Veil, For A Change

A few weeks ago the Dutch blog and twitter community saw a (small) explosion of messages about the headscarf. What happened? A young Tunisian-Dutch lady with the pseudonym Dunya Henya expressed her feelings and experiences about people who call her names and show other types of offensive behaviour because she wears a headscarf. The post, called ‘Fucking Headscarf’ (or literally Cancer Headscarf) was written quite well in the sense that it contained assertive and affective language and examples that were very compelling. According to her, she wears the headscarf out of her free will and stated that she does not force anything up to anyone, she adjusts and participates in society. The fact however that she wears a headscarf is, according to her, enough for some people to degrade her and treat her demeaningly as if she is a second rate citizen who can be called all kinds of abusive names. She stated ‘I draw a line, thus far and no further.’ and ‘Not the (non-existent) islamization is a danger to this society, the growing intolerance however is’.

Her blogpost probably should be seen in the context of the ‘battle of the veil’ that is going on in Europe today; a debate about the headscarf in many European countries that not only has consequences for the public sphere and on a political level but (as the post clearly shows) also on the streets of Europe. I think the combination of the assertive and affective language makes her post so strong and remarkable. There are more women of course speaking and complaining about the negative reactions they receive, but only seldom they clearly say back off like Dunya Henya did. There is clearly an obsession (often among white men) with Muslim women with headscarves. It appears that when people think about Muslim women they think about women with a veil and then indeed criticize, verbally abuse or even attack women who comply with that stereotype.

Important in Dunya Henya’s defense (and of many others as well) is the right to choose. Look for example at the next video of two American women who cover themselves (one with niqab and the other hijjab) in order to fulfill their desire of modesty:
It is often, as Dunya Henya states as well, to strive for modesty and being guarded against things that may harm them; not only because they feel their religion says so, but also because they actually experienced harmfull things.

In particular women wearing the face veil are currently at the center of the debate with the current ban in France and similar plans in other countries like the Netherlands. Even more so than women with a headscarf women with niqab are absent in the debates. Interesting therefore is Naima Bouteldja’s account of her research among French niqabi’s.

France’s false ‘battle of the veil’ | Naima Bouteldja | Comment is free |

The authors of the bill assert that displaying the flag from one’s “country of origin” during demonstrations or celebrations often conveys a “provocative attitude towards our republican values”.

Unveiling the Truth illustrates the rupture between the hysterical national discourse on the women who wear the full-face veil and their own concrete realities. The testimonies of the 32 women interviewed in towns and cities across France challenged many of the myths relayed during the controversy. Rather than reflecting an attempt to subvert society, the adoption of the niqab was, in most cases, the result of a personal and extremely individualistic journey, a modern spiritual approach in an effort to transform the self.

Of course various other factors played a role in the women’s decision to adopt the veil. But most of them were the first members of their family to adopt the veil, the majority had no niqab-wearing peers, their attendance at their mosque was minimal, and their affiliation to any Islamic bodies almost nonexistent.

Her report also reveals how women with niqab receive almost no support from representatives of Islamic organizations that appear to comply with the French state’s discourse, policies and laws although they did oppose the ban. I think one can find the same in the Netherlands (with the exception of the Salafi networks). Most organizations appear to be against a possible ban but also state that niqab is not compulsory in Islam and that it has no basis in the Qur’an. True or false that doesn’t really matter, what it produces is that women with niqab receive no sign of solidarity at all. Instead, as Annelies Moors showed in her research on Dutch niqabi’s, part of the discourse aimed against it constructs the law as a matter of security while ignoring that women with niqab experience abusive behaviour or even violence against them.
France’s false ‘battle of the veil’ | Naima Bouteldja | Comment is free |

This might explain why in a sample of 32 women, 10 young women decided to adopt the full-face veil, some clearly in an act of defiance, after the launch of the debate. Bushra, a 24-year-old former rapper who did not even wear a hijab in April 2009, explained: “The controversy put a flea in my ear … Already, for Eid, they don’t allow us to slaughter our sheep, they don’t let us go to school with our headscarves, they don’t let us do anything!” Giving them a taste of their own medicine, she adopted the veil. She adds, with a laugh: “Thanks to their nonsense, I stopped mine.”

It is indeed this dialectic of the state who tries to control women that has led some feminists to reconsider their own stance against the veil, such as Leila Ahmed who in the past saw the veil as representing political islam and who was very disturbed by the sight of women in the US wearing hijab:
Veil of Ignorance – By Leila Ahmed | Foreign Policy

Until recently, I thought, as Hourani did, that the disappearance of the veil was inevitable; I was sure that greater education and opportunity for women in the Muslim world would result in the elimination of this relic of women’s oppression. For decades, in books, op-eds, and lectures, I stood firmly and unquestioningly against the veil and the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, viewing them as signs of women’s disempowerment. To me, and to my fellow Arab feminists, being told what to wear was just another form of tyranny. But in the course of researching and writing a new book on the history of the veil’s improbable comeback, I’ve had to radically rethink my assumptions. Where I once saw the veil as a symbol of intolerance, I now understand that for many women, it is a badge of individuality and justice.

During her research (read the review at Wall Street Journal) Leila Ahmed learned that the meaning of hijjab changed from being ‘fraught with ancient patriarchal meanings’ in societies where it is required by law or through social pressure to wear one, to gender equality, social justice, rejection of negative stereotypes and affirming Muslim pride in Europe. This for example occurs among women who are the forefront of new and alternative interpretations of key Quran verses pertaining to women (Ahmed for example mentions Laleh Bakhtiar who published a new translation of the Quran: The Sublime Quran) but also ‘ordinary’ women who feel they are and should be free to wear whatever they want. At the same time this discourse of free will and free choice is under debate. Consider the next excerpt from Nadia el Awady’s blog on the women and headscarves in Egypt:
Societies Overpowered by a Headscarf: It’s Time for Change « Inner Workings of My Mind

A woman, we shout, has the right to choose.

But do we Muslims really believe this or do we use this argument when it suits us?

Do women in Muslim countries – or for that matter do women living in Islamic communities all over the United States and Europe – truly have the right to choose? Does a woman truly have freedom of choice if the societal impacts of that choice have the potential to devastate the very core of her existence?

In recent years in Egypt, a growing number of women are deciding to take off their headscarves. This growing number is still small, mind you it is no phenomenon, but there are enough women doing this that most Egyptians know someone who knows someone who has taken off the hijab. Their reasons for taking off the hijab vary as much as their reasons varied for donning it to begin with. Most of the women I know who have taken off the hijab live in circles of semi-liberal families and friends. This makes the choice relatively easier for these women. Every one of these women, nevertheless, has faced harsh judgment by some family members and friends because they chose to doff the hijab.

These women are immediately analyzed to their faces and behind their backs. Their original reasons for wearing the hijab were the wrong reasons. Her faith is weak. She has been moving in circles of friends who have tainted her soul. She has no proper understanding of the Islamic faith. She has opened too many doors to the devil and this is the result. The list goes on and on. And the snobby advice does as well. We’ll pray for you, dear sister. Remember to keep up your five daily prayers. That will save you. Be careful because you have started down the slippery slope to hell. We will pray to God to protect you and give you guidance.

She is immediately interrogated over and over and over about her reasons to take off the hijab. She is forced to entertain long discussions about the obligatory nature of the hijab in Islam. She is subjected to long explanations about how accepting Islam as a religion means accepting the doctrine. She is not allowed to disagree. She is not allowed to have her own opinion or her own interpretation. She is not even allowed to be uncertain – not really knowing in her heart whether the hijab is obligatory or not and deciding that it was not for her and that she would have faith in God’s understanding.

The woman must be convinced. She must be made to see the light. She must be saved.

The right to choose has all of a sudden gone to hell along with this woman who has chosen to take off her hijab.

These women I refer to above – those living among semi-liberal family and friends – are the lucky ones.

Women who come from more conservative circles barely stand a chance.

Nadia El-Awady points out that in that in Europe and America she is odd because of the hijjab and that there is a strong social and political pressure to put if off, while in Muslim societies she is successfull because of the hijab. In both cases she is judged and scrutinized because of the headscarf. This is also very clear when we look at a recent video and series of interviews with American Muslim women speaking about how people treated them when they wore the headscarf, how they experienced wearing it and…why they decide to take it off and still felt like practicing Muslim women. These women did experience social pressure to wear it but were also genuinely convinced that it was a good thing to do as a Muslim woman and they were criticized when they put it off. You can see the video here (via

And listen to the audio interviews at the site of NPR.
Although I liked the article, video and audio there is something that bothers me with that piece. It seems that putting off the headscarf (or wearing it for that matter) is seen as a fixed identity statement. Both practices, taking off and putting it on, reduce the practice of wearing a headscarf to communicative acts reflecting a full-formed moral identity that is also related to women being liberal, integrated, westernized, truly Muslim, modesty and so on. That is just not how it works however. Many women in my previous and current research put it on, take it off, put it on and take it off again, switch between several modalities of veiling several times during their lives. It shows different modalities of how women constitute and nurture their moral dispositions, identities (plural!), and commitments during various stages of life and in particular everyday and/or political contexts. It is probably difficult to have such a processual account of women’s lives and practices into a video and audio. Nevertheless the idea of women with a hijab or without having a fixed, full-formed identity makes it difficult to transcend to current debates on hijab and the social pressures laid upon them by Muslim and non-Muslims because it captures them in a discourse that is not theirs but of politicians trying to forbid the veil or those trying to force the veil upon women (see also Nicole Cunningham‘s account on Muslimah Media Watch for a similar view). This politicized idea of the headscarf makes real debates with Muslims and among Muslims almost impossible because the different points of view are reduced to simple us and them categorizations. And indeed, at one point someone really has to say: I draw a line, thus far and no further!

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