Donnerstag, 13. Juli 2017

Veiling, Unveiling and Re-veiling - A Headscarf Position

By Lina Elhage-Mensching 

While the debate about the veil is ongoing and “more countries restrict women’s ability to wear religious symbols or attire than require women to dress in a certain way”,[i] as concluded by the annual study published by the Pew Research Center in 2016 from which the following picture originates, it is interesting to reflect once again upon the origins of this piece of cloth that has acquired a growing symbolic significance in the last decades.

The above picture illustrates the countries where policies were put in place to limit women’s ability to wear head coverings under the generic title of “religious attire”, using the protection of public safety and ‘living together’ as their main argument. 
Relating to Geertz’s definition of religion as “a system of symbols”[ii] being “extrinsic sources of information”[iii] provided in the social space in which the individual lives and expressing a relationship between object and idea, the veil has become an obvious symbol, an indication of religious belonging, namely to Islam. Yet, the veiling custom is pre-Islamic. First mentioned in an Assyrian[iv] text from the eleventh century BCE, the practice was restricted to respectable women. Adopted in the course of ancient history by the Greco-Roman, pre-Islamic Iranian and Byzantine empires, veiling was a symbol of status among the elite[v] and women depicted in murals of those periods wore colored veils to cover their heads as one can see in the following picture. 

Apulian Art, Ruvo, Tomb 11, Detail of mural, 410-350 BCE, Archeological Museum of Naples, Inv. No. 9357
Mentioned in the Old Testament as an article of ornamental dress[vi], worn by maidens especially at the time of their wedding[vii] or as concealment,[viii] the practice appears again in Christianity for women in worship or mourning, developing into the symbol of the virgin nun.[ix]
As Islam spread and came in contact with other lands and different cultures and practices, veiling became common and was first associated to high status. While the Quran “states that a woman should dress modestly, it does not specifically require that she wear a veil”[x]. Yet, throughout the centuries and mainly based upon Sura 24:31 of the Quran[xi] as well as on Hadith books[xii], all main schools of Islamic thought mandated a variety of veiling levels.
As time went by, the veiling custom underwent periods of popularity alternating with near abolishment. At the dawn of the twentieth century, “intellectuals, reformers and liberals began denouncing the idea of women’s protective clothing”[xiii] in countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Iran. The emancipation of women and their role in the society were associated to national movements of independence from colonial rulers while women were encouraged to become the symbols of the new states. Inspired by Huda Sha’rawi (1879–1947), an Egyptian politician who founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, Egyptian women rejected the veil.[xiv] Around the same time in Turkey, Atatürk “discouraged women from covering their heads and passed a law barring men from wearing traditional ottoman clothing”.[xv] In Iran, the use of the traditional Iranian cover, called chador was prohibited by law in 1936.[xvi] This marked the beginning of forced unveilings that went on up until the Iranian Revolution.
Following the Iranian Revolution, a radical reversal occurred and the veil was revived. A similar re-veiling movement phenomenon seemed to develop in the Islamic world at the end of the twentieth century including these same countries that had seen the beginning of the emancipation movement.[xvii] The veil developed again into a symbol associated to Islamic identity and a manifestation of pride and cultural heritage. By re-veiling today, these women adopt “a new public appearance and demeanor that reaffirms Islamic identity”[xviii] and “symbolizes a renewal of traditional cultural identity”.[xix] In multi-confessional Lebanon, for example, where veiling had disappeared except in rural areas or in very conservative families, “the resurgence of the veil manifests itself mainly in the Shi’i community”.[xx]   
While it is clear that the veil has been used to bring back women into submission in countries that had seen the emancipation movements of the early twentieth century such as Iran, in other societies, re-veiling became the symbol of the uniqueness and superiority of the Islamic culture as compared to western ones.
More than ever, asserting one’s identity is going through a proclamation of the difference in a hostile environment. If wearing the veil in a Muslim country is part of submission to men, God and his Prophet and if any transgression is punished by law like in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, wearing a veil in secular countries all over the world represents a statement of identity. As a symbol most closely related to the Muslim woman, it has come to signify, in a Geertzian fashion, a model of and a model for society.

[i] Pew Research Center, 5 April 2016, “Restrictions on Women’s Religious Attire”,, last consulted 1 February 2017.
[ii] Geertz (1993:90).
[iii] Geertz (1993:92).
[iv] The Code of the Assura, c. 1075 BCE. In: Fordham University, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, Assyria,, last consulted on 3 February 2017.
[v] Hoodfar (2003:6-7).
[vi] Cf. Bible, Song of Solomon 4:1; 4:3; 6:7.
[vii] Cf. Bible, Genesis 24:65.
[viii] Cf. Bible, Genesis 38:14.
[ix] Cf. Bible, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
[x] Pew Research Center, 30 April 2013, “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society”, p. 92.
[xi] Translated by: Youssef Ali (2001:482) “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze […] that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty…”.
[xii] Cf. Al-Bukhari, Hadith 282 among others.
[xiii] Reese (1998:Essay01).
[xiv] Ahmed, L. (1982b:153-168).
[xv] Head (2010).
[xvi] Hoodfar (1993:9-10).
[xvii] Shaefer (2008:1359).
[xviii] El Guindi (2000:145).
[xix] Ibidem.
[xx] Thomas (2013:106).


Ahmed, Leila (1982). Feminism and Feminist Movements in the Middle East, a Preliminary Exploration: Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, People‘s Democratic Republic of Yemen. In: Women’s Studies International Forum, 5(2), 153-168.

Al-Bukhari, Sahih Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 282,, last consulted 13 July 2017.

El Guindi Fadwa (2000). Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford: Berg.

Geertz, Clifford (1993). The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. London: Fontana Press.

Head, Jonathan (2010). Quiet end to Turkey’s college headscarf ban. Last consulted 4 January 2017.

Hoodfar, Homa (1993). The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women. Colonialism, Imperialism and Gender. In: Resources for Feminist Research, 22(3-4), 5-16.

Hoodfar, Homa (2003). More Than Clothing: Veiling as an Adaptive Strategy. In: Sajida Sultana Alvi/ Homa Hoodfar/Sheila McDonough (eds). The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates. Toronto: Women’s Press, 6-7.

Reese, Lyn (1998). Women in the Muslim World. Personalities and Perspectives from the Past. Last consulted 8 March 2017

Shaefer, Richard (ed.) (2008). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications Inc.
Thomas, Marie-Claude (2013). Women in Lebanon: Living with Christianity, Islam, and Multiculturalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yusuf Ali, Abdullah (2001). The Holy Qur’an. Arabic Text Meanings in English. Beirut: Dar Al-Biruni.

Further Readings

The Islamic Veil across Europe, 31 January 2017,, last consulted 3 February 2017

Burka bans: The countries where Muslim women can't wear veils, 8 July 2016,, last consulted 27 February 2017

Amin, Qasim (2002). The Emancipation of Women. In: Kurzman, Charles (ed.) Modernist Islam 1840 -1940: a Sourcebook. London: OUP, 2002.

Hambly, Gavin R.G (1999). Becoming Visible. In: Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Toprak, Metin and Nasuh, Uslu (2009). The Headscarf Controversy in Turkey. In: Journal of Economic and Social Research. Vol. 11, no.1, 43-67.

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen