Despite the widespread practice of veiling in Islam, and its present-day status as an emblem of Muslim womanhood throughout the world, it has surprisingly little to back it up in the Qur’an, something acknowledged by many Islamic feminists, but less well-known throughout mainstream discourse in both the West and Muslim-majority countries. Islamic feminist scholar Sahar Amer points this out in her book What is Veiling, noting that there are some Qur’anic verses that do point to rules for modesty, and some more detailed rules for women’s modesty. However, she advocates for an interpretation that puts responsibility for respect and privacy on the shoulders of both men and women.
Amer highlights the ambiguity of the words “zīna” and “‘awra,” loosely translated as adornments and private parts respectively, but still without a universal agreement on their exact definitions, as fertile ground for some male Islamic scholars to project their pre-existent misogyny. She demonstrates that, with a feminist evaluation and interpretation, there is nothing in the Qur’an that specifically requires any kind of head, face, or full body covering for women, but that it is male scholars of Islam who have projected the misogyny of their time onto their exegesis, leading to more and more restrictions for women according to dominant interpretations and voices.
Amer isn’t the first to argue that the practice of veiling in Islam is far more of a cultural phenomenon than a religious one. Natheera Zein al-Deen, whose work in the early to mid 20th century called for addressing misogyny in Islam, including mandatory veiling, through giving women equal rights to Ijtihad, on the grounds that a majority of practices mandated for women in Muslim-majority countries were based on the dominance of men’s voices in the study and interpretation of Islamic scripture. Like Amer, her exegesis of Islamic texts led her to conclude that the subjugation of women in some Islamic practices had no spiritual basis, and was instead brought about by the exclusion of women in religious study, and the proliferation of centuries of cultural misogyny as a result.
Al-Deen saw veiling as a symptom of this, and supported unveiling as a way for feminists in Muslim-majority countries to assert their autonomy, a practice that was becoming more and more widespread. This would give way to a divergence in Egyptian feminism in particular, according to Leila Ahmed, and a dominant opinion that saw unveiling, and sympathy with the West, as synonymous with the emerging discourse of Muslim women’s rights. While feminism in Egypt remained connected to its anti-colonialist roots, Ahmed defines the dominant discourse that came about, led in part by Huda Sha’arawi, as one that was deeply sympathetic with westernization.
One reason for the dominance of Sha’arawi’s more westernized feminism might have been its effectiveness. Sha’arawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923, aimed at bringing about gender equality to the country, and tangible advances in women’s education and political representation were set in motion under her guidance, and her connections to Western feminist groups gave her leverage in these efforts. However, while Ahmed notes that it would be impossible to give a precise account for the dominance of Sha’arawi’s more Westernized brand of feminism, and for unveiling as a symbol of liberation, one factor at play was the untimely death of another prominent Egyptian feminist, whose work also centered on the liberation and empowerment of Muslim women, but whose views on Westernization and unveiling differed.
While noting that she appreciated the sentiment of Egyptian progressives, mostly men, calling for Muslim women to forego veiling as a sign of liberation, Malak Hifni Nasif was quick to point out that unveiling was not necessarily equivalent to liberation, and it was easier to link it with a desire and ability of upper-class women to be “fashionable” by dressing in European styles, as well as the deeper issue of the entanglement of westernization and progressivism that was becoming evident in Egypt. Nasif saw the uncritical adoption of Western trends and ideology as a problem, pushing instead for robust education and development of women’s autonomy to make their own choices about veiling, rather than public debates over the matter, particularly by men. Although Nasif’s work was prolific, her death in 1914 meant the loss of a major alternative voice in Islamic feminism.
In discussing the divergence between Sha’arawi and Nasif’s views on veiling, Ahmed also illustrates the emphasis on women’s independence and autonomy that was at the heart of both thinkers’ work. While Nasif’s was explicit in her view that women should be educated to make decisions for themselves, rather than blindly adhere to an ideology that conflates westernization with liberation, the latter wasn’t exactly Sha’arawi’s position either, according to Ahmed. She notes that, in analyzing biographical details of Sha’arawi’s life, it’s evident that her sympathy with the West lay in the valuable lessons about her own autonomy that she’d learned from Western sources.
While we can gain insight into the roots of present-day anti-veiling ideology from 20th century Islamic feminism, and while veiling was certainly seen as oppressive by many of its prominent figures, this is hardly due to the lack of merit of arguments from those with more nuanced views on the subject, such as Nasif, who was right to argue that it’s reductive to conflate unveiling with liberation. The positions against veiling that Al-Deen and Sha’arawi held can be attributed to the fact that veiling, when mandated by law, has been demonstrably used as a way to control and dominate Muslim women by misogynists over history. Al-Deen and Sha’arawi had good reason for their opinions on unveiling, and good reason to feel that it was unjust to have one’s autonomy over one’s physical appearance restricted by law. However, Muslim women’s autonomy has been left out of dominant political discourse in both Europe and a number of Muslim-majority countries, which is hardly reflective of the nuanced debates within Islamic feminism on the matter. Amer notes that a growing number of Muslim women have no problem reconciling a free choice they make to wear traditional coverings with a desire for equality. This is a position that echoes Nasif’s, and one that adds a much needed perspective to the two extreme viewpoints held by some European leaders and most Islamic fundamentalists, that Muslim women should either never veil or always veil respectively.
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