Fighting with the Sky

Veil = Oppression?

Posted on: January 26, 2010

You know what I hate, when people think “that woman is wearing a veil, she must be oppressed.”  Now, I am not a Muslim and I do not wear a head scarf, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t take offense to this kind of thinking.

The veil is a complicated thing.  From what I know about Islam (which is not a lot, but I do know some things), not all sects of Islam require women to wear the head scarf.  I have talked with women who wear head scarves and none of them feel oppressed.

There is a difference between being forced to wear a head scarf and choosing to because of your religious beliefs.  If a woman is forced to wear a head scarf against her will and/or religious conviction, then yes, that could be considered oppression.  But there are many women who see wearing a head scarf as a liberating experience both because of their religious beliefs and because it frees them from pressures to “look good.”

I have heard many debates about who is more oppressed: a woman who chooses to wear a head scarf or a woman who feels like she has to wear revealing clothing, get plastic surgery, etc. to get a man’s attention and/or feel good about herself?  So which is it?  Which woman is more oppressed?

It’s not an easy question, is it?  I think it’s important to look at each situation when it comes to this.  There are definitely people and places that use the veil/head scarf/burqa as a tool of oppression.  But that doesn’t mean that every woman that wears a head scarf is oppressed.

As feminists, I think “we”* are sometimes quick to identify and fight oppression.  Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely a good thing to fight oppression where it exists, but we have to make sure it exists first.  Forcing women to go without a head scarf can also be seen as oppression.  We cannot just go in and proclaim that these women are oppressed because they wear head scarves and we don’t.

I think this issue has been raised a lot in feminist discussions about Islam, but it is definitely not widely discussed.  I heard a portion of something on the radio the other day that was saying that women are oppressed because they wear the veil.  So this is obviously still a widely held belief.

As feminists, I think it is important to foster a discussion not just about Islam and the veil, but with Muslim women who chose to wear the veil or not.  It is also important to remember that not everyone has the same beliefs as we, as Americans**, do.  We cannot just assume that because our society does not value wearing a head scarf that head scarves are a sign of Islamic oppression towards women.  We have to think about the individual women, not the immensely complicated and diverse religion as a whole.

*I put “we” is quotes because there are many facets of feminism and not all feminists have this method of thinking.  I am not trying to universalize feminism or feminists at all, just trying to make a point about how people think about different religions and cultures.

**I spoke about “we, as Americans” because I live in the United States and am familiar with how this society views Islam in general.  I believe that this same frame of thought is prevalent throughout Western cultures, but I cannot speak to that because I am a part of American culture.

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4 Responses to "Veil = Oppression?"

I agree with your statement that “There is a difference between being forced to wear a head scarf and choosing to because of your religious beliefs” and that many women do not feel oppressed when wearing the veil.

In fact, the Quran does not require women to wear veils, which some people don’t know. But in many countries and sects of Islam, Sharia law requires it. it must be noted that Sharia law was written by Muslim men, not women. This is an important factor in discussing the veil dilemma. Is it really their choice, since men created that rule in the first place?

Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many women who wear the veil and are not oppressed by it. But it’s important to acknowledge where the origins came from.

Also, I’m not sure if you’re speaking of a specific veil (headscarf or niqab), but in some countries, like Saudi Arabia or Yemen, especially where the niqab is strictly enforced, covering sends a message to men and in fact can cause more harassment (see http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com/2008/08/24/an-interesting-article-to-add-to-the-hijab-debate/).

I agree that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions that when a woman wears a veil she is automatically oppressed, however, the implications are bigger than just a piece of clothing.

What do you think about this—are veils just a piece of clothing or do they mean something more?

It is, as you say, a complicated issue. In many places wearing hijab or niqab is a radical act, a statement of pride and very much the opposite of oppression.

I kind of think it’s a discussion we — we here being folk interested in social justice, particularly the freedom of women, but who are not Muslim — should mostly stay out of. It’s an issue that is probably best worked out within the Islamic community. Especially given how appallingly racist things get so quickly (as we’ve seen with the Swiss ban on building minarets and the French attempts to prohibit women from wearing niqab and various incidents in the US with white people getting frantic about possible terrorists on airplanes) when the discussion becomes about Muslim women and not with Muslim women.

What you’ve written here is thoughtful and avoids that — I really don’t mean to be criticizing you at all. I mean to be aiming at the tendency for some people to want to take shots at Islam (and brown people from Southwest Asia) who use this visible symbol of what isn’t necessarily oppression of women at all to give their religious and racial bigotry a gloss of righteousness.

Have you ever worn a veil? I tried one on once and even being in it for just a few minutes was very bizarre. You are completely invisible and vulnerable. Wearing it makes a statement that women should not be seen. It’s very PC and everything to say it’s their “choice” so therefore it’s okay and it’s not sexist. But the reason for why they wear it is. Just because they say they don’t “feel oppressed” doesn’t make it a feminist thing to do or erase any possibility of it being a sexist tradition.

I have never worn a veil — either tried one on, to see what it felt like, or worn it as part of my regular clothing for an extended period of time.

This is why I am not qualified to say whether or not wearing a veil is oppression.

Trying a veil on once does not make one qualified to say whether wearing it on a daily basis, or choosing to wear one on a daily basis, is oppression.

I do live in a society that tells me I have to wear makeup. It tells me I have to wear my hair a certain length to be “feminine” and that I have to wear it a certain way and that the gray hair I’ve had since my early 20s in wrong and undesirable. This society dictates what kinds of clothes I should wear, and how I should wear them.

Most of the time I choose to follow those norms. Most of the time I’m okay with that, and I don’t find it oppressive.

Just because something is different than what YOU do does not mean that it’s WRONG or oppressive.

The only person who can say whether wearing a veil is the woman whose culture tells her to wear it. Some of those women will find it oppressive, other women won’t. There is no one rule for how ALL WOMEN should act.

Dictating what is and is not oppressive to ALL WOMEN is just as oppressive as telling them to wear a veil.

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