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Contextualizing the Veil: Strategy, Agency, and Hijab

Historical examples of oppression and marginalization have hinged on a homogenization of the Other – a simplification of complex histories, contexts, motives, and practices at the expense of meaning and accuracy. Physically violent processes of homogenization, ranging from American slavery to German concentration camps, are sadly easy to recall. Yet a more subtle process of homogenization, relying on educational and discursive power, has also retracted agency from marginalized groups. Particularly in relation to Muslim women, “it is in this process of discursive homogenization and systemization of the oppression of women that power is exercised” by patriarchy, Western feminists, colonial structures, and clerical regimes, as feminist scholar Charlotte Talpade Mohanty has noted.[1] Working within this limited, homogenizing framework – which ignores the historical and cultural contexts in which women have lived – many conclude that the veil has endowed women with no meaningful sense of agency, as it has simply embodied a patriarchal hegemony of power and control. But when we consider the historical and cultural concerns of the women themselves, we find that the opposite is true. This paper will employ four historically contextualized examples – Jahili Arabia, anti-colonial Algeria, and contemporary North Africa and America – to argue that veiling has endowed women with a meaningful sense of agency to protest against and maneuver within hegemonic patriarchal, colonial, and economic structures.

In conjunction with clumsy historical readings of the Jahiliyyah period, patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an may embody some versions of homogenizing narratives concerning women. Adherents to the view espoused by Abul A’la Maududi, for instance, make sweeping deterministic claims concerning the nature of men and women, such as “the man is by nature aggressive,” while “the woman’s nature is one of inhibition and escape.”[2] Maududi’s view is profoundly ahistorical. Nature for him is unchanging and determined at birth by biology. From this starting point, the veil represents a tool endorsed by a top-down, patriarchally interpreted version of Islam. In order to restrain male sexual appetites and guard against sexual anarchy, all women must veil. Such a framework presupposes the natures of man and woman in a severely limiting way. There is no room for agency in this view, as the veil is prescribed unilaterally and must be adopted no matter the circumstance.

But what happens when we historically contextualize supposed veiling mandates? Considering these practices in the period of Jahiliyyah, where they were first implemented among some of the first Muslim believers, we find that “the first Muslim women believers understood themselves to be independent individuals, liberated from the shackles of pre-Islamic customs” like unrestrained polygamy and rampant sexual abuse.[3] Rape and sexual violence were common throughout many areas of the Arab peninsula during this time period, and the veil was adopted by Muslim women as a signal to these men of their sexual non-availability. Thus Muslim dress is, in this context, “meant not to hide free Muslim women from Muslim men but to render them visible, hence recognizable, by Jahili men, as a way to protect the women.”[4] Maududi’s ahistorical articulation of purdah – the practice of women veiling or partitioning themselves – ignores the contextually liberating effects of the choice to veil; only “in a slave-owning Jahili society does the jilbab signify sexual non-availability,” for this is the original context in which the Qur’an mandated such dress.[5] The decision to veil in Jahili society was considered a strategic choice to protect themselves and subvert a ruthlessly patriarchal pre-Islamic social order.

Similar phenomena of homogenization and control can be observed in a more modern context in French Algeria. While “the construction of French Algeria was as much the forging of a gaze as it was the assembling of mechanisms for political and economic control,” contemporary Western analyses of women’s involvement in Algerian resistance efforts have also ignored women’s agency.[6] The anti-colonial nationalist movement, which women played no small part in, sought to deconstruct the colonial regime and gain independence. However, Western scholars have argued that because Algerian women did not reap the same benefits from independence that men did, Algerian women “were duped into joining the nationalist movement by unscrupulous men who later did not share with them spoils of independence.”[7] This retrospective, generalized indictment issued by Western feminist scholars once again “deprives women of will and agency,” while representing a severe “lack of understanding of the dynamics of Algerian nationalism.”[8] It constitutes a long-term symptom of the same colonial gaze forged by the French during occupation – the idea that women, particularly non-Western women, are submissive and easily duped into patriarchal projects.[9]

The reality, however, is that Algerian women were highly targeted by French colonizers. There are horrifying stories concerning rape, torture, and assault – one in which a pregnant woman’s stomach is slit open for fun. With this in mind, even if men eventually gained more from independence, women’s participation “in the Algerian war appears as a rational response to an otherwise irrational historical situation.”[10] Unequal independence, even if foreseeable, was better than the brutal and totalizing French subjugation. In such a reality, the veil was even used as a strategic tool, “a woman would team up with a man in carrying assignments, using her veil as a hiding device to get rid of a gun.”[11] Women’s practical use of their dress as a strategy for political subversion and resistance illustrates that the veil, while certainly being a visual signifier in many contexts, can and has been much more than that when used to literally break free of the violence imparted by French colonizers.

Additional significance of the veil in the context of Algerian anti-colonialism is recognized with the inversion of the colonial gaze. As a form of protest and native cultural celebration against French domination, “the veil came to symbolize in the resistance narrative, not the inferiority of the culture but, on the contrary, the dignity and validity of all native customs.”[12] While the inversion of the colonial thesis – using women and the hijab as a symbol for culture as a whole – can be read as falling into the trap of co-opting women for patriarchal/national benefit, such a sentiment faults the colonized countries for being subjected to the colonial gaze in the first place. Leila Ahmed contends that “the Algerians affirmed the veil because the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria,” illustrating that it was the French who first placed such irrational cultural significance on the veil and women.[13] Thus Algerian women, even if not explicitly involved in the war effort via smuggling or fighting, could maintain a symbolic stance of solidarity with their native country by wearing the hijab. A non-contextualized Western gaze makes a crucial mistake when it claims that women were either forced or duped into positions of resistance.

A final look at contemporary dress and veiling, both in North Africa and the United States, is necessary to illustrate that women’s decision to veil continues, in some geographic regions, to be indicative of agency and protest. While “from a Western standpoint, the hijab may seem confining and restricting,” the reality is that it has come to represent a variety of personal considerations and choices.[14] From an expression of religious piety, to political protest, to fashion, to class distinctions and so on, the contemporary veil refuses to be pigeonholed into any one categorical narrative. While the West continues to use the veil as a marker of cultural backwardness to justify both wars and consistent involvement in the Middle East [15], the multivariable meaning of the veil rejects this hegemonic and homogenizing narrative. For example, in contemporary Morocco, “the adoption of the veil is part of a widespread movement toward Islamic authenticity,” as women search “for an identity in tune with their heritage and devoid of Western values.”[16] Of course this isn’t the only reason to veil in Morocco or other contemporary cultures – in fact women explicitly cite different justifications for the veil even within the same culture and geographic region. But it illustrates that the veil can be and is much more than a patriarchally imposed rule or regulation. For many women in Egypt, faced with a slew of competing cultural forces – from the generation of women influenced by nationalist Qasim Amin who view the hijab to be intrinsically oppressive, to the renewed call for cultural authenticity against Western paradigms – “the new veil enables women to regain control and create a new self-image, offering in symbolic fashion a partial resolution of the pressures women experience at the intersection of subcultural ideologies.”[17] In the contemporary Egyptian context, similar to that of Morocco and other parts of North Africa, the adoption of the hijab is a reconciling choice. Women acknowledge, consciously or subconsciously, the history of opposing ideologies, of patriarchal and feminist frameworks, of Western and domestic determinations. The adoption of the veil allows them to recognize this history and their predicament, while also increasing mobility in and out of the public sphere.

While some scholars are critical of this choice as a compromise to patriarchy, claiming that the choice “is a conditioned reaction” conforming to “prescribed norms established by men for women,” this sentiment is again reminiscent of a Western gaze.[18]  Contemporary North Africa is a context in which women have been forced into a cultural predicament, facing multivariable factors that both encourage and discourage veiling. The veil must not be seen as conforming to patriarchy, but rather as a strategic force to best maneuver within an already patriarchal and culturally competitive environment. The difference between homogenizing third world women into a permanent status of victimhood and properly recognizing both their predicament and resolution greatly depends on how carefully women’s choices are contextualized.

If we look at contemporary American veiling trends, the context shifts once again. Here, the overwhelming hegemony is not (explicitly) one of a clerical or colonial construction, but instead, of economic deification embodied by a consumer culture which thrives off “the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies” and “the promotion of a beauty ideal.”[19] Here, women may choose to veil as a way “to opt out of the beauty game,” by symbolically and practically refusing to expose their bodies to a culture that commodifies them as a marketing tool.[20] Pervasive consumer and patriarchal ideology overwhelm the contemporary American capitalist context, and, once again, we see women’s agency enacted by adopting hijab as a form of protection from such coercive ideology and protest against the commodification of women’s bodies and the beauty ideal. It is specifically “because of capitalism’s emphasis on the body and on materiality,” that is, specifically due to the historical and cultural context women find themselves in, that “wearing hijab can be an empowering and liberating experience.”[21]

With these contextualized examples in mind, we may conclude that the veil has endowed women with a meaningful and powerful sense of agency, largely in opposition to homogenizing gazes and conceptions of women. That being said, there have existed and continue to exist drastically autocratic regimes and contexts which have made agency difficult to enact by adopting hijab. Saudi Arabia continues to mandate veiling. In Iran, from the Western autocracy of the Shah to the Islamic rule of the Ayatollah, and through the Iran-Iraq War, “the veil has proved to be the most effective weapon of the rulers, secular and clerical.” The conception of the veil as endowing women with meaningful agency in certain contexts in no way disregards the contexts where agency has been limited. “Social context influences meanings ascribed to hijab,” and while this paper has illustrated the contexts in which women have celebrated and utilized these meanings, not all follow this trend. While subtle variations of dress, makeup, and the wearing of hijab can still serve to subvert autocratic mandates and policing, the realm of women’s agency in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia has scarcely been expanded by compulsive veiling. “The narrow confines within which women have attempted to appropriate the women question,” are narrower in some contexts than in others – which stresses Mohanty’s urge to contextualize arguments and localize feminisms.

While critics of any defense of hijab in the contemporary age, like Ibtissam Bouachrine, maintain that “the veil becomes a concession through which women reaffirm their subordination in a society where they cannot achieve equality,” these critics ignore contextual particularities in its adoption.[22] Veiling during Jahiliyyah did not reaffirm patriarchally constructed right of access to women’s bodies – it undermined them. Veiling during the Algerian revolution did not reaffirm the colonially constructed cultural superiority complexes – it inverted them. Veiling in contemporary North Africa or modern America does not reaffirm the need for women to remain in the private sphere, or gender inequality – rather it recognizes the contextual realities and the predicament women have been forced into, and seeks to protect from, protest against, and reconcile these unfortunate realities. In truth, the veil has largely been adopted as a response to pre-existing patriarchal structures and oppressive institutions.[23] The critique plays into the homogenized gaze, ignoring context, and imagining that so long as women pretend that patriarchy doesn’t exist, then patriarchy will cease to be a factor. Unfortunately, this lofty ideal has no historical basis or validity – and so long as oppressive structures and conflicting social contexts continue to exist, the adoption of the veil may continue to be a manifestation of women’s agency in maneuvering and resisting these oppressive structures.

Since “the hijab of coercion and the hijab of choice look the same,” as Amina Wadud astutely points out, it takes an historical and cultural understanding of each personal choice to veil in order to distinguish between the two.[24] Examined through a Western, homogenizing lens, the veil can mistakenly be viewed as simply a symptomatic disorder of patriarchal and oppressive systems. But when veiling trends and decisions are contextualized, we find that they have endowed women – in different times, in different geographic regions, and in different cultural environments – with a meaningful sense of agency to work against dangerous and limiting patriarchal structures. Protection in Jahili Arab society, resistance in anti-colonial Algeria, and protest in contemporary capitalist America are genuine examples that prove the veil’s capacity to serve as an agency-endowing tool. Context provides clarity, and proves that the veil is irreducible to Western scholarly simplifications.

[1] Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship & Colonial Discourses,” Feminist 30, (1998): 54
[2] Abul A’la Maududi, Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1991), 186.
[3] Sajida Alvi, The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates (Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003), 156.
[4] Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 55.
[5] Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam, 56.
[6] Julia Clancy-Smith, Domesticating the Empire: Race, Gender, and Family Life in French and Dutch Colonialism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 155.
[7] Marnia Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question (New York City: Routledge, 1994), 118.
[8] Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence, 118.
[9] I, like most historians and postcolonial theorists, use the word gaze instead of something like perspective since gaze implies an institutional way of perceiving something, in an intentional, effective, and misguided way. It is imposition on the objectified target, stemming from a particular, constructed worldview.
[10] Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence, 119.
[11] Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence, 122.
[12] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 163.
[13] Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 164.
[14] Leila Hessini, Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East (New York City, Columbia University Press, 2013), 54.
[15] This claim could constitute the thesis of another paper entirely, but one may look to a history of colonialism in which French, British, and American subjects intentionally portrayed Muslim men as barbaric oppressors as part of PR efforts to gain public support for wars and colonizing projects.
[16] Hessini, Reconstructing Gender, 42.
[18] Arlene Macleod, Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling, and Change in Cairo (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1993), 120.
[19] Hessini, Reconstructing Gender, 54.
[20] Katharine Bullock, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes (Herndon: International Institute for Islamic Thought, 2002), 185.
[21] Bullock, Rethinking Muslim Women, 191.
[22] Bullock, Rethinking Muslim Women, 183.
[23] Amina Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (London: Oneworld Publications, 2013), 219.
Ahmed, Leila, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Alvi, Sajida, The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates, Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003.
Barlas, Asma, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
Bouachrine, Ibtissam, Women and Islam: Myths, Apologies, and the Limits of Feminist Critique, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014.
Bullock, Katharine, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes, Herndon: International Institute for Islamic Thought, 2002.
Clancy-Smith, Julia, Domesticating the Empire: Race, Gender, and Family Life in French and Dutch Colonialism, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998.
Hessini, Leila, Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East, New York City, Columbia University Press, 2013.
Lazreg, Marnia, The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question, New York City: Routledge, 1994.
Macleod, Arlene, Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling, and Change in Cairo, New York City: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Maududi, Abdul A’la, Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam, Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1991.
Mohanty, Chandra, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship & Colonial Discourses,” Feminist 30, (Summer 1998).
Wadud, Amina, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, London: Oneworld Publications, 2013.