Although many people in the West know little about Islam, the veil is one exception that everyone is familiar with. Although the Western perception is that the veil serves as a form of oppression (I also used to share this view), Muslim women see it as quite the opposite. Some researchers have taken the debate a step further by putting the veil and its effects to scientific testing.
Although I found very few studies done on the effects of the veil, the handful I did find seemed to have mixed results. I found it curious and wondered what other factors were affecting the outcomes. Anyone familiar with the Middle East can attest to the fact that despite the veil being a requirement in many countries, women still suffer from body image issues, which can also result in depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem. Thus, the act of simply wearing the veil does not seem to automatically protect women from body image issues.
However, I found another study (Rastmanesh, Gluck, & Shadman, 2009) that was much more telling. In this particular study, the researchers took three groups of Iranian women, all of whom are required to wear the veil by law, and separated them by those wearing the chador (full coverage, beyond the requirement), those maintaining the basic requirement of veiling, and those just under the requirement, wearing tight clothes and a loose veil with hair still showing. The researchers measured participants’ answers on a variety of instruments, such as the Beck depression inventory, the body shape questionnaire, the eating disorders inventory, the Rosenburg self-esteem scale, and questions on the importance of slimness.
The results yielded that women who veiled above and beyond the basic requirement scored far better than those in the other groups, with the women in the third group scoring the lowest. What this indicates is that indeed, simply wearing the veil does not safeguard a woman from body image issues, but wearing the veil willingly does. The results also should not be interpreted to mean that covering oneself from head to toe should be strictly enforced – nor does it mean that Muslim countries should abandon the veil requirement – not at all. It simply indicates that those who 1. cover the Islamically required areas, and 2. do it because they believe in it and desire to do it, are the ones who benefit most from the veil.
So essentially, the veil is not only a physical practice. Rather, the veil must be both physical and mental in order for it to serve as a protective factor against body image issues in women. In fact, if a woman doesn’t believe in it, she risks being even more vulnerable to the mental health issues that plague women, as her sole source of value – her body – is covered and she has no way of competing against the other women around her, either in real life or in the media. Her value is invisible and shielded from view, so from her perspective, she has nothing else that gives her worth. Obviously, when you believe that you have nothing to offer, it is easy to fall into low self-esteem, depression, and so on. Such women may even attempt to go to more extremes to make their sole source of currency visible, by wearing tight clothes so as to show off as much as they can, engaging in disordered eating in order to make their body more noticeably slimmer than those around them, and what reportedly is becoming a quickly increasing phenomenon in the Middle East, undergoing facial plastic surgery. If the face is the only thing still visible, altering it in order to make it more appealing makes the most sense. Apparently rhinoplasty enjoys great popularity in Iran and other places, and anyone who watches Arab media knows that Arab women (and other Middle Eastern women) wear a great deal of make up (not all of them of course, but those who have adopted the idea that a woman’s worth is in her appearance).
One of my Saudi friends has often told me stories about how Saudi women, who have to cover their faces (with the exception of the eyes), often go to great lengths in order to have very extravagently made up eyes.
He said there are many jokes about a guy being lured in by a woman’s eyes, only to later find, after pursuing her for marriage, that her eyes were the only thing appealing about her – at which point it was too late to back out!
The lesson in all this is that the West is not the inventor of female sexual objectification and oppression. Isolating oneself completely from the influence of Western countries does not mean you will be safe from all things evil.
No, on the contrary; the abuse and mistreatment of women is something that we are all capable of; its potential lurks in all of us. This is why God has first asked men to lower their gaze, and second for women to cover. If one fails, the other protective component will still be in place. But, as shown by this particular study, Islam also emphasizes the importance of knowledge and intention behind each action. Actions that are empty and ritualistic are worthless and a waste of time. But actions done with full knowledge and understanding of the purpose and benefit behind it, and with the right intentions have reward both in this life and in the hereafter. A woman who veils simply because she has to will not experience the full benefit of it. In fact, any benefit she does receive may be viewed negatively (i.e. men aren’t staring at her lustfully anymore, which she perceives as negative since her value is increased and measured by such attention). In contrast, a woman who veils because she wants to and because she understands and desires its benefits will indeed reap the full reward in this life by being treated for who she is as a person and not as a set of body parts, and will receive the reward in heaven as well. Correct knowledge, pure intention, and action comprise the optimal combination we all should strive for.
With all that in mind, should a woman who covers merely because Islam has asked her to give up and refrain from doing so? No, because she still receives benefit from it even if she may not recognize it as such. Plus, as Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb (in Nahjul Balagha) has sagely stated (Bihar Al-Anwar, p. 196)), there are three types of believers. The first is one who obeys God from fear of punishment. The second is one who obeys from the desire for reward. And the third is one who obeys God simply because they want to, not for any reward or escape from punishment, but because they recognize and fully understand that this is the right and true thing to do. All of these are still believers, and all of them will go to heaven, but their outcomes are all slightly different. The first will escape punishment but may not have collected much reward in heaven (although there is still reward for doing the right thing), the second will gain a great deal of reward in heaven, and the third will gain reward both in the world and in heaven (despite not seeking either one!).
Indeed, God is the most merciful and the most wise.