The veil is a religious symbol in Islam that doesn’t have one definitive reason behind why peocople wear it. The motivation behind the veil varies from person to person. In Islam, the decision to wear the veil is very subjective. It can be a symbol of modesty, of religious identity, of piety, of women’s need for anonymity and protection, indicative of social hierarchy or may signify protest against social or political justice. On the other hand, the interpretation of the veil in Islam differs from the perspective of someone who does not wear it and is just an external observer. Often in the West, the veil is considered to be a symbol of oppression, of alienness, of cultural inferiority, or a superstition. However, a lot more research and understanding are required, to make an informed judgment about the veil in Islam. (Gabriel, Hannan 2011) Most women who wear the veil will argue that it is by choice for reasons we will highlight below.
It is important to know what the most sacred book in Islam, the Holy Quran, has to say about the veil and how others put this verse into practice. Out of 6000 verses in the Quran, only two discuss women’s dress. The word used for a headscarf in the Quran is khimar, whereas nowadays people often use the term hijab for headscarf. The word hijab refers to a barrier or a curtain in the Quran. A verse from the Quran which mentions the khimar is as follows: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof” (Quran 24:30) There have been different interpretations of this verse, and no common understanding of it. Traditionalist interpretations indicate that women are required to cover their hair as well. However, later rationalist interpretations suggest that due to change in culture and context, women need not to use the veil to cover their hair. Moreover, some argue that the verse only tells women to cover their bosoms and not the head. This is justified by saying that women and men at that time would already cover their head for protection from the sun. Thus, views differ on whether women should continue to cover their head or not. The issue of the veil has been debated upon much more than other frequent and fundamental themes discussed in the Quran. A holistic reading of the Quran, by taking a position in the middle of tradition and law, would suggest that ‘men and women should dress and behave modestly in public’. (Hasan 2011) Thus, it depends on one’s own personal opinion on which position they acquire on this broad spectrum. In my opinion, one should focus on the other fundamental tenets and practices of Islam which have been emphasized upon more often in the Quran. It is important to dress modestly at all times but a headscarf should be worn when one is comfortable wearing it and is sure about its purpose.
Definition of modesty differs greatly for different groups of people. What is referred to as being modest is also subjective. The veil is worn by certain Muslims as a symbol of modesty. A verse from the Holy Quran says: ‘Bedizen not yourselves with the bedizance of the time of ignorance’ (Quran 33:33) Thus, the Prophet and the Quran encouraged people to dress modestly as a reform to the time of Jahiliyya (Age of Ignorance). The reason behind this was to avoid immodest thoughts and acts when encountering a person from the opposite sex. (Gabriel 2011) There have been accounts of various women who said that they were treated with a lot more respect because of the veil. However, women like Fatema Mernissi feel that it is the men’s responsibility to control immodest thoughts and not the woman’s responsibility to cover herself. Some progressive Muslims feel that they can achieve modesty without the requirement for veil, as Amina Wadud’s goal is to “achieve modest integrity over formulas and symbols.” (Wadud 2008)
Some Muslims wear the veil or the headscarf as a symbol of piety. Muslims might start wearing the veil when there is an increase in their religiosity and spiritual awareness. Some Muslims consider covering their head an obligatory practice and think of it as obeying God’s words. A lot of the times, this understanding of headscarf being a dress requirement in Islam is not adopted by reading and interpreting the Quran itself, but by looking at the example of more pious women in their surroundings. (Hannan 2011) It makes them feel that it will be rewarding and is a step towards their salvation. The veil also gives them the freedom to do outdoor activities without worrying about going against teachings of Islam (Gabriel 2011). A lot of women consider the face covering to be a sunna (recommended), rather than obligatory. However, some Muslim women would prefer to cover their face as an attempt to be more pious or more religious. The veil might act as a constant reminder to them of their beliefs and faith. In my opinion, when the veil is worn to fulfil God’s command, the decision to wear it should depend on one’s personal interpretation of what the Quran and Hadith has to say about it and should not be influenced by other’s opinion on this matter. There are various practices in Islam which can make a person more pious in the eyes of God, and piety is something which only God can measure. Therefore, the veil can be worn as symbol of piety, but it is not a sign of the piousness of a person.
I have come across Muslim women who wear the veil as a form of security and protection. The veil might give freedom to some women of moving freely outdoors and in society without attracting undesirable attention from males and also maintaining a certain level of privacy in public. As a result, some women think that the veil gives them some form of privacy and helps protect their honour (Gabriel 2011). Surah al-Azhab brings about the idea of the veil as protection in verse 59: ‘O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, that so they may be recognized and not molested.’ (Quran 33:59) Sexual abuse of slaves was common at the time when the Quran was revealed. As a result, the Quran asked Muslim women to cover themselves so that they can be distinguished from the slaves and it would protect them from being abused by Jahili men. Some Muslim women continue to wear the veil to protect them from men who do not have good intentions. Whereas, since the circumstances and context has changed, other women do not consider the veil to still be needed for security or protection. How protected the women feels after wearing the veil is individualistic. This particular reasoning behind the veil has always made me ponder, as the Muslim women around me have shared instances of being harassed or stared at despite of wearing the veil. Amina Wadud elaborated on her experience of feeling insecure while she wore the hijab and came to the conclusion that “It is just as easy to be reduced to my sexuality while wearing the hijab as when not wearing it.” (Wadud 2008). However, I do feel that the veil provides some level of protection as it tends to avoid too much attention.
Some Muslim women wear the veil to cover their beauty or to appear less attractive. However, again we come across another notion, beauty, which is very subjective. There have been various interpretations of this concept where some say that the point of the veil is to avoid standing out or purposely inviting attention. There are disagreements on what parts to cover and on the use of make up and jewelry. Momoniat agreed that it has become significant for women to cover themselves because of the inability of men to lower their gaze and treat women respectfully. (Hannan 2011) Some women also feel that by wearing the veil they do not have to worry about practical matters of daily life such as wearing nice clothes or styling their hair. (Amer 2014) However, feminists might argue that it is not the women’s responsibility to wear the veil, but it should be men who should lower their gaze. To me a lot women who wear the headscarf also look extremely beautiful, which might not fulfil the purpose of the veil to draw less attention.
The veil is a very visible form of religious symbol. Therefore, this symbol can be a Muslim woman’s identity. This may be the sole reason for certain Muslim women to wear the veil. Some Muslim women consider this identity to affect their behavior. Since a person in a veil/headscarf will be identified as a Muslim, at times it adds pressure to behave in the best way, as she would want people to have a good impression about Islam. This identity may be considered to be a way of showing others what Islam stands for. Other Muslims think of this identity as a means to da’wah (a call to Islam), since other people can identify them as a Muslim and can ask them questions about Islam. (Rabiha 2011) As a result, Muslim women wear the veil especially in Non-Muslim communities to be distinct. In Islamic law, Muslim men are encouraged to dress differently from Non-Muslim men, so women might wear the veil in Islam to achieve a similar distinctiveness. (Gabriel 2011) In my opinion, wearing a veil to be viewed as an example of Islam in the public is a very big and difficult task. It is possible for women who wear the veil to not be the most pious or the best example for other fundamental teachings of Islam. Thus, the veil being a symbol of Muslim identity may not be the best identification of the most righteous Muslim.th
Even before Islam was born, the veil was present in other cultures. The veiling was a common practice in societies such as Byzantines and Sassanids. In Mesopotamia, the veil was worn to show superiority of status, whereas slaves and prostitutes were not allowed to veil themselves. The practice was adopted by other societies due to invasion and eventually assimilated by early Jews and Christians as well. Even Virgin Mary is often depicted wearing a veil in various artworks. Eventually when Islam came about, even though it rejected a lot of the prevailing practices in Arabia such as female infanticide, the veiling was an exception which was adopted by the Muslims. Thus, the veil was not something which was started by the Muslims. The veil is now considered by many to be a cultural symbol. Some progressive Muslims continue to wear the veil as they consider it of a way to reconnect with their cultural heritage. The type of veil one wears and its purpose is often shaped by the culture and geography one belongs to. It is common to stereotype veiling practices if someone is unaware of its different types and origins. (Amer 2014) ‘Islamicate’ is a term coined by Marshall Hodgson which “would refer not directly to the religion, Islam, itself, but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims.” (Hodgson 1974) The veil, or the hijab has nowadays become a feature of the Islamicate society and its roots from before Islam are often forgotten. The veil is almost always associated with Islam and Muslims.
Even in Muslim societies, the veil has previously been worn as a symbol of class hierarchy. An example is of a group called Pattanis from Lakshadweep Islands, where women of high economic and social class were fully covered. Once in Modern Iraq, slave girls were forbidden from being veiled and noble women were required to be veiled. (Gabriel 2011) Fatima Mernissi and some other Muslims consider the veil to be related to the status of women in society and do not think of it as a religious requirement. In my opinion, this purpose of the veil to show superiority conflicts the motivation to wear the veil as a symbol of modesty, as modesty does not always relate to appearance but also the character. Therefore, the significance of the veil varies between societies and individuals.
Lastly, there have been instances where the veil has been worn as a political symbol. It has been worn to protest the westernization of Islamic societies. In 1979 in Iran the Muslim women wore the chador to show that they were against Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi’s ban on veil. They opposed the prevention of women from working and studying because of mandatory unveiling. (Amer 2014) Another example would be the veil worn by public figures such as film stars in Turkey to show their support for the ongoing politics regarding veiling of women. (Gabriel 2011) This shows that the veil is not always worn out of piety or to fulfil religious requirement, but also worn for a unifying cause.
The veil in Islam has been greatly debated upon in Muslim and non-Muslim communities. There is no singular reason as to why the veil has become popular among Muslims communities. We will discuss the impacts and popularity of the veil in Muslim communities settled in Muslim majority countries and Muslim minority countries. This will allow us to have a broader insight of how one’s surroundings can impact one’s actions.
First considering Muslim majority countries, it can be broadly divided into two categories where countries do not have government laws on veiling and others where the women are required to wear the veil in public. The first category can include countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco and Malaysia. On the other hand, there are two countries where it is compulsory to wear the veil: Saudi Arabia and Iran. People living in countries with no laws regarding the veil usually have a diversity of opinions about the veil. There are number of debates on what colour, shape, type or meaning of the veil is. The popular opinion amongst these communities agree on dressing modestly but what each member considers modest can greatly differ. These differences and the decision to wear the veil is a result of a lot of different causes, such as ‘social class, background, education, age, profession, local customs and peer pressure’. The diverse cultures and backgrounds behind these Muslim communities do not agree on one specific kind of veil. The veil ranges from a light scarf which covers the hair to covering the head, face and the whole body including the hands and feet. Some prefer to wear only neutral colours, while others may choose from a whole range of colours. For example, abayas in Egypt became popular because they were found convenient and was a tradition adopted from the Saudis during President Anwar Al-Sadat’s regime. Moreover, the abaya which is worn by women in Saudi Arabia due to the law, is worn by choice in Yemen because of its ease and practicality, compared to the traditional elaborate dresses. (Amer 2014) My mother started wearing an abaya similar to the one worn in Saudi Arabia after performing Hajj (pilgrimage). This shows that veil might become popular after seeing women in other cultures or a life-changing event as an attempt to achieve greater piety and modesty, and then also realizing its other benefits. Cross fertilization through social media, travel and increased communication has reduced diversity and has created a more unified Muslim identity. A lot of these Muslim communities focus on group allegiance more than individualism. Thus, the women then choose to wear the veil in order to fit in their family, friends or communities. They do not wear the veil because of pressure, but to achieve a sense of belonging. (Amer 2014) I have seen in Pakistan that there are certain schools or regions where girls cover their head as they see that everyone around them is doing it. When girls start covering their head while everyone around them doesn’t do it, then it is usually after much thought and reflection that they decide to start wearing the veil. On the other hand, there are some smaller groups such as particular schools within these Muslim communities where women are required to cover their head. Therefore, the veil has become popular in Muslim communities in Muslim-majority countries for a variety of reasons.
The veil has a different meaning for Muslim communities living in Muslim minority countries like the United States and Canada. The veil or hijab became popular among many Muslims living in such societies as an act of solidarity and to show their support for veiled women who were impacted by Islamophobia, for Muslims in Turkey and France who were not allowed to wear the veil and for Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Iran who were forced to wear the veil. It is considered an attempt to make their presence known and to fight stereotypes such as those created about veiled women during orientalist times. Through their veil Muslims try to show that they are putting to practice American policies of multiculturalism, freedom of choice, freedom of religious practice and tolerance. The veil also allows Muslim communities in America or Canada to feel connected with their ‘religious, racial, ethnic, and familial background’, and embrace their hybrid identity. The veil helps women to connect the two different cultures, their background with their present. Some Muslims girls have also displayed that they chose to wear the veil to be considered a part of their Muslim Student Association at their college (Amer 2014). I find it interesting that at Knox College none of the Muslims coming from Muslim majority countries wear the headscarf. Whereas, the only girl who wears the headscarf at Knox is an American Muslim. Muslim women in these societies have to continuously make the misconception clear that they are not wearing the veil because of any sort of oppression. The veil also becomes popular to show others that the veiled Muslims are not how the media shows them to be and they are just like any other ordinary human being. Thus, along with a spiritual and religious reason behind wearing the veil in these Muslim communities, it is considered to be an activist choice to prove the negatives images of Islam portrayed by the media wrong and break those stereotypes.
To sum it all up, I think eventually it just boils down to choice. As long as a person isn’t being oppressed or forced by the community to adorn the veil, and choose to do it for themselves, then the ‘reasons’ for the veil become almost redundant. Whether it be for social, political or spiritual reasons, as long as someone wishes to put on the veil, they should be allowed to do so, as well as accepted in society equally. Freedom of expression and choice is a fundamental part of who we are today, and it should be respected in all aspects.
- Quran (24:30)
- Quran (33:33)
- Quran (33:59)
- Usama Hasan, ‘The Veil – Between Tradition and Reason, Culture and Context’, in Islam and the Veil: Theoretical and Regional Contexts, ed. R. Hannan & T. Gabriel, Continuum Books, 2011
- Gabriel, Theodore and Hannan, Rabiha. Islam and the Veil.
- Gabriel, Theodore. Reflections on Sartorial Injunctions in Islam.
- Hannan, Rabiha. Debates pertaining to Head Covering and Face Veiling of Women
- Amer, Sahar. What is Veiling. 2014
- Hodgson, Marshall. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 1974
- Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad. 2008