The veil has become a prominent and authoritative symbol of Islam's treatment towards women. Why, though, is the veil imposed on young girls and women in most third world Muslim countries? Why would Muslim women in the West choose to wear it? Muslim apologists and even self-identified feminists offer a litany of scriptural, cultural and social reasons for why Muslim women should remain covered in the public sphere - none of which seem to make sense in 21st century life.
Religion, Mythology, and the Female Body
Throughout antiquity, the downfall of man precipitated by feminine temptation and trickery is a mythological motif. Famed seductresses Helen of Troy, Jezebel, Desdemona, Lilith, Delilah, Mohini and Eve all remain perched on the slanted easel of history - painted in broad colorful strokes as deceitful virgin whore archetypes - scapegoats for the sins of man. Famous Greek poet Hesiod relates the theodicean legend of Pandora as the original woman created by Zeus to be the most "beautiful evil" - an impetuous femme fatale - conceptualized to bear the responsibility for the ills of humankind.
In Islamic culture, the female body is the ultimate curse and revealing it by going out in public without the proper covering can be a fatal transgression. The punishment in third world regions for the "dishonor" of being unveiled spans the distasteful gamut of incarceration, rape and local fatwa, to the proverbial 100 lashes - depending upon the Quranic exegesis that particular lunar cycle.
Most recently, under the delightful new Salafi-style Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, classrooms are turning into Supercuts. Schoolteachers turned hair stylists are chopping off the tresses of young girls who refuse to veil themselves with a hijab.
Origins of the Veil in Islam
To understand the origins of the stylish amalgam of hijab, abayat, burqa, niqab and jiljab one must first understand the zeitgeist of 7th century Arabia and the temperament of the Prophet Muhammad. In Surah 24:31 and Surah 33:59, the Apostle passes down an order from the heavens mandating that women adorn head scarves and cloth to "guard their bosoms" outside the home - or risk subsequent molestation. Gone is the proverbial apple and in its place grows succulent breasts and thighs, forbidden fruit that paradoxically conjure up warring feelings of desire, shame, mistrust, and fear -Allah's Pandoras.
Many Islamic clerics, feminists, and scholars choose to interpret the Prophet's cover-up command as an effort to protect women, a genuine concern for the safety and security of a vulnerable group threatened by the perpetual legacy of male barbarism.
There's only one problem; the actual act of molesting a woman in the streets is not mentioned in the Quran as a criminal offense with an attached sentence (unlike Adultery). Consequently, the prior hypothesis of the Muslim religious and academic elite is rendered invalid, leaving only one alternative - the Veil in its quintessential form was clearly designed to feed men's insatiable need to dominate and control a woman's beauty and sexuality, shielding any erotic stimulus for the marriage bed. This premise does not seem at all far-fetched coming from a man replete with thirteen wives, a multitude of concubines, and sporadic female sex slaves.
The Veil vs. Feminine Beauty & Sexuality
The Veil and subsequent auxiliary regulations - such as outlawing the application of perfume and make-up (seriously, L'Oreal is smuggled into Iran) - have only one pertinent role, to make womanhood as undesirable as humanly possible when not in the beds of their husbands. Throughout the past millennium, in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, when a woman has misguidedly exposed an inch of flesh, dabbed on a little Patchouli Oil or glossed goat milk extract across her lips, she became a liability - destined for potential rape and harassment due to her own willful negligence.
It is often deemed criminal if women do not take all measures to abate attractiveness. Veils created from ensembles of dark and heavy fabric - reminiscent of beekeeper apparel - are legal implementations under Shari'a Law to engender asexuality outside the home. In the Hadith of Tirmidhi it says, "The woman who decorates herself for anyone other than her own husband is like darkness on the Day of Judgment."
As layers of blanket material are heaped upon women in the midst of scorching desert temperatures to prevent "sexual anarchy," men are given the privilege of infantilization, irresponsible for controlling savage hormonal impulses, the blame of sexual assault falls upon women who are too eye-catching and fall short of guarding their body's disclosure with a veil or other coverings.
As a feminist, I despise the totalitarian symbolism of the Veil. It is as repugnant as a Swastika, noose or diamond ring; iconography that evokes a constant reminder of a legacy rife with stones, dirt and blood. These cherished talismans of tyranny disrespect our deceased brothers and sisters around the world - from Auschwitz and the Antebellum South to the Arabian Sands and mines of Kimberley and Transvaal.
Seven Alleged Reasons for the Veil
During research into the underlying rationale for Muslim women appropriating the Veil of their own volition, I discovered a seven-fold method of reasoning:
To disprove the efficacy of these seven barriers to equality, I will expose the obsolete, unscientific and illogical nature of each origin:
1. The Virgin. Indeed, faceless women and Nuns do possess a sexually barren quality. Proliferated Victorian myths encouraged the use of chastity belts - the anti-temptation device that thwarted sexual rendezvous/masturbation as a widespread tool used to ensure female subjugation. Although modernity would find humor in this Crusades-era apparatus, the Veil is technically the same concept, sending an unequivocal signal to potential suitors that a woman doesn't engage in salacious activity.
Even in America, a man's prototypical dream wife is constantly described as a lady in the streets but a freak in the bed. Unfortunately, this premise neglects to take into account women in business suits who engage in casual sex, as well as provocatively dressed vixens with shiny carats on their left ring finger. Apparently, a woman's style of dress in the 21st century does not equate with an undefiled vagina, let's rule this out on the basis of antiquation.
2. The Jealous Husband Syndrome. These are the control freaks who doubt a wife's faithfulness if their football buddies happen to get a glimpse of her Rapunzel-esque glory. Personally, I think these upstanding male citizens should simply drape autographed signs around their female partner's neck before the reluctant house exit. If that's still insufficient, chaining a wife to a toilet has become quite popular in Afghanistan. This behavior warrants psychological evaluation and a clinical diagnosis - not Veils. Let's rule this out on the basis of paranoia.
3. Fortification from Sexual Assaults. Two words: Not. Working. According to organizations like The Ministry of Women's Affairs, UNICEF and Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), there are thousands of incidents of sexual violence inflicted upon women in every veil-wearing region from Islamabad, Kabul and Riyadh to Pashtun, Punjab, Mogadishu and Conakry.
Speaking of Africa and theorized asexual safeguards, mothers in Cameroon have taken to using hot stones to iron the breasts of pubescent girls because they believe a flat chest will protect their daughters from sexual interest, and subsequently rape. It doesn't. A girl with a compressed chest in Cameroon - or a woman with cut out eyeholes in the Swat Valley - are no safer than a topless bikini goddess on the beaches of St. Tropez. Let's rule this out on the basis of ineffective.
4. Altar Worship. A feminist nightmare, relinquishing all power of self-definition to an outside entity upon which women's wardrobe choices are predicated - the manifestation of the proverbial patriarchal cliche, "A man won't respect me unless I respect myself." Women capitulate to garb in a dire need for a facade of fleeting respect. There has to be some incongruity in a woman who goes to extreme lengths to garner reverence from the same group of men who would otherwise disrespect her if her favorite clothing designer wasn't Cloak & Dagger (minus the Dagger).
This ideology caters to a narrow minded, one-dimensional group of men who formulate opinions of their female counterparts based on whether her earlobes are conspicuous. Any man shallow enough to treat an unveiled woman as a prostitute can hardly be worth seeking veneration. Let's rule this out on the basis of superficial.
5. I Don't Like Guys to Look at Me. Yes we must avert the abomination of the male gaze. Seriously, some men are douche bags, but are jeans, t-shirt and a ponytail really going to cause sexual chaos in the streets? This rationale is supposed to be a clandestine gift to horny men, taking excessive measures not to inconvenience or distract them via an exposed thyroid cartilage. Undeniably, men often take a double glance at an attractive woman.
Some view it as a compliment while others ignore it, but choosing to dress like a Mother Superior priestess - so as not to be confused or treated like a Pre-Islamic Arabia tramp - is a tad extra. I also wouldn't write off harlotry too quick. Whores at least get paid to spend their lives catering to men, all Veiled women get is a predisposition for Hypovitaminosis D and unhealthy hair follicles. Let's rule this out on the basis of erratic Dermatophobia.
6. It Pleases Allah. If the Veil is rooted in a covenant with God, someone needs to thoroughly convince me that a deity couldn't find anything better to do in this vast universe than focus in on a 300-mile radius of wasteland to dictate Hefty Cinch Sak become a staple on the fashion runways of Islamabad. Until this happens, I'm going to assume God has no emotional sentiments as to whether we wear Givenchy or flea market designs. Each time I hear the unsubstantiated phrase, "It's pleasing to Allah," I have to refrain myself from inquiring, "So how's that working out for you?"
Allah has been ignoring the blood curdling screams of his daughters for over 1300 years - how pleased could he possibly be?
Let's rule this out on the basis of spiritual delusion.
7. Copycat Syndrome. The Veil as tradition is the culturally ingrained belief that communities should mirror each other with their ensembles, creating a kinship system so you know whom to say "Assalamu Alaikum" to in the grocery store. This is the means by which Muslims identified women of the same sect/creed - much like facial tattoos, secret handshakes and gang symbols.
There's just one small problem with generational imitation; at some point everyone forgets exactly why they're doing it. Before you can say Masha'Allah, the original purpose of a cover-up sanctioned by Muhammad to protect women from being sexually assaulted in Medina is out the window and you just want people to know you're down with the caliphate when they see you in Forever 21.
I can't rule this out, as it's the only argument that holds some semblance of sanity - if you want to don matching outfits circa junior high school or connect with other believers without joining Muslima.com
Options four through seven have become the most prevalent justifications for veils in the face of Western inquisition; simply because the underlying rationale presented in options one through three - the virgin, commodity and victim - can surprisingly cause a sensible person to shift their query to male decorum.
Women Defending their Veils
Psychiatrists Frank Ochberg and Nils Bejerot once classified the pathology of defending an oppressive mechanism to be the cornerstone of Stockholm Syndrome. Many women go to great ideological lengths to defend their Veil captor amidst it manifesting feelings of blame, dependence, isolation, sexual inhibition, shame, paradoxical gratitude, resignation, and defilement - coincidentally the complete list of diagnostic symptoms associated with Victimization according to the DSM-IV manual.
This epidemic has imprisoned women both literally and figuratively. The Veil is as symbolic as the Che Guevara inspired beret worn by Patty Hearst after her three-month captivity - sans the revolutionary anti-fascism connotations, of course. However, unlike a quick 1974 springtime mind control program that still paralysed the young Hearst for years to come, the Veil program is rooted in a culture over 1300 years old - hardcore, long-term, coercive persuasion under the guise of spiritual obedience.
The Veil remains that tiny sliver of hope left within Pandora's Jar; misguided optimism that if a nation of women became invisible they could protect themselves from the sexual wickedness of man. Pandora was manipulated into being held responsible for releasing destruction by revealing man's evil to himself - consequently allowing it to poison the world.
In Greek mythology, Epimetheus accepted Pandora - as a gift from Zeus - but what if we chose not to accept that blame? Let us be here and be seen unmasked - in all our glory, beauty, virginity or whoredom - and let us do so unapologetically. Release the Jar, and you release the Veil.
Written out of love for my veiled sisters throughout the Islamic Diaspora ,
~The orientalist feminist