Looking for a single reason why Muslim women wear the veil is like looking for one reason why a person might wear a cross. For some, it is a deeply religious symbol, an outward sign that the inward dispositions of the person are focused on their faith. For others the symbol is a cultural artifact, something that asserts their heritage. It may even be a family heirloom or familial practice. For others, the symbol is merely a fashion statement. For others, a sign of resistance against mainstream society. These meanings are all given for women choosing to veil themselves. But there is the crux of the matter, because some women are given no choice but to wear the veil. For these and for the people familiar with these images, the veil is a symbol of oppression.
As Leila Ahmed illustrates in her book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, the veil is a complex and living symbol that asserts different meanings depending on the historical, regional, cultural, political and religious context. Just as Islam is tied to politics, culture, etc, so too is the veil. Ahmed’s book provides a clear sketch of the modern history of the hijab, noting the variety of responses from women asked to explain their veiling as well as scholarly explanations that draw both from the women’s responses as well as the Islamist groups’ responses to the veil. The text includes the author’s own presumptions about the symbol, at first viewing the veil as a sign with static meaning to having appreciation for the dynamism of the subject.
Ahmed begins her study of the veil in 1930s and 1940s Egypt in which unveiling had become the dominant practice for women who saw the change not only as a fashion statement, but also “the emblem of an era of new hopes and desires, and of aspirations for modernity: of the possibility of education and the right to work for both women and men, and of equal opportunity and advancement based on effort and merit instead of inherited privileges…”(2) Ahmed notes that in the 1970s the veil began a resurgence in Islamist women in an effort to appear pious as well as separate themselves from “Muslims” who had fallen away from the truth faith. Now, Ahmed notes that while women in the West choose to wear the hijab to reconnect with their spiritual and cultural roots, Muslim women in certain Muslim-majority countries have no choice but to veil.
As becomes clear in Ahmed’s work, each woman who wears the veil, and indeed, each person who hears of it has their own vision of what the symbol of the veil means. As Robert Weller, a professor of Chinese and Taiwanese Anthropology, asserts that the problem is not our interest in meanings, but our interest in finding one static and universal meaning. (3) Symbols are dynamic rather than settled and when we limit our interpretation of the symbol to one meaning, we lose the ability to understand the nuances and changes taking place within the community.
We have already seen how the term “jihad” has been used as a dynamic symbol. (4) Interpreted as a defensive war, a struggle against selfish desires, or the an offensive mission to Islamicize the world, “jihad” is not a static symbol but one that is evoked by different groups in varying circumstances to incite action. It is what Weller calls an “active, social process of interpretation.” (5) The symbol is neither inherently tied to one meaning nor systematically tied to one meaning. Rather, interpretive communities arrange and rearrange symbols in order to meet the demands of the day. Thus, change is a more central characteristic of a symbol than any one meaning associated with it. If symbols are understood in this light, perhaps we will stop asking what the veil means, and starting asking what it means to person X in group Y residing in country Z. Of course, the human drive to categorize often gets in the way of being open to dynamic symbols. However, perhaps if we can simply be aware of the dynamism of symbols we can at least reserve our judgement on issues until the historical circumstances are taken into account.
1–Leila Ahmed. A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
2- Ahmed, Loc 698-701, Kindle Edition.
3- Robert Weller. Resistance, Chaos and Control in China: Taiping Rebels, Taiwanese Ghosts, and Tiananmen. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994).
4- See “Islam: Religion of Possibilities” for my piece on Islam and jihad