Behind What Veil? Muslim Female Dress and its Critics

By Guest Contributor Janan Delgado, originally published at Gender Across Borders

Despite a title that makes skins crawl among Muslim women the world around, The New York Times’ “Behind the Veil” article published a few weeks ago was a welcome relief from the usual sensationalist and mystery-clad coverage of veiled women. In a funny, inspiring and down-to-earth fashion, Lorraine Ali recounted the stories of two niqabi (face-veiled) American Muslim women; why they decided to adopt this dress, how it affects their life in Albuquerque, NM, and what this choice means to them.

The article sparked hundreds of comments from readers in America and abroad, unveiling some of these individuals’ stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslim female dress, as well as an inability –or refusal- to hear about the meanings of the veil from those who actually wear it. Nancy from the USA is a case in point. She wrote, “The message this sends to women is be invisible, be subservient, be asexual. As an atheist and a feminist, I find it repugnant that any woman would hide behind a dozen yards of cloth to please a nonexistent God.”

Though most obviously applicable to the face veil, the critique of ‘invisibility,’ is commonly associated with the Muslim veil in general. Muslims believe, the trope goes, that withdrawal from society is necessary because this is “impure, corrupted and dangerous.” However, this astonishingly simplistic claim ignores that Muslims’ opinions about the societies in which we live are as diverse as these societies themselves, be it in China, Senegal, Egypt or Ecuador. In America, veiled Muslim teachers, lawyers, doctors, academics, etc., send a clear message: behavior, not clothing, determines social invisibility.

So if not to hide from society, why do Muslim women veil? Ascribing motives is a tricky business, and the question itself is worth a pause. Unlike what seems the norm in secular liberal spaces, for many veiled women this dress isn’t a puzzling matter, nor is it on our top ten issues of concern. When asked ad infinitum about the veil, many of us wish to say, ‘the veil is what it is, can we talk about female education, world poverty, social inequality, military occupation, anything but this dozen yards of cloth?’

Yet, fixation on the veil remains a fact, and questions are asked. Many individual women, as the ones in the NYT piece, explain that the choice to veil stems from a desire to submit to God. This being the case, Nancy almost got it right about subservience. To God, though, not men. To those who think Islam is an evil male hoax designed to subjugate women, the distinction between subservience to God and subservience to men may be illusory. Yet to those of us who choose to believe in Islam, and find solace and comfort in it, the conflation of two is meaningless.

Nancy also mentions repugnance in her comment, and this feeling is not uncommon. Many veiled women have seen our dress inspire a visceral reaction in people who believe it goes against their core beliefs and values. Behind these feelings often lies a fear of the unknown or an incapacity to relate to a different worldview. Hence, the fulfillment Muslim women feel under those dozen yards of cloth is unimaginable, their place uninhabitable.

While this repugnance may be harmless if kept under check, it is hardly conducive to feminist sisterhood (which Nancy the feminist may wish to care about) or to societal harmony. Hence, a first step to get rid of it is to dismiss once and for all the ill-conceived notion of universality of desire; Not all women find fulfillment and happiness in the same life choices. A woman may actually find happiness under a dozen yards of cloth, seeking to please a God Nancy as an atheist believes non-existent. A second step is not to insult each other’s intelligence. Muslim women have not been brainwashed into Islam, nor are we waiting for anyone’s help to awaken from our supposed “false-consciousness”. Islam is our informed choice.

So is this informed choice the case for every Muslim woman? A recurrent critique of articles that focus on empowered Muslim western women is that “while women in the West have the freedom to veil, one should not forget that in Saudi Arabia…etc…” But who is forgetting? It is perfectly legitimate to speak about an American Muslim reality independently of the experience of frustrated veiled women in Iran (forced to veil), or frustrated unveiled women in Turkey, France, etc. (forced to unveil) (though people are usually not equally interested in the latter).

Experiences vary across countries, and it is ludicrous to insist someone must tie all these experiences together, unless she has offered to provide a comparative study of Muslim women across the world. It is similarly ludicrous to ask Muslim Western women to apologize for the misguided policies of Middle Eastern regimes they have no relation to whatsoever. This analytical mishap is the direct product of some people’s incapacity, unwillingness, or flat-out refusal to accept Western Muslims as Western. Hence the insistence on tying their Western experience to Middle Eastern regimes.

As Tom from Virginia comments about the veiled women in the NYT piece, “They can dress as their conscience allows in our country, but we can’t dress as our conscience allows in their country.” Except, of course, Tom forgets “their” country and “his” country happen to be one and the same.