The Political Symbolism Behind the Muslim Veil

Commentary by Alex IRELAND

The veiling of women in Islam – common across the Middle East, and in emigrant populations from the region – is a highly controversial topic. Whilst some commentators claim that the veil oppresses women, and even that it epitomises an oppression of women ingrained in Muslim thought, others argue that the veil is a harmless fashion choice or expression of religiosity. The reality is more complex than either of these views imply, and is bound up in difficult issues of identity and politicisation.

To start with, Islam did not itself begin the tradition of veiling women. Various veiling practices were already prevalent around the Mediterranean when Islam was formed, and during the Arab expansion into these areas, veiling – along with many other traditions and practices – was assimilated into Islam. Furthermore, veiling practices have arisen in separate cultures throughout history (especially in relation to religion), and so to speak of the ‘Muslim’ veil is somewhat misleading. What Islam has allowed is the propagation of veiling on a large scale, and by acting as a vehicle through which other parties can legitimise and encourage veiling, Islam has perpetuated the practice.

It is worth noting that many Muslims do not view veiling as compulsory, or as an integral part of their faith, and that an obligation to veil is only one possible interpretation of the Quran. A number of Islamic sects throughout history have even formed arguments – rooted in the Quran – explicitly against veiling practices. It is thus worth bearing in mind that the practice of veiling society-wide, although commonly viewed in the West as an essentially Muslim act, is as much reflective in the long term of the society that imposed that interpretation as it is reflective of Islam per se. That said, many wearers of the veil today explicitly state Islam as a motivation for their individual choice, and cultural inertia acts in the short term to limit any society-wide change in interpretation.

800px-Female_hijab_in_Islam
Women wearing the veil – Public domain

The symbolism of the veil is complicated, however, by motivations of cultural expression separate from devotion to religion. For many, the veil stands for an expression of their native culture and traditional fashion, rather than any explicitly religious statement. This can be seen in the choices of some emigrants living outside the Middle East, some of whom wear the veil to express their wider home culture (or especially, if born after their parents had emigrated, their cultural roots) rather than religion specifically. But this can also be the case within the wider Middle East. To understand why, it is important to look at the history of politicisation of the symbol of the veil.

In the early 20th century, as European powers were colonising the Middle East, many thinkers and commentators looked to demonise the people that they were colonising in order to morally justify their harsh treatment, and the project of colonisation in general. One especially popular topic of focus was the practice of veiling, by which European commentators sought to represent the Muslim man as backward and oppressive, and in turn to represent their own societies as enlightened liberators in the Middle East. This had the unintended effect of highlighting the veil as a symbol not just of Muslim piety, but now as an essentially Arab garment vis-à-vis the colonisers, and as a focus of anti-colonial sentiments and emotional resistance.

In some countries that Britain and France colonised, there was an attempted ‘Europeanisation’ of culture and dress, which sometimes included a full-scale banning of veiling. This acted to further reinforce the dynamic of the veil as standing for Arab culture as a whole, rather than just Muslim devotion. By banning veiling, the veil was emphasised as a focal point of wider anti-colonial sentiments, and a method by which any Arab woman (or male, if he had influence over women in the same household as him) could define herself as distinctly Arab. Thus, the veil has come to take on complex symbolism around anti-colonial sentiments, Arab national pride, and wider Arab culture – it is no longer limited to Islamic symbolism.

Some commentators assert that veiling is oppressive towards women in itself, and that it also feeds wider misogyny in societies in which it is prevalent. There is certainly validity towards these claims, but it is not within the scope of this article to assess this issue. What this article has aimed to show is that there is another dynamic at play – that it may be the case that veiling disempowers women in relation to men society-wide, but that it can also empower the members of a Middle Eastern society in relation to those from the West, by providing a symbol of cultural assertion and pride (even when there is no explicit colonial dynamic). And on an individual level, any woman’s choice to veil may be just as much about cultural empowerment and identity as it is about any other issue.

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