Veil_and_Women - ‘The Veil in Their Minds and on Our...

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Unformatted text preview: ‘The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads 421 22 ern biases against non—Western cultures abound. In research, for example, social scientists often fail to compare like with like. The situation of poor illit— erate peasant women of the South is implicitly or explicitly compared with The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: Veiling Practices and Muslim r Women Homa Hoodfar uslim women, and particularly Middle Eastern and North African women, for the past two centuries have been one 'of the most enduring subjects of discussion in the Western media. I can also assert without hesitation that the issue of the veil and the oppreSSion of Mus- lim women has been the most frequent topic of conversation and dlscussion I have been engaged in, often reluctantly, during some twenty years of my life in the Western world (mostly in the UK and Canada). Whenever I meet a person of white/ European descent, I regularly find that as soon ashe or she ascertalns that I am Muslim/ Middle Eastern/ Iranian, the veil very quickly emerges as the prominent topic of conversation. This scenario occurs everywhere: in trains, at the grocery store, at the launderette, on the university campus, at parties. The range of knowledge of these eager conversants varies: some honestly confess total ignorance of Islam and Islamic culture or Middle Eastern soc1et1-es; others base their claims and opinions on their experiences 1n colonlal armies 1n the Middle East, or on their travels through the Middle East to India during the 19605; still others cite as reference films or novels. What I find remarkable is that, despite their admitted ignorance on the subject, almost all people I have met are, with considerable confidence, adamant that women have a particularly . . . . N _r . en PWtough'etime'inerMuslimr cultures. Occa51onally Western non Mushm worn will tell me they are thankful that they were not born in a Muslim culture. Sometimes they go so far as to say that they are happy that I am livmg in 121161; society rather than my own, since obviously my ways are more hke theirs, a: since now, having been exposed to Western ways, I could never return to t e harem! ‘ . 7 - that For years I went through much pain and frustration, trying to convey ‘ many assumptions about Muslim women were false and based on the rac1sm and biases of the colonial powers, yet without defendlng or denying the patrl- archal barriers that Muslim-women (like women in many other countries, including Western societies) face. I took pains to give examples of how West the experiences of educated upper—middle—class women of Western societies1 Failing to adequately contextualize non—Western societies, many researchers simply assume that what is good for Western middle—class women should be good for all other women.2 It is frustrating that, in the majority of cases, while my conversants listen to me, they do not hear, and at the end of the conversa— tion they reiterate their earlier views as if our discussion were irrelevant. In more recent years, they treat me as an Islamic apologist, which silences me in new ways that often preclude argument. I had assumed that my experiences were unique and were the result of my moving in milieux that had little contact with or knowledge about Muslim communities and cultures. However, through my recent research on the inte— gration of Muslim women in educational institutions and the labor market in Canada, which has brought me into contact with many young Muslim women, I have come to realize that these reactions on the part of the domi— nant group are much more prevalent than I had thought. Moreover, the Mus— lim community, and in particular veiled women, suffer the psychological and socioeconomic consequences of these views. This situation has created a high level of anger and frustration in response to the deliberate racism toward Mus— lims in Canada and the unwillingness, despite ample examples, to let go of old colonial images of passive Muslim women. The assumption that veil equals ignorance and oppréssion means that young Muslim women have to invest a con— siderable amount of energy to establish themselves as thinking, rational, liter— ate students/ individuals, both in their classrooms and outside. In this essay, I draw on historical sources, my research data on young Mus— lim women in Canada, as well as my own experience as a non—veiled Muslim woman of Iranian descent. I argue that the veil, which since the nineteenth century has symbolized for the West the inferiority of Muslim cultures, remains a powerful symbol both for the West and for Muslim societies. While for Westerners its meaninghas been static and unchanging, in Muslim cultures the veil’s functions and social significance have varied tremendously, particu— larly during times of rapid social change. Veiling is a lived experience full of contradictions and multiple meanings. While it has clearly been a mechanism in the service of patriarchy, a means of regulating and controlling women’s lives, women have used the same social institution to free themselves from the bonds of patriarchy Muslim womeri, like all other women, are social actors, employing, reforming, and changing existing social institutions, often cre— atively, to their own ends. The static colonial image of the oppressed veiled Muslim woman thus often contrasts sharply with the lived experience of veil— ing. To deny this is also to deny Muslim women their agency. The continuation of misconceptions and misinterpretations about the veil and veiled women has several consequences, not just for Muslim women but also for occidental women. The mostly man—made images of oriental Muslim Women continue to be a mechanism by which Western dominant cultures re— 422 Home: Hoodfar The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads 423 rationalized that since the behavior of the wives of the Prophet is to be emu— lated, then all women should adopt this form of dress.7 In any case, it was not until the reign of the Safavids (1501—1722) in Iran and the Ottoman Empire (1357—1924), which extended to most of the area that today is known as the Middle East and North Africa, that the veil emerged as a widespread symbol of status among the Muslim ruling class and urban elite. Significantly, it is only since the nineteenth century, after the veil was promoted by the colonials as a prominent symbol of Muslim societies, that Muslims have justified it in the name of Islam, and not by reference to cultural practices.8 Although the boundaries of veiling and seclusion have been blurred in many debates, and particularly in Western writing, the two phenomena are separate, and their consequences for Muslim women are vastly different. Seclu~ sion, or what is sometimes known as purdah, is the idea that women should be protected, especially from males who are not relatives; thus they are often kept at home where their contact with the public is minimized. Seclusion may or may not be combined with the veiling that covers the whole body. It has been argued that seclusion developed among Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies because they prefer endogamous marriages; conse— quently they tend to develop social institutions that lend themselves to more control of young people, particularly women.9 The argument is made even more strongly for Muslim women because they inherit wealth and remain in control of their wealth after marriage.‘ Although a daughter’s inherited share is equal to half that of a son, it is also established, by religion, that a father does not have the power to disinherit his daughters. It is an irony of history that the more economic rights women have had, the more their sexuality has been subject to control through theL development of complex social institutions.10 Nonetheless, outside the well—to—do social elites, seclusion was rarely practiced to any considerable degree, since women’s economic as well as reproductive labor was essential for the survival of their households. In reality, the majority of social classes/particularly in rural settings, practiced segregation and sexual division of labor rather than seclusion. The exertion of these controls often created an obstacle but did not erase Muslim women’s control of their wealth (if they had any), which they managed.11 However, as the socioeconomic conditions changed and factory production and trade became the major sources of wealth and capital, elite women lost ground to their male counterparts. The ideology of seclusion prevented their easy access to the rapidly changing market and to information, thus limiting their economic possibilities. Consequently their socioeconomic position Vis—a— Vis their husbands deteriorated. Moreover, the informal social institutions, class alliances, and kin networks that had protected women to some extent were breaking down very rapidly In the contemporary context, this context is an important, though often neglected, reason for women of the upper classes in the Middle East to become more radically involved in the women’s move— ment. In Egypt, where the socioeconomic changes were most rapid, the women’s movement developed into an organized and effective political force that other political groups could not afford to ignore.12 As for women in other create and perpetuate beliefs about their superiority. The persistence of c010- nial and racist responses to their societies has meant that Muslim communities and societies must continually struggleeto protect their cultural and political identities, a situation that makes it harder for many Muslim women, who share the frustration of their community and society, to question the merits and uses of the veil within their own communities. Moreover, the negative images of Muslim women are continually presented as a reminder to European and North American women of their relative good fortune and as an implied warning to curb their “excessive” demands for social and legal equality. Yet all too often Western feminists uncritically participate in the dominant androcen- tric approaches to other cultures and fail to see how such participation is ulti- mately in the service of patriarchy.3 Significantly, Western feminists’ failure to critically interrogate colonial, racist, and androcentric constructs of women of non—Western cultures forces Muslim women to choose between fighting sex- ism or racism. As Muslim feminists have often asked, must racism be used to fight sexism? To illustrate the persistence of the social and ideological construction of the veil in colonial practices and discourses and its contrast to the lived expe— rience of veiling, I first briefly review a history of the veil and its representa— tion in the West. Then,«by examining some of the consequences of both compulsory de—veiling and re~veiling in Iran, I demonstrate the costs to Iran— ian women of generalized and unsubstantiated assumptions that the veil is inherently oppressive and hence that its removal is automatically liberating. I then discuss some of my findings on the representation of the veil and its usage in the context of Canadian society and its consequences for young Mus— lim women in their communities and in their interaction with other women, particularly feminists. I point out how the androcentric images and stereotypes of occidental and oriental women inhibit women’s learning about and from each other and weakens our challenge to both patriarchy and Western imperi— alism. The practice of veiling and seclusion of women is pre—Islamic and orig— inates in non—Arab Middle Eastern and Mediterranean societies.4 The first reference to veiling is in an Assyrian legal text that dates from the thirteenth century B.C., which restricted the practice to respectable women and forbade prostitutes from veiling.5 Historically, veiling, especially when accompanied by seclusion, was a sign of status and was practiced by the elite in the ancient ’Gre’coIRoma'n’,’ prel’Isl'amic Iranian,'and Byzantine empires. Muslims adopted the veil and seclusion from conquered peoples, and today it is widely recog- nized, by Muslims and non—Muslims, as an Islamic phenomenon that is pre— sumably sanctioned by the Qur’an. Contrary to this belief, veiling is nowhere specifically recommended or even discussed in the Qur’an.6 At the heart of the Qur’anic position on the question of the veil is the interpretation of two verses (Surah al—Nur, verses 30~31) that recommend women to cover their bosoms and jewelry; this has come to mean that women should cover them— selves. Another verse recommends to the wives of the Prophet to wrap their cloak tightly around their bodies, so as to be recognized and not be bothered or molested in public (Surah al—Ahzab, verse 59). Modern commentators have 424 Homa Hoodfar social groups, the “modern” and “traditional” ideologies of domesticity often excluded women from better—paying jobs in the public sector, particularly if this involved traveling outside their neighborhoods and being in contact with unrelated males. Moreover, the early modern governments that sponsored the training of many citizens in fields such as commercial and international law, engineering, and commerce, following the European model, closed these options to women until a much later date, thereby reproducing and occasion— ally intensifying the gap already existing between men’s and women’s eco— nomic opportunities.13 The veil refers to the clothing that covers and conceals the body from head to ankle, with the exception of the face, hands, and feet. Incidentally, this is also a very accurate description of the traditional male clothing of much of the Arab world, although in different historical periods authorities have tried, with varying degrees of success, to make the clothing more gender specific.14 The most drastic difference between male and female clothing worn among the Arab urban elite was created with the Westerniza— tion and colonization of Muslim societies in the Middle East and North Africa. Men, particularly, began to emulate European ways of dress much sooner and on a larger scale than women did. 3 Although in Western literature the veil and veiling are often presented as a unified and static practice that has not changed for more than a thousand years, the veil has been varied and subject to changing fashion throughout past and present history. Moreover, like other articles of clothing, the veil may be worn for multiple reasons. It may be worn to beautify the wearer,15 much as Western women wear makeup; to demonstrate respect for conventional val— ues;16 or to hide the wearer’s identity.17 In recent times, the most frequent type of veiling in most cities is a long, loosely fitted dress of any color combination, worn with a scarf wrapped (in various fashions) on the head so as to cover all the hair. Nonetheless, the imaginary veil that comes to the minds of most Westerners is an awkward black cloak that covers the whole body, including the face, and is designed to prevent women’s mobility.18 Throughout history, however, apart from the elite, women’s labor was necessary to the functioning of the household and the economy, and so they wore clothing that would not hamper their movement. Even a casual survey of clothing among most rural and urban areas in the Middle East and other Muslim cultures would indicate that these women’s costumes, though all are considered Islamic, cover the body tordiiferent degrees}9 The tendency of Western scholars and the colonial powers to present a unidimensional Islam and a seamless society of Muslims has prevented them from exploring the socioeconomic significance of the existing variations that were readily available, sometimes in their own drawings and paintings. Similarly, scholarly study of Islamic beliefs and culture focused on Islamic texts and use of Islamic dialogues, while overlooking the variations in the way Islam was practiced in different Islamic cultures and by different classes. Although clothing fulfills a basic need of human beings in most climates, it is also a significant social institution through which important ideological and nonverbal communication takes place. Clothing, in most aspects, is designed to The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads 425 indicate not only gender and stage of life cycle, but also to identify social group and geographic area.20 Moreover, in the lVIiddle East, veiling has been intertwined with Islamic ethics, making it an even more complex institution. According to Muslims, women should cover their hair and body when they are in the presence of adult men who are not close relatives; thus when women put on or take off their veil, they are defining who may or may not be considered kin.21 Fcirthermore, since veiling defines sexuality, by observing or neglecting the veil, women may define who is a man and who is not.22 For instance, high—status women may not observe the veil in the presence of low— status men. ‘ In the popular urban culture of Iran, in situations of conflict between men and women who are outside the family group, a very efiective threat that women have is to drop their veil and thus indicate that they do not consider the contester to be a man.23 This is an irrevocable insult and causes men to be wary of getting into arguments with women. Similarly, by threatening to drop the veil and put on male clothing, women have at times manipulated men to comply with their wishes. One such example can be drawn fiom the Tobacco Movement of the late nineteenth century in Iran. In a meeting on devising resistance strategies against the tobacco monopoly and concessions given to Britain by the Iranian government, men expressed reluctance to engage in rad— ical political action. Observing the men’s hesitation, women nationalists who were participating in the meeting (from the women’s section of the mosque) raised their voices and threatened that if the men failed to protect their coun— try for the women and children, then the women had no alternative but to drop their veil and go to war themselves.24 Thus, the men were obliged to consider more radical forms of action. The Making of the Veil in Their Minds ' It was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the West’s overwhelming preoccupation with the veil in Muslim cultures emerged. Travel accounts and observations fiom commentators prior to this time show little interest in Muslim women or the veil. The sexual segregation among all sects (Muslims, Christians, and Jews) in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures was established knowledge and prior to the nineteenth century rarely attracted much attention fitom European travelers. Some pre—nineteenth—century accounts did report on oriental and Muslim women’s lack of morality and shamelessness based on their revealing clothes and their free mobility.25 Others observed and commented on the extent of women’s power within the domes— tic domain, an aspect totally overlooked in the latter part of.,the nineteenth century.26 ' The representation of the Muslim orient by the Christian occident went through. a fundamental change as the Ottoman Empire’s power diminished and the Muslim orient fell deeper and deeper under European domination. The appearance and circulation of the earliest version of A Thousand and One Nights27 in the West coincided with the Turkish defeat.28 By the nineteenth H ill The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads 427 l, 426 Homa Hoodfizr l ‘ m‘ _ century the focus of representation of the Muslim orient had c . w . . . i W the male barbarian, constructed over centuries durin ‘h w; u “uncivilized” ignorant male whose masculini “1‘ H . . M ' a lied equally to their own society. Both Muslim orientaland Christialn Clsn'ls p121 women were thought to be in need of male protection and inte OCCIdaellnt nd biologically destined for the domestic domain. Moreover, in both liming; and occident women were expected to obey and honor their hus— t e hanged from g the Crusades, to the ty relies on the mis...
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