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The Muslim Veil The veil worn by many Muslim women tends to be a stereotyped piece of clothing. Many of us in the United States see it and automatically assume that the person is a terrorist, but what do we really know about the Muslim veil? Caryle Murphy, a writer for The Christian Science Monitor, thinks that we do not fully understand the complexity of the Muslim veil. In “Behind the Veil: Why Islam’s Most Visible Symbol Is Spreading,” Murphy writes that “Rarely in human history has a piece of cloth been assigned so many roles.
Been embroiled in so much controversy. Been so misjudged, misunderstood, and manipulated” (1). We in the United States need to understand that the veil is a piece of cloth that has different meanings to different women in the Muslim world, rather than the single meaning we tend to ascribe to it. We must understand that although the veil can be used as a tool to oppress women in some cases, many women choose to wear the veil as a sign of faith and to express their freedom of religion.
In the end, we must ask ourselves whether we would want to be treated the same way for our clothing choices and how much emphasis we should place on clothes at all. First, we should understand that the Islamic veil is as varied as the different nationalities of the women who wear it, and that these women have many different attitudes toward the veil. Murphy explains that the veils vary from the simple head scarf, known as the hijab or hejab, which covers the hair and neck, to the burqa of Afghanistan, which covers the woman from head to toe (2).
Murphy states that “most Muslim women, including most in the U. S. , voluntarily opt to wear the head scarf out of religious commitment” and “reject suggestions that their head covering means they have less autonomy at home or on the job” (2). These Muslim women feel they are closer to Allah when wearing their veil and feel that they are showing pride in their faith. Although many women choose to wear the veil, where a woman lives often determines whether the choice is hers to make. In some Muslim patriarchal societies there can be a lot of pressure to wear a veil.
Murphy tells us that “there is family pressure from fathers, husbands, or brothers who want their female relatives to be seen by society as a ‘good girl’ or ‘good woman’” (2). A growing number of female Muslim scholars believe this is due to the fact that most interpretations of the Koran have been done by men. Murphy quotes Asma Barlas, a scholar of the Koran, who says that “‘historically only male scholars have read the Koran…always within patriarchies’” (3). Just as interpretations of the Koran differ, not all Muslim countries agree that women must veil themselves.
Murphy refers to a recent petition by conservatives in Kuwait to bar two elected women from the National Assembly because they do not wear a head scarf. Kuwait’s highest court ruled in the women’s favor, stating that the “constitution guarantees gender equality and freedom of choice in religion” (3). Because the values Kuwait’s court upheld are so similar to Western values, it would seem that Westerners might champion a woman’s decision to wear a veil as a matter of freedom of religion. However, this has not always been the case.
In fact, some Western countries see danger in the veil rather than a woman exercising her freedom of religious choice. The danger some Western countries see in the veil has to do with concerns about security in public places, but also reflects cultural insecurity on the part of some Westerners. The veil is thought to be a security risk because it prevents people like police officers and airline workers from identifying the person under the veil (in the case of the burqa). However, the real concern Murphy points out is cultural.
She writes that “in Western culture […] masks usually denote deceit or something to hide” and that the veil can prevent Muslim women from assimilating into a Western community where “high stock is placed on face-to-face communication” (4). British Minister Jack Straw brought up this concern when he called the veil a “‘visible statement of separation and difference’” (4). France banned the wearing of the head scarf by state school children in 2004, though it decided against banning the burqa throughout the country. Some Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, and even Iran at one time, banned veils in public to try to become more like the West.