The Veil in Islam: Political in Essence

Muslim Women and the Veil

Essay Question: The tendency in non-Muslim society is to view the veil as the symbol of the subordination and oppression of women by Islam.  Critically evaluate this perspective. 

‘Every veil that fell, everybody that offered itself to the bold and important glance of the occupier was a negative expression of the fact that Algeria was beginning to deny herself and was accepting the rape of the colonisers.[1]

In this essay I will argue that the veil signifies to those in non-Muslim society domination and oppression of women of Islam.  However, to the Muslim the veil signifies moral, cultural and political authenticity and stems from both Islam and native culture and is political in essence.

Purdah involves female seclusion by face veiling and segregation of the sexes, with the dichotomies of the public and the private spheres and the inevitable result of the division of labour.  Purdah is a subtle and complex system, with variations in its practices that have, in the past, been grossly misunderstood.

This misunderstanding of purdah is linked to why social and feminist historians have recently begun to question the pat formulas associated with such women.  The outcome of such generalised study is meaningless unless historicised and it considers the hierarchies of power and social relations in which they are embedded.[2]  The constrictive measures placed upon such women also vary depending upon the socio-economic texture of a given society and women’s ethnic or social class and race.

Muslim women in the past have exercised considerable power and achievements affecting the public sphere.[3]  However, Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist, believes that power, exercised by women in the private space, does not overly concern men.  ‘Men have to keep the monopoly over the streets and the parliaments; women have to veil to show they don’t belong’. [4]

Any scholarly inquiry in the West surrounding Muslim women’s wearing of the veil automatically focuses the inquirer on gender and the ‘paradigms of social, economic, and ultimately power relations between men and women’. [5]  These paradigms are then interpreted, particularly where women in Islam are concerned, according to the private and the public spheres, as opposed to the functional debate more relevant to Western Christian asymmetry.

In the Muslim context, the use of the veil, hijab, according to the Quran, was initially instigated by the Prophet Muhammad in regard to both his wives’ and his male visitor’s peace of mind.  ‘If you ask his wives for anything, speak to them from behind a curtain, hijab.  This is purer for your hearts and their hearts’.

The other exhortation by the prophet relating to hijab stipulates, ‘tell the believing men… and the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and (tell) the believing women to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms’.[6]  The context of this later instruction was an extreme condition of this period, and it is in this context that the Prophet prescribes an over-all garment, jilbab, to be worn outside the home.[7]  Believing women were also exhorted in the same way, due to the extremities of the situation, ‘O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them (when they go abroad).[8]  However, ‘in no case can veiling of the face be upheld as a Quranic injunction, hukm[9], incumbent upon all women of Islam.  Nevertheless, there were instances where, during the time Muhammad lived, when women of the upper classes were secluded and veiled and it has been suggested that the Prophet was wanting to make a class distinction here where the believing women, especially his wives, were concerned.[10]

Rather, it is the ‘natural law’ – the essentialist nature of women – with motherhood as the core of women’s identity, and the political and social dynamics in relation to that position, that is being held to in order to oppress and dominate the women of Islam.  The idea of the essentialist nature of women has led to the notion that women are considered to be suffering ‘moral weaknesses.

As a result, two opposing points of view have emerged in Islam.  On the one hand, the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is held up as a reformer of early Arabian society, particularly in regard to the improvement of women’s position.  On the other hand, ‘the feminine veil has become a symbol, that of the slavery of one portion of humanity’.[11]

There is no Quranic injunction that specifies generally that a woman must wear the veil and be secluded from society.  Indeed, during the time of Muhammid, women appear to have possessed substantial independence and self-determination; ‘there is hardly a profession in which the women did not participate’.[12]  However, the Quran granted husbands the power to repudiate their wives in a society where women repudiated their husbands: the prophet himself was repudiated himself, by three different women.[13].  The Quran also made it lawful for a husband to physically abuse his wife if she was rebellious, making men their masters in their homes.  ‘Men are in charge of women…  As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.  Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them.[14]  Were men already in charge in the home, such a law would not be necessary.

A fine example of such women who publicly participated in the society of that day is the Prophet’s first wife, the widow, Khadijah.  Khadijah was a prominent business woman in Mecca, who the Prophet praised, ‘She had faith in me and believed in me when no one else did, and she shared her worldly goods with me’.[15]  Another of the Prophet’s wives, A’ishah bint Abi Bakr, following his death, gradually became an authority on traditions, giving her an intellectual position in the new community of Islam.[16]  A’ishah, at that time, also assumed command of the army in the battle of Camel.[17]

It could, therefore, be said, that the intention of the Prophet was to limit the freedom some women of early Arabia of the seventh century enjoyed.  For the Prophet to insist that men are superior to women, ‘men are a degree above them’[18], must have meant that women were exercising public and political power that the prophet wanted to curb.  The regulation of the sexual instinct and the status of women in Islam were some of the key devices in the Prophet Muhammad’s implementation on earth of a new social order in then pagan Arabia.

The work of Professor W. Robertson Smith, late professor of Arabic at Cambridge, who wrote extensively on early Arabia, sheds some light on the position of women in pre Islamic Arabia.  Robertson Smith claims that at the time Mohmmad lived, in the sixth and seventh centuries, it was a transitional phase in Arab kinship history.[19]  Robertson Smith proposes that a multiplicity of sexual unions belonging to two trends, a matrilineal trend, and a patrilineal trend, existed.[20]

The patrilineal system Robertson-Smith called a dominion, ‘baal’ marriage, where the husband purchased the bride from her father, and she, and her possessions, her inheritance and her children are owned by her baal; he alone has the right of divorce.  The other kind of union, the sadiqa[21] marriage, on the other hand, meant, ‘the woman receives the husband into her own tent, among her own people… the children are bought up under the protection of the mother’s kin, and are of her blood’[22]

Therefore, it is conceivable, that the Prophet was not so much awarding equal status to both the sexes, as claimed by, for example, Ali Engineer.  Rather, for the prophet Muhammid’s new social order to work, the practice of sadicamarriage, with its female kinship ties and the relative power woman held in that society had to be stymied.

Today, again, there is also a great deal of dialogue taking place in regarding women’s place in Islam.  The male population of Islam is intent on retaining their superior position, as granted them by their religion and their tribal tradition, in both the public and the private sphere; ‘Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made one of them to excel the other’,[23].  Thus, women’s sexuality, and their gendered space, is again on the top of the political/religious Islamic agenda.  Thus, politics and religion, in Islam, are written on women’s bodies.

The veil has become a symbol of commitment to a political movement with strong religious overtones, providing a gendered explanation of fundamentalism, which often combine politics, religion, and old traditions in new packaging to suit the new politics of national fundamentalist. [24]  Thus, the discourse of fundamentalism is fused with the issues of gender roles and modernism’.[25]

Today, special problems face Islam’s women in their efforts to gain self-determination.  This is due to the way in which the same religious texts that determine the structure of society taking place also serve the cause of oppressing women.  Majella Franzmann claims that it is impossible to draw a line between tradition, politics, and religion when women’s nature, and consequently, spiritual capacity and religious position, has been determined by those same texts and passages.[26]

Because the Quran teaches that men and women are not equal, ancient traditional tribal and family custom, involving the complex honour/shame dichotomy has also contributed to the oppression and domination of the women of Islam.  In this male dominated culture, men represent order; women represent chaos.  Women’s sexuality, in contrast to Christian concepts of women’s sexuality as passive, is considered to be active and out of control; wild and needing to be tamed; it is required that it and women’s biological functions be subjugated to outside authority.[27]  Because woman’s nature is believed to be associated with destructive and untamed forces such as witchcraft and Satan, hell and damnation, woman, according to some Muslim theologians, though not according to the spirit of the Quran, is incorrigible.[28]  In view of this traditional thinking, Islam’s men and women believe they must take all precautions for the protection of the man from the woman’s influence.[29]  Hence, wearing or not wearing the veil creates a dilemma for women in Islam.

The veil to Islam’s population signifies the woman’s recognition and agreement with the ‘natural law’ regarding herself and her nature.  By the woman’s compliance in the wearing of the veil, she is agreeing with the ancient notion that men, and the ordered culture in which they have socially constructed and live, need protection from her as the instigator of chaos, fitna.  In effect, this concept is ‘Fetishizing female sexuality as destructive, and as a result, reifies the ideal woman as a dehumanised, submissive, asexual, and selfless being’.[30]

In many Muslim Middle Eastern countries, a beautiful woman is called ‘Fitna’, hence the ‘required external precautionary safeguards such as avoidance rules’ in that culture.[31]  Fitna is interpreted by Qasim Amin, as, ‘chaos provoked by sexual disorder and initiated by women’.[32].  Amin reasons, therefore, that men should wear the veil, seeing they fear that woman might succumb to their masculine attraction.  The conclusion to be drawn is that since men fear that they cannot resist temptation if confronted by a woman not wearing a veil, that women are therefore stronger than men morally.  Gerami implies that such a view of women as wild and uncivilised contradicts their role in many cultures as keepers of the faith.[33]

The veil also signifies that the Muslim woman desires to be in conformity with the revivalist’s political policy, ‘women’s morality is the remedy for social and economic evils.[34]  The veil also acts as a moral guideline, so to speak, in the light of the Quran’s verses that call upon the women to protect their chastity and dignity.[35]  However, it is tradition, not the Quran, that requires that the chastity of the woman represent the honour of the family, and any violation must be punished: hence the further precautionary measure, in some countries, of female circumcision.[36]

The intertwining of ancient misogynist points of view about women’s nature, along with the superior position given to men by the Quran, serves to put Muslim women in a double bind.  By subordinating herself to the wearing of the veil, the woman brands herself as inferior and secondary, according to the ‘natural law, and ultimately, contributes to her domination and oppression at the hands of men.  By her throwing off the veil, which has been made to symbolise her credibility, her chastity and her family’s honour, such as Fatema Mernissi, the Moroccan feminist has done,[37] she is made to feel she is betraying herself and her people’s identity.  Such behaviour is costly in terms of her credibility.

The veil, therefore, can carry a number of symbolic and subliminal messages.  One such message the veil carries, in non-Muslim society, is the oppression and subordination of women by Islam, mainly due to a skewed understanding of purdah.  That is not to say, however, that Muslim women are not oppressed and dominated due to the teachings of Islam.  The veil is also associated with tradition involving the negative aspect of a woman’s nature.  Another way the veil carries a symbolic message is the way in which its presence signifies the Muslim woman’s responsibility to protect tribal and family customs by her chastity, in which her and the male members of her family’s religious, political and personal identity is established.  Overall, the wearing of the veil is political, in as much as it signifies the Muslim male, not only to be in charge, which his religion allows him anyway, but, also, to be seen to be in charge.  This perspective answers to the very heart of the Muslim male’s machismo-masculinist, socially constructed status, and, therefore, his Islamic identity and destiny.

[1], Frantz Fanon, addressing the French Anti-veil policies, 1965:42, in Shahin Gerami, Women and Fundamentalism: Islam and Christianity, London, 1996, p. 83.

[2] Asma Afsaruddin, (ed.), Hermeneutics and Honour: Negotiating female ‘public’ space in Islamic/ate societies, London, 1999, p. 2.

[3] ibid

[4] Fatema Mernissi, Scheherazade Goes West: Different cultures, different harems, Sydney, 2000, p. 114.

[5] Gerami, op. cit., 1996, p.11.

[6] Surah xxiv:30, 31, The Chapter of the Light’  trans. Mohammid Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, in Elizabeth Warnock Fernia & Basima Qattan Bezirgan, (eds), Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak, Texas, 1977, p. 20.

[7] Patricia Jeffery, Frogs in a Well: Indian women in purdah, London, 1979, p. 4.  ‘The veil worn by Muslim women takes on various forms in an effort to conceal the wearer.  First of these garments is the chaddar which is an enormous shawl with various styles and adjustments to it.  Next, the old style burka consists of a circular piece material, with its centre intricately embroidered to create a skull cap which drops right down to the ground around the woman.  Alternatively, the new style burqa consists of a long coat with sleeves and a separate shoulder length cape tied over the head with chiffon veils that fold down over the face’.

[8] Surah xxxiii:59, The Clans, in Fernia & Bezirgan, op. cit., p. 25.

[9] Asghar Ali Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam, London, 1992, p. 83-89.

[10] Fernea & Bezirgan, op. cit., p. 30.

[11] Germaine Tillion in Fernia & Bezirgan, op. cit., 1977,  p. xviii.

[12] Engineer, op. cit.,1992, p. 83.

[13] Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-female dynamics in modern Muslim society, 1987, p. 53.

[14] Surah IV: 34, ‘Women’. in Fernia & Bezirgan, op. cit., p. 16.

[15] Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 6:117, ibid., p. 33

[16] Biographical sketch of A’ishah bint Abi Bakr, ibid., p. 34.

[17] Engineer, op. cit., p. 77.

[18] Mohammid Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, Surah II: 228, The Cow, op. cit., Fernia & Bezirgan, (eds), p. 9.

[19] Professor W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, in Katherine C. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, New York, 1923, Lesson 54.

[20] Ibid., Lesson 54.

[21] Robertson W. Smith, ibid., lesson 54/415.  ‘Sadiq, friend; sadiqa, female friend.  Sadac: the gift given to the wife by her husband, upon marriage.

[22] Robertson W. Smith, loc. cit.,

[23] Surah IV: 34. in Fernia & Bezirgan, op. cit., p. 25…

[24] Majella Franzmann, Women and Religion, Oxford, 2000, p. 146-7.

[25] Gerami, op. cit., p. 151.

[26] Franzmann, op. cit., p. 145.

[27] Mernissi, op. cit., 1987, p. 31.

[28] Gerami, op. cit., p. 4.

[29] Fernia & Bizergan, op. cit., p. xix.

[30] Gerami, op. cit., p. 155.

[31] ibid., p. 30

[32] Qasim Amin in Mernissi, op. cit., 1987, p. 31

[33] Gerami, op. cit., p. 5.

[34]  Naila Minai, Women in Islam: Tradition and transition in the Middle East, New York, 1981, p. 236.

[35] Engineer, op. cit., p. 89.

[36] Fernia & Bezirgan, op. cit., p.xx.

[37] Franzmann, op. cit., p. 146,