Muslim women and the veil: the dangers of misconceptions

‘The continuation of misconceptions and misinterpretations about the veil and veiled women has several consequences, not just for Muslim women but also for occidental women.’ (Homa Hoodfar) Discuss.

The image of the veiled woman stirs up literally hundreds of different connotations, each subject to the cultural beliefs of the audience.  Western perceptions of the veil and those who wear it are more like stereotypes than actual perceptions.  There is a continuing theme of Muslim women as “inferior, tranquil and modest” despite the fact that “they are actually just as liberated as women of other faiths are” (Cohen and Peery 25).  The continuing persistence of colonial misconceptions about Muslim women is embodied in the symbol of the veil, an immediately recognisable emblem of Islam.  The veiled woman becomes a representative “symbol of a hidden and serious menace” (McDonough 129).  Despite the “multiplicity of meanings embodied in the ḥijāb,[1] the continuing Western image is of the veil as an enforced method of control used by Muslim men to subjugate and control Muslim men.  These misconceptions and misinterpretations perpetuate dangerous stereotypes and prevent seeing through the discourses of our own view of feminism, a feminism based on female sexual freedom and objectivity, and traditional colonial discourses of the backwards Muslim, stereotypes developed and perpetuated in order to justify colonial rule.
Traditional Western misconceptions of the veil can trace their history back to the colonial discourses aimed at “justifying the occupation of their lands and usurpation of their resources” (Haddad 257).  Prior to the 19th century the veil was a symbol of eroticism and sexual decadence, hand-in-hand with the sexuality of the harem.  The “appropriation of feminism” (Franks 919) in the 19th century in order to justify Western values and mores focused on the veil as a symbol of the backwardness of traditional Islamic life.   This traditional symbolism has carried through to contemporary society where the veil serves as an immediate identifier of the Muslim woman as ‘Other’.  The veil represents the ‘Other’ in terms of both religion and culture.  Its symbolism is so engrained into Western society that “most people have difficulty reducing it to simply an article of clothing” (Cohen and Peery 20).  This stereotype of Muslim women as submissive, poorly educated and subjugated by their male relatives is assumed to be a part of Islam itself, dictated by the Qu’ran.  Cohen and Peery remark that in their examination of Student’s perceptions of Women in Islam that “most of the students believed the Qu’ran preaches women’s submission when it actually promotes the opposite” (Cohen and Peery 22).  In fact traditionally Islamic women held greater economic rights than Western women.  Hoodfar argues that these economic rights are the reason behind the complex social institutions developed to control women’s sexuality (Hoodfar 1997).

The Western mind has a tendency to combine all forms of veiling into the one symbol of oppression and patriarchy, while “veiling is a lived experience full of contradictions and multiple meanings” (Hoodfar 1997).  The term ‘veil’ can mean anything from “the top-to-toe burqa, with its sinister, airless little grille” (Merali 176) with its complete segregation of the female body to the simple shaylah, or head scarf, and all the variations in between.  There is no real delineation between the differing forms of the veil in the Western mind.  All are representative of the patriarchal subjugation of women and symbolise the “awkward black cloak that covers the whole body” (Hoodfar 2003; 11).  The concept of wearing the veil for cosmetic, respectful or covert reasons is beyond the comprehension of the Western mind.  Perhaps in part because the veil is so clearly tied into the Western experience of patriarchal oppression that it conjures up fears of the Western woman’s recent feminist revolution.  The veil outside of Islam is held in a similar disdain by the modern Western world.  Those religious sects[2] which still encourage the veil or women covering their hair as a sign of modesty are viewed as backwards or oppressive to women.   It is true that the veil has at times been used as a tool for subjugation, however its “functions and social significance have varied tremendously” (Hoodfar 1997) over time.  Western literature has traditionally depicted veiling as a unified and static practice, unchanged over time.  The reality however is that veiling has never been a static or unified practice.  Veiling practices has differed across cultures, classes and time, subject to fashions and trends.  The ideologies behind the veil have likewise transformed throughout time.

These transformative ideologies have been used by Muslim woman throughout time as Islamic feminism has developed and struggled to form itself.  In the first wave of Islamic feminism the veil was seen as a symbol of oppression.  As Islamic societies struggled to modernize themselves they embraced Western values and dress.  Huda Shaarawi set aside her veil in Cairo in 1923, and Turkey and Iran soon tried to promote the de-veiling of women as they attempted to secularize their countries.  De-veiling was seen as a symbol of the throwing off of outdated traditions and the construction of a new modern nation.  In this respect the veil was viewed by Islamic feminists along the lines of the bra for feminists of the 1960s, a “visible symbol of their rejection of patriarchy and their assertion of their rights as full participants in society” (Mule and Barthel 323).

The ideology of the veil as a symbol of oppression was re-examined in the latter half of the 20th century.  Merali claims that the veil gives women freedom from a culture which assigns “value based on a masculine ideal of success” (184) and Franks contends that modern Western society “requires women be the object of the gaze, not the subject” (919) whilst the veil enables women to claim the role of subject through her very concealment from masculine gaze.  As Islamic societies struggled to maintain their cultural core and rebelled against the Western modernization process.  The “most militant act of rebellion for urban, educated woman became wearing the traditional Muslim head coverings” (Weiner 52) which had been banned by their governments.  This return to the veil also encouraged the Muslim woman to leave the home, to negotiate those spaces which had traditionally been seen as masculine.  Hoodfar argues that the donning of the veil allows women “a voice to articulate their views and be heard” (Hoodfar 1997).  By wearing the veil these women show their commitment to Islam, which gives them far greater freedom in questioning traditional patriarchal value and cultural practices.

As part of this new view of the veil as a means of negotiating traditional Islamic patriarchal society, the veil was taken on by Muslim women as a symbol of their faith.  No longer a symbol enforced upon them by Western colonial powers, the veil became a unifying symbol, representing shared faith and ideals.  A way to symbolize “identity as a Muslim woman whose faith and ideals are often fundamentally different than those she studies or works with” (McDonough 108).  This explanation however only works for Muslim women living in cultures where they are the minority, where incidences of wearing of the veil are showing signs of increasing, at least according to Haddad (253) and Meshal (73).  McDonough recounts the story of a Tanzanian woman who didn’t feel the need to wear the ḥijāb until after her immigration to Canada (109),  a way Hadad claims of allowing Americans to recognise that they are American Muslims (254).

It is important to realise when examining women’s experiences of the veil that these experiences are not the same.  The veil and veiling is a highly individual experience which is a response to many external and internal factors.  Even in traditional Islamic society the veil was not a universal experience.  One of the most important factors to take into account is the division of class.  To compare the lives of a poor illiterate peasant woman of the West with an upper-class Islamic woman is illogical as their lives and status are vastly different.  Traditionally the veil was worn by upper-class women in both Western and Islamic society, women of the lower classes needed to be able to move freely and contribute to their family unit.  Despite this fact, the goal of women of lower-income classes was to achieve the status whereby they could don the veil.  Non-Muslim discourse has the tendency to assume that all Muslim women are and always have been veiled.   The experience of veiling is closely tied with the role of women within society.  Although the West has a tendency to combine all Islamic States into the same role, it is those states which harshly enforce the veil which set the standard for the West’s view of the veil.  Satrapi depicts the confusion suffered by Iranian children following the enforcement of the veil in 1979 (13).  Iran and Afghanistan’s harsh enforcement of the veil are used as reasons why the Muslim women should be ‘rescued’ from the veil.  Ignored is the fact that prior to 1936 Iranian women often wore the veil, and in fact many women wanted to veil.  Shaheed stresses the importance of realising the “difference between adopting the ḥijāb in a present-day liberal democracy where it is voluntary, and in an Islamic State where it is mandatory (Franks 920).

The experiences of a woman who chooses to wear ḥijāb and that of one who is required to do so by law is completely diametric.  The experiences of a woman wearing ḥijāb in a Muslim majority society as opposed to one in a Muslim minority society are likewise widely divergent.  In a society where the ḥijāb is worn by the majority of women it becomes a symbol of conformity.  In the Western world however it takes on whole new issues as women who wear ḥijāb stand out and draw the gaze of the public, forming a deviant ‘Other’ in the Foucauldian discourse of dominant Western feminism.  The experiences of ‘white’ Muslim women are also a contrast to those of their ‘coloured’ counterparts.  Hoodfar makes the statement that the “veil of the visible minorities is used to confirm the outsider and marginal status of the wearer” (Hoodfar 1997).  She also relates the account of “white” Muslim woman whose colleagues were unaware that her ḥijāb was anything more than fashion, while Hoodfar herself was assumed to have donned the ḥijāb when in fact she was simply wearing a fashionable scarf.  Often the ḥijāb is associated on ‘white’ Muslim women with forms of Christianity as opposed to an outward trapping of Islam.

The insistence by Western feminists on the subjugation of Muslim women by enforcement of the veil, despite claims by Islamic feminists to the contrary, forces Muslim women to choose between fighting sexism inherent in many Muslim patriarchal societies in favour of defending their religion and culture against Western outsiders.  Franks goes so far as to claim that white feminity is “a construction of discourses which has helped to maintain racism” (917).  As Western colonial powers adopted feminism to justify imperial control, so to have feminists adopted Western colonial discourse without examining the choices which have led to women choosing to wear the ḥijāb. In choosing to focus on Muslim women as victims of patriarchy, Western feminist blind themselves to the inequalities inherent within their own feminist discourse.  There is a tendency to be satisfied that at least the lives of Western women are freer and more liberated than their Muslim counterparts.  Hoodfar claims this serves for Western women as an “implied warning to curb their “excessive” demands for social and legal equality” (Hoodfar 1997).  So much of Western feminist discourse focuses on the sexual freedom element of the liberation of women.  This is an assumption that sexual promiscuity is a form of freedom, and a freedom which is more liberating than the Islamic freedom of removing women from objectification.  Mule and Barthel use the terms esteem and autonomy to examine the relative freedoms of Western and Islamic women (325).  They claim that “status is not a matter of autonomy alone” (325)  but rather a combination of esteem and autonomy.  Western feminists have largely sacrificed esteem for a high degree of autonomy and claimed it as status, whilst Islamic feminist lean more towards the esteem side of status.

This narrowed focus of the West on liberating Muslim women also has the danger that in focusing on improving the assumed negative situation of Muslim women and ignoring that of boys in highly patriarchal societies could result in worsening their situations as they are the ones who control families (Weiner 57).  By forcing Muslim women to be “liberated” from the veil against their will and insisting that they are subjugated by the male family members, Westerners run the risk of alienating Muslim women from their families as men struggle to maintain and defend their traditional roles.  The continual focus on the veil as the symbol of female oppression overshadows the other dangers of patriarchal societies.  The veil is “of itself, neither liberating nor oppressive” (Franks 918) it is misogynistic societal structures and power relations which actually subjugate and oppress women, not the ḥijāb itself.  Hoodfar makes no claims that the ḥijāb has not been a mechanism of patriarchy however the assumption that the removal of the ḥijāb is liberating is false (Hoodfar 1997).  A frequent oversight is that the nations which enforce the ḥijāb also have a tendency to enforce or legalise methods of patriarchal domination of women such as concubinage and polygyny.  The legal rights of women in relation to divorce, child custody and inheritance also tend to be marginalised in these cultures.  By focusing on the veil Westerners fail to be creating controversy and obstacles to the real obstacles to women’s liberation.    The practice of female circumcision is a far more oppressive danger to women that the veil, and yet the veil is an easily recognisable and identifiable trapping.

As Hoodfar says “andocentric images and stereotypes of occidental and oriental women inhibit women’s learning about and from each other and weaken our challenge to both patriarchy and Western imperialism” (1997).  These false conceptions of the veil lead Occidental women to falsely assign their own superiority in comparison to Muslim women, leading them to falsely assume that their increased autonomy leads them to be more liberated than their Muslim counterparts.  For Muslim women these misconceptions and misinterpretations run the risk of isolating Muslim women and overshadowing the real systems of patriarchal control.  The tendency to amalgamate the experiences of Muslim women wearing ḥijāb into the lowest common denominator is a perpetuation of traditional Western colonial discourse created in order to justify Western control of Islamic states, a discourse which overlooks the individual experiences of women wearing ḥijāb and important criteria in any examination of the actual experiences of women wearing ḥijāb.

Works Cited

Cohen, Lori, and Leyna Peery. “Unveiling Students’ Perceptions about Women in Islam.” English Journal 95, no. 3 (2006): 20-26.

Franks, Myfanwy. “Crossing the borders of whiteness? White Muslim women who wear the hijāb in Britain today.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 23, no. 5 (2000): 917-929.

Haddad, Yvonne Y. “The Post-9/11 Hijab as Icon.” Sociology of Religion 68.3 (2007): 253-67. Web. Sept. 2010.

Hoodfar, Homa. “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: Veiling Practices and Muslim Women.” In The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, 248-279. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Hoodfar, Homa. “More Than Clothing: Veiling as an Adaptive Strategy.” The Muslim Veil in North America: issues and debates. Ed. Homa Hoodfar, Sajida S. Alvi, and Sheila McDonough. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003. 3-39. Print.

McDonough, Sheila. “Voices of Muslim Women.” In The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and debates, Sajida Sultana Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough, 105-120. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003.

Merali, Arzu. “‘Mad Woman in the Burqa’: Muslim Women as Exemplar Feminists.” Hecate (2006): 173-186.

Meshal, Reem A. “Banners of Faith and Identities in Construct: The Hijāb in Canada.” In The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and debates, Sajida Sultana Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough, 72-104. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003.

Mule, Pat, and Diane Barthel. “The Return to the Veil: Individual Autonomy vs. Social Esteem.” Sociological Forum 7, no. 2 (1992): 323-332.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. Vol. 1-2. United Kingdom: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 2006.

Weiner, Lauren. “Islam and Women: Choosing to veil and other paradoxes.” Policy Review 127 (2004): 49-66


[1] A term referring to the traditional head covering worn by Muslim women and more generally to modest Muslim styles of clothing.

[2] For example: Armish, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Orthodox Judaism, etc

Previously posted on Academic Otaku

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