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Why Is the Veil Such a Contentious Issue?

Wearing of the veil among the Arabs, much after the spread of Islam, was more a matter of social status than a religious injunction. It was only later, when western colonial rhetoric began touting the veil as an expression of Muslim backwardness, that it began to be seen as a symbol of retaliation against colonial arrogance. Besides, is the opposition to it out of a concern for women's rights or is it a desire to conform to western thinking?

Why Is the Veil Such aContentious Issue?

Wearing of the veil among the Arabs, much after the spread of Islam, was more a matter of social status than a religious injunction. It was only later, when western colonial rhetoric began touting the veil as an expression of Muslim backwardness, that it began to be seen as a symbol of retaliation against colonial arrogance. Besides, is the opposition to it out of a concern for women’s rights or is it a desire to conform to western thinking?


n the face of it, the controversysparked off by Shabana Azmicalling for a debate on the veilwould appear to be simply a controversyover the shariat and its interpretation. Thisis how it was represented by Muslim clerics who raised the objection that Azmihad no religious education and could notpronounce on the veil.Are the shariat and its interpretation reallycrucial to this controversy? Or, are thereother factors responsible for making theveil such a contentious question, not onlyin India but in other parts of the Muslimworld as well? As far as the shariat is concerned, there exists clear theological andhistorical evidence that the veil is hardlydemanded by the shariat and was not acommon practice in Arab society whichsaw the emergence of Islam. The Quranicverse which the Muslim clerics cite as endorsing the veil amounts to no more thana recommendation that women should dress modestly and go about with circumspectionin the public domain.Veiling was not a common practice inArab society for a long time after theadvent of Islam. Veiling existed in pre-Islamic times and was not introduced byMuhammad. As among the Greeks, Romans, Jews and Assyrians, who too practised veiling, it was connected with socialstatus. Only the women of the upper socialstrata wore the veil. Commoner Muslims neither wore nor were obliged to wear it.Even Muhammad’s wives did not go aboutwearing the veil. Accounts of early Islamicperiod tell us about Aisha and another ofMuhammad’s wives carrying water to menin the battlefield, their garments tucked upand their anklets showing.This freedom came to be curtailed for Muhammad’s wives as he aged and hisstanding required that his wives should bedistanced from commoners. A series of verses were revealed requiring his wivesto wear the veil (‘darabat al-hijab’) which was interchangeably meant to denote boththe veil and separation. In fact, in the‘hadith’ literature the expression “she hastaken the veil” meant she has become the wife of Muhammad, which goes to showthat veiling was restricted to his wives andwas not practised widely. It was only later,by which time Islam had travelled to territories where seclusion of women was an established practice, that the promotion ofMuhammad’s wives as models for other women to emulate and growing prosperitythat veiling came to be practised morewidely, but was never an issue of publicdiscourse.

Matter of Public Debate

It was in the 19th century that the veilbecame a matter of public debate. Thepeculiar practices of Islam with respect towomen had always formed part of westernrhetoric of the inferiority of Islam. Withcolonial penetration, this rhetoric becameincreasingly central through a fusion of theearlier rhetoric of inferiority of Islam withthe language of newly emergent feminismin the west. Even though the Europeanmale establishment contested the claims of feminism back home, it redirected its language to cultures and people in thecolonised societies. With respect to Islam,the construction was that Islam was inherently oppressive to women, that the veilepitomised this oppression, and that thesepractices constituted the principal reason forthe general backwardness of Muslim societies. Veiling in the western eye became thesymbol of both the oppression of womenand the backwardness of Islam.

One of the consequences of the virulentcolonial attack on native customs and practices, including the veil in the Muslimworld, was that it provoked a strong reaction. Native thinkers argued that theircultural practices were not an expressionof their backwardness. They were rather asign of their civilisation and were not to beabandoned. They should be followed with


Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006 greater vigour as a means of retaliationagainst the colonial attack on their culture.What was merely a form of apparel thus cameto be vested with a symbolic significance.The veil came to symbolise in this resistancerhetoric the dignity of those customs thatwere under fierce colonial attack.

Colonial domination succeeded in producing, as Macaulay was to later articulatein the context of India, a class which had acquired attachment to colonial valuesand began to look at their own societiesthrough colonial prisms. Qassim Amin, a19th century Egyptian intellectual, calledfor the abandonment of the veil in Egyptand Kemal Ataturk administratively outlawed it in Turkey. Both came up againststrong opposition because the local populations saw them as highly influenced bywestern culture and as being in line withthe colonial attack on the veil and other practices which the colonial powersasserted reflected native backwardness.

The story has recurred many times indifferent Muslim societies and has alwaysinvoked a similar response. This has happened not because of what religion has tosay on the issue of the veil. It has happenedbecause any reference to the veil as beinga sign of backwardness or oppression ofwomen brings back memories of the earliercolonial attack and an attack on the veil is seen as coming from those who areculturally affiliated to the west and haveno roots in their own societies and social milieu. This is as true of the reaction againstQassim Amin in Egypt, Kemal Ataturk inTurkey or Shabana Azmi and other feminists, whether Muslims or others, in India.

Two Questions

Essentially two questions lie at the root ofthe opposition to those who call for a debateon the veil or would like it to be abandoned. The first is the autonomy of women. Noone can deny that as an item of dress, theveil can be relevant to women’s rights.However, the substantive question to whichmany Muslim women, whether or not theydon the veil, draw attention is: who has the right to decide whether or not the veilas an item of women’s apparel is relevantto women’s rights? Should this decisionbe made by Muslim men and women whoseopposition to the veil is founded on westernconceptions of what is appropriate forMuslim women? Or, should this decision rest with Muslim women themselves? ManyMuslim women are prone to arguing thatwhen items of dress – bloomers or bras – momentarily figured in the discourse offeminist women in the west, the decision to focus on them was that of women themselves. Why should the focus onthe veil be decided by men or womenwho have already abandoned it?

Alongside this, an additional questionoften raised by Muslim women in thisconnection is whether those committed to the abandonment of the veil seriouslybelieve in the liberation of women. Or, is what they are asking for merely substitution of an Islamic type of patriarchy witha western type of patriarchy without aradical alteration of gender relations. Sincemost Muslim reformers from Qassim Amin in Egypt, Kemal Ataturk in Turkey andReza Shah in Iran have been themselves strongly patriarchal and somewhat misogynist, this question cannot be easilybrushed aside. Many Muslim women, whoare perfectly at ease taking cudgels withMuslim clerics for depriving them or rightsguaranteed under Islam, ask whether thecall for abandonment of the veil arises from genuine concern for women’s equality or merely represent words and acts ofthose assimilating to western ways andsmarting under the humiliation of beingdescribed as backward because “their” women wear the veil. Muslim reformers need to address these misgivings beforethey can hope to succeed.



Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

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