ISLAM, FEMININE MODESTY AND VEILS
Burqa in Bersheba Islam teaches feminine modesty, and this is interpreted in different ways, from a women covering every inch of her body and face, to covering her hair and most of her body, to not dressing like a prostitute. Hejab ( hijab , “Islamic Dress”) is a generic term for modest dress worn by Muslim women. The only parts of the body allowed to be exposed are the hands, feet and face. Sometimes hijab is used to describe a scarf that wraps around the head. The hair is covered partly because it is regarded as erotic.
In some Muslim societies women cover all or part of their face with a veil or some other covering. These veils and head coverings scarves go by different names in different places. Girls generally begin wearing them after reaching puberty. Veiling also extends to behavior. Women instinctively cover their faces with their veils or head scarves when they speak. When a man enters a room they are in they instinctively turn away or cover their faces.
In many Muslim societies women are forbidden from exposing their heads, hair, neck and the curves of their body in public. Even in the hottest places women are supposed to wear long sleeves, and long billowing non-transparent skirts and dresses that hide the curves of their body and make even women with the nicest fugues look overweight. Doctors in Iran have linked covering the body to shortages in Vitamin D, usually derived from sunlight, and increases in osteoporosis.
Figure-concealing garments often vary and have different names in different places. The abaya or chador is cloak that covers a woman from head to toe. It can be combined with separate pieces that covers the face—nikab —or a tent-like covering— buraq . The jilbab is a loose, dress-like out garment designed to cover the wearer’s clothes.
Cosmetics, jewelry and perfume and anything that makes a woman alluring are also discouraged. One reason women veil themselves is so that they will not tempt men and maintain their chastity and honor and the chastity and honor of the men around them.
Websites and Resources: Islam.com islam.com ; islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islam.com Timeline classicalislam.com ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com
Origin and History of Veiling
Afghan lady in Kabul There is some debate as to when the custom of Muslim veiling began and where the custom originated . Some conservative Muslims have insisted that veiling was practiced in Mohammed’s time and Mohammed’s wives veiled themselves. There us little evidence of this though.
Some say the custom of veiling was adopted by Muslims about three of four generations after Mohammed’s death and is believed to have been copied from the Byzantines or perhaps from India or Persia. Veiling has also been practiced for a long time by Hindus from India, where women seclude and veil themselves through a custom called purdah, which was originally adopted by the upper classes and became a status symbol.
In any case the custom of veiling predates Islam. In antiquity it was a sign of high status. Jewish and Christian women adopted the custom to symbolize a retreat from public life. The Iranian term chador, meaning “tent.” is derived from the personal custom of very wealthy women traveling around in covered sedan chairs. Some people have said the Western custom of brides wearing veils come from Muslim countries. More likely it comes from ancient Greece. The veiling and segregation of women was common practice among women in ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium.
In the old days veiling was more common in the cities than in villages, presumably because city women were more likely to be secluded and pampered than rural women who needed to work in the fields and veiling and covering themselves made such work more difficult. In the cities it seems that women often were the ones that demanded they be veiled as a means of escaping harassment and showing their status.
Burqa in Afghanistan Various forms of veiling and head covering was the norm throughout the Muslim world until social customs began liberalizing under European rule and the nationalist movements in the 20th century. In 1934, Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, became the first Muslim country to ban the veil in his attempt to modernize his country. In 1936 in Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi ordered the mass unveiling of women and ordered police to literally tear the veils off women on the streets. Although some women welcomed the changes other were adamantly against it, staging sit ins and protests and refusing to leave their homes until eventually the ban being rescinded in 1941.
Still in the 1960s and 1970s veiling was not widely practiced by urban women in places like Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian territories. The custom made a come back with the revival of Islamic sentiments after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Intafadeh in the Palestinian territories in the 1990s and was embraced more strongly when anti-Western sentiments grew after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Koran, Hadiths Veils and Feminine Modesty
The justification for veiling comes from several verses in the Koran. The first one goes: "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among young men). That is better, in order that they may be understood (to be Muslims) and not annoyed."
burqa in Bamdar Abbas (south_Iran) The Koran does not spell out details about how woman should be covered and does specify any punishment for women who are not veiled. Nowhere does it say in the Koran that a woman should cover face, head or hair. The justification for the use of facial veils come from verse 24:31 in the Koran which reads:"And say to the believing women, to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and reveal not their adornment save such as is outward; and let them draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands."
On modesty the Koran says that "true modesty is the source of all virtues" and "modesty and chastity are parts of the Faith." In an order to men visiting the home of the prophet: “When ye ask [the wives of the Prophet] for any article, ask them from behind a curtain; that is purer for their hearts and yours.”
In the Hadiths, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, Mohammed condemned women who appear "naked while they are fully clothed” and once said to his sister-in-law: "Asmaa, when a woman attains puberty, nothing should be seen of her body except this and this (pointing to his face and forearms)."
Interpretation of the Veil Custom
Selcuk woman Veiling was institutionalized by Sharia (Islamic law). The way the body should be covered is based on the Hadiths. The wide variety of types of coverings in the Islamic world is a clear indication of how varied interpretations of the Koran and Hadiths can be. Men have a dress code too. The Koran forbids them from wearing saffron and silk or exposing skin from naval to knee.
The Koran specifically warns against literal interpretations. One of the reason why that so many restrictions are put on women is the belief among some Muslims that when God divided up sexual desire he gave women nine times more than men.
Many women on the hajj do not wear veils. Girls can go to school without wearing the veils because of the belief that their uniforms meet the modesty requirements of Sharia. Some women wear the veil as a kind of political statement to show their solidarity with other Muslims, especially as a response to perceived American and Israeli aggression.
France has banned the veil in schools. In the United States, a woman was given a ticket for wearing a veil in Minnesota and an 11-year-old girl was kicked out of school in Oklahoma for wearing one (the federal government acted to get her readmitted) . In Canada, women have been barred from courtrooms for wearing head scarves. In multi-cultural Trinidad, Muslim women are not allowed into state-supported Catholic, Protestant and Hindu schools if they wear head scarves. A 1987 study in Yemen found that women who watched Western programs on television were more likely to question wearing the veils.
Different Veiling Customs
Iranian women Islamic dress for women varies greatly from country to country and also region to region but the one thing that is constant is that at least the entire body is covered except for the hands and face. Many women cover themselves not because they want to are think it is right but rather because of family and cultural pressures to do so.
Different styles of veils include a red scarf worn with a black see-through chiffon cloth around the face worn in Cairo; a vivid green veil covering of red and gold floral print worn in Oman. Qatari women are said to favor veils made from silk while Arabian women favor blue cashmere and “Saudi crepe,” a new wrinkle-free material designed specifically for veiled women.
See Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Other Muslim Countries.
Traditionally girls began wear head scarves or covering themselves when the reached puberty and were eager to begin wearing such covering to show they were grown up. Customs, however, vary quite a bit from place to place and even family to family. In some cases girl start wearing covering not long after they are born. In other cases women don’t wear them until after they get married. In yet other cases women only cover themselves when they feel depressed or vulnerable or sense their death is imminent.
There are shops and sections in department stores that cater to women that conform to Muslim modesty norms. They sell hijab wedding dresses; long shapeless skirts, thick stockings, arm coverings, and head scarves and veils in a variety of shapes and colors. Perfume and make up are generally not sold at such places because of the Muslim belief that they are ostentatious.
Veiling, Politics and Oppression
Somali girl Farzaneh Milani, a professor of Persian literature at the University of Virginia, wrote in the Washington Post, “ For more than a century now, to wear or not to wear a veil has been a central divide within the Islamic world. It has been viewed as a flag, a line of demarcation separating “us” from “them,” the visual symbol for some of a modern society , and for others of a society protecting its traditions, its independence and its faith. Politicians have spoken for or against it; people have been killed for its sake or because of all that it symbolizes.”
The website of a Canadian mosque posted warnings that in effect said that women risked getting raped or having illegitimate children if they failed to wear the hijab. Other reasons sited for wearing veils have included “stresses, insecurity and suspicion in the minds of husbands” and “instigating young people to deviate towards the path of lust.” [Source: Mona Eltaway, a New York-based commentary of Arab and Muslim issues, New York Times]
The veiling issue has divided women’s rights advocates. Some see it a matter of choice with women having the right to wear whatever they like, while others see the veil as symbol of oppression. Barbies, which are sold in more than 140 countries and have appeared in a number of different ethnic clothes, have never been sold with veils.
Women Who Like the Veil
Malay girls While some Muslim women view the veil and other traditional Muslim clothes as oppressive and restrictive. Other see it is as an expression of their religious belief and protection from the harassment of leering men when they go out. This belief has existed a long time. A 12th century Arab woman wrote that wearing a veil made her feel relived because it freed her of the stares of men who found here sexually attractive.
One Qatari woman that likes being covered told the New Yorker, “I like it, I feel protected in it, and when I wear it I’m not bothered by men. The most important thing is to cover you hair not your face.” A woman in Cairo told the Los Angeles Times that she had been discriminated against because she was divorcee who had been married less than a year and said harassment and discrimination ended when she started wearing a body-covering abaya. “The problems that really bothered me before disappeared from my mind,” she said.
An American girl, who started wearing a head scarf in high school on her own volition (her mother doesn’t wear one), told the New York Times: “I noticed a big difference in the way guys talked. They were afraid. I guess they had more respect. You walked down the street and you didn’t feel guys staring at you. You felt a lot more confident.” After September 11th she said she was called a “terrorist” and a “raghead” because “high school student are immature.”
Mohja Kahf, author of The Girl with the Tangerine scarf, wrote in the Washington Post: “Crimson chiffon, silver lame or green silk: Which scarf to wear today. My veil collection is 64 and growing. The scarves hang four or five to a row in my closet, and elation fills me when I open the door to this beautiful array....It irks me that I even have to say this: Being a Muslim woman is a joyful thing...Prayer scarves are a chapter in themselves, cool and comforting as bed sheets. They lie folded in the velveteen prayer rug when not in use: two lightweight muslin pieces, the long drapey head cover and the roomy gathered skirt. I fling open the top piece, and it billows like summer laundry...Tasseled turquoise cotton and flowered peach crepe flutter as I pull out a black and ivory striped head scarf for the day.”
“These create a tent of tranquility,” Kahf continued, “The serene spirit sent from God is called by a feminine name, ‘sakinah,’ in the Quran, and I understands why some Muslim women like to wear their prayer clothes for more than prayer, to take that sakinah into the world with them. I, too, wear a (smaller) version of the veil when I go out. What a loss it would be for me not to have in my life this alternating structure, of covering outdoors and uncovering indoors, I take pleasure in preparing a clean, folded set for a house guest, the way home-decor mavens lay elegant plump towels around a bathroom to give a relaxing feel.”
women in tudungs at an engagement party in Brunei
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011