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Reasons for the Veil

For Islamic feminists, the power of the veil in neutralizing women’s sexuality is an interesting theme to explore. The veil is one way by which Muslim women are able to free themselves from the “obsession with sexualising women.”44 Some veiled Muslim women look at the veil as the means by which they have control over their bodies, thus not subjugating themselves to the demands of an increasingly consumerist society which uses and abuses their bodies in advertisement and economic profiteering.45 Accordingly, the veil becomes a symbol by which women are treated as “persons, rather than as sex objects.”46 Practically speaking, as some women assert, veiling gives them better control of their own selves, rather than being a form of externally imposed control over their bodies and behaviors. In such a situation, the argument goes, veiled women can work more freely than their unveiled counterparts, without attracting the gaze of men.47

As discussed in an earlier chapter, some secular feminists assert that there is a negative impact of this symbol on a woman’s identity.

Yet this reasoning would necessarily entail that women, more or less, put on the veil for a limited number of reasons. The assumption is that a woman puts on the veil because she is forced to do that, either directly through the power of the state or a father or husband figure, or indirectly through the power of institutions which offer sanctions for such behavior. Another assumed reason relates to the false consciousness argument as described above. In both those two general explanations, women’s identity will suffer as she is behaving to please others, either towards dominating male figures or towards powerful societal institutions. Such decisions, it is argued, are not taken by a woman’s own will, and thus her identity is tarnished. This leads her to make decisions that are not truly hers.

The above line of argumentation fails to note the multitudes of reasons why women put on the veil, a thing that has been extensively explored in prior studies.48 There are women who put the veil yielding to the power of the law and/or power of strong cultural norms. This explains some veiling cases in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan under the Taliban (the latter two are not Arab countries). This does not exclude the fact that there are many women in those countries who freely choose to put on the veil for other personal reasons. In all cases, however, those three contexts which are greatly and disproportionately covered in the media, do not explain the mosaic of the female veil in Arab and Muslim countries, and even in countries where Muslims are the minority. Women put on the veil for various reasons, many of which are not captured by observers. Sometimes the same Muslim woman may offer various explanations as to why she wears the veil.

It would be inappropriate to shame the “return to the veil” movement by reducing it to powers of brainwashing or patriarchy. Some women put on the veil because they simply believe that this is a religious requirement. While those women may not necessarily agree with all what religious scholars (ulema’) have to say in terms of the exact specifications of the Muslim dress, they embrace a dress style which they believe makes them good Muslims before God. Linked to this reason is the perspective that the veil serves as an expression of Muslim women’s modesty and morality.49 The veil is just a statement, often directed inwards, that they find more personal meaning in this dress code. While the religiosity argument seems intuitively plausible as to why some women put on the veil, it is surprising how this reason is often immediately discounted.

Of course, some who put on the veil are impacted by the dress codes within their own cultures. After all, cultural conditions are part of how people live their lives and make their choices. This applies to all people, Muslim or non-Muslim, male or female, veiled or unveiled. In the case of veiled women in Arab and Muslim countries, this explains the multitudes of veil fashions that are found.50

Other reasons for putting on the veil could be more politically oriented. The veil to some is a symbol of protest against a ruling government or a perceived unjust system. The growth of the veil movement in Egypt in the late seventies and early eighties is often put forward within that context. The headscarf thus becomes to some women a means and a symbol of protest and revolution. The veil could also be used as a means to affirm one’s identity and an expression of an “anti-colonial solidarity and resistance.”51 Veiling could also stand to reflect Muslim woman’s independence. It could be a vehicle to get better access to the public space, or it may represent a solution to the quandary of choosing to get into paid employment while undergoing a feeling of guilt about such a decision.52

In sum, the much celebrated false consciousness argument fails to capture the myriad experiences and motivations of veiled Muslim women. The reasons differ depending on many factors including whether a woman lives in a Muslim majority country versus countries where Muslims are a minority, whether she is politically active, whether she is affiliated with activist groups, the environment in which she lives, her social or economic conditions, or even whether she is religious or not. In sum, there is no one exclusive reason that can be brought forward to explain why women choose to put on the veil.

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