(Essay) The Veil. Oppression for Millions

Based on the paper “The Veil. Oppression for Millions” by Misty Smith. Originally published on August 27, 2017.for HIS-311 at Southern New Hampshire University.

*Please note: I am a lifelong learner; therefore, I study various religions and cultures. I do not intend to promote one over another and believe that everyone has the right to believe as they wish (or do not believe).

The essay presented here is based upon the question: “Some authors have interpreted the veil as a tool of empowerment, while others have analyzed the historical contexts that influenced interpretations of the Quranic verse about veiling. Moghissi {see Bibliography} situates the veil in the context of colonialism, class, patriarchy, and third-world poverty, and dismisses claims about its liberating nature. In this essay, take a stand about the veil.Is the veil a liberating tool of empowerment, or is it a means of oppressing and controlling women?”

The Veil. Oppression for Millions

The debate over the veil has been ongoing for centuries between the Muslim world and the outside world. On one side of the debate, it is stated that the veil is a deliberate attempt to oppress and control the women who practice Islam. On the other side, supporters of the veil wish it to be viewed as a tool of freedom and empowerment for the women who wear it. It is the viewpoint of this student that although the veil has various meanings in the Islamic world, depending upon the geographical location, and that it is still a tool based upon misogynistic views and a blockage of women’s rights worldwide.

When many modern day people think of the wearing of a veil they most likely imagine it as a part of Islam. However, the origin of the veil is not Islamic and can be traced back to as early as 13 B.C. in an Assyrian text which proclaimed that the veil was to be “reserved for elite, ‘respectable’ women; prostitutes and women of lower-classes were forbidden from veiling”.[1] Furthermore, throughout the centuries the veil has been used in numerous non-Muslim societies such as the Greek and Roman societies, eventually becoming a “symbol of social status among Muslims”2 in the 16th century.

However, the history of how veiling was introduced into Islam has been used to both justify and argue it’s against its use altogether. The Prophet Muhammad had many wives, and those wives at first were very vocal in sculpting Islamic ways and customs. However, that was short-lived and Muhammad himself placed them into seclusion from the peering eyes of other men of his time. Historical sources state that it was a combination of instances that led to the wives of Muhammad being placed into seclusion and veiled from public view. The first account depicts the scene of Muhammad’s wedding to Zeinab bint Jahsh, where the guests of the wedding would not leave Zainab’s chambers so the marriage could be consummated and the Prophet was too polite to make them leave.[3] Next, the guests had touched the hands of his wives, in particular the hand of Aisha who was well known to be the favorite among all his wives.[4] These events, according to lore, lead to Muhammad being begged to hide his wives away for their own protection, “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (Sura 33:59). It is the argument of many that the directive did not come from God but by man, therefore it is not required for women to wear the veil and that in fact, it is a way to oppress women and punish them for the ill thoughts and actions of men.[5]

Arabian Nights, first published in 1704, is still a prominent fixture in mainstream media portrayals of Arabian women.

During the time of colonization by European countries, Muslim and Arab women were degraded by the invading forces, used as blatant sexual depictions, and a means for the public to allow the conquest of lands to continue.[6] Western males often saw the Arab women as an enslaved sexual possession of their husbands and nothing like the wives of their own lands who enjoyed freedom.[7] However, some men of that age, such as Schopenhauer, further used the veil as a means to accuse all women of being “weaker in her power of reasoning, narrow in her vision, intellectually short-sighted [sic], with no sense of justice…”.[8] However, it was these types of views which gave way to many Muslim men veiling their wives, who had not before, as a means of protection against the Western men and their ill thoughts.[9]

However, now we find that post-colonial viewpoints have changed the very fundamentals of the veil in most Islamic societies and what was once saw as a protection is now seen as a hindrance to a woman’s freedom. According to Marnia Lazreg, the veil has lost its religious meanings in some Islamic societies, “…the veil was looked down upon as an archaic custom, devoid of substantive meaning”.[10] Furthermore, Lazreg points out one of the most repeated views against the veil in that the veil in Islam is not religious, but historical, therefore it is subject to evolve with cultures.[11] Additionally, modern-day critics of the veil use examples from areas such as Afghanistan in arguing against women wearing. For example, it has been well documented that the veil has been forced upon many women by ruthless rulers such as the Taliban as a means of control.[12] In addition, in many areas of the middle east where women are forced to veil they are also killed for ‘shaming’ their families by going against what the male members of the family demand they do or become.[13]

On the side of support for the veil, examples come from areas such as Egypt where some women find the wearing of the veil a truly liberating experience. For example, some women believe that the veil shows that they are decent women and that it outwardly shows that trait to men and saves them time and hassles of explaining who they are to men.[14] Furthermore, some women have found that the opportunity of finding suitable partners and husbands increase with their voluntary wearing of the veil.[15] According to Sahar Amer, the veil is allowing Muslim women to enter the world that was once only attainable by men,“ The number of Muslim women with college degrees has been steadily rising. Many of them are professionals, having entered the workforce in fields and occupations traditionally monopolized by men.” [16]

In conclusion, although some modern-day activists claim that the wearing of the veil is that of the liberation of women, allowing them to venture into the world that was long kept away from them, it is still seen worldwide by many as a means of oppression. The argument against the practice of veiling stands strong with examples throughout history pointing to veiling as not a form of religious practice but the means by which mean control and hide women away from society. Starting with Muhammad veiling his women from public view from what many decipher to be that of jealousy, to the colonialism views of Western men it reads as if women are being punished and hidden away for things they did not do. Therefore, the age-old argument that women should not have to hide their true form from men because men can not control themselves stands strong against the veil.

Footnotes:

1. University of North Carolina, “History of the Hijab,” Arabs in America, accessed August 21, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, n.d.), 54-55.
4. Ibid.
5. Jacob Poushter, “How people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public,” (Pew Research Center, 2017).
6. Haideh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, (London: Zed Books, 1999): 13.
7. Ibid, 14.
8. Ibid, 15-16.
9. Ibid, 17.
10. Lazreg, Marnia. 2009. Questioning the veil : open letters to Muslim women. n.p.: Princeton: Princeton University Press, c2009., 2009. SNHU Online Library Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed August 27, 2017).
11. Ibid.
12. Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” (American Anthropologist 104, no. 3, 2002), 783-90.
13. Ibid.
14. Al Jazeera English, “Everywoman” (video), 2008, accessed August 25, 2017).
15. Ibid.
16. Sahar Amer, What Is Veiling? (Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks) by Sahar Amer (2014-09-02) (n.p.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Bibliography:

Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” (American Anthropologist 104, no. 3, 2002), 783-90.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, n.d.), 54-55.

Al Jazeera English. “Everywoman” (video). 2008. Accessed August 25, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/rewind/2016/11/veil-161121105212227.html.

Amer, Sahar. What Is Veiling? (Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks) by Sahar Amer (2014-09-02). N.p.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Lazreg, Marnia. 2009. Questioning the veil: open letters to Muslim women. n.p.: Princeton: Princeton University Press, c2009., 2009. SNHU Online Library Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed August 27, 2017).

Moghissi, Haideh. Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, (London: Zed Books,1999), 13-47. Poushter, Jacob. “How people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public.” Pew

Research Center. Accessed August 24, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact- tank/2014/01/08/what-is-appropriate-attire-for-women-in-muslim-countries/.

The University of North Carolina. “History of the Hijab.” Arabs in America. Accessed August 27, 2017. http://arabsinamerica.unc.edu/identity/veiling/history-of-the-hijab/.

 




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