To Veil Or Not To Veil; That Is Not The Question!
By Minu Fathima
In my family veiling happened in the reverse generational order. My daughter was the first one to wear a Pardah and a headscarf when she was just five, in order to conform to her Madrassa dress code. She was followed by a confused me, still uneasy about what I thought as wearing my religion on my sleeve; and finally by my mother, who for the first time wore a burqa when she was sixty years old and travelled to Mecca for pilgrimage. We still are occasional hijabis (the English language has no composite term to denote a woman who covers her head), the reasons for and frequency of veiling varying as much as the fashion, texture, and kind of veil used. My public school educated maternal grandmother lived and died in this world without ever donning a veil in her entire life. She was the most pious of us all! In her simple white starched cotton saris, with their pallus draped casually over her shoulders and graying hairs, she exuded an aura of piety that engulfed all who interacted with her, regardless of faith, class or gender.
None of us have permanently abandoned our local, regional way of dressing for a kind of full veiling that was till recently alien to our geo-cultural moorings. Rather, the women in my family, like many other Muslim women in Kerala, have effortlessly blended the religious obligation for modesty with the finest colours, textures and fabrics the native culture had to offer – be it in the form of long-sleeved blouses, saris with their borders ingeniously draped over heads, longer skirts combined with vibrant dupattas and many other unique ways of dressing that reflected a harmonious blend of both religion and culture. But of late, on my visits to Kerala, I could perceive a noticeable shift in this smooth merging of localized preferences and pietistic demands as a sizeable section of Muslim women here have adopted the burqa/abaya and the headscarf as their preferred choice of clothing over traditionally followed dressing patterns. Those who still continued to be loyal their saris or salwars had begun to be more mindful about their head-coverings or hijabs. The hijab that once fluttered casually and subtly was now wrapped confidently and resolutely around many heads!
A quest for explanations yielded a number of factors ranging from the influence of a thriving Gulf- Malayali community keen on emulating the Middle-Eastern Islamic culture of veiling to an increased level of education and awareness – secular as well as religious – among young Muslim women, who, unlike their parents’ generation, embraced the hijab as a proud manifestation of their piety, modesty and identity. Viewed from a wider perspective, the increased visibility of the veil in Kerala can be understood partly as a reflection of a global resurgence of the veil, even as the socio-cultural milieu of Kerala has its own distinct history and politics of veiling that may not always follow the global trends per se.
Veiling can at once be a simple and yet a complex practice, depending on how one chooses to perceive it, adopted by women across the world due to a variety of reasons, including spiritual, political, cultural, economic, as well as personal and religious ones. The most important motive is, of course, the religious one where the veil becomes an outward expression of modesty and piety that the Quran demands of men and women alike. However, some women simply enjoy the convenience, anonymity and freedom offered by the veil to go out in public and mingle alongside the opposite sex; whereas some wear it due to socio-economic reasons where the monotonous burqa and headscarf give them respite from the tyranny of a multimillion dollar fashion industry that objectify and feast on female bodies. Conversely, there is another group of Muslim women who believe that piety doesn’t abide in veiling and reject the institution of veil altogether as a patriarchal innovation. Yet, for a minority of women, under certain socio-political contexts, enforced veiling is a reality, imposed upon them publically by political and religious authority subscribing to a conservative reading of the scriptures, and privately by the male members of the family. Comprehending these diversities and complexities behind veiling is also one way of understanding how Islam is interpreted and lived differently in everyday contexts by Muslim women in societies all around the world.
Globally, there is a growing trend towards veiling, especially in the past two decades, spawning a lot of controversies and misunderstandings that often get caught up and analyzed purely in terms of the unsettled relations between Islam and the West. In this regard, there are women who use the veil as a proud and defiant sign of their national or religious identity, or as a sign of their self-determination and resistance to imperialist Euro-American misadventures of ‘saving’ them from their misogynist culture. Here, the veil assumes a subversive political significance much beyond the purpose of a modest covering, as encoded in the dress-style is an affirmation of an Islamic identity and a rejection of western consumerism, commercialism and their exploitation of female subjects.
As a free thinking Muslim woman living at the crossroads of these multiple contexts, my initial skepticism over the veil was replaced by a decision to veil when I felt a desire to do so. To veil or not to veil is therefore a choice I exercise, but instead of viewing veiling and non-veiling as a pair opposites, I consider them as two different possibilities, each having its own meanings, contexts and above all, legitimacies. Neither do I see my veiled self as a walking prisoner begging the sympathy of a patronizing world, nor am I apologetic of my unveiled self as an unwrapped candy inviting male gaze. Normalizing one over the other lays claim to women’s bodies and their choices, reducing their dynamic personalities to the clothes that they wear.
No matter how much literature has been produced and discourses generated around the Islamic practice of veiling, still to this day, the dominant mainstream perception about the veil is that it is a tool of oppression wielded by a patriarchal religion, denying freedom and choice to Muslim women. Conservatives, progressives, liberals, and even radical feminists alike take it for granted that Islam oppresses women and veiling is always forced upon them, and they steadfastly refuse to accept it as an actively and personally chosen practice. This assumption endorsed religiously by many, adamantly refuses to acknowledge the autonomy of female choice to veil and thereby paradoxically denies women the very agency and freedom that it claims to advocate. Such a view makes even the most bizarre forms of protest by white feminist groups like Femen, whose activists had gone topless to demand ‘freedom’ for their Muslim sisters, seem rational. Those who confuse veiling with a lack of agency are not only naive but also oppressive in forcing a certain version of freedom and liberalism on women who actively prefer to be different. Offensive is not the choice of some women to experience liberation in veiling, but offensive is the suggestion that a Muslim woman is brainwashed into choosing the veil, that she is a prisoner inside that; and thereby deny her the autonomy to be a free agent acting upon the expression of her faith and conviction.
By virtue of its visibility, the Muslim veil is the most potent and popular among the overused and clichéd symbols employed historically by the mainstream media and popular culture to differentiate and distance a different culture that is Islam. The obsession with the veil intensified along with its resurgence after the September 11 attacks that sparked new waves of fear and suspicion about Muslims, where, more often than not, headscarved Muslim women became the target of Islamophobic attacks and unique forms of discrimination. September 11 transformed the meaning of the Muslim veil so much so that, ironically, in the post-9/11 scenario, the veiled Muslim woman became both the visible target in societies where she was attacked, and the invisible victim in countries against which war was waged to ‘save’ her. The oppressive veil, be it in colonial Egypt, post-colonial Algeria, Taliban ruled Afghanistan or in laïcité France, is a continuing imperialist myth historically and strategically employed to lend rationale to every form of discrimination and humiliation from military occupation to anti-immigration policies. In the cacophony of exaggerated stereotypes and misplaced anguish over Muslim women being held hostage by an unassuming piece of fabric, the historical and political contexts that inform these present global anxieties get ignored.
In today’s world of hyper-mediated reality, a simple choice of dress acquires a whole lot of social, political and cultural significations, reactions that vacillate between acceptance and rejection, approval and suspicion, sympathy and antagonism, all the while forgetting and conveniently ignoring the woman herself who gets to be judged solely on her appearance. A meek and pity inducing figure of a woman in a characteristic Taliban styled blue cover-all chador splashed across international newspapers or two kohl-lined imploring eyes from behind a veil plastered on the glossy covers of best-selling Muslim women’s memoirs silently speak volumes about the exotic and oppressed victim as opposed to any real life interactions with self-willed, educated, professional and veiled Muslim women negotiating religion and life on their own terms.
However, Muslim women and their choice of dress are also victimized by institutionalized religion endorsed by political regimes that impose severe dress codes for women. The misogynist views of organized religion and the Western stereotypes about the primitiveness and inferiority of Islam both converge in using the veil as an opportune symbol to keep women constantly under pressure to conform to a particular body image so as to be accepted in the public domain.
Many non-Muslims as well as Muslims are often misled by the media frenzy surrounding the veil and are clueless about the debates and interpretations raging around the religious edicts making veiling mandatory for Muslim women. More than being specific about any particular form of veiling, the Quran’s onus is on an expression of modesty that is not confined to any particular form of dressing alone, but to a spirit of all-encompassing modesty in dress, behavior and attitude to be maintained by men and women alike. Islam emphasizes the importance of modesty, but the type of dress worn often depends on culture and context.
Blinded to the diversity of Muslim women’s lives, the current debates raging over their choice of dress accomplish nothing but merely recycle boring and predictable stereotypes that effectively veil and sideline more urgent and pressing issues that plague and constrict women’s lives like blatant racism, economic discrimination, political instability, continuing war and occupation, dwindling natural resources, and many more serious matters that demand constructive responses and lasting solutions.
The popularity of the veil in Muslim majority and Muslim minority societies is a new reality of contemporary Islam that can no longer be dismissed or wished away as a backward step that needs to be ridiculed or discouraged. As long as acts of covering are not forced and are autonomous practices of female choice and free will, they must be respected. The language and meaning of freedom, rights, choice and agency do not exist equally binding and justly accessible for all women at all times in all societies. More often than not, it is this individual who chooses to wear the veil out of her personal conviction and belief is the one who gets sidelined and ignored in the controversies ranging over a piece of fabric that becomes the centre-point of so much of angst. There is a striking lack of awareness why even educated, socially active young women accept this form of clothing deemed oppressive and obscurantist by popular understandings. For women who veil, their faith in God and their identity as Muslims are profoundly meaningful, productive and reason enough to be consciously ‘different’ in their dressing. This mandates constant need of explanation and defensiveness on part of Muslim women like me who repeatedly get defined entirely in terms of what we wear. Even in the midst of such exasperation, I often have a good laugh over the self-righteousness with which my Malayali Christian neighbor grade me as a progressive, liberal, unorthodox Muslim woman, who, for her, is an anomaly because I don’t always veil, I teach English, my husband does not eat meat and I have just two kids! Old stereotypes, home or abroad, die hard!
Minu Fathima is Assistant Professor of English, Govt. College, Tripunithura, Kerala. She is also doctoral candidate at School of Letters, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, pursuing research in post 9/11 immigrant Muslim women’s writing. Her areas of interests are women in/and Islam, post 9/11 fiction, minority literature.
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