More Thoughts on the Veil

For the Arabic class I’m taking, I had to view a couple of videos regarding the Islamic headscarf, and answer some questions pertaining to the video.  I decided to post both the videos and my responses.  Your response to the videos welcome!



Al Jazeera: The Veil part 1

Al Jazeera: The Veil part 2

Questions & My Responses:

What thoughts come to your mind when you see a woman wearing al-hijaab
الحِجاب or al-niqaab النِقاب ? How do you view one vs. the other?

Before I came into contact with actual Muslim women, I viewed the headscarf as oppressive and forced.  However, when I began teaching for the first time and had a class full of Muslims, my perception immediately changed as I saw these women as having a great deal of honor, respect and dignity for themselves.  They looked like regal princesses to me, and I realized that someone in a position of nobility or high status doesn’t normally reveal their bodies to every common person around them, but would keep their personal appearance for only those in their private circle.

Regarding niqaab, I have had a few students who have worn the niqaab, and while I respect their decision to do so, I find it unnecessary and entirely counterproductive to their purpose of wearing it in the first place.  As the niqaabi woman in the video explained, the niqaab is to cover oneself physically from view of others and not draw unwanted attention to oneself.  However, niqaabis in the US and most other countries (included countries such as Egypt) draw a great deal of attention since they stand out as very different and even suspicious, as the TV reporter noted.  Islamically, the niqaab is not required (except for those in the Wahabi/Salafi sect), so adamantly wearing it and therefore drawing a lot of negative and suspicious attention to oneself, and furthering negative stereotypes of Muslim, is incredibly counterproductive in my view.  Islam encourages Muslims to dress in the same way as the culture they live in, as long as they ensure that the appropriate areas are covered.

How do you view an Arab woman who does not wear either al-hijaab or al-niqaab? Do you think that a woman dressed like that is making a political or a religious statement?

A few thoughts cross my mind when I see an uncovered Arab woman.  I may wonder if she is Christian or irreligious, or if she comes from a liberal Middle Eastern country, such as Lebanon or Syria.  She may also come from a more liberal city or family (Jeddah is Saudi Arabia is fairly liberal, as I have encountered students from Jeddah who don’t cover their hair, and know of individuals from even conservative areas in Saudi Arabia th don’t observe hijab in their private lives simply as the family in general doesn’t practice it).  Further, an uncovered woman may come from the West, from irreligious parents or mixed religion parents, and finally, the woman may simply not believe in it and chooses not to wear it.  Thus, when I see an uncovered Arab woman, I refrain from judgment and prefer to simply wait for more information.

In working with Muslim students from typically conversative countries however, I have seen that uncovered Muslim women are usually treated differently by their Muslim classmates; they are sometimes not respected as much and are treated as ‘loose’ and are not taken seriously, which is in line with what the TV reporter explained regarding women who don’t cover in Egypt.

Do your views apply to Arab or Muslim men who dress in a non-western manner?

Dressing in a non-Western manner for men or women from any country is their prerogative, and has little to do with one’s religious affiliation.  Islam is clear that a person can dress in a culturally appropriate manner wherever they are, as long as the appropriate areas are covered.  A male or female wearing jeans and a T-shirt to me simply look like they’re integrated and are not trying to set themselves distinctly apart from the culture around them.

Do you think that Muslims living this country should dress in a way that is not different from anyone else around them?

Muslims should dress in accordance to the area around them.  What I mean is that if they live in a more educated, open-minded area, dressing in their own cultural attire is fine as the people around them probably would be more accepting and open to that.  However, if they live in a conservative, close-minded, uneducated area, they may want to adopt the dress around them so as to not draw unwanted attention to themselves.  Again, the Islamic emphasis is always on covering the appropriate areas, and beyond that is a personal choice.

Can you think of other religions wheremen and women dress in certain way because they think that their religion requires them to do so? Does the American society view these other religions and their followers as they view Muslims who adhere to particular clothes?

Practicing Jewish women also dress similarly to Muslim women; they wear modest clothing and also cover their hair (which is a practice alive and well today as I came across many websites and tutorials on Jewish hair covering when I was trying to learn how to cover my own hair as a new convert to Islam).  Jewish texts record that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, never left the house without covering her hair, face, and hands (just like the niqaabi woman in the video).

Christian women traditionally also wore modest clothing and covered their hair, as Paul in the Bible admonishes women who come to church without their hair covered, saying that such women bring shame to themselves and deserve to have their heads shaved (incidentally, Islam does not take such an extreme approach!).  Some Christian women in other countries do still cover their hair.  Women in the FLDS denomination of Christianity dress modestly, as well as the Amish (who also cover their hair).  Women in the Apostolic and conservative Evangelical branches of Christianity have strict beliefs against cutting one’s hair (as the Old Testament states that a woman’s hair is her glory and should not be cut), and that women should not wear pants (as the OT also states that women should not wear men’s clothing and vice versa).  Catholic nuns dress in the same way as Muslim women by wearing long, loose-fitting clothing and a headscarf, and no image of Mary mother of Jesus (peace be upon him) is complete without Mary wearing a headscarf.

By no means has Islam introduced modesty or the veil to religious clothing practices; it has simply continued what has been practiced by other Abrahamic faiths for centuries. Yet, Westerners seem to forget the clothing practices of their own faith traditions historically and to the present.  If Mary is seen as holy and pure for wearing a headscarf, why then are Muslim women seen as oppressed and brainwashed for wearing the exact same thing?


Hijab: A Protective Factor in Women’s Body Image Issues?

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.