In the Islamic religion and culture, hiding a woman’s face with a veil or burka is a widely accepted cultural norm. In fact, in most Muslim countries, covering the body, and especially the head is the preferred method of dress for women. However, when taking a deeper look at the reason behind hiding the body and face, we begin to understand that it gives a sense of safety. Some women wear the veil because they don’t have a choice—their culture or family dictates it. Wearing the veil is the law in many Muslim countries. But when given the choice, Muslim women often choose to wear the veil. Their modesty is an expression of their religious choice and devotion to God.
Within the Muslim world, variations of the veil are usually referred to as hijab. The word hijab can be translated from Arabic as a “screen,” “curtain,” or ”covering.” When describing women’s fashion, hijab often refers to a veil that covers the head and neck. Generally, the word means the idea of a woman dressing modestly. Wearing a veil or head covering shows respect to the Qur’an and to Allah as well as their family. It is also a symbol of modesty and womanhood within the culture. The style of the veil varies in each culture, showing the interpreting of the qur’anic tradition in slightly different ways. These differences can be in the way a woman pins their scarve, the amount of coverage of a hijab, or even the colors and fabrics. A Muslim woman’s veil is not a fashion statement but rather an expression of faith.
In Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, by Lila Abu-Lughod, she states that covering the body, the head in particular, is the preferred method of dressing for Muslim women. Abu-Lughod believes that Western society tends to make assumptions on how Muslim women feel about wearing the veil. Emphasizing the desire to rid Muslim women of the veil, we forget that they may have deep desires such as the nature of their relationships with their families and God or their ability to be safe from the terrors of war.
Abu-Lughod suggests that cultural and social standards become part of the population. They are taught how to dress and what is moral and respectable. Many Muslim women embrace the veil as a way to move in public without being harassed by their male counterparts. It is seen as freedom to leave the house with a sense of protection.
Post-Colonial Feminism and the Veil: Thinking the Difference, by Lama Abu Odeh is more critical of the veil. Odeh states that Muslim women are held to the strict standards and if they violate these standards, they will face violence. This is the result of the male view that they have disgraced or dishonored them. Her article discussed “The veil as empowerment.” She states, “A woman’s willingness to raise objections to such male intrusions is notably different when she is veiled. Her sense of the ‘untouchability’ of her body is usually very strong in contrast to the woman who is not veiled.” Odeh stated that if a woman who is not conservatively covered receives unwanted touching or attention from men, she may be less likely to speak up. Even if these women do speak up, they are often blamed for dressing too promiscuously.
Abu-Lughod points out that instead of imposing views and ideas on the rest of the world, we should “contribute” to “world conditions” where “popular desires will not be determined by an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of forms of global injustice.” Odeh agrees that many Muslim women would argue that they do not wish to be “liberated.” They feel a sense of modesty with the veil as opposed to the way Western society dresses. Muslim women feel that they would be sexualized and objectified, leaving them vulnerable to sexual harassment or actions that may be associated with “loose morals” or a “lack or religious virtue.”
A good example of how women considered are second to men is through the eyes of Islamic law. When testifying in court, women do not carry as much legitimacy as a man would. The Qur’an states in 2:282, “…bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And if there are not two men [available], then a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses – so that if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her.” This was done so that the second woman could remind the first woman what she saw. It is perceived that a woman’s testimony is less worthy than that of a man’s and does not carry as much legitimacy.
Society views women’s testimony as most likely wrong. The juries were more concerned with the social status of witnesses rather than with their credibility. It is felt that a woman is home taking care of the family and is not knowledgeable of anything outside of their house. Society views a woman’s testimony as not being accurate and lacking intelligence to support their views. The juries were also more concerned with the witness’s social status than with their credibility. When a slave is testifying against another slave, their testimony is given more strength than that of a woman testifying. This is due to the idea that a woman can take away the social standing of a man where a slave testifying against another slave, means nothing socially. A single mother in Islam would be seen socially as taking away the aspect of fatherhood from a man. This would put her in a lower status socially causing her testimony to be seen as inaccurate due to her obligations.
Mohammad Fadel, wrote Two Women, One Man: Knowledge, Power, and Gender in Medieval Sunni Legal Thought. Fadel felt that the lack of validity of a woman’s testimony as written in the Qur’an was left open for different translations. Depending on the interpreter, the Qur’an can be read differently. This can be due to social aspects at the time as well as the social standing of the reader. If the testimony by a single mom was to give witness to how hard it is being a single mother, her testimony should be given strength and validity. Fadel supports the gender-based distinction established in Islamic law of testimony.
Islamic society would fight this thought by stating women are genetically deficient in reason and understanding of their place in religion. This is their reason for requiring two women to one man during testimony. This way of thinking would make it impossible for a woman to testify as a single mother in an Islam court. She would be looked down upon as being too involved with the burden of motherhood to have a reason for anything else at hand.
The culture in Islam has developed throughout history. It has developed from both religion and the views of scholars as they translated the Qur’an while also being influenced by cultures around them. The culture in Islam dictates how the laws within the government are developed and are justified with the backing of the Muslim religion. The laws are also part of cultural traditions that have been handed down through generations. Even in modern day, women can be viewed as less than men, especially if they step outside the social norm leading to the lack of validity.
The many different styles of Islamic veils throughout the world, reflect local cultures and interpretations of Islamic laws. For example, many Muslim women in France, wear nothing that distinguishes them as Muslims. A number of immigrant women practice modesty by wearing long-sleeved shirts and full-length skirts. Women that choose to wear the veil, wear bright colored scarves on their heads, occasionally allowing hair to show. Some women will pin veils tightly around the face while others choose long, flowing Islamic dress and occasionally cover the entire face except for the eyes. The style has a wide variety throughout the world and depends on the cultural and family beliefs.
Although to western culture, it appears the veil restricts the women within Islam, to these women it does not. For many Islamic women the veil gives a feeling of protection and sense of modesty that they want. There are a lot of issues within Islamic countries that need to change regarding women that have been carried through generations. But for many Islamic women outside the strict Muslim countries, the veil is not a tool of oppression but rather a choice.