The veil

I was feeling nostalgic and found myself looking back at some of my Uni work. I stumbled across a particular piece of work that seemed quite fitting with the current ongoing political affairs – Trump’s new America, the Muslim ban, Brexit and of course the never-ending battle against the Islamic dress code in the Western world. Writing Muslims was one of my final year modules and without a doubt one of my most favorite modules ever. We studied a wide range of Western and non-Western literatures written by Muslim writers – an area of study that isn’t widely explored. It was so interesting and refreshing to study such a different module, to discuss taboo issues and to be able to share personal viewpoints openly. Our assignment task was to produce a blog post in response to our chosen article from The Guadian. I chose to respond to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s article about the veil. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and columnist for The Guardian and often shares some controversial views.

I have hyperlinked Alibhai-brown’s article for those of you who wish to read her work before reading my response. But I will also provide the direct link:

Below is my response:

According to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown we are in a period of ‘bleakness’ because of Muslims and their inability to adapt to society. Under constant public scrutiny, it came of no surprise that yet again, Muslims were being used as the scapegoat. Brown uses Egyptian philosopher Qasim Amin to form the basis of this argument. In 1899, she mentions that he warned us that ‘unless Muslims embraced modernity and equality the future would be bleak.’ This is a highly problematic statement. What did Amin mean by modernity and equality and furthermore, on who’s interpretations were these ideals based on? Modernity and equality are subjective, so what exactly do Muslims need to ‘embrace?’ They need to embrace the Western ideology of ‘modernity’ by abandoning their beliefs and practices, that’s what. They need to abide by Western ‘rules’ which includes the governing on observing the veil because that is ‘equality.’ Brown does not hesitate to express her disapproval of the veil throughout her article but whilst doing so, she proves a weak and often flawed argument.

One particular example of this is her use of Quranic references regarding the veil. To some extent she is right in saying that the veil is often discussed metaphorically to describe ‘barriers between good and bad.’ However, in her attempt to elaborate, she displays a fragmented understanding of the Quran. Brown mentions two specific verses from the Quran which she then supports with a quote from Sahar Amer an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. After studying these verses Amer concludes that ‘Nowhere is the hijab used to describe, let alone prescribe, the necessity for Muslim women to wear a headscarf or any other pieces of clothing…’ This bold conclusion is unfortunately incorrect. The passages studied were verses 30-31 from chapter 24 in the Quran whereby God instructs men and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty (cover their private parts). Here, the stress is placed on the protection of the eyes. God is commanding men and women to control their gaze in order to avoid lustful desires. So, yes, the veil is being referred to metaphorically here. However, attached to verse 31, is an explicit reference to the hijab as a means of head covering and quite conveniently both Brown and Amer seem to ignore this. Before we go on, it is important to clarify the hijab actually is. It simply means to cover or to screen. Thus, coming back to verse 31, it says ‘and they (women) should place their khimar (headscarf) over their bosoms.’ The word khimar here is used specifically to remove any ambiguity regarding the hijab. Khimar is the Arabic term for headscarf. Therefore, Amer’s statement is immediately disproven – Muslim women are required to wear the headscarf. The verse further clarifies Amer’s questions: ‘which parts of the body exactly is it supposed to cover? Just the hair? The hair and neck?’ In pre-Islamic Arabia, women used to wear the khimar over their head and tied at the back of their necks, exposing their ears and neck. Thus, the verse precisely specifies that the hijab should be ‘placed over their bosoms’ so that ears and neck are covered.

Moreover, Brown’s rejection of the veil is made explicit from the start. For her, the ‘hijab, jilbab, burqa and niqab’ all denote a ‘retreat from progressive values,’ and are preventing Muslims from ‘march[ing] forward.’ She quite bluntly states that the veil represents ‘religious arrogance and subjugation.’ Perhaps because it does not coincide with her orientalist standards. The veil challenges the modern culture that objectifies and over-sexualises women – a culture that quite literally encourages the “less is more” attitude and fashion trend. The veiled woman demonstrates ‘internalised messages about femaleness’ and these messages for Brown are not ‘rational’ as Sami in Robin Yassin-Kassab’s The Road from Damascus puts it. In contrast, Leila Aboulela’s Minaret presents the veil as a form of liberation. The protagonist Najwa is in awe of the hijab (headscarf) and in her desperate search for peace, she turns to Islam and embraces the hijab. The hijab allows her to escape the shackles of her past making her feel ‘dignified and gentle.’ So while Brown may think that we are in a time of ‘bleakness’, I say that it is only because veiled Muslim women do not adhere to her perception of ‘female dignity, autonomy and potential’ – they have their own versions.