How Exactly Does Veiling The Face Empower Some Women?
“Nudity empowers some women. Modesty empowers other women. It’s not your place to tell what a woman should wear.”
It’s one of the most popular quote shared across social media in defence of veiling and hijab. It’s only natural that nudity empowers some women. Being proud of our body, just the way it was created liberates us from various societal expectations and norms. However the second sentence of the quote can be rather fascinating. With relevance to veiling, how does covering the face, hair and neck in particular empower somebody? I’ve often raised this question with my Muslim friends. My Muslim friend asks me if I’ll eat a roti (Indian wheat bread) that’s covered in foil or the one that’s kept open in air. “That’s how we Muslims treat our women. We keep them pure & protected by veiling,” he claims. I have a serious problem with that analogy. A woman is a person and it’s ridiculous to equate them with objects. That’s one way you shouldn’t treat women. Woman’s chastity won’t attract fungus like a roti does. My friend goes on to add, “Women should be admired for their mind and personality, not for their beauty.” My contradictions only seem to grow. Princess Diana was admired by billions for her beauty and that doesn’t make her any less dignified than million other women who veil their faces. If mind and personality is all that men must look for in a woman, does that imply that Muslim men marry their women without taking a glance of their lady’s face? I am afraid not. Claiming veiling liberates women from male scrutiny propagates sexist ideas that men are sexual predators. Objectification of women as sex objects has more to do with mindset than clothing itself. It’s because of that very mindset that some conservatively dressed women itself slut-shame other women who wear tank tops and shorts.
Every new argument in defense of veiling has only raised more questions than answers. Most of these arguments in defense of hijab were scripted only after 20th century when fragments of feminist groups in West became among the first set of women to equate the custom with patriarchal oppression in large-scale. Prior to that, the custom of veiling the face prevailed unchallenged for centuries without any need to be defended. Now, that calls for understanding of origin of the custom. When did women start veiling faces and more importantly, WHY?
The custom of veiling the face precedes the origin of Islam itself. The first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in an Assyrian legal text from the 13th century BC. In the patriarchal society of ancient Rome, married women were often chiefly clothed than unmarried women. Apart from survival and modesty needs, a new motive of clothing was furnished in Roman era – a moral protection on a man’s property (read: women). Roman women were expected to wear veils as a symbol of the husband’s authority over his wife; a married woman who omitted the veil was seen as withdrawing herself from marriage. In 166 BC, consul Sulpicius Gallus divorced his wife because she had left the house unveiled, thus allowing all to see, as he said, what only he should see. It is significant to note that it was in the same period that women’s clothing (gender specific clothing) came into existence as opposed to unisex clothing worn prior to the period.
Concept of veiling found its way into every Abrahamic religion which united together the masculine virtue of modesty and prescription of sexual abstinence. Rise of Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam thereby cemented the survival of veil for centuries to come. However, it is remarkable to note that Asian religions like Buddhism & Sikhism strongly condemned and opposed seclusion and veiling of women.
The sexist attitudes that led to origin of veiling are quite evident within religious texts. Based on 1 Corinthians 11:4–16, St. Paul wrote that any man who prays with his head covered (with hat) brings shame upon his head whereas any woman who prays with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head. St. Paul goes on to explain, “A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man.”
The veil (purdah) found its way into Hindu households in India after Mughal conquests in Medieval era. Many Indian Hindu men often boast about how women in their household won’t attend guests unless their faces are veiled. Of course, jealous husbands of our patriarchal past had a significant contribution in protecting the custom of veiling, overtly emphasizing on chastity, modesty and purity of a woman. The earliest women who veiled their faces were clearly slaves of man’s insecurities.
While the origin of veil has sexist roots, is the veil itself oppressive? No. There is nothing inherently liberating or oppressive about the veil, just like there is nothing inherently liberating about going naked. Liberation or oppression depends on having or not having a choice. Did a woman veil her face to protect herself from harsh weather or did she wear it because her husband forced her to? It’s about the choice and context.
Muslim women in liberal Western countries enjoy more social freedom than elsewhere in the world. They often utilize their voice in defense of veiling, primarily for cultural and religious sentiments. A healthy number of veil defendants are classic example of Stockholm syndrome – a view held by many ex-Muslims too.
Ex-Muslim is a curious term. The punishment for apostasy in the Islamic faith is death. Capital punishment extends to atheists in over thirteen Muslim majority nations. Those societies are completely devoid of LGBT rights. Countries like Morocco drops criminal penalty for rape if the rapist agrees to marry the victim. That should elucidate the status women in Muslim dominated countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Women are prosecuted, flogged, tortured and even killed for not complying with a specific dress code. In those countries, hijab, niqab or burqa aren’t a freestanding choice for women.
It’s because of the oppressive roots of veiling custom which continues to exist till date, that there’s nothing progressive about Dolce & Gabbana’s hijab range. You would realize how bizarre it is if Dolce & Gabbana created a range of slave rugs inspired from Apartheid and dumb Western media celebrated about how inclusive and diverse the collection is. It can’t be put more straightforward than this – D&G is looking for easy money from cash rich Middle-East & they’re playing diversity card.
Western world has a rather naive understanding of Eastern cultures. Political leanings in America can get a bit funny. If conservative right wing opposes something, it instantly gains approval from liberals without much thought or analysis. What the Western liberals don’t realize is that veil is symbol of basic human rights violation for millions of Muslim women elsewhere in this same world. The liberal society of West boldly defied church’s stand on LGBT rights. However the same liberals are explicitly careful to not hurt Islamic religious sentiments by boldly taking a stand against the dogmatic, sexist and misogynistic undertones of veiling customs. These are times when anything slightly critical of Islamic culture can get a non-Muslim branded with Islamophobia. It’ll actually be liberating even if even 10% Western Muslim apologist voice that went in defence of veil actually bothered to address the issues concerning the veil elsewhere in the world.
Ideally a liberated woman wouldn’t need to build a protective fence around her, even if it’s made of fabric. A liberated woman wouldn’t give a fuck about societal scrutiny of her body. Covering the hair and neck with a fabric isn’t going to miraculously liberate women. Liberation comes with freedom to choice – freedom to veil or not veil.