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The fight over the veil May 7, 2007

Posted by Wasik in bodies, careerwomen, controversy, fashion police, Female Power, feminism, ideology, in the news, iran, islam, morality, nationalism, politics, religion, the state, The Terrorist, Uncategorized, women and war.
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[This started out as a comment to sindhub’s post on Women’s Bodies and Ideology, but then quickly became very long so now it is a normal post. But sindhub– thanks for bringing this topic up!]

The debate about traditional islamic dress for women– loosely referred to in Western discourse as ‘the veil’– is probably the most complicated, intricate and endlessly controversial way in which, as you mention, nationalist and religious (though the two are often inextricably tied) movements use women’s bodies to enforce ideology.

In Western media and popular culture, the issue is often presented very one-sidedly, ignoring the nuance involved which has perpetuated this debate for so long. I distinctly remember one episode of “Seventh Heaven” in which taking up the veil was seen as an absolute tragedy to be lamented; throughout the episode, Mrs. Camden was haunted by visions of her daughters veiled and oppressed, and the end of the program featured many of its actors speaking out against the treatment of women in states under sharia law. Likewise, although this salon.com article recognizes the fact that many unoppressed, single and career-oriented women take up the veil willingly, it still seems highly skeptical of their true intent in doing so. The last line of the article implies that these women have not completely thought through their decision, and will later regret taking up the veil when it means a loss of freedom and independence.

Clearly, the author of this article has fallen into a common trap: she sees the word ‘veil’ (or ‘chador’ or ‘hijab’) and immediately thinks, ‘oppression, coersion, patriarchal islam’. She doesn’t realize that the importance of the debate shouldn’t revolve around the veil itself– instead, the debate should really focus on women’s freedom. A distinction must be made between women in countries like Egypt and the United States (for example, see this New America Media article) who take up the veil willingly, and places like Iran post-1979 where women are coerced into wearing it because they do not feel safe otherwise. Even in Iran, the issue of the veil must be complicated a bit, because many women there will say that they wear it out of national pride, or feel more comfortable in it. When motivations are explored further, it is often impossible to separate true feelings of nationalism from reactions to a generally violent atmosphere–hence the murkiness and exceptionality of the issue.

In general, the misunderstandings, inflamed emotion, and ongoing debate surrounding the veil show how, as we said in class last week, woman’s bodies can become a political battlefield. Larger ideas (such as ‘enforcing the morality that sharia law calls for’, or ‘differentiating ourselves from the corruption that we see in Western countries’ or ‘supporting the establishment of a muslim state that will provide for its people as the last secular one did not’) easily become distilled to catchphrases (such as ‘the veil’ or ‘the fashion police’), and larger societal debates play themselves out as incidents powerfully and physically affecting women. Lastly, the role that women themselves take when this playing-out occurs is also interesting, for the importance that their bodies takes on can either be objectifying or empowering. (But I suppose that will have to wait for another post, for I have run out of steam).

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