“Nudity empowers some women. Modesty empowers other women. It’s not your place to tell what a woman should wear.”
This is a popular quote shared across social media in defence of veiling and hijab. I can understand that nudity empowers some women. Being proud of our body, just the way it was created, liberates us from various societal expectations and norms. However, the second sentence of the quote is rather fascinating. With relevance to veiling, how does covering the face, hair and neck in particular empower somebody?
I’ve often raised this question with my Muslim friends. One of them asked me if I’ll prefer to eat a roti (Indian wheat bread) that’s covered in foil or the one that’s kept open in air. “That’s how we Muslims treat our women. We keep them pure and protected by veiling,” he claimed. I have a serious problem with that analogy. A woman is a person and it’s ridiculous to equate them with objects. That’s one way you shouldn’t treat women. A woman’s chastity won’t attract fungus like a roti does.
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It’s not about the clothes. It’s about the mindset. Image: knighttoolworks
To claim that veiling liberates women from male scrutiny propagates sexist ideas that men are sexual predators and women the prey. Objectification of women as sex objects has more to do with mindset than clothing itself. It’s because of that very mindset that conservatively dressed women themselves slut-shame other women who wear revealing clothes.
Most arguments in defense of hijab were scripted only after the 20th century when fragments of feminist groups in West became among the first set of women to equate this custom with patriarchal oppression. Prior to that, the custom of veiling the face prevailed unchallenged for centuries without any need to be defended. Now, that calls for understanding the origin of the custom. When did women start veiling faces and more importantly, WHY?
Costume of European women by 10th-11th century. Credit: World4.eu
The custom of veiling the face precedes the origin of Islam. The first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in an Assyrian legal text from the 13th century BC. In the patriarchal society of ancient Rome, married women were expected to wear veils as a symbol of the husband’s authority over his wife. Apart from survival and modesty, clothing now had another dimension – a moral protection on a man’s property (read: women). A married woman who omitted the veil was seen as withdrawing herself from marriage.
In 166 BC, consul Sulpicius Gallus divorced his wife because she had left the house unveiled, thus allowing all to see, as he said, what only he should see. It was in the same period that specific clothing for women came into existence as opposed to unisex clothing worn earlier.
Veiling in Christianity
The concept of veiling found its way into every Abrahamic religion that united together the virtue of modesty and prescription of sexual abstinence. Rise of Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam thereby cemented the survival of the veil for centuries to come. Remarkably, Asian religions like Buddhism and Sikhism strongly opposed seclusion and veiling of women.
The sexist attitudes that led to origin of veiling are quite evident within religious texts. Based on 1 Corinthians 11:4–16, St. Paul wrote that any man who prays with his head covered (with hat) brings shame upon his head whereas any woman who prays with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head. St. Paul goes on to explain, “A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man.”
Rajasthani Hindu women wearing ghoonghat / purdah
The veil (purdah) found its way into Hindu households in India after Mughal conquests in the medieval era. Many Indian Hindu men often boast about how women in their household won’t attend guests unless their faces are veiled. Of course, the jealous husbands of our patriarchal past had a significant contribution in protecting the custom of veiling, overtly emphasizing on chastity, modesty and purity of a woman. The earliest women who veiled their faces were clearly slaves of man’s insecurities.
While the origin of veil has sexist roots, is the veil itself oppressive? No. There is nothing inherently liberating or oppressive about the veil, just like there is nothing inherently liberating about going naked. Liberation or oppression depends on having or not having a choice. Did a woman veil her face to protect herself from harsh weather or did she wear it because her husband forced her to? It’s about the choice and context.
Dolce & Gabbana abaya collection
It’s because of the oppressive roots of veiling that I find nothing progressive about Dolce & Gabbana’s hijab range. You would realize how bizarre it was if Dolce & Gabbana created a range of slave rugs inspired from Apartheid and people celebrated how inclusive and diverse the collection is. It can’t be put more straightforward than this – D&G is looking for easy money from the cash-rich Middle East and they’re playing the diversity card.
A woman executed in a Saudi Arabian street
Muslim women in liberal Western countries enjoy more social freedom than elsewhere in the world. They often utilize their voice in defense of veiling, primarily for cultural and religious sentiments. But in Muslim-dominated countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, women are prosecuted, flogged, tortured and even killed for not complying with a specific dress code. In those countries, wearing a hijab, niqab or burqa isn’t a choice.
Muslim women in liberal societies
Western liberals don’t realize that the veil is a symbol of basic human-rights violation for millions of Muslim women elsewhere in the world. Ideally a liberated woman wouldn’t need to build a protective fence around her, even if it’s made of fabric. A liberated woman wouldn’t give a fuck about societal scrutiny of her body. Covering the hair and neck with a fabric isn’t going to miraculously liberate women. Liberation comes with freedom of choice – freedom to veil or not veil.
Purushu Arie is India’s most-read men’s fashion blogger. He is also a gender-neutral fashion designer, illustrator and columnist. Find him atwww.purushu.com or on Instagram. This post was first publishedhere. You can read more posts on hisFashion101 Blog.