Views and meanings behind the Muslim woman’s veil are just as complex as interpretations of Islam as a whole. The veil itself is not static, it comes in a variety of forms, it changes with politics, with history, and region. Nor is the veil itself oppressive, the oppression lies in whether women have the choice to wear the veil. Like many non-Muslim American women, I was upset the first time I encountered the veil, seeing it as symbol of oppression instead of faith and identity. It was not until I became educated that I learned that the veil was not oppressive in all times, in all places, and for all women. Leila Ahmad’s book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, is helpful for those wanting to learn more about the history, meaning, politics, and context of the veil.
The book itself is an amalgamation of multiple perspectives that Ahmed has found on the veil. The majority of the historical context however, focuses on Egypt and North America. The multiplicity of the perspectives helps the reader to see how complex the veil really is. Ahmed discusses the gradual process of unveiling that took place from the early 1900’s to the 1960’s, when the veil became a thing of the past.[i] Most outsiders consider the veil to be a time honored tradition but there have been phases, like this one in Egyptian history, where the veil almost disappeared. The movement away from the veil during this time was seen, for the most part, as a move towards modernization or copying the fashions of the West.[ii] Not everyone saw the veil as a religious symbol, but as a symbol of tradition that must change with the times. Other countries like Iran were also unveiling however the government in Iran forcefully caused the change by banning the veil. In the case of Iran, forcing women to abandon the veil is just as oppressive as forcing them to wear the veil. This is exactly what the Islamic Republic did after the Iranian Revolution.
As some Egyptians became disenchanted with Westernization, they began to turn to Islam in order to reclaim or recreate an identity that had been lost. When socialism and capitalism failed to provide for Egypt groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood began to promote a political Islam.[iii] Many important religious values and practices were lost by trying to emulate the West and the veil was one of them, according to conservatives.[iv] Women themselves gave multiple reasons for their decision to re-veil or veil for the first time. Some did it show their piety, for protection, for identity, and to represent Islam.[v] This resurgence did not go uncontested; grandmothers (who had never worn the veil), university professors, and secular Muslims protested the phenomena. They saw these women as heavily influenced by Islamists, anti-feminist, and anti-modern.[vi] As the phenomena began to grow more and more women felt pressured by Wahhabist or Islamist groups to re-veil. The more pressure, the less it became a choice. It is hard to distinguish whether women in societies that are largely veiled choose the veil for themselves.
Ahmed’s examination of North America shows that Muslim American women feel free to express themselves through their dress by either choosing to not veil or veil as a way of self-identification. Tayyibah Taylor’s magazine Azizah promotes a wide range of Islamic dress for women and speaks to specific issues for Muslim women.[vii] Amina Wadud, a scholar and convert to Islam chose to veil due to fact that her slave ancestors did not have the choice to cover up or feel in control of their bodies.[viii] It is easy to say that women who convert to Islam ultimately have the choice to veil since they were not indoctrinated in the practice before they became Muslim. In countries like the U.S., where Islam is not the majority religion, it is easy to say that American Muslim women have the choice to veil, but it is also the case that there is pressure to un-veil since it is not the norm.
Ahmed’s book shows just how complex the veil issue is without taking on every country and region. It is clear however that veiling can only be empowering if it is chosen by each woman herself. The banning or requirement of the veil by governments is undoubtedly oppressive but social pressure can be just as bad. People everywhere must respect the decision of Muslim women to veil or not, regardless of personal opinion. Sadly, the choice to veil has been manipulated or stolen by groups and governments throughout history. It is imperative that women’s freedom of choice be restored.