The Veil Is Not Oppression, It's Chic, Say Muslim Women

Leela Jacinto

Voices on the Veil: Is the Veil Oppressive or a Celebration of Identity?

When the Taliban lost control of Kabul last November, the world waited for Afghan women to immediately shed their burqas, or all-encompassing robes. But it didn't quite happen that way.

Most women in Afghanistan today still cover their heads as they have done for centuries. And many women across the Islamic world say the hijab, or traditional headscarf worn with loose clothes, should not be seen as a sign of women's oppression, but a statement of their identity and religion.

Is the hijab just a matter of identity? Or do you think the underlying reason for the hijab is to restrict a woman's mobility and participation in society? Do you think women opt for the hijab to feel secure? And should they?

The Veil Is Not Oppression, It's Chic, Say Muslim Women

By Leela Jacinto

March 7 – It was a well-meaning post-Sept. 11 art project aimed at drawing attention to issues of violence and oppression in these tumultuous times.

But when Sunita Mehta, co-founder of the New York-based Women for Afghan Women (WAW), got a phone call from the artist asking for a burqa, the all-encompassing robe worn by women in Afghanistan, she was at once suspicious.

"I asked him why he needed a burqa," says Mehta. And when she heard that the artist, Robert Galinsky, wanted a male rape victim to take off a burqa in the course of a multi-media art project in New York City to symbolize a stripping of layers of captivity, she inwardly groaned.

But the co-founder of the women's rights group did take the time to explain to Galinsky just why all this symbolism surrounding the veil quiet frankly, gave her a headache.

"I told him that as a group we have unanimously decided that we just don't want to talk about the burqa. But when it is brought up – usually by American women – we explain that it is not an issue for Afghan women. The issue is war, disease, hunger, famine and the Afghan women in our group do not want to talk about the veil or make it the focus of our work."

While women across the world will celebrate International Women's Day on Friday with a nod to the achievements made by the women's movement and a reminder of the work yet to be done, many Muslim women in the United States gripe about the excessive attention the media has been paying to what they call "behind the veil" stories.

What's even more galling, they say, is that the West just can't seem to get the picture right.

Waiting for Signs of 'Liberation'

Last November, when Kabul, the city where she was born, fell from Taliban control, Homaira Mamoor watched in dismay as newscasters eagerly waited for Kabuli women to shed their burqas in a sort of symbolic personal celebration of their socio-political liberation.

"I was frustrated with the Western media's misconception about the burqa and women in Afghanistan," says the 33-year-old WAW member. "They see it as a symbol of oppression, but the burqa has been part of Afghan tradition for centuries. And as long as women wear it as a matter of personal preference, how can you say it's a symbol of women's oppression?"

Oppression was not a word that sprang to mind outside the Islamic Cultural Center of New York mosque in Manhattan on a recent Friday shortly before noon prayers. Women sporting a range of headscarves – from colorful, elaborately draped African veils to austere gray Turkish scarves – haggled unremittingly with hawkers outside the mosque peddling veils of every conceivable hue, shape and texture.

"I've gone through two fashion phases," says Lina Omara, a 31-year-old Muslim from Bolivia whose dusky lavender eye-shadow perfectly matches her smartly draped veil. "I would make my own hijab [veil] with textiles that I bought from garment stores and would drape it really long and flowing at the back. These days, I buy hijabs from stores, but I never use pins. No pins for me," she says.

For this particular chilly Friday afternoon, Omara, who converted to Islam a year ago when she married a Muslim, has elected to wear her hijab low over her forehead and tucked behind her ears in what she calls her "Tutenkhamen style" after the Egyptian pharaoh.

Veils Across the World

Across the Muslim world, from high-end fashion stores in Dubai to more economic ones in working-class Cairo, women shop for a range of Islamic garb from stark black abayas in feather-light chiffon or heavy cotton, to exquisitely embroidered gallabeyas – or long flowing gowns – and ornately beaded and sequined hijabs.

The diversity ranges from the gallabeyas and abayas with scarves of the Arab world to the chador or manteau (coat) and russari (scarf) of the Persian world to the chuni or wispy fabric accompanying the shalwar kameez in the Indian subcontinent to an assortment of veils and burqas worn in Muslim Southeast Asia and Africa.

They all fall under the rubric of the hijab, a term loosely, if not always accurately, employed to denote loose clothing topped by a headscarf.

The Islamic imperative for veiling stems from a passage in the Koran that states: "Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty. They should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their ornaments."

But within Islam, the issue of veiling is a subject for considerable debate. Some Islamic experts say the text is open to interpretations, which has accounted for the diversity of veiling traditions across the Islamic world.

"Although the Koran does call upon women to cover their heads, the measures change from tradition to tradition," says Ibrahim Kalin, an Islamic scholar and fellow at George Washington University. "The burqa in particular, is part of local traditions in different parts of the world. While the Koran does not obliterate the need for hijab, Muslim women have a choice based on their circumstances. But Koranic injunctions definitely call for modesty in dressing."

Pushing the Fashion Envelope

But while most Muslim women say the hijab signifies iffa (modesty), tahara (purity) and taqwa (righteousness), in a globalized world where tradition and modernity meet at street corners across the globe, hijab styles seem to be pushing the envelope.

Even while the West watched footage of women in Kabul begging for bread in shoddy, bulbous burqas during the Taliban years, many veiled women in Dubai wore Liz Clairborne jeans below their abayas, Egyptian college girls strolled through Cairo's Khan Khalili market in skin-tight jeans and clinging lycra tops with sedate headscarves on, and Turkish women in Istanbul sported the latest cuts in clothing and footwear teamed with Gucci look-alike modern silk scarves casually draped over their heads.

Said Samir, a photographer from Cairo whose wife is not a mohajaba – the Egyptian slang for a woman who wears the veil – believes the new hijab chic is not just a meeting of tradition and modernity. He believes it's a sign that modern Muslim women want it both ways.

"I think young girls in Cairo with jeans and makeup wear hijab because they think it's a better approach to attract husbands," says Samir. "This is how it is here. Boys want modern girls who aren't "loose." So the hijab gives out the message that she has traditional values while the makeup and tight jeans proves her modernity."

"American Muslims Are Good Muslims"

But Yumna Malik, a student at Hunter College, New York, who started wearing the hijab when she was in seventh grade, is dismissive of her world Muslim sisters' sartorial displays.

"They don't understand Islam," scoffs the 20-year-old biology major. "I wear hijab because God wants it. Islam calls for modesty and moderation. I don't know about other people, but I think American Muslims are good Muslims because we have so much temptation around us, that we respect it more."

While many Muslim women see the hijab as a religious and cultural bulwark against what they call the excessive sexualization of the female body by market forces in the West, some women's scholars say there are problems on both sides of the East-West divide.

"I think we need to respect women's choices to don any garb they want," says Valentine Moghadam, director of Women's Studies at Illinois State University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. "But when donning the hijab by choice, it gets more problematic because the idea that a woman has to cover her body to protect herself from men – or that men have to be protected – sends a wrong message. As wrong a message as women's bodies being sexualized in the West by the MTV and Hollywood industry."

A Contentious Issue

Within the women's movement, the hijab continues to be a contentious issue that threatens to split the movement on ideological grounds.

Leftist women's rights groups in the developing world continue to condemn the hijab. And last year, when Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, sued the Defense Department challenging its regulations making it mandatory for female military personnel in Saudi Arabia to wear the abaya outside the base, she was supported by the Washington-based National Coalition of Women's Organizations.

In January, in an apparent nod to McSally's case, the Defense Department announced that some of the restrictions for female military personnel in Saudi Arabia had been eased. Military women are now no longer required to wear the abaya, but are "strongly encouraged" to wear it. While McSally's case is still in the courts, some women's rights groups say this apparent "victory" in reality means nothing.

The message, when it comes to hijab, might be a complex one, but at the heart of the issue, experts and ordinary women say, is a matter of choice.

"There's a difference if Muslim women choose to wear the hijab or they are forced to wear it," says Jean Abinader, managing director of the Washington-based Arab American Institute. "It's a matter of religious freedom and women and men should be allowed to express themselves."

And it's a message Galinsky finally learned after a long phone conversation with Mehta barely a week before his show goes up in Manhattan on Friday. In fact, he was so illuminated, that although it was too late to do away with the burqa in his multi-media ensemble, he invited WAW to do a write-up on the burqa for the art project and to distribute literature about the issue at the event.

"All I wanted was to convey the sense that as an American, I too feel trapped by my government's decisions," he says."But after listening to them, I felt like a very naïve American. I do feel enlightened now though, and I realize that the burqa has been very misrepresented here."

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