By Deb Miskell
Some of us veil because we love the fashion. Some of us veil because we feel called to it in a spiritual fashion. Still others of us veil because it gives us greater control over how others interact with us. The point that I will be examining in this entry is the latter.
Women occupy a position within society that is very different from that of men. Indeed, it is even different from that of children. While this position varies from society to society, there is a trend towards viewing a woman’s body as a form of common property. Social mores that govern dress code are found to have greater listing of restrictions upon female dress then that of the male. Some would argue that this is a development that came with the rise of ‘civilization’ while others would contend that it is something that has been in place in every society upon the earth.
Regardless of the origins of this trend, it is one that we must resist. For in viewing women’s bodies as common property and subject to the will of the people at large, it dehumanizes women. This is not healthy for women or society. Society is devised of individuals working together to create a common culture. Disenfranchising women (or any other subset of the population) serves to reduce the number of individuals who are actively contributing to the welfare of the society. This weakens society and makes it more difficult for society to respond to changes in the culture by way of internal or external influences. One may wonder what this has to do with veiling or mistakenly believe that veiling is going to be declared part of the divisive elements of disenfranchisement that women are facing.
The mistaken believe that veiling is oppressive is the fruit of an active campaign to dehumanize the Arab cultures (primarily) and to vilify the religion of Islam (which calls upon women to be modest in their dress and behavior). There is some controversy within Islam as to if the veil is required and to what extent it is necessary. As a result, you find female practitioners of Islam who range quite widely in how much they cover. In more ‘western’ practice of Islam, the veil is less prevalent then it is in Arab practices. In cases such as determining the role of the veil in a given culture, it is important to view this practice within its cultural context.
Cultural context helps us to determine how one proceeds within the social mores of an enclave of people. There are some places where women are required to wear a full veil and cover themselves completely from the male gaze, with the exception being spouse, children, and immediate family members. Women in those societies are not necessarily disenfranchised. It is when this cultural practice is supported by criminalizing non-participation that we can begin to question if the women who veil are disenfranchised or not. Disenfranchisement is a sliding scale, varying widely due to cultural context.
When taken in cultural context, many of the women who veil do so of their own free will. This is not because of shame or negative body image. It is because they are taking a stand and declaring their bodies not to be common property. In wearing a veil, a woman assumes command of who may see what is covered by the veil. It is an empowering and self-affirming action. As such, it should be counted among the ‘feminist’ activities that women have at their hand. Veiling forces people to consider the woman on the basis of her stated beliefs, actions, and conduct, rather then physical attributes. Veiling also serves to remove women from the implied role of being a doll for society to dress as its whim, thereby maintaining their autonomy. For these reasons, we should embrace the veil as a symbol of liberation rather then declaring it a sign of oppression.