Female Veiling in Iran: A Western Feminist's Perspective
Female Veiling in Iran: a Western Feminist’s Perspective
If I am going to be so bold as to scrutinize the practices of a foreign culture, it seems only fair to be honest about my own background and the biases that I bring to this analysis. Thus, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a twenty-one year old, female college student in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and with the exception of the occasional international vacation, have spent my entire life in the Northeast. I was raised in New Haven, Connecticut by a family and community of highly-educated, liberal intellectuals, primarily Yale professors, physicians, and lawyers. The women around me, including my mother, grandmothers, teachers, etc., were ambitious and extremely successful, modeling a womanhood based on determination, strength, and accomplishment. They urged me to be forthright, tenacious, and aggressive in my beliefs and goals. To this day, these women refuse to sit passively and silently beside men and, instead, are the voice and steadfast strength of the community. It is from this geographic and social locale that I try, with significant difficulty, to understand and accept the lives led by women in Middle Eastern countries like Iran which are governed by Islamic fundamentalist regimse that enforce strict gender roles. I have specifically chosen to examine veiling, a practice required by law of all women in Iran. Iran defines “veiling” as the wearing of hijab, a loose-fitting, ankle-length, dark-colored garment that covers the hair and body, leaving only the face exposed. (Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, have more stringent rules and require the face to be covered as well (Celizic)). As a Western feminist, I have difficulty viewing this practice as anything other than an overt subjugation and marginalization of women. Thus, this essay is an analytic exploration of veiling among Islamic women that attempts to examine the intricacies of and contradictions within the practice and discover whether veiling is, perhaps, not as shrouding as it overtly appears to be.
Like most Western women, I enjoy a great degree of freedom in dress and appearance and am thus awestruck by the way in which Iranian women accept the practice of veiling which seems to be a sexist constraint imposed upon women by a fundamentalist Muslim government. Among Westerns, the veil is stereotyped as “an explicit symbol of oppression towards the female gender” and to wear the veil means to accept a status of female inequality (Ardizzoni 640). The veil cloaks women in a shroud of darkness, leaving them literally and metaphorically invisible to society. Thus, the veil can be seen as a sort of female silencing whereby men attempt to push women into obscurity, leaving them unseen, unheard, and invalidated. Nonetheless, the concealment of women’s body is not necessarily that straightforward. While veiling overtly represents a suppression of the female self, it is also possible that the reduction of a woman’s corporeality actually accentuates the appreciation of her cognitive capacities. Proponents of veiling might argue that in Western culture, women’s bodies become a distraction and keep men from appreciating the female mind.
Veiling is also seen as negative in that it conflicts with the feminist notion of gender as something flexible, not based on an absolute binary. Iranian society leaves no space for people who don’t ascribe to a traditional gender or are in a state of questioning. The strict appearance requirements insist that people definitively proclaim themselves as either male or female, suggesting that there is no opportunity for the psychological formation of a gender identity. Iranian culture demands that all individuals are raised in a gendered way, from the way they dress to the public space that they’re permitted to enter. Given that this gendering begins at birth, we can assume that many Iranians equate gender with anatomical sex. In contrast, feminists in the United States promote, often to much avail, a sort of gender-less child-rearing with the hope that the individual will grow up unencumbered by a pressure to conform to gender normsn and be able to pick the identity that feels most apt. In addition, veiling and other Islamic dress requirements accentuate the degree to which gender is immediately apparent to others, and this gender identity determines the way in which the individual navigates the world and is treated by society. Many Western feminists, on the other hand, believe that gender should not determine how one is treated; gender should dictate one’s experience no more than a quality like eye color, for example. In addition, by demanding that each gender have a specific “uniform,” Iranian society allows for limited presentations and definitions of womanhood and manhood. In order to identify as a woman, for example, a person must precisely conform to the characterization outlined by society, regardless of whether that definition fits.
The veil is also physically restricting in that it limits bodily mobility, an outcome that may or may not be purposeful but nonetheless contributes to the sense that man is more capable, stronger, and better able to navigate the world. Thus, the decreased mobility may also be metaphorical, translating into a diminished social mobility associated with the fact that the veil immediately identifies an individual as female, thus dictating and limiting her interactions with society. Ironically, however, Iranian women simultaneously depend upon the veil for social freedom, as it is also what allows them to even set food in public and travel through the patriarchal world: “[Islam] frowns on married women’s working outside the home, since it detracts from their family responsibilities. The veil is an important instrument…because it allows women to enter the public sphere of work while at the same time making a clear statement that they are good women, that is, attentive to the tenants of Islam, not Westernized” (Hirschmann 480). Here, we see that the veil is an important marker, an affirmation that modernity has not destroyed a woman’s Muslim identity. There is also the suggestion that the woman’s religious identity is, whether she likes it or not, of the most importance; establishing the depth of her faith trumps defining her womanhood independently. In terms of the veil simultaneously freeing and restricting women, it is interesting to note that the veil offers a space for women to both embrace and subvert the strict rules of Islam and the Iranian government. This flexibility suggests that there may be room within the veiling practice for feminism, but it often requires using the system to undermine it.
Many of what Muslims claim to be positive values of veiling are actually, upon closer examination, laced with negativity. For example, Suzanne Brenner, an anthropologist specializing in Islam and gender, explains that “the veil can serve as a form of symbolic shelter that, as a portable extension of the secluded space of the home, enables them to enter public male space without being subjected to criticism or male harassment” (674). On the surface, the constant presence of a safe space for women sounds positive, but the dependence upon this space suggests an underlying problem: women need to veil because men have created a society that is inherently hostile towards them. As long as the veil exists and women have this portable shelter, Iran will evade confronting the rampant injustice embedded within its culture. Therefore, the veil propagates a society that does not have to be safe for women. Furthermore, in regard to the veil offering protection from male harassment, it seems unfair that women have to adjust for men’s inability to control their sexual desire. In other words, according the Islamic fundamentalists, the basic problem in male-female interactions is due to a woman’s body not a man’s desire. Thus, the covering or containment of the female form can be interpreted as a punishment. Given that veiling frequently begins during childhood, women are seemingly often raised with an inherent sense of guilt. This shame, which specifically surrounds their body, problematizes the development of a positive sense of self. It seems that it would be exceedingly challenging for a woman to understand and claim her body if she’s told that it’s a source of trouble and conflict. If Iranian women do view their bodies in such a negative light, they may welcome the veil, eager to escape and free themselves from guilt. If accurate, this sentiment would help to explain the pronounced lack of opposition among Iranian women to the veiling practice. It is also possible that the veil is not simply an attempt to conceal the female form from the male gaze but an effort to actually erase the female body and produce a disembodied woman whose self exists regardless of any corporeality. On the one hand, this lack of dependency on the body might allow women to develop a self-identity unburdened by the often futile attempts to establish a positive body image. On the other hand, the question remains as to whether a person can can effectively grasp her psychological existence without understanding her physical existence; if not, then these women are left feeling selfless, empty.
Still, while veiling allegedly frees women from a hyper-concern over their bodies, it enhances their self-consciousness of their actions. Veiling is a means of constantly reminding women of their faith and need to be moral. The veil literally and figuratively places women under the constant surveillance of men, Allah, and each other. For example, Brenner describes the transition that she saw women go through as they began to veil regularly: “with it also came the duty, they felt, to make sure that their behavior matched it; this led to a greater self-consciousness and self-regulation than when they had been in their unveiled state” (685). In addition to reminding women of their obligation to Islam, the veil boldly prompts men to be moral and not indulge in crude desires. In other words, the veil serves as a physical and metaphorical barrier to impure relations between men and women. The female self-awareness produced by the veil is further enhanced by the fact that women are seen as “markers of modesty and morality” in Islamic society (Gole 465). This status becomes problematic if men are allowed to evade such standards, acting unjustly while still being accepted as righteous Muslims. Forcing women to ascribe to unequal standards is another form of gender oppression produced by the veil.
Veiling becomes even more complicated when practiced in Western societies like France. At this locale, veiling can be more constricting and an even greater source of subjugation because veiled women are frequently marginalized by men and women alike for immediately appearing Arab and overtly refusing to assimilate to and accept Western secular culture. Their insistence upon wearing the veil is extremely provocative when interpreted as an overt refusal of Western superiority. Thus, veiling can serve two contradictory purposed: when worn out of obligation, the veil becomes a further source of oppression—women are subjugated on the basis of gender, religion, and an assumed ethnicity and/or nationality; but when worn voluntarily, the veil becomes a political statement and source of resistance against Western modernism and the erasure of religion, particularly Islam. In this case, “women’s bodies and sexuality reappear as a political site of difference and resistance to the homogenizing and egalitarian forces of Western modernity” (Gole 465). The veil allows women to actively claim their Islamic identity and resist Westernization. Michela Ardizzoni, a gender scholar whose article “Unveiling the Veil” focuses on the veiling of women in France, explains that “the women’s choice to adopt a symbol of alterity that distances them from the mainstream becomes a provocative act against a national identity based upon secularism and assimilation” (638). Thus, the veil can be a way for Eastern women in Western society to actively claim their identity and assert a sense of self. Furthermore, rather than silencing women, the veil, in this situation, gives them a voice and means to protest and provoke. Thus, interestingly, veiling may actually serve a more positive purpose in Western society than in Eastern Islamic countries where it is mandated.
In general, the issue of choice is of the utmost importance when examining the purpose and effects of veiling. When women use veiling to assert their identity and religion, the veil is a declaration of agency, not a dark shroud violently forced upon a person due to her gender. Such women veil out of a desire to celebrate their identity not a need to satisfy the role prescribed for them by men. Thus, there’s a key difference between women who veil with a purpose or cause in mind versus those who do so out of obedience. However, the question remains as to whether veiling is ever truly optional. In other words, putting government regulations aside, does not veiling have such negative repercussions that to reject this code of conduct essentially prevents someone from being a true Muslim? Anna Secor, author of the article “The Veil and Urban Space in Istanbul,” explores this question, notion that “while some women felt that a true understanding of the Koran necessitated women’s veiling and while others felt that they were unable to remove the veil due to their ingrained ideas of womanhood and sin, there were also those who considered themselves religious but saw veiling as a personal choice, an option that they could forgo without compromising their religious beliefs” (19). Thus, there seems to be a divide among Muslim women as to whether veiling is a necessary or voluntary Islamic practice. Understandably, feminists more readily accept voluntary veiling and are troubled by mandated veiling which eliminated the possibility of the veil offering a unique agency. If there’s no freedom to choose, it is difficult to see the veil as a valuable form of self-assertion. Therefore, I am still hesitant to support veiling in nations like Iran where it is government mandated.
In conclusion, this study underscores the complexities surrounding the veiling practice and the resultant advantages and disadvantages. I have come to see that veiling is not an entirely negative practice that’s about the propagation of the passive, subjugated woman. Instead, there is flexibility here that might allow for veiling to actually be a valuable practice for women, but more research must be done in order to fully determine this. Thus, I am left with several questions: do veiled women feel less weighed down by troubled body images? Does the concealment of women’s bodies increase the degree to which men value their brains? And lastly, do women, particularly those in countries like Iran, veil out of obedience, fear, guilt, and shame or an eagerness to openly proclaim their Muslim identity?
Ardizzoni, Michela. “Unveiling the Veil: Gendered discourses and the (in)visibility of the
female body in France.” Women’s Studies. 33.5, 629-649.
Brenner, Suzanne. “Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women and ‘The
Veil.’” American Ethnologist. 23.4 (1996), 373-397.
Celizic, Mike. “Beyond the Veil: Lives of Women in Iran.” MSNBC Interactive. 13 Sept. 2007. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20757597/.
Gole, Nilufer. “The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling.” Feminism and the Body.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 465-491.
Hirschmann, Nancy J. “Eastern Veiling, Western Freedom?” The Review of Politics. 59.3
(Summer 1997), 461-488.
Secor, Anna J. “The Veil and Urban Space in Istanbul: women’s dress, mobility and Islamic
knowledge.” Gender, Place and Culture. 9.1 (2002) 5-22.