Women Embracing Islam: Gender and Conversion in the West

By Karin Van Nieuwkerk | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The Shifting Significance of the Halal/Haram Frontier
Narratives on the Hijab and Other Issues

Stefano Allievi

The question of the hijab, the most common Arab name for what is often imprecisely called the “veil,” as well as other gender issues, has always been a very sensitive issue in European countries' perception of Islam. It seems that, more than the issue itself, it is its symbolic perception that is crucial. The subject of women in Islam is in fact a burning issue and a source of polemics and mutual incomprehension.

At the risk of excessive simplification, two dominant positions can be distinguished in the public discourse. For the West, the Muslim woman is by definition downtrodden, and the symbol of her oppression is the hijab, the veil, which she is forced to wear. For some Muslim women—and for Muslim men—it is Western women who are slaves to their obligation to be beautiful and available, on pain of being rejected, and so it is they who are not free. Furthermore, Muslims say, except for in certain situations the veil is a choice, not, as the West sees it, an obligation. The hijab is therefore a symbolic banner, waved on both sides by those who are either for it or against it.

In addition, there is a kind of “semantic war” being waged about the hijab that seems to be of some significance. The Arab word hijab is sometimes translated with no great semantic accuracy, as is the case with the French foulard. But often the choice falls on stronger words: the French voile, the English veil, and the Italian velo. The word veil itself dramatizes the debate, referring at least implicitly and certainly psychologically to something that separates, conceals, masks, or blocks the view (not to mention the word chador, often used in Italian, erroneously but perhaps not innocently, as an equivalent for the preceding terms). Even if, on a symbolic and etymological level, the word is polysemic and ambiguous, in this debate the veil is always “that which covers,” not “that which re-veals” (the Latin root of these words shows more directly the link between veil and revelation). The semantic aspect is thus not neutral, aseptic. It turns out to be strongly ideological. The choice of words used reflects the exact way we want to put the question, and also points to the responses we wish to receive.

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