Veiled and Pissed Off

Mona Eltahawy isn’t the only amazing feminist to come out of her family. I work (and am friends with :) ) Nora Eltahawy, her sister. I wanted to write about Nora for a second, because, when I moved to Cairo I found a feminist kindred spirit in her and it reminded me (because i am ignorant or forgetful or naive, or something) that there are tons of great feminists in the Middle East, and in Egypt specifically.

When I first met Nora it was hard not to notice her veil. But what surprised me was that she is veiled and her sister, Mona, is not. Mona, though, was veiled for nine years. Nora lived, for 17 years, in Saudi Arabia, and I know (from her) that it turned her into a staunch, proud feminist (irony?). She recently wrote a post on Facebook (I know, I know, the world is slowly being taken over by Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies) about the veil, and I feel like I have to post it. Because it’s great. And, for all the talk of “behind the veil,” “approaching the veil,” etc. etc, it’s refreshing to hear Nora talk about her own veiling.

Her note, titled “Veiled and Pissed Off” prompted a flood of comments, most in strong support of her thoughts and feelings, but there was one special Facebooker whose comments I’ll paraphrase with later:

How many of you can claim the following statement is true:

Today I was stopped from filling out a survey on beauty because I am veiled.

I can.

Allow me to explain: upon walking into HUSS lab and finding Sherin filling out what looked like a fun student-written survey that tests different opinions of beauty, I decided to ask to fill one out myself. That was when I was informed by the rather stuttery ‘researcher’ that I couldn’t – because I am veiled. The official excuse was that her professor thought including veiled girls’ opinions would make the data “too broad”. Any veiled girl who has ever faced discrimination knows that the ‘official’ and ‘real’ excuses have nothing to do with each other.

Because I was powerless to do anything in the situation (but cry…but that’s a story for another note), I had to write this. The following is dedicated to all the people of my own culture, religion, and university who will never understand the type of life I lead. I hope someone puts you all in your place one day. And I hope that someone is a veiled woman:

– I will not self implode if I hear you talk about sex. My decision to cover my hair did not and does not signify the death of my sexuality. Just because I choose to not have sex does not mean I can’t talk/think/obsess/intellectualize about it. So fucking get over yourselves.

– That brings me to another thing: Yes. I cuss. If you’re looking for saints, Catholic iconography is more useful to you than my life.

– Look up the word ‘subjective’ in the dictionary. Add it to ‘beauty’ and you will realize that people are SUPPOSED to have different opinions about what they find beautiful. What is on my head does not make my opinion any less valid than yours. I still look at hair dye in the supermarket. I freak out when I forget my eyeliner at home and can’t reapply it at uni. And not only do I know just as many brandnames as you – I can spell them better.

– It’s strange that there seems to be more contention surrounding the link between smoking and cancer than there seems to be surrounding the link between headcovers and intelligence. My GPA, language skills, and ability to be a good student/employee do not disappear along with my hair.

– STOP FREAKING WRITING BOOKS THAT HAVE ‘Going Behind the Veil’ IN THEIR TITLE. Pseudo-feminists, let me save you a lot of time and a whole lot of bad writing: you want to know what’s behind the veil? Hair. Now can we move on?

And most important of all points:
– You make my life a living hell everyday. More than the neo-fascist regimes of the West that force unveiling on women, that decry my religion in popular culture, and that choose people of my belief for ‘random’ security checks in airports. Anne Coulter can claim ignorance; all you can claim is stupidity and sunglasses big enough to swallow your face.

I will end this with a fantastic poem by a woman who is much more eloquent on this subject that I can ever be – Mohja Kahf (a Syrian American poet, scholar, and professor). With the exception of the defect/American part of this poem, it is like having my thoughts written down by another person.

Hijab Scene #7

No, I’m not bald under the scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where women can’t drive cars
No, I would not like to defect
I’m already American
But thank you for offering
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
Off your assumptions,
They’re going to blow you away

(From: Emails to Schehrezad by Mohja Kahf)

So, Nora’s writing out of anger and frustration. That’s pretty apparent, but props, mad props, to her for getting out her frustrations. I’m told, by her, as the neanderthal that posted this was subsequently blocked, that a one Muhammad from Qatar wrote to her (she doesn’t know him, mind you) saying that “Egyptian men made an agreement not to marry women like you and you will have to turn to homo.” That’s intelligent. He also commented that women like Nora are a “danger to society.” Some other ridiculous things were said, but I think you all get the point.
Veiling is a really tricky issue. Because for a lot of Muslim women it’s a choice. I’m Muslim and I have never veiled. And I probably never will. My mother never veiled either (note: this does not mean that we don’t veil inside the mosque, that I do). If I don’t want to don the hijab but Nora does, that is entirely my decision and hers, respectively. In some countries (read: Iran, Saudi Arabia) the Morality Police like to jump on their high horses and, yes, women are forced to veil. If it’s not a choice, then that’s problematic. However, I always find talking about this a bit hypocritical. Maybe I’m just not comfortable with it yet. Sometimes I feel like the patriarchal societies that dominate Islamic culture and tradition condition women to believe that they should veil, or they should practice FGM, or they should allow their husbands to beat them because…after all…they are just women. Bah. See? A tricky line to walk.

Something especially frustrating was listening to an Arab woman, who came to a lecture last week by Mona on “Violence Against Women: Media and Culture in Egypt.” She commented saying, essentially, “how can we change anything and ask for equality when our husbands are the ones that should be taking care of us, and they should be supporting us?” Ugh. In order to make change within the context of the Islamic culture, America can’t just run into Afghanistan and start yelling at women to take off their burqa. Hey! Look! The Taliban are gone, start ripping that burqa off. No.

So…at the end of this post, I have no definite answers. The veil is a tricky, tricky subject, which I’m sure I’ll continue to write about because it confuses me, irks me, challenges me…keeps me trying to figure out my own Islam and trying to figure out the Islam of the girl sitting next to me wearing a niqab.


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47 Responses to Veiled and Pissed Off

  1. MizDarwin says:

    Thanks for this. I’m always so interested to hear perspectives on veiling from Muslim women. It’s not the kind of thing I ever like to ask about, because Muslim women have other things to do than stop everything and enlighten me … yet another way blogs are so good.

  2. Dharmaserf says:

    It is really refreshing to hear the voice of veiled, or not veiled for that matter, Muslim women. One of the things that I find so interesting about the discourse of the veil is that the humming and hawwing from both Muslim misogynists and Euro-American care-trolls both seem to have similar structural placement as patriarchy by using women as pawns for their own agendas. Whether it is to demonize “them” for what they do to “their” women, or whether it is to discipline one’s own “women” in order to reassert male privilage–structurally, these are similar political moves. It seems to me that what the two sides (admittedly, I am straw-manning here) share is that they are both taking up Orientalist themes and both systematically oppress women by disciplining their behavior with normative claims–whether this is from a (albeit naive, and sometimes, well-meaning) colonial positionality or an anti-colonial positionality (i.e. the “fundamentalization” of Islam is, in part, a response to 19th century colonialism and, dare I say it, its perceived emasculation of Islamic regions).

    Fauzia, I really liked that you pointed out that if veiling is not a choice (whether legally, or by the dictates of social control) then it is not what it is meant to be. Whether or not that is historically true, and I am not a scholar of Islam to know that answer–under the signs of modernity and liberty it seems theoretically necessarily to be the case that a hermeneutic of the veil should involve choice. What I find even more interesting is how women use the veil as sites of restistance, whatever it may be that they are resisting.

  3. preying mantis says:

    “- I will not self implode if I hear you talk about sex. My decision to cover my hair did not and does not signify the death of my sexuality. Just because I choose to not have sex does not mean I can’t talk/think/obsess/intellectualize about it. So fucking get over yourselves.”

    I’m kind of curious about this point. The veil* is usually (not always, I know) a modesty thing, isn’t it? I know nobody’s going to have an aneurysm just because there’s a discussion about sex going on within earshot, but at the same time, if I see, say, a woman with a whacking great cross around her neck or Amish garb standing right next to me, that usually isn’t going to be my cue to start talking about the documentary on German latex fetishists I saw on HBO last night. You are looking at an outward sign that the wearer is theoretically interested in separating themselves from overly prurient influences, after all–flouting that unnecessarily doesn’t exactly seem polite.

    It’s never a good idea to be a jerk about not doing something around someone, or to make a huge deal out of it being something that you think isn’t for them; I can see where people behaving that way day in and day out would drive someone straight up a wall. I don’t see where it would be unreasonable for someone to just not bring up those sorts of subjects, or shy away from it if someone else did, while a veiled woman was present until they knew her well to know that she was okay with it. Am I missing something big, or is her irritation stemming from people being histrionic douchebags about it in order to other her?

    *We are talking about the niqab and not the hijab, right? If not, I just wrote a couple paragraphs for nothing.

  4. Leo says:

    If Western regimes that force women to unveil for ID and security purposes and allow for freedom of speech, which, holy crap, sometimes includes criticism of Islam, are neo-fascist then what are the vast majority of Muslicm countries. Paleo-fascist? Last time I checked, not only did women have to wear veils in Saudi Arabia but the punishment for not doing so was a lot more than not being able to get a drivers license. Oh wait, that’s not even an option to begin with. Furthermore, Jews in Saudi Arabia..Oh wait they are not allowed to exist. And when Christians try to preach…oh wait, there might be the death penalty for that. Look, I realize ignorance and insensitivity towards the veil might be annoying and even hurtful to deal with every day. But throwing around bombs like neo-fascist makes one lose all credibility in my eyes. Simply put, in the West, covering up someone’s entire face is very unorthodox and prevents one from engaging in the same way Westerners are used to engaging. People are just used to seeing other peoples’ faces. That doesn’t excuse any kind of hate or discrimination. But being unable to hide one’s discomfort at not being able to see the face of the person in front of them doesn’t make someone a gigantic bigot or neofascist. Nor does making someone take a veil off for an ID given that the purpose of an ID is to match a face. I realize that wasn’t the main topic of the post, so I apologize for the slight digression.

  5. Rebecca says:

    My aunt married a Muslim from Kuwait, so I grew up with Arabic aunts, uncles and cousins. Some of the women wore the veil and some (mostly the younger ones who were either children when they moved to America or were born here) did not. Maybe because I was young, I just accepted it as something they did and never really thought about it.

    I know in some countries women have no choice but the veil and in some countries, it is a choice that some women take advantage of and some do not for various reasons.

    When I see a woman wearing a veil, I generally put it on the same footing as when I see someone wearing a cross or other religious article. It is simply something they do and as long as it is a choice they make, not really any of my business.

    I’m aware this is a very naive, American-centric point of view, but there there you go. It’s simply another way of looking at things.

  6. Entomologista says:

    All religion is a waste of time. However, I typically confine myself to criticizing Christianity, since that is the tradition I grew up with and therefore feel like it is mine to criticize. Not only am I not familiar enough with Islam to offer many criticisms, but it’s simply not my place. You’ve got to get freethinkers from inside the tradition in to be really effective.

  7. Onymous says:

    Hey… I know Nora, she’s a friend of my best friend.

  8. M. says:

    I don’t understand the purpose of the veil if you are going to wear brand names and makeup. It’s pretty much wearing a big sign on your head saying “modesty” and then wearing a mini-skirt. I just don’t understand that.

  9. Fauzia says:

    Wait, wait wait. M. How are brandnames/makeup and modesty mutually exclusive. You’re implying a whole of things with that statement. Maybe I’m assuming some things here as well, but mini-skirts and makeup aren’t necessarily on the same level. But I guess I’m assuming there is a level (or multiple levels).

    If a woman wears brand names then she isn’t modest? What?!? If you go to Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Lebanon or Iran you will see women wearing Gucci “hijabs” and giant Prada sunglasses. They are still covered. Are they not modest?

    So what is defined as modesty? Shunning all of that? Brandnames, makeup, etc? There is a certain assumption about beauty here then as well. That seems problematic, don’t you think?

  10. Sirkowski says:

    That girl has issues. And she’s using that veil to convince herself she’s a victim. Annoying.

  11. Fauzia says:

    That girl has issues. And she’s using that veil to convince herself she’s a victim. Annoying.

    Wow. Well, I think you’re missing the point. Maybe she has “issues” (who doesn’t), but I don’t think she’s using the veil to convince herself she’s a victim. I think she is actually doing quite the opposite. She’s angry that just because she wears the veil there are automatic assumptions. I do understand that the veil symbolizes a sense a modesty and, yes, I, too would be hesitant to start talking sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll with a woman wearing a veil. But I think the point here is that if a woman wearing a veil makes it apparent that she’s willing and open to discuss, participate, etc. then why block her out?

  12. dinogirl says:

    This is really interesting Fauzia, thanks. I have one question though – is she talking about wearing the hijab or the niqab? I always assumed ‘veil’ referred to a face covering so niqab – but she also says that under the veil is just hair?

  13. Fauzia says:

    is she talking about wearing the hijab or the niqab? I always assumed ‘veil’ referred to a face covering so niqab – but she also says that under the veil is just hair?

    Great question. The term “veiling” has a slightly different meaning than we’re used to. Veiling would imply wearing something to cover your face as well. But, that doesn’t necessarily apply here.

    Veiling is usually a general term for “covering of the head.” There are many different types of veils: hijabs, burqas, niqabs, and chadors. Hijab is the more specific term for the actual head scarf. If someone says, “She’s a mohaggaba that usually means she wears a hijab or just a head covering.

    A burqa is the most concealing of all the veils. It leaves a mesh opening for eyes, but everything else is completely covered.

    Niqabs are a veil for the face that leaves an opening for the eyes, but only the eyes. Sometimes women who wear niqabs also wear gloves to cover their hands. It depends on the woman (or their husband/brother/father in some cases).

    Chadors, more commonly associate with Iran, today, is a large black shawl that covers the head and the body. It leaves the face open.

    Niqabs can be found everywhere, but are more common in Saudi Arabia. Burqas, as I’m sure we all know, are usually worn in Afghanistan, though I’ve seen quite a few women wearing them here in Cairo (and I’ve also seen many women, including American University students wearing them).

    The color of a veil, the way a veil is worn, and how decorative it is are oftentimes forms of cultural expression and identity in Muslim societies.

    Hope this was clear!

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  15. Nora says:

    Hi everyone, this is ‘the’ Nora (if I may give myself the importance of referring to myself that way) mentioned in the post. I just want to contribute by saying a couple of things:

    1. Yes, I am referring to the head veil (hijab) and not the face veil (niqab).
    2. In reply to preying mantis who said the following:

    “Am I missing something big, or is her irritation stemming from people being histrionic douchebags about it in order to other her?”

    You aren’t missing anything big – you actually hit the nail on the head right there. I just graduated from a university hailed to be one of the centers of liberalism in the Middle East where I majored in English and Comparative Literature. One thing that irks me to no end is when people censor themselves around me, and I felt just that in several of my classes. When discussions of a sexual nature would come up (and trust me if you don’t already know, they come up a LOT in literature), the less ‘enlightened’ in class would peer at me out of the corner of their eyes and hold their breath. I’m not entirely sure what they were expecting – perhaps for me to rise up in anger and wave a Quran around but, regardless, I felt that what was/is on my head was stifling (at least initially) a conversation I was perfectly willing to participate in. Indeed, because of people’s overt preconceptions about the veil (my idiotic classmates’ behavior being one example), three of my closest friends took it off.

    Another thing that constantly happens is that people who meet me for the first time voluntarily lie about the way they live their lives because, I can only assume, they feel they have to appease me. While I understand – and appreciate – that hijab makes a statement about how I choose to live my own life, it saddens me when people take it as a sign that I will automatically end a conversation and/or doom the person in front of me to hell if I hear details of a lifestyle different from my own. I can’t count to you the number of times people (once again, VOLUNTARILY) go off on a rant about how bad alcohol is in front of me, only to later talk openly to an unveiled friend of mine about their clubbing/drinking escapades. And I find that incredibly condescending, especially since I consider myself a liberal in the political sense of the term – I may choose to live this way, but I would never support the imposition of lifestyles on anyone by anyone.

    My veil may say ‘I reject that lifestyle’, but it decidedly does not say ‘I reject YOU, because you choose that lifestyle’. If you know what I mean.

    “You are looking at an outward sign that the wearer is theoretically interested in separating themselves from overly prurient influences, after all–flouting that unnecessarily doesn’t exactly seem polite. “

    True. But my point about sexuality was never an invitation for incessant or outwardly explicit sexual comments. Few women I know – veiled, or otherwise – would appreciate hearing that. Instead, my point was about rebellion against *cultural* (and I star that to distinguish it from religious) norms in the Middle East that dictate an almost complete silence by women on topics of sexuality. To a lot of people in this region, a woman can either talk about sex OR can be a modest Muslim. As I repeatedly tried to explain to my Qatari-Egyptian attacker on Facebook, I am proud to belong to a religion that views sex as healthy and rewarding. Foreplay is mentioned in the Quran, the Prophet is known to have advised Muslims to cater to the nature of female orgasm, and yet many people STILL expect me to cower in shame at the mention of the ‘s’ word.

    I suppose what my note comes down to at its simplest terms is my desire to be seen as a human being , and for many fundamentalists and liberals alike – that is asking too much.

  16. Umm Yasmin says:

    I’m always interested in posts about covering / veiling, partly because I do myself.

    The point I want to make is that there is no single veil for Muslim women. Veiling or covering can mean lots of different things depending on the context. The veil of an upper-class woman in Saudi is very different from the veil of the tribal woman in Afghanistan which is very different from the veil of an Caucasian convert living in the United States, which is very different from the veil of a Malaysian student and so on.

    Even covering in Islamic religious law has far more to do with what one wears in front of the Almighty when one prays, than it does about sexuality and politics.

    But it always amuses me – being a middle-class Anglo Westerner who also happens to be a Muslim who wears religious coverings – when my Western sisters talk about oppression and patriarchy etc. They talk about freeing Muslim women from hijabs, I’ve yet to meet one who is willing to flout their patriarchy by walking bare-breasted down main-street.

    :)

  17. MizDarwin says:

    Fauzia–re: comment 9. I think the definition of modesty is a very interesting thing. In the Jewish tradition, “tznuis” (modesty) not only applies to rules about what needs to be covered (collarbones to elbows to knees, and hair if you’re married) but to an attitude, that one should not dress in such a way as to draw attention to one’s self. Hence, fancy designer clothing, jewelry, furs, etc. are not tzniut.

    Of course about 95% of Jewish women who follow the laws of tzniut DO wear those things, if they can afford them! But that’s really against the concept. And I think from a Western perspective, we have a cultural feeling that “modesty” means plainness in dress as well as covering up. The Amish, the Quakers, etc. So fabulously made-up and accessorized veiled women cause dissonance to us, although it might make perfect sense from a Muslim/non-Western point of view.

    I struggle with the concept of tznuis myself, to what extent it’s merely patriarchal and to what extent it can help female solidarity by reducing looks-based competition among women. And it is TOTALLY not my personality to avoid seeking attention. But this is what we do with religion (which neither the fundamentalists nor the militant atheists understand)–we struggle with it.

  18. SoE says:

    Not exactly against patriarchy… A demonstration to show support for those taken in custody during the G8 meeting for being a member of the black block. There’s a law in Germany to prevent people from covering their face and the black block always does just this. Long story, short: Absolutely NSFW with all those naked demonstrators

    To come back to the topic: Many people probably have no idea what a particular veiled woman thinks. So you have the possibility to talk about your last night in the pub or which guy looks best and what you would like to do to him and get a disapproving look or even a rant about hurting this woman’s feelings. Or you might just skip it and never find out if she might join the discussion.

    Except for those who actually lie to a veiled woman most people just try to be nice. No one feels comfortable to rant about the problems of being 6 feet when standing next to a girl of 5 feet. You don’t agonize over problems with your boyfriend when with the friend who has been an unhappy single for many years.

    To most people a veil is like a big sign “Trouble”. They don’t know why you wear it, what you want to achieve by doing so and how to deal with it. They’re not out to do any malice but misunderstandings happen.

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  20. Lisa Harney says:

    I really liked that poem. I can relate to the anger from having to negotiate a constant stream of frustrating assumptions.

    I can relate to the essay too, although in my case I was politely told I couldn’t have my hair done at a particular salon, which also left me in tears. There was the real reason and the reason they said.

    Thank you for posting this.

  21. Brad Jackson says:

    My veil may say ‘I reject that lifestyle’, but it decidedly does not say ‘I reject YOU, because you choose that lifestyle’. If you know what I mean.

    Unfortunately, how can I tell that unless I know you personally? Other people with big honking religious symbols very much, and quite vocally, *do* reject me. As I said, I can see how it’d be annoying to you, but the fact is that in general big honking religious symbols == intolerant jerk who will scream about God if you look at them funny. I’m glad that in your case that isn’t true, but you can’t reasonably expect that I abandon all my prior experience with people displaying giant religious symbols because you are exceptional among them.

    Wearing large and unmissable symbols of any religion, from my POV, is a way of othering yourself, and that always seemed, again from my POV, to be the point. To say, in essence, “I am special, different from you evil sinners, because I am quite religous and you are vile scum of the Earth not worthy to even look upon my religiosity!”

    I say that not on any irrational basis, but on the basis of past experience. Generally, when I have met people wearing giant religious symbols (since I live in the Texas panhandle its typically crosses the size of hubcaps, or T-shirts with various fundie Baptist sayings and symbology), they have tended to be extremely touchy about sex, and to have started ranting and raving about the evil of society, and screaming about God, at the slightest provocation, or even with no provocation at all.

    Like Preying Mantis said, it seems to be a notice that the person who has gone so far out of their way to advertise both their religious affiliation, and their strength of conviction in their relgion, don’t want to participate in normal, sexual and secular, society. So I attempt to avoid being screamed at by a) having as little to do with such people as possible, and b) if I must interact with them avoiding any subject I think is likely to set off a screaming, spittle filled, rant.

    Given that “strong religious belief” so often maps to “is uptight about sex and will rant at you”, I don’t think its unreasonable to assume that someone displaying big religious symbols is quite possibly going to start ranting. I can see how, if you aren’t that kind of person, it’d get annoying seeing everyone getting nervous when sex comes up, but given how other people with big religious symbols have behaved in the past, it isn’t unreasonable. If, after people have come to know you personally, they still act that way, its a different thing. But how could a random person in your class, who has never met you before and knows nothing about you except that you have gone out of your way to advertise that you are extremely religious, be reasonably expected to assume that you aren’t one of the jerks?

    I’ll also admit that there are enough right wing anti-Islamic twits out there who will use any and all excueses to discriminate against Muslims that its sometimes hard to separate people who just don’t want to risk a screaming rant about the evils of sex from a bigot who wants to sneer at a Muslim.

  22. english_rosebud says:

    “- I will not self implode if I hear you talk about sex. My decision to cover my hair did not and does not signify the death of my sexuality. Just because I choose to not have sex does not mean I can’t talk/think/obsess/intellectualize about it. So fucking get over yourselves.” (Nora)
    “I’m kind of curious about this point. The veil* is usually (not always, I know) a modesty thing, isn’t it? I know nobody’s going to have an aneurysm just because there’s a discussion about sex going on within earshot, but at the same time, if I see, say, a woman with a whacking great cross around her neck or Amish garb standing right next to me, that usually isn’t going to be my cue to start talking about the documentary on German latex fetishists I saw on HBO last night.” (Preying Mantis)

    With regard to what Preying Mantis said in comment 3, asking whether the veil is usually a modesty thing, as far as I understand it’s not quite as simple as that. I read an article a while back on the BBC (sorry, didnt’ write down the link!) about Muslim women in some post-colonial country in the Middle East who saw the act of veiling primarily as asserting their Arab ethnic identity against that of their former European occupiers. In other words, the act of veiling for them was more a cultural and nationalistic statement than purely a religious one (although the extent to which religion can ever be divorced from its cultural and religious context is of course another question entirely). And thus, when the “Euro-American care trolls” and even sometimes feminists ramble on about what they assume is the submissive passivity of women behind the veil, they completely miss the point – the act of veiling in and of itself can be an act of self-determination and a statement of defiance.

    I’m not a Muslim and I’m also not a scholar of Islam, I’m only a lowly medievalist, so someone with more knowledge please do correct me!

  23. Nora says:

    In reponse to Brad Jackson:

    Everything you say makes perfect sense within the context in which you were raised. However, I think it’s time to make a distinction:

    While there is a huge amount of debate surrounding the veil as a requirement in Islam – some people believe it hasn’t been asked of women at all, some, like myself, believe the head-veil is what’s been mandated, and some believe women are asked to cover their faces – everyone in the Middle Eastern/Muslim world have the understanding that women who choose to cover do not do so to set a standard of ‘I’m so religious’ but are, instead, carrying out one thing that’s been asked of them. Although I do not believe that the mandate to veil is as important as, say, fasting – it’s useful in the case of the point I’m trying to make right now to equate them as religious requirements that people strive to adhere to in their own way.

    Because of the above, I tend to see the veil (one of several requirements in a wide-scoped religion) as different from, for example, wearing a large crucifix or a sloganed tshirt (neither of which are mandated in Christianity, and both of which are used to set their wearers apart from the ‘common masses’ to put it cynically). While I understand that the veil has taken on the same political/religious connotations as large crosses etc.., I think it’s important to note that it remains, for many people, more a personal, religious observance – where the wearer thinks she is fulfilling an Islamic obligation – than any kind of glaring statement.

    Also, even though it’s off topic, I’d like to point out that the above is the very reason bans of religious symbols in French public schools caused such a controversy in the Muslim world. Christians and Jews who were asked to remove crosses and skull caps respectively were (and correct me if I am wrong) not barred from an ‘obligatory’ part of their religion – unlike the case of Muslim women who were asked to remove their head scarfs.

  24. Cara says:

    Sigh. Several of the comments on this post are highly depressing. I don’t recognize the commenters enough to know if they’re trolls, but I certainly hope that they are. I’d hate to think that they’re furthering the horrid and well-deserved stereotypes about us white feminists as self-centered, racist and willfully ignorant (and no, by “ignorant,” I’m not referring to those who are genuinely and politely asking questions).

    But thank you, Fauzia and Nora for taking the time to write about these issues, particularly in front of an audience that is made up of a white majority. While I think that most here are receptive, there are enough who act like assholes to make the task daunting.

  25. alsojill says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m inordinately fascinated by the veil, in large part b/c I am interested in the ways in which traditionally “patriarchal” symbols can be used to empower women–when they’re chosen by women. (Also, I have extremely long hair, and I almost always wear it up, b/c somehow it’s extremely personal to me, and I sometimes view the hijab with envy.) To me, there’s something beautiful about protecting the parts of yourself that you view as sexual from the eyes of those you don’t necessarily want to see them. I liked the breast comparison a lot.

    Glad to see we’ve gotten in a few digs at religion in this thread. Nicely done, folks. I wasn’t going to wear my (tiny, subtle) cross today, but maybe I will, just b/c I’m really in the mood to oppress people by displaying a symbol of my religious faith. /sarcasm

  26. alsojill says:

    Christians and Jews who were asked to remove crosses and skull caps respectively

    I’m not Jewish, so I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that yarmulkes (sp?) were mandated. If the individuals were Orthodox, asking them to cut off their earlocks would be similarly inappropriate, as that definitely is required by the Old Testament.

    The crosses *are* completely voluntary and you could probably make an argument for them being actually counter to Christian doctrine, but that’s a whole other thing.

    All of that aside, I still think France was utterly in the wrong. But that’s just my American opinion.

  27. M. says:

    Fauzia:
    The Quran says that women should not wear adornments. The hijab is there to cover the adornment of hair – to be modest. When I say modesty, I mean hiding sexual features and not working at your appearance (beyond general hygiene and neatness).

    So for me, to wear the hijab is to make one statement, and then to wear makeup and miniskirts is to make another.

    Before you get upset at me, please notice that I am making no moral judgement on modesty. I am not saying that women should or shouldn’t be modest and I am not saying that women should or shouldn’t wear a veil. All I am saying is that it seems rather hypocritical to wear such a loud sign of modesty and then to chase after brand names and wear makeup.

  28. Brad Jackson says:

    Nora Thank you for your answer, its a perspective I was previously unaware of.

    I will confess that I have tended to see both veils and headscarves as symbols of oppression. Largely I think that view is a result of my awareness of their use as oppressive tools under the Taliban in Afghanistan and under the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Saudi Arabia. I have generally worked under the assumption that any women wearing such in America was doing so under threat of violence from a man. An assumption that you have quite throughly demolished.

    As far as the French ban goes, I’m a strong advocate of both free speech and freedom of religion [1], so I find myself opposed to it on purely philosophical grounds. I think that some Jewish men do believe the skullcap to be required, which as with the scarf adds an extra dimension. The cross, of course, is not required by Christianity and if I remember my history correctly was not the primary symbol of Christianity until relatively late in the religion’s development.

    The problem, however remains. Religion, including Islam, has a well deserved reputation for prudity, and the religious people of the world have a well deserved reputation for being quite unpleasant when the topic is raised. Obviously it wouldn’t be sensible to expect you to carry around a sign that says “I’m a devout Muslim but I won’t throw a fit if you talk about sex”, anymore than it would be reasonable to expect, for example a Buddhist monk wearing a saffron robe to do the same [2]. On the other hand, its hardly reasonable to expect those of us who have been repeatedly ranted at to avoid pussyfooting around an obvously religious person.

    I think its simply that religion, any religion, causes social stress, and the pussyfooting, and the annoyance of non-crazy religionists at the pussyfooting, is simply something we all have to learn to live with because it isn’t going to go away as long as religion continues to exist.

    Or, at least, for the non-right wing twits among us its simply that religion, in general, causes social stress. The idiocy of right wing twits re: Islam is beyond both my comprehension, and the scope of this discussion. You, unfortunately, get not only the (from my POV quite reasonable) anxiety religion causes, but also the right wing “its a Muslim, icky” crap as well. I can see how that’d be incredibly irritating.

    [1] Which some people may find odd, given that I fear religion, and as a result don’t much like it. I am, however, a historian and as such I’m well aware of the fact that attempting to ban or restrict religion always causes much worse problems than religion itself causes.

    [2] An example I chose because my sister encountered one such who was quite upset that she accidentally touched him as he walked past, ranting that he wasn’t supposed to touch “impure” things. Always nice to see that Baptists don’t have a stranglehold on misogny I suppose.

  29. english_rosebud says:

    Regarding comment 9, and the comments 17 and 27 which respond to it, I thought it might be apposite here to link to an interesting post that Hugo Schwyzer had a while back had a post on the nature of modesty. http://hugoschwyzer.net/2006/07/17/the-real-meaning-of-modesty-coveting-and-kosmios/ He noted the way that modern religious discourse often focuses the modesty discussion on displays of the (generally female) body, but in the actual religious texts ostentatious displays of wealth were equally frowned upon. Both can provoke similar desire in others, which is presumably the reason why both were cautioned again. In his post, Hugo was specifically speaking about Christianity, although I think similar arguments about other, particularly Abrahamic, religions can be extrapolated from his discussion. As M. in comment 27 notes, in saying this, I am making no moral judgement myself on the goodness of modesty or the lack thereof.

  30. Hugh Mannity says:

    I’m English. I lived in Bahrain for several years.

    I had many Bahraini friends, some of the women wore veils in public, some didn’t. There were occasions on which I also wore a veil, not out of any religious requirement, but because it was socially appropriate.

    As long as it’s the woman’s free choice, then no one has the right to criticise her. If it’s a state-imposed requirement either to veil or not to veil then there’s a serious problem with the state that need to be rectified (but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms!)

    I liked wearing the veil — it’s hard to explain. It might have been because it was my choice, rather than an imposition.

  31. one jewish dyke says:

    A yarmulke is a requirement of a Jewish male over the age of 3. The difference? If not given an exception to wear one, a Jewish boy will still be educated somehow, in a private school or by men in his community. I don’t know that the majority of French Jewish kids were in public schools anyway, but I don’t have statistics to back that up nor time to go looking for some. A Muslim girl? She may drop out of school before she takes off her veil. The law has a much more damaging effect on Muslim girls than Jewish boys. Big surprise. When has anyone ever been concerned about how the a law will affect girls more than boys? It’s only when the boys start floundering that someone takes notice.

    Brad Jackson #21 – Perhaps my experience is quite different since I live in a major east coast metro area and not the Texas panhandle, but I’ve worked with a handful of women over the years who have worn hijab, mostly by choice, and also lived in an apartment building with a teenage girl who wore it (perhaps less by choice as she was underage). I’ve don’t think I’ve once heard any of them talk about religion uninvited except in a passing way, “No thanks, I don’t want a cookie, it’s Ramadan and I can’t eat before sundown” which is no different than in April when I turn down the cookie because it’s Passover. I did work closely with a woman who wore hijab, and we became friendly enough that we could ask the questions about each other’s religions, the things you always wonder but are either afraid of offending someone to ask, or don’t ask because you know it’s your job to educate yourself and not theirs to educate you. But when you are both from minority groups and both curious about the other, you can have some great conversations about your backgrounds and traditions without worrying about insulting the other. It’s one of my favorite things about living where I do. I recognize that in areas of the country where a larger percentage of the population comes from the same ethnic, religious, and cultural background, you may not have this luxury.

  32. Brad Jackson says:

    one jewish dyke There are, oddly, more Muslims living in the Texas panhandle than you may guess. For whatever reason Amarillo (my town) attracts a fairly large number of refugees, a few decades ago they were mostly southeast Asian (Vietnam, Laos, Camboda, etc), a few years ago they were mostly from eastern Europe, and today quite a few are from north Africa.

    The only Muslim woman I can count among my friends does not wear a scarf and, like most of my friends, is not particularly devout.

    Given all Nora has said, its obvious that a headscarf doesn’t necessarially fall into the same category as a giant cross, but trying to determine when it does sounds like a challenge. Thus, the problem of not giving inadvertant offense, and trying to avoid religious rants remains.

    OTOH, I’ve never experienced a rant from a Muslim, though I suspect that’s mostly because of their relative scarcity in my area rather than any lack of ranters in Islam. The most frequent ranter I experience is a jackass with a megaphone who screams about hellfire, and damnation, every weekend rain or shine, about six blocks down from where I live. I assume he’s a Baptist, they’re the most common sect of Christianity in these parts, and I know he’s Christian because he’s got big crosses painted on his truck.

  33. EG says:

    I’ve yet to meet one who is willing to flout their patriarchy by walking bare-breasted down main-street.

    Heh. Well, not to go too far off-topic, but I have. Back in the dawn of time when I was young, there were many women who were quite opposed to the sexist double standard whereby men can walk around without their shirts on but women cannot, and I do know of several who walked on city streets topless in order to protest such obscenity laws. The activism around breast-feeding are also relevant here, as women are expected to do amazing contortions in order to prevent their nipples from showing, and often mothers who refuse are penalized.

    Though obviously, I take your point!

    I do echo what others have said: yarmulkes are required for Jewish men of a certain degree of observance (i.e., my reconstructionist uncle doesn’t wear one, but an orthodox Jewish man would).

  34. egypt4 says:

    Wow, another great post, and it touches on so many things that have been on my mind.

    First, Fauzia and Nora, do you think it is a woman’s individual choice to wear hijab in Cairo? I’m a non-Muslim American here, but I’ve heard a few comments that suggest there is a lot of cultural and social pressure to cover one’s hair. I also know there are many AUC students who wear hijab to campus and then remove it there, which suggests (I think) that they have some pressure from family to wear it. I have also heard that Muslim women who aren’t veiled get “accused” of being a Christian, and it’s assumed that uncovered women are not Muslim. And being an Egyptian Christian often means being a second class citizen, as I understand it.

    Nora, I was sorry to hear of the comments against your veil. I have heard that unveiled women get called sluts pretty regularly. So does this discrimination go both ways in different environments?

    Please excuse any ignorance in how I’ve asked these questions. I work with many Egyptian women, and we’ve talked about some things a bit, but it’s not exactly water cooler chat.

  35. Bolo says:

    Unfortunately, how can I tell that unless I know you personally? Other people with big honking religious symbols very much, and quite vocally, *do* reject me.

    My general attitude on this is that if people reject me because of their religion, they can go f*ck themselves. Of course, this is a difficult attitude to adhere to when those doing the rejecting are family members or close friends who suddenly acquired religion or business partners… And I’m sure it’s tougher in places like the Texas panhandle, where the very religious (and often nutty) tend to outnumber the secular or barely-religious.

    But on the whole, I think not censoring yourself is the better option. If you keep holding your true self inside for too long you’ll explode.

  36. Fauzia says:

    First, Fauzia and Nora, do you think it is a woman’s individual choice to wear hijab in Cairo?

    I hope Nora gets a chance to comment and answer some of these questions as well, because I think we both present two pretty different views: she’s veiled. I’m not. But we both consider ourselves Muslims. And Islam is a pretty important part of my life.

    I think, especially in a cosmopolitan city like Cairo, it can be woman’s choice to veil or not (hijab, niqab, whatever). There are times when families force their daughters to veil and, yes, when they enter the AUC campus they take those veils off. Before leaving for Cairo my mother made me go through all my clothing (I know, it sounds childish but she was just being the good mother that she is) and pick out the things I thought were “appropriate.” This paranoia about my clothing (of all things) probably stemmed from the kind of ridiculous orientation packet I received from my job. Regardless, though, I had read about Cairo and talked to friends who had been here. Covering up, whether it’s with the hijab or just not wearing a mini-skirt, I think, has a lot to do with how much you want to be stared at by leering men on the street. It’s something I will never get used to here. It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing, how I wear it, whether i cover my head or not: Egyptian men stare. And they cat call. And they hiss. And they generally just make you (read: me) uncomfortable. I don’t know if they are calling me a slut under their breath (or out loud) because I’m not veiled. I have no idea. But I’ve seen men cat call women in hijabs on the street. So…this whole idea of modesty or trying to not to “distract men” seems to have gone straight out the window. This is just my own personal experience, though. And no, I don’t want to classify all Egyptian men as leery assholes. They aren’t. I’m friends with many Egyptian guys, my age, and my boyfriend is fully is Egyptian, born and raised. He doesn’t leer at women. But that’s probably why I’m dating him. I digress.

    So, I think it some cases it is the woman’s choice to wear the hijab, but yes there is a lot of societal pressures to don the veil. I think it definitely depends on what social class one comes from and how liberal one’s parents are.

    I know a lot of fairly…well, wealthy and affluent Egyptian girls my age or just a bit older (early to mid 20s) who don’t veil but would most certainly consider themselves Muslim. This doesn’t mean that the next guy or girl on the street is judging me or them on how Muslim we really are but I’ve never been attacked (and I don’t think any of these girls have) for not veiling. I do see a distinct difference between wealthier, more affluent Egyptians (who don’t veil) and the poorer Egyptians who do. This is a whole other discussion of social economics, though. And I’m not saying that affluent Egyptians don’t veil. They do.

    In reference to the comments about AUC students, I was never one, but from what I’ve observed (and Nora can give you a better idea of student life at AUC)…entering the AUC campus is like entering a completely different world. I’ve noticed that the Egyptian student body at AUC tends to be on the relatively wealthy side. Standing outside the gates of AUC everyday trying to hail a cab, I see drivers who pull up and wait for students. Most of the time, AUC girls don’t really have to deal with leers and harassment on the way to school, because they get in to a chauffered (spelling?) car at their house and are driven straight up to the campus doors.

    Inside AUC, my friends I always joke, it’s like fashion runway. You can see girls wearing anything from leggings (as pants) with belly shirts, to women dressed in the niqab. Anything goes. Seriously. My poor mother is and was so worried when I got on the plane in loose pants that showed off a bit of my calf and a t shirt, and being on the AUC campus is as if I never left NYU. Seriously. So…that’s just a note on that.

    And Egypt4, don’t apologize for your ignorance. Questions are always the best way to learn! Lord knows, I’ve got tons of them.

    Feel free to email me (anyone), if you feel so inclined, at fauziadawood-at-gmail-dot-com. Otherwise, I love the discussion this post has provoked.

  37. Orodemniades says:

    Wow, great post!

    Rebecca said: When I see a woman wearing a veil, I generally put it on the same footing as when I see someone wearing a cross or other religious article. It is simply something they do and as long as it is a choice they make, not really any of my business.

    I was going to say that, but then she said it for me..

  38. Pingback: Feministe » “On Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West”

  39. Jenn says:

    Let me just preface this by saying I am TOTALLY LOVING this discussion about Muslim women and femenism in general. I also need to disclose I am a Connecticut born anglo-saxon who is currently serving in the armed forces and is stationed in Iraq.
    I only operate in a very small section of Baghdad and I am continually surprised by the variety of vieling I see. Young girls wearing no head covering, some with the hijab, older women usually wearing the chador all walking along the same stretch of road. In a very rare instance I see young women who are covered from head to toe with only the face uncovered, but the outfit itself is SO tight, very little is left to the imagination. Is the last one very modest? I wouldn’t let a daughter of mine out in outfits that tight, but techinically she’s covered head to toe.
    I also served in Afghanistan three years ago, and women there still wore the burqa, mostly because thats what they always wore. Kind of like I always wear hose and slip with a skirt because thats how I was raised. Yes I don’t have too, but I won’t go without.
    Chasing brands names and wearing lots of make-up may bematerialistic, but not immodest.
    Please continue with the great posts.

  40. TinaH says:

    Umm Yasmin, thank you. Your comment

    They talk about freeing Muslim women from hijabs, I’ve yet to meet one who is willing to flout their patriarchy by walking bare-breasted down main-street.

    made me laugh and helped me to understand.

    I get enough guff from perfect strangers when I simply (and modestly!) breastfeed in public. Thanks for helping me understand a little more.

  41. Christopher says:

    Am I the only one who thinks that many headscarves are pretty?

    I guess that’s not the point, but with the death of hats they provide a much-appreciated contrast to a sea of hair.

    I enjoy variety.

    Also… there’s kind of two types of modesty. If Brad Pitt walks down the red carpet wearing a $100,000 suit and a $400 haircut, certainly that could be called immodest in a certain sense…

    But if he goes to the Oscars clad only in a speedo, that’s surely a different beast altogether, even if the speedo only cost 50 cents.

    There’s two different axes there.

  42. Trinifar says:

    I’m thinking of the Buddhist monks I have known. They wear a nearly floor length robe and shave all their body hair, not just the head, even their eyebrows. It’s a pretty dramatic statement. The question is who is that statement aimed at? Are they saying to the rest of the world “this is the right way and the rest of you are immoral (or wrong or …),” or are they making a statement to themselves?

    Perhaps they are chosing to loose the outward trappings of conventional society in order to see more deeply into themselves. That’s the traditional interpretation.

    Frankly, I think if we all chose to not participate in superficial cultural fashions, the whole world would be better off. We’d be fighting off consumerism and giving ourselves a chance to look more deeply into who we really are, rather than spending lots of time and money trying to project the “right” image of who we want to be. (And using that image to get attention that we otherwise would miss.)

    The person who wears a veil or a monks robe or the “plain” dress of the Amish — if they do it make a statement to others about their modesty or some other special quality, they’ve missed the point. The only point we can make, IMO, is to say to ourselves, “I am not the image that others see, and I’m chosing to live in a way that does not depend on others’ judgements of me.”

  43. Maria says:

    I loved the comparison of going unveiled with going topless. A muslim, unveiled, flatmate once gave me a similar answer when I offered her one of my miniskirts to go out: (She was trying it on) She said, wearing it, she would feel as I would going out without a skirt.

    I have always (and specially after that) been easy around women who wear the hijab, but I still have a hard time dealing with niquabs (When I’ve come across a wearer in europe or america, if I go somewhere where it’s the norm, it’s obviously my problem, and I’m the one who should adapt). The same way many women have been taught they are half naked with their hair on display, I have been taught that not showing or covering your face is rude, and it causes me a lot of disconfort.

    Another thing I also struggle with are young, underage girls who cover their hair, as it seems to me in many cases, it may be an imposition more than a free choice. On the other hand some teenagers are very religious, and the regulations, like those at french schools that may help some girls scape a bit from paternal control, are probably frustrating many others who just want to fulfill their religious duties. Difficult. Has anyone here started wearing the veil when you were very young?

  44. Umm Yasmin says:

    EG – the exception that proves the rule hehehehe.

  45. Nadine Hagar says:

    I like this discussion so much my heart fell when I got to the last post.

    I’m a Muslim non-veiled girl from AUC, a good friend of Nora’s actually and would just like to illustrate how the veil has become more of a social tradition than a religious one. First of all, prostitutes in Egypt often don the veil. Women walk around in skin tight clothes and flaming make-up but still cover their hair. I know a veiled girl who drinks, smokes pot and publicly makes out with her boyfriend. Now admittedly, the last example here is a rarity but it does not detract from the point here. Women, in Egypt at least, have come to see the veil as a social requirement. Those of the lower social classes feel this pressure more intensely. Funnily enough, the rise of the veil in Egypt coincides with increased cat-calling and verbal harassment ,by lets face it Fauzia, disgusting leering Egyptian assholes. Now, a few decades ago women used to dress more liberally (girls, look at pictures of your grans) but could parade down the streets in peace. I, on the other hand, have to dress like a hobo and listen to my iPod on full volume while mentally formulating a strategic battle plan to avoid walking close to any group of men. Go figure.

  46. Korolev says:

    The main problem with extreme fundamentalist Islam (like in Saudi Arabia), is that they really do separate women and men into different categories – they literally see women has not being the “same” people as men, which to me sounds like inherent discrimination.

    Now not all Muslims have the mind-set of the Saudi Government. Not all Muslims are fundamentalist. In fact, I believe the Sufi branch of Islam is actually quite liberal (I’m not entirely sure about this). And I know that not all Muslims wear the veil.

    However – I can’t get over the fact that women are treated differently. I know that the West has also mistreated women in the past (and present) – but that can’t be used to defend theocracy.

    All I want is for all governments to be Secular. By all means allow women to wear the veil if they want. Some women really don’t feel comfortable taking of the veil, and I can understand that. However, the mere fact that men and women are required in some Muslim countries to wear different clothes annoys me. And yes, I’m aware that in the West men are allowed to take of their shirts while women are not, and that’s unfair (I personally don’t think anyone should be allowed to take off their shirt, man or woman).

    My main problem with countries like Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc, is the fact that women are not seen as being equal to men. That annoys me. Also, they are a theocracy, which annoys me.

    Secularism is the best path. It is the only rational path.

  47. Korolev says:

    Well, okay, I realized that Pakistan is not “technically” a theocracy, and neither is Yemen. Yet the clerics still hold a significant degree of power, and they could be more secular than they are.

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