Veiled threats, behind the veil, women who veil, unveiling the Middle East. Today we’re going to talk about veils, known colloquially as a hijab. How much political hubris a piece of fabric holds, how many assumptions, both cultural and religious, can be built into a loose cotton weave and just why are people so intrigued by the whole thing? Can it ever be just a scarf or does it always carry with it some broader social implications? I’m going to do what I can to answer all of this for you. So turn your lanterns down low, stick Fairuz on repeat, and come with me as I take you on an exotic journey full of cultural assumptions:
All Middle Eastern Women Must Veil/ Forced Veiling is the Worst!
And women in America are coerced into to wear miniskirts and thongs! What? No? This is not the case, you say? How strange, it almost seems like widespread stereotypes are often wrong. Look, some women in the Middle East are forced to veil. In Iran the hijab is obligatory. In Saudi Arabia it is technically not obligatory but because of the very heavy hand of the Mutaween (the police of vice and virtue), most women are forced to wear it and often opt to go a step further to the niqab (face veil).
Is this awful and invasive? Of course it is. But it is equally as wrong to assume that some chiffon can keep these women powerless. Doing this takes away from the numerous accomplishments made by Saudi and Iranian women, including revolutionaries, pilots, and playwrights. It’s also equally foolish to assume that two out of 30+ countries in the wider Middle East are somehow representative of an incredibly diverse group of people.
Furthermore, if you ask an Iranian or Saudi Arabian woman if she’d rather lose the hijab or have a representative democracy the vast majority would prefer to oust their dictators first. I’m not at all suggesting that the two are mutually exclusive or that we should ignore forced veiling. What I am saying, rather, is that these women have much bigger problems then what they wear on their heads. They are being tortured, jailed, denied freedom of expression, and sometimes put to death for relatively minor offenses. When the West chooses to focus only on the Very Scary Hijab not only does it show an exasperating level of ignorant privilege to everyday hardships, but it also does a giant disservice to much more terrifying injustices suffered by these women. Let’s stop forcing women what to wear, but let’s also stop acting like clothes are the biggest problem these women face.
Why Would a Woman Ever Choose To Wear It?
It is crucial to understand that the hijab is not just a symbol of religion, but one of culture. Asking why some women wear a hijab is like asking a basketball fan why they wear their favorite jersey: because they are proud of their team and its players. Well, plenty of Middle Eastern women are proud of their roots too. There are a lot of strong, amazing women in Islam and some women like to emulate the Prophet’s wives (who veiled) by veiling themselves.
Others think of the hijab as just another accessory. The multitude of colors and fabrics that they slide over their hair every morning is just another beautiful decoration. That their green and gold silk scarf goes well with their dusty brown leather jacket.
Then there are women who wear it for religious reasons. The Qur’anic verse that advocates modesty is … ambiguous at best. It states that women should cover their chests, act humbly and basically all the same stuff you’d read in your local Bible. It is the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet as retold by those around him) that states more specifically that women should only show their hands or their face.
There is debate and differing interpretations over just how accurate this retelling of the Prophet’s words were. However, plenty of women feel confident that this is what their religion requires of them and so they happily veil. I always find it interesting that the way women choose to express their spirituality in the West is almost always met with praise. If a nun is in her habit we call her sister, if a Hasidic Jewish woman is in a veil we assume she makes a mean knish, but the second a Muslim woman proudly shows her spiritual faith on the outside we assume she’s somehow coerced. In Tehran that assumption would be understandable, but in Brooklyn it is incredibly infantilizing.
But There is Cultural Coercion, Don’t Pretend That Doesn’t Exist!
Of course cultural coercion exists. Once a woman reaches a certain age in the Middle East (or gets married) there is often pressure from numerous sources to veil. In some of the more conservative Gulf States, these demands can come with brutal intensity. But how is that any different than the demands that are put on Western women’s bodies? If you compare the two you actually find a striking number of similarities.
In both cases outside forces are telling a woman what she should look like to be considered “worthy” or “proper.” If a woman balks or speaks out against that she is considered uppity or a rabble-rouser. Some women, of course, will give into this pressure. This can be demoralizing, dangerous, and even lead to extreme cases where we hear of girls dying over it.
However when Western women speak about media images we often hear empowering messages. “Rise above it” or “Screw the ideal perfect woman!” Yet when these same women confront coerced veiling they often forget empowerment. Anger at her oppressors and condemn Islam as a whole or Muslim men in bulk take the place of reasonable discourse. This sets up Muslim women, who still love Islam and most likely their brothers, to distrust the help of Western women. After all, if one isn’t listening to or helping the women involved, it’s silly to pretend one’s primary concern is women.
There is no doubt that certain attitudes need to change, but female activists are already on the move. One Yemeni activist named Tawakkol Karman publicly removed her veil, defiantly shrugged, and now has a bevy of male and female supporters who follow her lead. What this argument seems to come down to, really, is one of support. Are you supporting female activists in the region or are you simply demoralizing and infantilizing them using language like, “all women there … “? It’s an important distinction to make, because as it turns out, Middle Eastern women don’t actually need anybody else talking down to them.
It’s also worth pointing out that much of the Middle East has a fairly large number of women who go much of their life feeling very little pressure to veil. In cities like Damascus, some women walk around in niqab whereas others spend their lives in sundresses. In Beirut or Tunis there is more social pressure not to veil then to sport a hijab. Even in Morocco, considered much more conservative than the Eastern Mediterranean, it’s normal to see local women wearing T-shirts in the cities.
It’s a Way to Destroy Their Individuality!
Like Hollister or American Eagle? Hijab styles are actually incredibly diverse. They come in different shapes, some in squares, some long, some wide. They come in every conceivable color or a multitude of iridescent shades. Let’s also not forget to decide on embellishments such as rhinestones or decorative stitching. Of course if you’re feeling rich you can always go designer. Pick Hermes, Chanel, or Fendi. Then pick a fabric. Chiffon, cotton, pashmina, raw or refined silk, georgette, lace, gunee, lycra, or polyester. After that there’s a folding style. Yep. She can have it cascading down the side, loosely wrapped, with a high bun, with a low bun, tucked close to her chin in Dubai style, or fold a modified Egyptian headwrap that shoes off her earrings. If she wants to play some futbol there are sport hijabs and should she feel like taking a dip, there are swimsuits that also cover.
Even the customary black abayas (robes) and hijabs prevalent in the Gulf are varied with intensity. One Abaya has jeweled stitching; one with flaps cut so when the wind picks it up butterfly wings flap behind her. It’s fairly common to have custom abaya and hijab made for many wealthy Gulf residents, because off the rack just isn’t going to give them that extra oomph. These wardrobes cost into the tens of thousands of dollars, and if you are intent and only looking at the surface, then sure, an all black wardrobe might make you smirk. But if you’ve ever touched the delicate stitching, interwoven silken layers or seen the level of craftsmanship that goes into such pieces, you quickly realize how much more attention these women actually give their clothes.
I find it very interesting that amongst many Middle Eastern women, veiling is considered a personal, relatively indifferent subject. Most conversations I’ve overheard and participated in consists of shrugs with an ultimate conclusion being “meh” and “you do what you want.”
Of course there are some women who do feel very passionately about the importance of it, but the vast majority of these women will keep their opinions to themselves. Those who don’t can be easily likened to busybodies in the US who harp on young women to “stop wearing all that makeup, because you look like a tramp.” Seriously, just Google Tyler Momsen and look at the comments and you’ll see that judging a stranger’s appearance is hardly an Islamic trait.
Middle Eastern women have made leaps and bounds in the last decade. Today more are graduating, gaining careers, marrying for love, and using birth control than ever before. Yet, the amount of women wearing hijab isn’t exactly dwindling. That’s because, and I’m only going to say this once: the hijab is not magic. It can neither protect nor harm a woman. It is an indifferent cloth, like your jacket, like your shawl, like your bra. It will not oppress or liberate, educate or delegitimize, create virgin or whore. There are full and autonomous human beings, and it’s about time we started treating them as such.
So ask what can be done to help, rather than explaining what needs to be done. Listen to their stories and believe them when they tell you that they feel naked without it. It is equally as important for Arab women to not let themselves be pitted against each other by forces berating fellow sisters for not “integrating” quickly enough. But it is imperative above all that we let this issue go. It is, after all, just a scarf. Let’s fight to end forced veiling, fight to end forced unveiling, let’s slip on our favorite garb and then we’ll all go out for tea. My treat.