AS WE ALL KNOW, veiled women are a dowdy, dumpy bunch. They are women with no thoughts or opinions of their own, women who can’t so much as shut the bedroom window if they’re getting a draft without first consulting a man and asking his permission. Maybe, back when they were three or four years old, they dreamed of grander things from life, but now that they are adults they’ve been forced to wear the shroud, walk three feet behind their husbands, and stifle whatever hopes and feelings they used to call their own under the guise of being hapless helpmates to domineering men.
Then again, we ALSO know that unveiled women are wanton sluts, women who require nothing more than hearing a man call “hey, baby” on a street corner and suddenly they’re in the backseat of his car, throwing their legs in the air while shrieking whee, I love Satan!
At least that’s what we’ve been told. I heard it on television and read it on the internet, so it must be true.
Or wait, did I get it wrong? Perhaps it goes like this:
Bare-headed women are liberated and free, sure of themselves, comfortable with their sexuality, a page straight out of Cosmo. They are women whose lives are filled with meaning and purpose; above all, they are modern — unlike backwards veiled women, who wouldn’t recognize their own oppression if it hit them on the head with a slipper.
Or no, wait, what I meant to say was that veiled women are the true feminists, women who are secure enough in their sexuality that they don’t need to engage in some base attempt to advertise it — unlike their sell-out sisters, who are so desperate for attention that they will abandon every iota of self-respect in a sad attempt to grovel for male approval. (“Tee-hee-hee, have you seen my belly ring?”)
Well. Maybe not. To all of the above.
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A Saudi friend of mine once said that “the only thing more cliché than talking about the veil is apologizing for talking about the veil.” She’s right; the subject’s boring, long-exhausted. Yet, for Muslim women, it’s one subject that won’t go away. Here’s an insider tip for my male Muslim friends, even the so-called progressive ones who say they don’t care whether women veil or not: the difference between you and me is that you’ve never had to make this decision. And as much as we love you — plural — for claiming that you don’t care what conclusion we come to, the fact is you will never have to be in this position. And that, right there, makes your experience of Islam different from ours.
This is especially true in the United States. Which might seem odd, because we have no laws about veiling here, but that’s part of the reason the issue is so contentious.
In Iran, because veiling is mandated by law, a woman must be especially progressive to wear it in a lax and casual manner (in public) or forgo it altogether (in private). Veiling is the norm, so she’s well aware of the statement she’s making when she rejects it.
On the flip side, in France or Turkey — where there are laws against veiling inside various public institutions – a woman is, presumably, especially religious if she decides to take it up. Since not-veiling is the default, for Muslim and non-Muslim women alike, going against the grain of public opinion requires a commitment to Islam that most observers would understand to be something over and above the mere coincidence of being born into a Muslim family.
In the United States, however, it is precisely the freedom of choice I so cherish that makes this such a complicated decision for the Muslim women who live here. The cultural norm – the “average American” woman – is unveiled, but the predominant image of a Muslim woman, even among non-Muslims, is that of a muhajabah. Therefore a muslimah who decides not to veil is seen as transgressing against her community and will have her commitment to Islam doubted, while the woman who does decide to veil is seen as rejecting everything about American life save for her religious practice. We can’t win; there is no middle ground. Being 51% one way or the other is seen as a complete rejection of the other side.
In case you weren’t listening the first time around, let me be clear: I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m opposed to both the French ban on veiling and the Saudi mandate for it, and listening to the Dutch whine about the loss of their Pure Dutch Culture [sic] in the face of all these – gasp – immigrants is one of the few times I’m proud to be American, where multiculturalism is an established fact, however imperfectly it’s practiced.
But I also remember living in a country where the signifiers weren’t so strong. I’m told it’s different in Egypt now — that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of Cairene women now veil — but when I was living there, in the early 1990s, it was closer to 50/50. I loved that. I loved, especially, that there was no great social divide between veiled and unveiled women; you’d see differences of opinion even within a single family. One of my sisters-in-law veiled, one did not, the third took it up for a few years and then changed her mind and took it off. None of this was a matter of any great controversy. It didn’t even merit much discussion.
This is not to downplay the choices Egyptian women had to make. One friend of mine at the university said her father never forced her to veil, but it was only after she decided to take it up that he allowed her study late at the library, walk home unattended, and otherwise participate in public space in ways he wouldn’t have permitted without her willingness to adopt the hijab and, accordingly, serve as walking symbolism for everything the hijab represented in the popular imagination. On the other side of that spectrum, there was another girl I knew, also Egyptian, who said she wanted to veil but worried it would interfere with her career as a journalist. She wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and she was afraid people would read so much into her scarf that they wouldn’t get around to reading her words.
Can the choice to veil or not veil in such a context truly be considered “free”? I don’t know. Then again, I know plenty of American women who will tell you no one forced them to diet, but they believed that being thin facilitated their right to speak with authority in a manner they’d have lost if they had to confront the bias against fat women in a country where being heavy is equated with a loss of self-control and a where a loss of self-control is considered shameful, if not downright sinful. My point here is not to excuse the former because of the existence of the latter: only to argue that there is nothing uniquely “Islamic” about a woman negotiating with the patriarchy, nothing specifically “Muslim” about a woman who trades in Her Personal Ideal in favor of getting what privileges she can with a minimal amount of compromise. We ladies, the world over and religion notwithstanding, have been doing that for thousands of years.
I wonder, though, if our notions of “Islamic dress” had evolved in such a way that the turban (for example) was considered as mandatory for men as the hijab is for women in some circles, would Muslim men in the West expound on the subject with the same confident manner they do now, one that is as flippant as it is self-assured? I’m sure 10% of men would wear it everywhere without a second thought, and another 10% would scoff at the mere idea of it. But for the majority, those in the middle, it would (I would hope) elicit a little more reflection. Do you risk community censure for being one of those “non-turban guys,” knowing that – before you even open your mouth – your bare head will be considered, by some, proof that you eat pork, drink alcohol, never pray, love capitalism, support colonialism and the war in Iraq, neglect your children, and cheat on your wife? Or do you take it up, knowing that, in different spheres, it will brand you as ignorant, ascetic, oppressed, and/or radical? Be careful! Remember, you don’t get to choose how you want to be seen at this event, or with that crowd of people: the choice you make has to be applicable for all times and circumstances. No fair picking one option for a family reunion or protest march, and another for your first nervous job interview at Chase Manhattan.
For a while, in Cairo, I lived across the street from a girls’ high school and would watch these young scholars stream out of class after the final bell. There would be the same roar of high-pitched laughter I recognize in teenage girls anywhere, in any country, as they coagulated in groups in the garden, or at the front gate: veiled girls interlinking their arms with girls who wore their hair uncovered, occasionally leaning over to whisper some secret that necessitated pushing back a girlfriend’s headscarf or ponytail, depending, in order to have access to her ear. The intimacy of girls that age is always charming to me, but it seems even more endearing in retrospect, knowing that they were doing something that, in so many parts of the world, would be considered a radical act: ignoring the politics of the veiled/unveiled split in favor of interacting with the human being inside.