West, Mideast Dichotomy in Veil Debate

By Simeone Stevens


Edited by Jennifer Heath

University of California Press, 2008

Whether worn as a headscarf or a neqab that covers the whole body, the Islamic veil has sparked controversy and interest among Westerners both prior to and since the terrorist attacks on September 11. It was also debated among Arab and Muslim reformists and intellectuals as far back as the beginning of the last century. Recently the veil debate has been rekindled by controversial legislation passed in France and Turkey. Partly to promote assimilation, France passed a law in 2004 making it illegal to wear religious symbols, including the hijab, in public buildings such as schools. In secular Turkey, where the president’s wife dons the hijab, Parliament has found a solution that eases restrictions that were imposed on veil-wearing after Ataturk’s time.

Historically a symbol of a woman’s faith, the retiring of the hijab has been associated with the process of Westernization. For some, the garment has transcended its traditional religious symbolism, becoming a metaphor for Middle Eastern gender politics and even repression, since it is ultimately men who decide if, when, and where it will be worn.

"The Veil," edited by Jennifer Heath, is a collection of essays by 25 authors of varied background and approach – some basing their work on personal experience, while others adhere to academic disciplines. Some scholars see the veil as a symbol of oppression and cultural regression, but not Mohja Kahf, whose essay begins,  "It is like a second skin to me. It is supple as a living membrane and moves and flows with me. There is beauty and dignity in its fall and sweep. It is my crown and my mantle, my vestments of grace. Its pleasures are known to me, if not to you." The book also draws attention to the wide range of veils in existence, lest one think that the much-photographed abaya and burqa were the only alternatives. The authors remind us that Orthodox Jews wear head scarves, Catholic nuns use habits, and that there are even veils worn by men. The compilation additionally explores the complexities of integrating the veil into the Western world.

There is a strong current of defiance running throughout the book concerning what it terms "Western imperialism" and its political use of the veil. Writing of post-9/11 Afghanistan, Dinah Zeiger asserts, "The removal of the veil from the women in Afghanistan constitutes a necessary step in the American nationalist agenda to remake the Middle East in the Western capitalist mold."

Another contributor, Aisha Lee Fox, points out that women in Muslim countries have historically been locked in vicious cycles of mandatory veiling and unveiling, depending on the political climate of the time. In "Concealing and Revealing Female Hair," Ashraf Zahedi writes, "In July 1980, the Islamic regime began implementing 'compulsory' veiling as part of the regime's agenda to institutionalize and exploit the female identity espoused by the authenticity movement. It promoted wearing the veil as 'moral cleansing.'" Zahedi reminds us that over 40 years earlier, in 1936, "The Shah legally abolished the veil… He employed physical force, ordering soldiers to remove women’s veils, sometimes tearing them off in public."

The book appears to cater to a Western audience that has genuine interest in studying and understanding the veil. But the real source of discontent lies in the Middle East, not at a lecture hall somewhere in the United States. Sometimes the book takes on an apologetic tone, attempting to defend the hijab by, in turn, vilifying the West or the Arab nations for having sought Westernization.

Some of the book’s more academic contributions tend towards jargonism, at the peril of losing the layman. For the most part however, “The Veil” achieves its goal of opening the discussion to a wider audience, introducing a plurality of perspectives and opinions, and serving as a reminder that this is a world in which there are as many answers as there are individuals. Heath closes with, “This book operates on myriad levels. In addition to sociopolitical discussions on the veil, it brings to light multiple perspectives, many highly personal. For that is where the veil begins. And that is where it should end. It belongs only to the wearer.”

Naturally, the Middle Eastern perspective of the veil differs to some extent from that which predominates in the West. According to Mohammad Ali Atassi, author of several studies on the hijab, the debate on the veil in the Middle East is more rooted in indigenous social, economic and political factors than it is in the West.

A Syrian whose articles appeared in An Nahar Cultural Supplement, Atassi attributes the increased number of women wearing the hijab to internal Syrian politics, particularly since the early 1970’s. The regime’s policies amounted to  overwhelming opposition of the veil. One example involves Rifaat al-Assad, former vice-president and brother of the late president Hafez al-Assad, who in 1981 resorted to violence as a means of compelling women to unveil when in public. As a result, the veil became a political symbol among Islamists and secularists alike.

Although the government later lifted the ban on the veil, the regime had, in the meantime, lost some of its power and legitimacy. In order to protect itself, the Assad regime has gone out of its way in the last three decades to tolerate Islamist groups that preach fundamentalist versions of Islam – which include, among others things, encouraging young women to veil.

In the case of Turkey as well, the trend of wearing -- and the trend of removing --  the veil tended to be more politically than religiously motivated. Yet, while the founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Mustafa Ataturk, strongly opposed the hijab, he never forced Turkish women to remove it, as did the military generals who succeeded him in the 70's and 80's. According to Attassi, the hijab was in any event worn less frequently at that time, as a product of progressivism and modernization. The actual statistics regarding the wearing of the hijab in Turkey may surprise some: "Turkish veiled women make up 60 percent, the majority of which wear the traditional hijab cover, while only 15 percent of these women wear the Islamic hijab," wrote Atassi.

The French and the Turkish legislations have ignited debates in both the Christian West and Muslim East. Most significant, however, is the reaction of traditional Muslim scholars and intellectuals who condemned France for executing a form of colonialism. Pointing out the hypocrisy of such outcry, Atassi writes, "The best example is the Iranian and the Saudi reaction. Though different, the Wahabi Kingdom and the Islamic Republic agree to condemn France’s decision in banning the hijab in their schools, and they are perhaps correct in their positions. But they did not pay attention to the fact that they themselves are following the same policy but in reverse, meaning any woman not wearing the hijab cannot set foot in universities or the public sphere,” wrote Atassi.

In Atassi’s eyes, Arab and Muslim reactions to the Turkish decision demonstrate a lack of understanding of the concept of individual freedom. Because of this fundamental confusion, they missed the real meaning of the decision taken by the Turkish Development and Justice Party to ease restrictions on wearing the veil. Atassi views such decisions as an affirmation of women's religious and individual rights, which include both the right to wear and not to wear the hijab. The celebration by both traditional Arab and Muslim intellectuals reflects monolithic thinking, illustrating a one-sided understanding of individual freedom.

Although some segments of "The Veil" may be presented in terms of an East versus West, the garment is exploited as a major political tool in the Middle East. Citing “God’s will” as a means of encouraging or discouraging veil wearing creates leverage for the party involved. It is no secret that religion has often been used for such ends, and that the interpretation of religious texts usually comes from those who are in power. As Atassi put it, God has given man the freedom to believe and not to believe, and since this is the case, shouldn’t it be up to the woman to decide whether to wear or not to wear the veil, thus "the freedom of choice in dress should be the same as it is in belief.”


This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

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