Islam, Globalization, and Postmodernity

By Akbar S. Ahmed; Hastings Donnan | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

Women and the veil

Personal responses to global process

Helen Watson

To speak of the 'veil' is an exercise in misleading reductionism given the diverse styles of female dress both within and across classes in Muslim societies. However, the familiar motif of 'unity and diversity', which allows commentators to address local variations of Islam within the overarching framework of universal principles and practices, can also be used to approach the question of hijab (religious modesty) and veiling. There is a wide range of 'styles of veil' from the uniform black cloaks worn by women in post-revolution Iran, to the exclusive 'designer' scarves of women of the 'new aristocracy' in Egypt. Along this continuum of veiling, which runs from state-regulated attire to individual fashion accessory, there is ample room for the many local varieties, including the brightly coloured scarves of Turkish peasant girls, the the 'Tie Rack' wraps of European Muslims, the white haik of Algerian women and the burja of women in Oman. The universal aspect of each of these different styles of dress stems from the formal symbolic and practical aims of hijab; to preserve modesty and conceal the shame of nakedness.

From the viewpoints of western commentators there are few forms of dress which are so often the object of controversy and intellectualized kneejerk reactions as the veil. The plethora of books about women behind, beyond or beneath the veil may give the impression that Muslim women's main activity and contribution to society is being in a 'state of veil'. For non-Muslim writers, the veil is variously depicted as a tangible symbol of women's oppression, a constraining and constricting form of dress, and a form of social control, religiously sanctioning women's invisibility and subordinate socio-political status. Unni Wikan suggests that the typical western view of hijab and seclusion implies that with its 'constraints on movement and self-actualization, seclusion must be inherently suppressive, therefore oppressive' (1982:105). 1 Indigenous writers, Muslims, and others with a more positive view of hijab stress the liberating potential of veiling and the personal, strategic advantages of public anonymity. Fadwa El Guindi suggests that young women who adopt the veil in Egypt are concerned with retaining 'repectability' and 'untouchability', given their

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