News & Politics

The Veil: Resistance or Repression?

No aspect of the lives of women in Islamic societies arouses such an immediate, visceral reaction from the Western world as the sight of the veil.
From the black, loose-fitting chador of Iran to the dense, gridlike facial veil on the body-enveloping burqa in Afghanistan, the veiling of Islamic women has fueled fierce debate within feminist circles about the perceived role of the hijab -- roughly translated as the Islamic dress code for women -- in enforcing gender exclusion and inequality.

In the not-too-distant past, the face veils and elaborately decorated body coverings of Middle Eastern and North African women also provoked strong reactions on the part of Western colonizers. Those reactions, encompassing everything from horror and disgust to sexual exoticization, have contributed to lingering mystique and confusion that accompanies our understanding of the lives of veiled women in modern-day Islam.

Two works in recent years, "Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance" (Berg Publishers, 1999) and "Rage Against the Veil" (Prometheus Books, 2000), offer very different but compelling perspectives on the significance of the veil in Islamic society, and its role as both an instrument of resistance and repression.

In "Veil," University of Southern California anthropology professor Fadwa El Guindi lays out a fresh but sometimes one-sided analysis of some of the multifaceted uses and meanings of the veil (and other, modest Islamic dress) in Arabic-speaking Muslim societies.

From the outset, El Guindi expresses strong displeasure with the colonial-era exoticization of veiling, as well as with the critical interpretation inherent in much of past and present feminist discourse surrounding the veil.

"Western-ideology feminists (in the East and the West) have dominated the discourse on the veil, viewing it as an aspect of patriarchies and a sign of women's backwardness, subordination and oppression. This uni-dimensional approach narrows the study of the veil ... and leads to a distorted view of a complex cultural phenomenon," she writes.

In the Arabic-speaking world, "veil" has no single-word translation, explains El Guindi. More than a hundred terms exist to refer to the diverse articles of women's clothing that vary by body part and region. Furthermore, she says, modest dress is a way of life for observant Islamic men, and male veiling -- as a symbol of masculinity and virility -- is also present in various parts of the Middle East and Africa.

For women, El Guindi explains, veiling in contemporary Arab culture fulfills numerous social and religious functions. Depending on region and cultural context, veiling can signify privacy, kinship, status, power, autonomy, and/or political resistance.

Drawing on her own fieldwork, an extensive bibliography, and her analysis of religious texts -- the Qur'an (the holy book of Islam), Hadith (the prophetic narratives), and Tafsir (the Islamic exegesis) -- El Guindi argues, in particular, for the "centrality of the cultural notion of privacy" in veiling.

Veils and modest Islamic dress, explains El Guindi, grant women an important private spiritual space even in the public sphere. It is a mistake, suggests El Guindi, to presuppose that the Islamic faith denies women the right to express or enjoy their own sexuality: "Islam accepts sexuality as a normative aspect of both ordinary and religious life."

El Guindi insists that observant, veiled Islamic women should not be pitied. Instead, she says, they should be seen as free from the male gaze and from sexualized attention, and must rightly be understood to be observing -- and drawing pride from -- Islam's central tenets: Privacy, humility, piety and moderation.

Pride in such Islamic observance, in addition to support of national and women's self-determination, also lies at the heart of the adoption of the veil in political struggle, explains El Guindi. In an overview of the creation of a new Islamic political consciousness in Egypt, Palestine and Iran beginning in the 1970s, El Guindi suggests that veiling as a part of this activism "espouses egalitarianism, community, identity, privacy and justice ... Reserve and restraint in behavior, voice and body movement are not restrictions. They symbolize a renewal of traditional cultural identity."

So it was for a period in Iran. As a part of a Westernizing national effort, Iran's monarchy had banned the veil in 1936. Women who wore the veil despite the law were routinely arrested and had their veils forcibly removed. Eventually, as dress code rules were relaxed, women were allowed to re-veil, although the practice was largely frowned upon, particularly by the somewhat Westernized middle- and upper-classes.

But in the mid- to late-'70s, women began donning chadors as a form of political protest to the rule of the secular, anti-communist, Western-backed Reza Shah Pahlavi. However, with the Shah ousted in 1979 and the Islamic regime battling for -- and eventually winning -- control over the government, the hijab soon evolved from a voluntary display of solidarity to a compulsory demand on women in Iran. Protests on the part of women's groups went unheeded, and the arrests and punishments of women who dared to defy strict codes of appearance became commonplace.

It is here that El Guindi alludes, ever so briefly, to the harsh impact of the law on women's lives. But she abruptly and simplisticly reframes the issue as a matter of ultimate empowerment for women: "The enforcement of hijab can be as empowering as its ban," writes El Guindi. "While it undoubtedly restricts some women, it emancipates others by legitimizing their presence in public life."

One Woman's Pain

It is in stark contrast to this more detached, academic perspective that "Rage Against the Veil" delivers its personal narrative, in the voice of the younger sister of the deceased Iranian political activist and medical doctor, Homa Darabi.

On Feb. 21, 1994, Dr. Darabi's life ended in an act of profound desperation and defiance that captured international headlines, and thrust a new spotlight on the lives of women living in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Darabi, who had been an accomplished respected female child psychiatrist in both Iran and the United States, committed one of the most painful and visually shocking forms of suicide known to humankind: Public self-immolation.

Darabi's sister Parvin recounts eyewitness testimony of her sister's suicide in a public square in a suburb of Tehran: "Several people took notice of her as she removed her scarf from her head. In the Islamic Republic she could have been arrested and beaten for such behavior ... Witnesses said she wandered through crowds of people shouting slogans in every direction ... 'Death to tyranny! Long live freedom! Long live Iran! Several people approached her and pleaded with her to cover herself and to stop acting out. She refused."

"Eventually, she stopped walking and removed her coat. She sat down on the pavement, tipped the can onto herself, and began to soak the lower part of her body with gasoline ... When she ignited the match, she was immediately engulfed in flames. For a few moments she bore the pain quietly and remained on her feet. In a matter of seconds, however, her head fell backward and she released an enormous shriek. Quickly, she collapsed to the ground on her stomach. Her head and torso scratched against the pavement as she used her arms to lift her torso so that the flames would not be smothered ... Tears poured from her eyes and she continued to cry out."

Five years after this gruesome suicide, Parvin Darabi and her son, Romin Thomson, co-wrote "Rage Against the Veil" to form an unabashed critique of Iranian religious laws as they pertain to the lives of women, and to offer a compelling look at Homa's struggle for freedom and liberty in the face of insurmountable challenges.

By reconstructing the circumstances of the sisters' childhood in Iran, Parvin traces the development of Homa's compassionate and politicized perspectives on the world around her. The book's straightforward, chronological narrative brings the tight knit, interdependent relationship between the two young girls to life, just as it distills Iran's tumultuous, complex political history to a day-to-day, cultural and familial level.

Parvin does a commendable job of documenting her sister's early, outspoken role as an anti-Shah activist seeking a self-reliant, self-determined future for Iran. Although Parvin's later accounts of Homa's life as a wife and mother struggling with a controlling, domineering husband, come across in a more disjointed and emotional manner, the reader is nonetheless given a thorough understanding of Homa's mounting struggle with the multitudinous psychological and societal pressures placed on professional Iranian women.

"Homa was appalled by the laws of hijab," writes Parvin. "Of course, these laws are often the most talked about throughout the world. They are a quickly recognizable symbol of the treatment of women in Iran. Proponents of the rules often argue that they are designed to protect the dignity of women and to prevent the male population from some sort of 'excessive fornication.' Nevertheless, beneath the surface and beyond the laws of hijab existed nationally sanctioned rules of law which were much harder to absolve ... From the beginning, Homa protested the establishment of the Islamic Republic by participating in demonstrations with other women and speaking out. She demanded that democracy be instituted as it had been promised."

Versatile in both languages and cultures, Homa ultimately chose to forego the relative freedom afforded to her in the United States (Parvin's adopted country) for her beloved native land. As restrictions on women's behavior and appearance grew tighter through the early 90s, Homa spoke by telephone with her sister, detailing her mounting horror at the torture and public stoning executions of women who, unintentionally or intentionally, broke the laws that dictated strict Islamic appearance and conduct.

Eventually, recounts Parvin, Homa lost both her teaching appointments and her private practice over her refusal to fully comply with mandatory rules of hijab. Gradually, Homa slipped into a dark world of depression and hopelessness from which she did not escape until the moment of her public suicide.

Readers looking for a detailed examination of the present situation facing women in modern Iranian society will not find such analysis in "Rage Against the Veil." But the real-life story of this doctor and activist -- trapped and punished by her society for not obeying the strict rules of conduct and appearance -- is nonetheless a valuable one.

Cultural Relativism?

Homa's story is the kind of woman's experience that "Veil" seems to avoid acknowledging, even if only to weigh it against the benefits of veiling to those women who genuinely enjoy its political symbolism and religious significance.

Even so, El Guindi has the opportunity to develop an interesting and valuable thesis, on the issue of veiling as a form of political resistance. Unfortunately, the incomplete nature of the work leaves her premise of empowerment surprisingly weak. While she devotes more coverage to Egypt, a country that has been the focus of much of El Guindi's fieldwork, she grants a scant three paragraphs of "Veil" to Palestinian women.

As chronicled in the essays and books of such writers as Mona Rishmani, Hamida Kazi, Philippa Strum and Kitty Warnock, Palestinian women's struggles are notable not only for their use of the hijab as a symbol of resistance to Israeli occupation, but also for their protest against mandatory veiling. Palestinian feminists and many women's groups have long decried the patriarchal control exerted by Hamas in the Occupied Territories, as well as in countries like Algeria. Yet with only a hint at the pressures and physical abuses brought upon Palestinian women by Hamas over the issue of the hijab -- a struggle that was particularly heated in the late '80s -- El Guindi is more comfortable highlighting the role of the veil in Algerian women's resistance to French occupation.

And in her discussion of Algerian women's struggles, El Guindi overlooks the subsequent downfall of women's rights and freedoms after national liberation. "We will not be another Algeria!" was, in point of fact, a common rallying cry of many Palestinian women's groups active in resisting both Israeli occupation and Palestinian patriarchal domination throughout the Intifada.

In a valiant and important attempt to steer the discussion of Middle Eastern and North Africa women's lives away from the more close-minded, ethnocentric viewpoint that brands veiled Muslim women as little more than oppressed victims of religious dogma, El Guindi commits a parlous error of omission.

Namely, what happens when veiling, as in Iran, goes from being a brave, revolutionary tactic to an institutionalized, enforced norm? What kinds of societal and cultural pressures -- and life-threatening punishments -- are brought to bear on those women who defy those norms by accident, or by intention? What happens to women like Darabi, whose visions of self-determination, freedom and democracy compel them to make their deep-rooted convictions known to the culture around them, and to endure consequent alienation, emotional suffering, and physical punishment?

The answers require a willingness to examine the issue from a host of women's life experiences and viewpoints. Taken together, these two, distinct works contribute to an overall understanding of the issue of veiling -- and legitimately contribute to a growing body of exciting Middle Eastern, feminist literature. "Veil," an academic work, also points to the fact that the diversity of Muslim women's cultural experiences demands a more balanced and open-minded approach.

Difficult and challenging as it may be to do so, the issue of feminism -- defined by and for women in Islamic societies -- requires that we take a carefully considered look at the multilayered complexity of these women's lives, and of their relationship to the veil. Even as we should recognize and respect the self-determination and religious identity of women who abide by codes of Islamic dress, the struggles and cries for justice of women like Homa Darabi cannot go unheeded.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist and co-editor of LiP Magazine.
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