The burka recently assumed centrestage in the Australian parliament. One Nation leader Pauline Hanson entered the Senate for question time covered in the most extreme Islamic garb: a full-body robe and face veil with mesh screen for the eyes.
Islamic dress codes for women are a contentious issue, particularly the face veil or niqab, which usually leaves the eyes uncovered.
The simple headscarf, commonly known as the hijab, covers the head and chest, with the face exposed.
Islamists such as Islamic State enforce the full veil in the public space and the hijab is obligatory according to the Muslim Brotherhood. What is the meaning of the veil and why is veiling such a central issue?
A relevant holy text does not specify or enforce Islamic dress: “And when you ask them (the Prophet’s wives) for anything you want, ask them from behind a screen, that is purer for your hearts and their hearts.” (Koran 33:53)
Most Western states have opted not to ban the niqab or burka. However Syria and Tunisia, before the so-called Arab Spring uprisings, had no such scruples. Interestingly, women who go on the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca are instructed not to cover the face, although they may do so if they wish.
The discourse on Islamism is perplexing for Westerners because many politicians, educators and faith leaders have not given clear guidance or addressed all facets of the controversy.
One of the issues is the definition of Islamist. The term usually refers to religious extremists who aim to shift Islam away from private theological belief and worship to an ideology and political movement that aims for a state-sponsored social, political, judicial and economic system.
Issam al-Aryan, a leading figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, affirmed the veil’s centrality to Islamism when, in 1980, he prophesized that an increasing number of women wearing the veil would herald the Islamic awakening and future Islamic states. It would be a “sign of resistance to Western civilization (and) the start of political adherence to Islam”.
Women, he said, were an important resource in transforming society. In al-Aryan’s vision of the Islamic awakening, “ten million” students and workers would become the “cadres of the future Islamic states”.
Another Islamist strategy to revitalize religious commitment and increase the visibility of the veil entailed organizing massive prayer gatherings on university campuses and in public arenas.
Veiling was always crucial to the theocracy in Iran. Following the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government took the step of legislating women’s covering when it criminalized “mal-veiling” and appointed morality police to issue warnings and fines.
Regardless of political Islam, the pious Muslim woman feels secure in the conviction that her prayers will not be accepted unless she is wearing a head covering. Pressure to wear it comes from Islamist preachers, families, peers and the confrontation with modernity. The veil also signifies her loyalty to the ummah, the community of Muslims.
As a figure of virtue and piety, the veiled wife is regarded as an asset for men in traditional societies, where such cover signifies inaccessibility to other men and the threat of punishment for would-be sexual predators. An underlying fear is the power of the female as temptress, capable of causing fitna, or social strife. A woman therefore needs to be controlled in order to protect a man’s honor and maintain peace in society.
For many women, giving up the veil could mean social ostracism, and in some very traditional and conservative societies, it is considered a sin for a woman to show her face, even to family members, .
A number of Muslim reformers have expressed their views on the veil. Yemen-born academic Elham Manea raised awareness of the widespread propagation of Saudi Wahhabism, and blamed the extremist and puritanical form of Sunni Islam for the massive expansion of propaganda in favor of veiling. She also pointed to the Islamic theocracy of Iran as a source of admiration, inspiration and emulation for many Muslims.
Before Muslim women decide to cover themselves, Manea entreats them to become aware of the religious and political campaigns that promote the veil, and to avoid being persuaded by three common, false arguments in favor of veiling. The first assumes that Arab men cannot control their sexual urges and women are only sex objects. The second claims that veiling produces moral probity, when, in reality, sexual segregation has not prevented sex outside marriage and hymen reconstruction operations.
Finally, the claim of a religious edict for veiling is the weakest argument, as it wasn’t advanced until the late 1970s, when extremist ideology was becoming established.
Tunisian reformer Samia Labidi has observed that radical Islam empowers women by endowing the veil with symbolic meaning. It implies an identity independent of family and modernity, alienation from the West, a weapon in the front line of political protests, and a banner for the wave of worldwide Islamic fervor.
During the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the symbolic meaning of the veil was evident when the black chador, the woman’s cloak, became the image of the Islamic revolution.
The late Tunisian journalist Lafif Lakhdar believed women continued the practice of veiling because they internalized long-term subjugation and, in the process, accepted the views of their oppressors. He wrote that slave girls were forbidden to wear the veil, as uncovered women were marked for violation.
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi remarked: “It is not the state’s business to tell women whether to cover their heads or not.” On the other hand, Laleh Eftekhari, a female member of the Iranian parliament, expressed the views of the regime when she declared: “The question of the black chador is more important for us than the nuclear issue.”
American Pakistani Asra Nomani has focused on the face veil as a ”frightening brand” of fundamentalist Islam, and a security risk when used by militants to disguise themselves, gain entry, strike their targets without being intercepted, and avoid arrest.
Most of the educated Muslim women in the West have not engaged with the arguments of reformers. Many choose to wear the veil, mostly in the form of the hijab, but also defend full cover and the niqab. Being covered, it is argued, indicates freedom, and preference for being judged on personality and intellect rather than appearance. It also provides an antidote to past colonial attempts to abolish the practice. Veiling is flaunted as a better option than ungodly Western consumerism, capitalist exploitation of the female body, enslavement to sexist standards, and social conformity. However, Islamic dress is another type of conformity.
Many educated activist wearers of Islamic dress in the West have challenged the male-oriented interpretation of the holy texts. They identify as Islamic feminists who stand for women’s rights within Islam, reinterpretation of texts in favor of women and social justice based on Islam.
In terms of social justice, the Muslim Brotherhood conceptualized a return to Islamic ideals and their fulfillment through outreach. A Sisterhood was formed in the 1930s, and the movement gained force in the 70s to 90s in Egypt with the return of radicalized mujaheddin from Afghanistan, and the intensive, growing missionary activity of the Brotherhood. Islamic dress for women was vital to the project, and new recruits were often given the veil as a gift.
For her book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence (Yale University Press, 2011), Leila Ahmed observed hijabi activists in the US. Most were members of the powerful Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Students Association founded by international Islamist groups, including the Brotherhood.
Although unrepresentative minorities, such organizations often act as a mouthpiece for the majority of American Muslims.
Many activists followed the dictates of ISNA, which stress Islamic concepts of social justice, and declare the dress code to be mandatory. Paradoxically, activists also believe no coercion is involved in wearing the veil, noting the Koranic injunction: “Let there be no compulsion" in religion.”
Veiling has acquired new meaning outside traditional personal piety, including identification with Islamic social justice such as “justice” for the poor. Activists have also fought against prejudice and the abuse of Muslims by the wider community.
The new purpose and identity has conferred a sense of independence and mission. Activists join with non-Muslims and agitate for Western, particularly American, ideals of social justice that appear seamlessly congruent with those found in Islam.
They also find common ground with the far left, which advocates the redistribution of wealth based on equal rights and individual needs, as a remedy for capitalism and individualism.
If upholding social justice includes women’s rights, then their claim ignores a part of Islamic law containing gender discrimination and its extremist expression in Islamism. They are also overlooking centuries of oppressive cultural practice institutionalized in religious law.
Activists who promote veiling have generally shown little interest in campaigning against forced marriage, child marriage, polygyny, unilateral divorce for men, unequal rights to custody or compensation, women’s entitlement to only half the inheritance of a male, or a woman’s testimony in court being regarded as half the value of a man’s testimony.
They adopt human rights arguments that tend to focus on the right to wear the veil but ignore the right not to wear it.
Conventional wisdom might suggest the veil represents female dis-empowerment, but among many Muslim women today, particularly the well educated, the veil has come to symbolize a new purpose that serves the Islamist movement and its view on the importance of veiling.
As enlisted cadres, many women have adopted a new political identity, empowered as a vanguard of activists, formidable flagbearers and proselytizing advertisements.
There is no doubt that many Muslim women wear the veil as an expression of piety. However, its political purpose is critical to Islamism today as a banner that promotes the cause and recruits adherents.
A version of this post was originally featured in The Australian.