In recent years, many European countries have passed laws that ban women’s veiling. In 2021, Switzerland voted in favor of banning face coverings in public, such as the burqas or niqabs worn by some Muslim women (BBC News: Switzerland referendum: Voters support ban on face coverings in public. 03/07/21). More recently, France is to ban female students from wearing abayas (loose-fitting full-length robes worn by some Muslim women) in state schools. Wearing a headscarf in state schools has been banned since 2004, and since 2010 the wearing of full-face covering veils in public (BBC News: France to ban female students from wearing abayas in state schools, 08/27/23). On the other hand, after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, among the many restrictions on women’s freedom is the order to fully cover their faces in public, which is seen by most Western countries as an attack against women’s rights.
The issue of the veil is still very controversial in current debates across the West and the East, as well as its meanings concerning women’s bodies and rights.
To understand current debates around the veil it is necessary to understand the different socio-historical contexts and discourses in which it is embedded. From the start, the discourses around the veil were associated with discourses of European superiority and the need for Muslim societies to follow the Western example and modernize their backward practices, specifically those concerning women. Veiling was attacked by the West to justify the claim of Europe’s superiority over the indigenous culture. The veil then started to signify not only the position of women in society but also to encompass issues of cultures between the colonizer and the colonized (Ahmed: Women and Gender in Islam 1992).
On the other hand, in answering this attack on Islamic culture, the veil came to symbolize not the inferiority of the culture but rather “the dignity and validity of all native customs, and in particular, those customs coming under fiercest colonial attack” (Ahmed: Women and Gender in Islam 1992, 164). Customs relating to women were then re-affirmed as an emblem of rejection of the West.
From 1923, in Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk aligned modernization with Westernization. The state-imposed unveiling and women’s new dress became the symbol of state-imposed Westernized modernity (Badran, Feminism in Islam 2009, 220). For decades, the headscarf was seen as a threat to modern, secular Turkey (Qantara: The politics of hijab, 10/18/22). More recently, Turkey has recognized women’s rights to choose whether to wear headscarves.
The veil as the symbol of women’s oppression?
While in the West the veil is usually seen as a symbol that promotes women’s oppression, it actually has a long history of being an empowering object for women. For example, by concealing their bodies, women are able to move more freely in public spaces without fear of harassment. In this sense, the veil is therefore understood not as a restriction of freedom but as what allows women to access the public field safely. Furthermore, by allowing them to conceal their identities, the veil becomes the object that gives women power and control, in “having the advantage of being the seer, not the seen” (Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam 1992, 259).
The issue of the veil is then a complex one, as it is entangled with issues of culture and politics, and of power relations between different local and global actors. Since colonial times, the struggle for women’s rights has been trapped with struggles over culture: it is therefore important to be aware of the colonial discourses of domination when talking about women in the Middle East. The issue of the veil is a clear example of how women’s bodies often become sites of political and power dynamics.
Then what about women’s rights?
What is clear when considering women’s rights across the globe, with or without the veil, patriarchal practices that oppress women are still present both in the Middle East and around the world. Indeed, it is not the veil itself but rather the contextualization and discourse around it that either announces or suppresses women’s agency. While the West sees state-imposed obligations to wear the veil as going against women’s rights, limiting women’s agency in banning the veil on the ground of liberating them from oppression is actually another form of oppression itself. Ultimately, women around the world should be able to choose for themselves whether to veil or not, challenging the binary impositions of Western and Islamic narratives.
Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots ofa Modern Debate. Yale UP, 1992. Badran, Margot. Feminism in Islam. Secular and Religious Convergences. Oneworld Publications, 2009.
Qantara, The politics of hijab, 10/18/22, https://qantara.de/en/article/turkeys-headscarf-debate- politics-hijab.
BBC News: France to ban female students from wearing abayas in state schools, 08/27/23, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-66634890.
BBC News: Switzerland referendum: Voters support ban on face coverings in public. 03/07/21, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe- 56314173#:~:text=Switzerland%20has%20narrowly%20voted%20in,to%2048.8%25%20in%20S unday%27s%20referendum.