The Politics of the Veil

The word hijab comes from the Arabic language meaning “veil” and is used to describe the headscarves that cover parts of the faces of Muslim women. These scarves come in a variety of styles and colors and symbolize both religion and womanhood.

In the 2001 documentary, Beneath the Veil, a British journalist traveled across Afghanistan and highlighted many private salons in which women would beautify themselves by curling their hair or applying make-up. Woman would leave these homes with eyeliner and lipstick on beneath their covering. Even beauty magazines and mirrors had to be hidden or buried in fear that they would be caught. Should this be seen as oppressive? In the readings “The Discourse of the Veil” and “The Veil in Their Minds and On Our Heads” the authors explain how Western society isn’t accepting of the veil and finds it oppressive to women simply because its different from our culture. They also say racism and ignorance play a large role. Would a good example of this be Western civilization’s complete indifference to nuns, who are primarily white, dressing modestly?

Thinking further into this topic of veiling among women in Muslim societies, one can begin to think about other contexts in which veiling of women are prevalent. Veiling is really everywhere such as its use on brides, nuns, during church or praying, among Latin American cultures during funerals and other religious events, and many other contexts. Why is veiling then so harshly stigmatized with regards to Muslim women? We already went through some examples in class, but perhaps the real issue is the segregation of men and women. In all of the previous examples, women are not necessarily being oppressed, but they are donning different attire than the men. Do you think the veil would be such a big deal if say both men and women had to wear it? It’s important to keep in mind that regardless of the type of clothing worn, men will oppress women if they want to. Women are much more free to wear what they wish in America, for example, but face ongoing discrimination and violence because of their gender. For women who choose to wear the veil in the U.S., could the veil really be a form of resistance against Western cultural norms then?

If beauty is a quality of the highest aesthetic and moral feeling and for some entail “aliveness” as the Ngyuen reading of last week suggested, then what ideas about beauty does the Burqa entail and how important is a school focused on beauty in Afghanistan? We discussed these questions in class as well but to further expatiate on these ideas, it is important to view the Burqa not solely as an item of clothing that is independently fashioned for religious purposes but in addition, an item that bears a political charge . The authors of these readings collectively argue that the Burqa represents deprivation, deindividuation, and deficiency, yet numerous women have voiced a clear disagreement with this interpretation. In this piece that is centered on beauty, we see that the women have established themselves as full participants in society even with their Burqa and express their “aliveness” by putting efforts into the production of their beauty. Various examples are given in the article of this situation, which makes one wonder how important beauty is in geopolitics and what political statements does it infer in a society that limits the participation and self expression of females. Is it humane to limit such expression of beauty? And how is beauty translated in this transnational context?

If interested, click here to watch the Beneath the Veil Documentary:


14 thoughts on “The Politics of the Veil

  1. I think my impressions of the hijab were based off of my ideals of beauty. I will admit to not knowing much about the veil before this presentation and discussion. Still I held strong opinions on its use. I personally felt as though it was preventing women from expressing themselves and expressing their beauty. I was told that these veils covered women for mens sake. I believed that its nature meant oppression. it was even more difficult to understand it because of how I was taught beauty was supposed to be. The Amercian ideal of beauty is all about physical appearence and sexuality whether it be for men or women. I think we have a hard time imaginiting how beauty can be protrayed when your face, or even body, is completely covered.

    Now I feel that it is not my place to make assumptions on another persons choices in wearing the veil. In saying that I don’t believe that it is anyones place to tell someone whether or not they should where it, especially After watching the video on France banning every form of the veil. Misunderstandings should never be used to make drastic decisions: i.e. laws banning clothing used in religious practice.

  2. The documentary the Beauty School of Kabul definitely shows the importance of the beauty school to the women of Kabul. I’m curious as to whether wearing make-up and learning how to style hair represents actions of resistance to those women or merely personal expression? The movie started with a woman who had just finished applying make up to her face, and she confessed that her fiance had no idea she had come there (and of course wouldn’t know, since she was covered). Initially, it seemed to me a form of resistance against the Kabul cultural mandate of wearing the hijab. As I’m thinking about it now, however, perhaps it had merely to do with a desire for self-expression, even if (or especially if?) only other women saw her make-up. Both the religious Jewish and Muslim cultures have strong relationships among and between women. With such a strong connection, one that American culture is unfamiliar with, women often do things just for fun, under the freedom of women’s-only gatherings. Perhaps these Kabul women see putting on make-up as something to do for fun, but not necessarily as central to their idea of beauty nor as central to their lifestyle.

    Does anyone else think so?

  3. I knew previously that France has banned women from wearing the veil, however I did not fully understand the entire issue. I believe that the women who chose to wear the veil on their own grounds are doing so for personal religious reasons, and that they should not be told how they should be expressing their beauty. Also, I think that the cartoon of the nun and Muslim woman clearly presents a double standard, since people in the Western world understand Catholicism over Muslim practices, they find it to be acceptable for nuns to be completely covered, while Muslim women wearing burquas to be threatening.

    Also I agree with the question posed on whether women in Kabul are beautifying themselves through makeup as a fun pasttime within a women’s circle, since they do not center their lifestyles around Western concepts of attraction and beauty rituals, like seen in the United States.

  4. While I thought the discussion on the veil were great and productive, I thought it could use some more perspectives.

    I agree that a good number of Muslim women in Western countries do have a choice in what they can and can’t wear. Of course, choice – which was articulated in our class – is such a vague concept in that we don’t really know how much agency we really have in what we wear. Some of it comes from societal pressures within our own communities.
    What I don’t agree with, however, is to extend that notion of “choice” when talking about Muslim women in other countries. Saudi Arabia, which just (finally) recognized that women can elect their representatives, still face limited rights in their country.
    I’m less concerned about whether the veil or burka should be worn, but rather the constant policing of women by the state. I disagree with France’s banning of the veil because we all have a right to wear what we want, just like I wouldn’t want the Obama administration to bad miniskirts for women to wear.

  5. The veil has become a controversy in my countries throughout the world, and a central argument is that the veil oppresses Muslim women. Prior to my trip to Turkey, I was ignorant of the all the facets of the veil and their meaning for Muslim women, rather I constructed my assumptions of the veil based off the media’s interpretation of the veil for Muslim women under the Taliban. Women under the Taliban regime were clearly oppressed; however, this a singularly and highly publicized episode that does not address the entirety of the veil issue. I think for U.S women or those women in Turkey, who wanted to wear a veil despite the universities banning the veil, it is a form of resistance. These women are actively choosing to wear the veil, despite aggression and hostility from Westerners or government officials. Especially, for women in the U.S that decide to wear the veil, it is a freely chosen decision that reflects their right to defend their beliefs. However, I question the motivation behind wearing the veil, because while the women claim to be freely choosing to wear the veil, are there social pressure that make them want to wear the veil? For example, will family members chastise them for not wearing the veil or are girls more likely to wear the veil because their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sister all wear the veil so they inherently feel a pressure to maintain that tradition. I truly believe that context matters in regards to whether or not the veil is an act of oppression or resistance.

  6. I thought the cartoon you showed in class (which is also in this post) and its corresponding point about Western culture’s separate reactions to women wearing the hajib/veil/etc and nuns wearing habits was really interesting. The more I thought about it later, the more I realized how many similarities there are between the two. For one, being raised Catholic, I already knew that most nuns in America are not required to wear habits, much like the Muslim women that I know are not required to wear scarves and veils, but choose to do so. I also find it interesting, however, that – if you think about it – nuns are traditionally, in a sense, removed from society (or at least thought of in that way to a certain degree – there are a lot of places that it would be thought of as really weird to see them).

    This sort of came up in class – but it is interesting, in this way, to think of how our culture seems to exclude/harshly judge people who present extremes of modesty/immodesty in many ways.

    At the same time, I do agree with the statements that were made in class about there being a discriminatory issue towards women who wear the veil based on race and ethnicity. I have had personal experience I had that seems to support this – when I went to community college, there was a girl that I knew there who was white (like, completely European heritage – he told me once that her family lineage was, like, French and British or something like that) but who wore a hajib, etc. because she had personally converted to Islam as a young adult. People were always really confused when they saw her and almost always assumed that she was of Arabic heritage simply because of her scarf (she seriously looks less Arabic than I do, and my family heritage is Sicilian and German… lol). Anyway, I found it really interesting that people would conclude that about her – like, they actually would decide that she wasn’t “white” simply because of her scarf. I think this example really backs up some of the points that were made in class.

  7. I think out of all the previous posts about “Beneath the Veil” all have failed or avoided an idea that really stuck out to me in this post about men wearing a veil as well. I think perhaps the reason we believe veil’s are oppressing may be because only women wear them. I think I believe that if men wore these as well people may not have a stigma with veils. The dominance men already have in society suggests to me that if they wore a veil it may put them in a similar level as women. When women wear veils people seem to suggest a lack of power but perhaps if me wore them to it would cause for both men and women to have some power.

    After speaking more in class my ideas about oppression and veils have subsided to some degree. It seems many women wear these veils for other reasons and I really enjoyed the readings and movie we watched in class.

  8. I think that in our society that we have a big problem putting our ideals on other cultures. The video of the American women opening the beauty shop appalled me. There are many customs in our society that could possibly be viewed in a negative light or even the emphasis on outward appearance, is it necessarily horrible that these women rather be known for their thoughts, for their beliefs rather than there outward experience. I do agree that there is a problem when women have to wear it when they don’t want to, but if they have a choice, and they choose to wear them, I don’t believe that we as a culture have a say in it at all.

  9. I think that the women in the documentary, “Beneath the Veil”, were being oppressed when they were not allowed to openly beautify themselves or others in any way, even if it was their occupation. This is oppressive because it denies the women the right to freedom of expression. Make-up and hair styling, along with others types of beautification, can often times be used as a form of self-expression. By not allowing women to practice this expression, by law and with severe punishment, it is in many ways not allowing women to express themselves and it is hindering their right to pursue a popular type of employment among women, making them dependent on their husbands. The key to why this is oppressive, however, is that women don’t have the right to do these things even if they want to. It is taking away their ability to have rights as human beings to have choices in life, even if it may seem like unimportant choices to many men. It is taking the control away from the women over their own lives, and putting their control into the hands of the men in power.

    I think that the issue of women being allowed to wear the burkas is a much more complicated issue. After discussing it in class, I left feeling conflicted on where I stand. However, I decided that because of what I said earlier about the importance of women have the right to express themselves, that women should have the right to wear burkas if they feel it expresses them to society and more importantly, to themselves. I think it is obvious that race, ignorance, and fear of the unknown play great roles in the desire to outlaw the burka. Because many people don’t understand the burka and the Islamic culture in general, they fear it, and therefore don’t want to have to deal with it. I think that if I had to make a decision on policy regarding the burka, I would say that women should be able to express themselves through their fashion however they please. It is a right as a human being.

  10. I was very intrigued by the Christopher Hitchens video above. I think it is interesting how many people believe, including myself at times, that Muslim women are oppressed because of the veil. The veil is only a piece of cloth but it represents a number of meanings. The woman in the video mentions how women in the Muslim religion have a lot of rights because of the Koran. I think the scholars that interpret the Koran have a major influence on the opinions people have about what women wear. I was always under the impresion until the Veil presentation that Islam women were oppressed and forced to wear the veil. It was just hard for me to believe that woman would want to complete cover her body. Women in the U.S focus on fashion in a different way and we often times view the choice of clothing as an empowering channel for women. It never really crossed my mind that the Muslim women want to wear the veil. The presentation also made me think of some other groups of women in the U.S that choose to wear a type of covering or veil, but are not thought of as oppressive. Nuns in the Catholic church are covered from head to toe. Often times their face is the only thing that is exposed. I think we do not think of nuns as oppresed because the Christian Catholic religion is so widely accepted in the U.S. I think it is important to remember how we live in a society that rejects the things that are different and not understood.

  11. The class presentation and video Beneath the Veil were very eye-opening for me to see the intricacies surrounding the different views on the veils Muslim women choose to or not to wear. When thinking about my own opinions on the issue of whether the veils are a form of oppression, political resistance, or simply personal preference it is hard to choose just one of the choices. This is because I’m sure that the reasoning is different for every Muslim woman who makes this decision based on their life experiences and the influences they have on their lives. Looking at the veils from a feminist point of view I can see how some view them as a form of oppression by men to try and hinder freedom of expression and sexuality. Others claim that this however is not the case and it is religious reasons why this is necessary and accepted. While I believe that religious motivations for how people live their lives are their own prerogative, I do think that in many religions sexism and oppression of women is a deep seeded fact that is not easily undone. While equality between men and women in the world is vastly increasing, religion seems to be an area that is far behind.

    As a Catholic, the cartoon about the Nun and the Muslim woman really struck a chord as to the ill truth behind it. While Nuns are not persecuted the way Muslim women are they are still not seen as equals in the eyes of the Catholic church. As a child I was an alter server during mass and looking back it was only within the last thirty years or so that women were even allowed on the Alter. Not only this, but women are never allowed to become Priests. It is upsetting to me that these forms of inequality are evident in my own religion yet I am not persecuted or made fun of because of this. I think Muslim women who chose to wear the veil for their own religious reasons should be embraced and accepted by everyone because they are practicing what they believe is right. And no one should be persecuted for that.

  12. As I was getting my portfolio together, I was thinking about this presentation. It brought me back to the plane ride I shared with you all in class. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. It is amazing that an item of dress that you wear can make someone fear you. But I guess clothes are a statement in itself. What you wear can make some one respect you, lose respect for you, envy you, etc. Clothes in a way define you are. Even knowing that, I still struggle with judging someone based on their clothes. I do not like that we stereotype and label people by what they wear, especially if it is an negative connotation. Even not liking this practice, I find myself participating in this. When I set in the seat next to the man who was dressed in traditional Middle Eastern Dress, I had fear inside of me. However, I made a conscious decision to fight that fear and prejudice and do the right thing. I was frustrated with the people who walked past the aisle that he sat in, but at the same time, I wanted to be one of those people. Sometimes we have to fight ourselves to make the necessary changes in society. Every little bit matters.

    • I completely agree with you. Even though we like to think that we know better, at times, even our own subconscious judgements upon others get the best of us. I think that this is the premise of this course: to be able to deconstruct these preconceived notions and begin to find ways to be less prejudice of others. The whole veil debate is such a perfect example of this struggle because it is something that our generation can easily relate to given our lived experience with 9/11. I remember I was in junior high when it happened, and back then my school had a huge middle eastern population. Our teachers were not allowed to show us the news coverage on TV that day, and it was later that I found out that it was due to potential danger of harassment against these students. It’s sad to think that the females might very well possess a greater burden of harassment and hate crimes because of the wearing of the veil, which makes them much more distinguishable in the crowd. There were even students who lost friends because of their Muslim or middle eastern background. Yet prior to 9/11, there was no fear involved against these students, or at least for the most part. This is just another example of the ways that clothing can take on so many meanings depending on the point in history and is always changing identity.

  13. What struck me most about the video we watched in class about France was how much it seemed that the policing of veiling practices seemed to be more about French-ifying them rather than simply banning the veil. It seemed that the speakers were more concerned with French nationhood and the policing of ideas surrounding citizenship rather than the actual or imagined oppression of women in Hijab. France is an interesting site to study Muslims in the west because it has the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe, not to mention France’s colonial history in North Africa.

    Also, I was interested in the role labor had to play in the beauty academy of Kabul. I think I remember previously reading articles about the academy as a place of training for women, so that they could eventually open up a home parlor or otherwise use newly learned skills. Although we didn’t see too much of that side of things in what we saw of the video, I am interested in the ways in which the ‘power’ of beauty production can sometimes work within mainstream modes of oppression, but also provide an important space for women to be financially independent. Still more, beauty shops/ parlors/ supply stores offer a space in which women may bond, share gossip, and generally build a support network.

    The western women in the documentary, however, seemed absolutely disconnected from the the actual lives of their students!

    I don’t think this is entirely related to the politics of veiling as we have studied them in class, but interesting nonetheless: Al Jazeera has recently featured a three-part history of Muslims in France. Its a nice watch.

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