I did not think she would need to, but that for Isfahan I was not sure, though usually in Islamic countries Western women and Christian women in general weren't obliged to wear the veil. The conversation went on, and we ended up discussing "fundamentalists'" insistence on the mandatory veiling of Moslem women.
The answer is obviously long and complicated, as this custom of wearing a veil has changed with times and places. But today, why is there such an insistence on the veil?
With the eradication of all leftist and other oppositional political parties there isn't much else other than religious ideologies for dissatisfied young people who want to get involved with politics. (This is increasingly the case in the world at large, where voter participation is declining, and where people increasingly join churches, cults, gurus, and so on). A general pluralism in the political field has disappeared or is disappearing, even in the Western nations, and a single ideology that we can name the "New World Order" or "Savage Capitalism" has emerged. The only alternative seems to be the joining of sub-groups and subcultures, which being marginal foster the creation of a ghetto-mentality, paranoia and fanaticism.
I think that men who are devoid of social and political powers will have the temptation to make women submit, the only people left on whom they can exercise power. Humiliated by dictatorial systems in their minds and bodies, they look for a victim, to reach a balance so to speak.
While most sub-groups, cults, etc. convince themselves that they are threatened in particular by their government, and also by the whole world, why do those that the media call (for lack of a better word) "fundamentalists," target women with obsession and reduce their political agenda almost exclusively to the veil?
These nostalgists of the past -- a past they barely know or have studied -- look for symbols that distinguish them from a modernity which seems to have brought to them more misery than happiness; therefore, the beard, the veil ... (the cross or the skullcap).
But why specifically the women?
I think that men who are devoid of social and political powers will have the temptation to make women submit, the only people left on whom they can exercise power. Humiliated by dictatorial systems in their minds and bodies, they look for a victim, to reach a balance so to speak. Possessing little or nothing they feel they can "possess women," make them obey, hide them as one hides a treasure or a simple spoon. They think, "If I can hide you, erase you from the eyes of the others, then you will be exclusively mine." Going further in this line of reasoning, they seem to say, "Of course, by veiling you, you my wife or daughter, I too possess the veil, and I too hide behind it . Behind the veils worn by mywomen, I hide my own shame, my own weakness, my own corruption ." Humiliation imposed by totalitarian regimes or by foreign occupation creates within the hearts of their subjects a corruption that translates itself by an authoritarian and violent behavior which imitates the oppressors, but is here exercised only against women. Thus, by forcing women to veil, "fundamentalist militants" veil themselves from the present world, from their own failures, and in the darkness they foster a hyper-frustration which makes them ready to explode and destroy.
But then, you would ask, what can they do to change the unbearable in the world in which they live? I will say that their strategies must change and I would invite them to tear all veils apart!
Everybody is veiled: governments are veiled by a jargon which speaks of democracy that they apply less and less; the multinationals hide themselves behind a veil of false promises and manipulated statistics, dictatorships hide behind a veil of lies, fear, and the police; and the poor guys try to hide behind the veil that a veiled woman wears for them.
What then could one propose to the man in the street, to the vendor, the worker, the peasant, all of whom suffer from injustice? I will tell them join your women, in full light , make them your partners and not your subjects, don't perpetuate the infernal circle of oppression. How can you liberate yourselves if you oppress others."Fundamentalists" are mirrors of their governments, and neither will break open without the other.
In the Arab world (as elsewhere) men have to trust women and work together, as they are equals in misery; they should be equal is their resistance to negative forces and in the efforts to liberate their minds from prejudice and their bodies from oppression. For those who consider themselves to be "believers," I would say that if they were honest they will know that if we are all "children of God," meaning that we are all morally equal, and that we have to respect each other as a first step on the hard and insecure road of gaining freedom -- and the dignity that comes with freedom -- which both men and women need, and deserve.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 13 (November/December 1996)