November 25, 2012 By AbuBakr Karolia

The Veil – Symbol Carrying Many Meanings

veil-and-women--AbuBakr-Karolia_1Wearing the veil is seen as cultural, social and religious challenges to the rights of Muslim women. Historically, veiling has been prevalent in countries that Arabs had contact with, such as Syria and Palestine. Veiling was connected with social status. Early Greeks, Romans, Jews and Assyrians all practiced veiling to some degree (Ahmed, 1992, 55). In this paper, I seek to show some reasons why veiling is observed by Muslims women and her rights to wear it.

Leila Ahmed an Islamic scholar says that veiling is nowhere prescribed in the Qur’an and the only verses dealing with women’s clothing instruct them to guard their private parts and throw a scarf over their bosoms (Q. 24:31-32) (Ahmed, 1992, 55).
During the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime his wives were commanded by the Qur’an (33:33) that “they were not like other women” and thus, by wearing a veil, they would be recognised by people and respected by society. Thus in societies that were connected with Medina the veil was worn as a status symbol. The veil was a common practice among the upper-class in areas, which witnessed Muslim conquest, and it was generally adopted beyond class differences. This could also be the reason why this practice spread to the rest of Arabia.

Given the shortage of scientific description in individual human societies on veiling behaviour, I find myself compelled to use my own observation and analysis of the subject.  The confusion on the dress of Muslim women emanated because traditional Muslims scholars did not effectively explain the sacred text nor the context or the history of the dress of Muslim women. As mentioned earlier the social and cultural aspects of dress were merged with religious notions, which became legal law.

The Arabic word hijab is often mistaken with niqab/purdah, i.e., veiling. There are different nuances of meaning when each of these terms is used. The word in the Qur’an that closely resembles the word hijab is jilbab (Q, 33:59-60). The hijab is more usually understood to simply mean a covering of the body encompassing the hair and neck, but not the face, feet or hands. It is worth noting that veiling confuses and distorts the concept of the hijab. The veil becoming a measure of the Muslim women’s awra (a term used within Islam which denotes the intimate parts of the body, for both men and women) is a gross misrepresentation of the Islamic religious text.

One way to organise many elements of the clothing of women is to classify them according to the manner the body is covered. Some items cover the body, some cover the head and some cover the face. All these items of clothing communicate specific messages, relations and beliefs.
In some Muslim societies such as Saudi Arabia the veil is imposed as a religious obligation. In countries like Tunisia and Turkey women “were once” punished by law for wearing the veil.  Gender activist scholars such as Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi and Asma Barlas among others argue that the problems for Muslim women on the veil occur on the one hand because of orthodox patriarchal misreading’s of the religious text who have held certain misconceptions about women and on the other hand in secular democracies veiling is seen by the authorities as a form of backwardness and ignorance. Many Westerners believe that the veil accentuates identity differentiation and gender stigmatisation.

Most Western observers fail to realise that veiling, which has a long and complex history, was not only embraced as a cultural identity but also represents an expression of liberation from colonial legacies. During the colonisation of Algeria by France (1832-1962) the veil was a symbol of resistance when patriotic women treated it as a national and cultural symbol of liberation. Algerian’s linked the de-veiling of Muslim women by the French as a form of a colonial strategy to destroy their culture.  The Algerian women clung to it – a symbol of indigenous tradition and culture at the face of the colonial encounter (El Guindi, 1999, 172).

In 2010, the French government repeated this encounter with Muslim women by banning any form of veiling – including the burqa. The usual strategy in the west is to discriminate against Islam and Muslims and attack women’s wearing of the hijab; the scarf covering women’s hair and other forms of veiling. The burqa is an enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic areas to cover their bodies in public places. Burqa is usually understood to be a woman’s loose body-covering (hijab) plus the head-covering, plus the face-veil (niqab). The wearing of the burqa and veil has been criticised as a threat to security, especially after the 9/11 as people are not able to be effectively identified. Discourses on the veiling of Muslim women have become part of a larger Western debate on the assumed threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

Muslim women will find it difficult to convince Westerners on the wearing of the veil in public because of their liberal views on women’s dressing. In many instances, the West reflects a multicultural attitude towards the dress of women, however when it comes to the veil they perceive it as a foreign symbol, which embodies an oppressive ideology. It seems that Western countries that ban the veil are only repeating old prejudices and the rhetoric of colonialism against other cultures and creeds. Therefore, in a democratic and post-colonial Western context the imposition of dominant cultural values on the religious and ethnic “other” needs to be contested.

Progressive scholars such as Mernissi and Barlas are saying that conservative women are making much over little because Muslim women’s identity and their experiences have been misrepresented through a conflation of Islam, gendered forms of oppression and the veil. These scholars are examining conservative and traditional patriarchal interpretations of the religious text on the issue of women’s dress to benefit their rights.  They are interrogating the reasons why women wear the hijab and the veil and whether they complement or denigrate women? Their activism and academic reflections of the Qur’an are challenging the very fabric of the patriarchal hegemony of the religious authority of Islam.

In order to properly address the contemporary debate concerning Muslim women’s dress they will have to engage their sacred texts and discover the real reasons why they wear hijab and the veil and whether it impedes or enhances their religious belief and practises.  Many revisionist scholars are claiming that the veil is a gestalt, a culture, which excludes access to education and even proscribes women’s participation in active public life. For some conservative women hijab can also be a fundamental part of religiosity and a symbol of religious conviction, while for others hijab is simply a culturally appropriate dressing. For these women, veiling is intimately connected with the notions of self; body and community, as well as with the cultural construction of identity and space (El Guindi, 1999).

Just as there are vast differences in the situation of Muslim women, so too are there significant differences in how women define, understand and practice Islam. Given this diversity, it is impossible to speak on behalf of all Muslim women and generalise infinite versions of Islam people practice. Is it, for instance, putting a cloth to cover one’s face that produces a significant decline in power or restores one’s dignity? The idea of the veil then becomes even narrower in this debate of rights and gender justice.

There are far greater issues than the veil as regards gender justice and rights of women. But each step negotiated for the cause of women’s right will be a step closer to developing the just treatment of Muslim women.  Muslims countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere are experiencing great changes in their political culture. The struggles for socio-economic and political justice in these countries are opening up new opportunities for women’s rights, gender justice and religious education.

In conclusion, Muslim women are struggling to preserve their rights in the contemporary era. This struggle is not only against the patriarchal authority of the orthodox scholars but also against Western perceptions about Islam. The veil is a complex symbol of many meanings; therefore, both Muslim men and women will have to decide what their religious obligations are on the type of attire that they wear in the faith and how it relates to developing a felicitous relationship with God.

(The above text is a condensed version of the article “The Muslim Veil – A Socio-Cultural Invention: Between Misogyny, Politics and Identity”, which can be found at…).

Abbot, N. (2011). Aishah, the Beloved of Mohammed., [Date accessed: 03/04/2011].

Ahmed, Leila. (1992). Women and Gender in Islam – Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Al-Muhajabah. (2002). Understanding the Veil., [Date accessed: 4/4/2011].

Bone Pamela. (2005). Throw off those veils!…. [Date accessed: 04/04/2010].

El Guindi, Fadwa. (1999) Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford: Berg.

(The author is a businessman and community activist. He has BA Honours in the “the Study of Islam Program” from the University of Johannesburg. He is presently doing an MA and is doing a dissertation on “The Portrayal of Muhammad in Sira Literature: Utilisation of Qur’anic Verses.)

Posted in: Articles