ABSTRACT: Contemporary discourses have come to associate the hijab and the veiled woman with gender-oppressive customs in Islam. This meaning was created and perpetuated by the Western hegemonic discourses, which have homogenized, reified, de-contextualized, and ‘otherized’ it. The Muslim veil has also been politicized, making it a heavily contested symbol that needs to be understood carefully. It is important that we analyze the sociocultural meanings ascribed to the veil in a historical, contextual, and religious framework that takes into account the heterogeneity of its symbolism. This paper tries to unravel the historical complexities that make up the etiology of this custom in Islam and understand the meanings that various women attach to it in the context of India. The latter part of the paper will also discuss how the neo-Orientalist perspective views the veil in this post-modern global context in the wake of rising terrorism and Islamophobia.
The first thing we need to realize is that the practice of veiling did not start with the advent of Islam and it is not an exclusively Islamic institution. It existed in diverse cultures and traditions way before Islam, which, in a way, legitimized the system of purdah. The term ‘purdah’ is an Urdu word derived from the Persian word ‘pardah’, which literally translates as the curtain. Hijab is the Arabic equivalent of this word. It is not just the word that has a Persian origin, but this Islamic custom in itself traces back to the existence of the system of seclusion of women and veiling in Persia. The practice of veiling was prevalent in various societies and it signified different things. However, the practice is said to have been assimilated into the Islamic tradition from Persia.
The practice was initially confined to the women in Prophet’s family. In Medina, a group of people known as the hypocrites who were on the lookout to create scandals about the women in the Prophet’s household used to sexually assault the women who went out without covering themselves, especially their heads. Such women were thought to be slaves and the need to wear a hijab arose out of this need to differentiate free women from slave women as a measure of protection (Mernissi, 1993, as cited in Asha, 2008). This is in relation to a verse of a Hadith, which explicitly asks women to cover themselves up to prevent getting molested. Other than this, nowhere in Quran has it been mentioned that women should cover up using a veil or that the sexes should be segregated. The emphasis is rather on sexual modesty (Rahman, 1982, as cited in Asha, 2008). A socio-cultural and moral code to regulate sexual conduct was laid down for both men and women, with greater restrictions on women owing to the fact that it was necessary to know the father of a child since the institution of private property existed then. Women were expected to guard their private body parts and cover their chests with a scarf so that they do not become sexual objects. Then how did the practice of veiling become an integral part of Islamic belief?
According to Mazhar ul Haq Khan (1982), the purdah, as a system of total exclusion of women from public life that was non-existent in the Prophet’s time, appeared among the ruling aristocracies of the later Umayyad Caliphs of Damascus (then Persia), which is the first ruling Islamic dynasty (as cited in Asha, 2008). The custom of veiling, in addition to the seclusion of women, was assimilated into Islam during their reign. Islam was turned into a dynastic system as absolutism set in, and subsequently, the ruling class gentry and the general public started to follow these new norms. Persians also had another role in stitching these patriarchal ideals into the core of Islam. The first interpreters of the Quran were of Persian origin. They derailed an institution like the purdah, which was meant for the protection of women, into an institution that subordinated women. Even the later Islamic jurists, instead of analyzing the contexts under which the Prophet advised certain practices, used those statements to justify their theory of female subordination. Thus, the hijab became a compulsory part of the religion. Even in the codification of the Sharia law, patriarchal interests prevailed over the liberal, egalitarian provisions of the Quran (Asha, 2008). In this way, the patriarchal social customs got sanctioned by Islam, depriving women of the full opportunity for self-expression (Woodlands, 1968, as cited in Asha, 2008) and became a source of oppression.
It would be wrong to outrightly deem Islam as an oppressive and misogynistic religion without understanding the underlying historical circumstances that led to the solidification of such customs within the religious practice. In a sense, Prophet’s words have been twisted and the prevailing social customs of that time were incorporated into the religion to give it this form. Patriarchy is pervasive and has corrupted Islam in many ways, as discussed above. However, in the specific context of the custom of veiling, I do not think that we, as outsiders to their religious customs and their underlying reasons, are entitled to tell them what is right and what is wrong. It is true that many Muslim women are compelled to wear the hijab because their religion says so. In such cases, it is repressive and depriving of their personal choices. However, that does not give us the authority to speak for the entire community of Muslim women and proclaim that they are oppressed under Islam and that they need to be saved. The veil, like most symbols, has a plethora of socially constructed and assumed meanings attached to it. Hijab means different things to different women and it need not be oppressive all the time. In the next section, we take a brief look at what wearing the hijab means for different Muslim women in India.
It is true that a lot of Muslim women wear it out of religious beliefs and the compulsion arising out of it to weave their identity around it. A woman’s body is considered to be seductive and sinful. She is supposed to cover up all that is alluring according to Islamic norms: chest, feet, and hair. The veil is worn to protect men from the seductive charms of a woman’s body. Since she is essentially provocative, her sexuality must be covered. She is supposed to be exclusively available only for her protector, who is her husband. She is treated like a possession of her husband and she should not be a fun thing for free. Thus, if she is not wearing a veil, it is thought of as sinning or inviting sin. Here, the function of the veil is to visually withdraw women from the public gaze. The attempt is to desexualize women. Women in fear of sinning are, in this way, conditioned into wearing the veil. For many women, the veil thus becomes a habitual identity (Wagner et al., 2012, pp. 530-531). However, there are many women who feel liberated because of wearing a veil. They feel more confident and are at ease because of the prospect of not being sexualized.
For many women, putting on the veil is an on-and-off affair with conformity and societal expectations. They do not want to stand out among other Muslim women and garner attention. So, they wear the veil when the women around them wear it and do not wear it when nobody else is. In this case, women’s adherence to the religious dress code depends on the social context and their experience in public and private spaces. In recent times, which witnessed a surge in Islamophobia, the veil has acquired new meanings as a proud assertion of their Islamic identity and symbolic of their resistance to the stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims. The non-Islamic majority often ostracizes the Islamic minority. Muslim women have no choice but to create a sense of belonging and acceptance within their community by conforming to customs and wearing the veil. In a threatening atmosphere characterized by Islamophobia and terrorist narratives, they believe it is important to stick together as a community and seek protection within themselves. Another response to this current situation has been a proud display of their veil to represent their religious identity and prove their credibility. They want to look like a Muslim, be a Muslim, and prove to people that they need not be bad. They are trying to make the point that even though people’s fear of terrorism is valid but that does not give them the right to consider a whole community bad and create stereotypes of all Muslims being terrorists. In this sense, wearing the veil is a political stance taken by Muslim women. This is a way of reasserting their own identity despite it being a deeply prejudiced and stigmatized identity (pp. 533-535).
Another symbolic meaning that has been constructed around wearing the veil can be understood only in the context of the neo-Orientalist discourse on the veil. It was considered a symbol of religious oppression and patriarchal subjugation by the Occident long back. The practice of veiling has been removed from its social and cultural frames of interpretation and reduced to a political state-defined signifier of oppression. This has been made worse by the neo-Oriental discourse, which has now made Muslims the ‘terrorist other.’ Veiled Muslim women have become objects of suspicion and hostility who were earlier pitied and sympathized with. De-veiling has become an indicator of modernity and the liberation of Muslim women (Elbaz, 2013). It has been against this backdrop that many women have proudly started wearing the veil to assert that uncovering themselves does not equate with being modern. Who gets to decide what is modern and what is not, what is good for them and what is bad? This is a sharp criticism of the Western hegemonic discourses, which they consider to be modern and superior to everything else. Western feminism considers de-veiling as a corrective action and an emancipatory project for Muslim women. They consider those who adhere to such traditional ways products of ‘false consciousness’ (Wagner et al., 2012, p.537). This is a very flawed feminism. Muslim women should be given the voice to decide whether they feel oppressed by the veil or if it is just an assumed issue by the West.
A symbol, especially a religious symbol like the Muslim veil, can have an array of meanings. It is a lived social reality of many women and it holds a different meaning for each woman. The act of veiling has multiple and contradictory meanings that extend beyond it just being statically interpreted as “a mechanism of patriarchy and a means of regulating and controlling women’s lives” (Kahf, 2008, as cited in Elbaz, 2013). It is necessary to view such practices in a contextual framework. What it meant for a woman back then is not what it means for a woman right now, as meanings are continuously changed and constructed. It is important that the Western hegemonic discourses be stripped of their self-assumed authority to prescribe what is good and civilized to the East. Only then can a multi-faceted contextual analysis of symbols like the veil, which is specific to the East, happen.
Elbaz, M. (2013, December 6). Discourse on the Veil. Academia.edu. Retrieved April 22, 2023, from https://www.academia.edu/13386796/
Discourse_on_the_Veil S, A. (2008, June 9). From Protection to Control and Exclusion – A Sociological Reading of Purdah. SSRN Papers. Retrieved April 22, 2023, from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1142212
Wagner, W., Sen, R., Permanadeli, R., & Howarth, C. S. (2012). The veil and Muslim women’s identity: Cultural pressures and resistance to stereotyping. Culture & Psychology, 18(4), 521-541. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2012-339