What Is Veiling?

What Is Veiling?

What Is Veiling?

What Is Veiling?


Ranging from simple head scarf to full-body burqa, the veil is worn by vast numbers of Muslim women around the world. What Is Veiling? explains one of the most visible, controversial, and least understood emblems of Islam. Sahar Amer's evenhanded approach is anchored in sharp cultural insight and rich historical context. Addressing the significance of veiling in the religious, cultural, political, and social lives of Muslims, past and present, she examines the complex roles the practice has played in history, religion, conservative and progressive perspectives, politics and regionalism, society and economics, feminism, fashion, and art.

By highlighting the multiple meanings of veiling, the book decisively shows that the realities of the practice cannot be homogenized or oversimplified and extend well beyond the religious and political accounts that are overwhelmingly proclaimed both inside and outside Muslim-majority societies. Neither defending nor criticizing the practice, What Is Veiling? clarifies the voices of Muslim women who struggle to be heard and who, veiled or not, demand the right to live spiritual, personal, and public lives in dignity.


Muslim Women—we just can’t seem to catch a break. We’re oppressed, submissive,
and forced into arranged marriages by big- bearded men.

Oh, and let’s not forget—we’re also all hiding explosives under our clothes.

The truth is—like most women—we’re independent and opinionated. And the only
things hiding under our clothes are hearts yearning for love.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Muslim women, even those—especially
those—who have never met one.

—Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, introduction to Love Inshallah:
The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Islam did not invent veiling, nor is veiling a practice specific to Muslims. Rather, veiling is a tradition that has existed for thousands of years, both in and far beyond the Middle East, and well before Islam came into being in the early seventh century. Throughout history and around the world, veiling has been a custom associated with “women, men, and sacred places, and objects.”

Few Muslims and non- Muslims realize that Islam took on veiling practices already in place at the dawn of the seventh century around the Mediterranean Basin. Islam inherited them from the major empires and societies of the time along with many other customs and patriarchal traditions related to the status of women. To understand the meaning of veiling in Islam today, one must recognize the important yet neglected history of veiling practices in the pre- Islamic period and appreciate the continuities and similarities among cultures and religious traditions.

Given that veiling has been practiced during the past two millennia by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women, why does the veil continue to be associated primarily with Muslims, and how did it become one of the most visible signs of Islam as a religion? Why is it that when Mus-

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