Exploring Islam Through Art, Culture, and Literature

Week 10 (and some of Week 12): The Veil as a Point of Control

May 4th, 2016 · No Comments

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The veil is an incredibly loaded symbol with regard to Islam, representing at once the model, pious Muslim woman as well as the epitome of oppression and so-called “backwardness” in Muslim societies. As such, it has long been at the center of ideological debates between conservative, religious factions and more secular groups with leanings towards westernized culture and ideals. In a sense, women’s bodies, essentially serving as “transmitters of culture”, have become a point of control, or a battle-ground almost, between the two sides. This was exemplified during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, as depicted in Satrapi’s Persepolis, with the I have depicted this conflict here by showing a military-like helicopter, labeled “The West”, sporting US and British flags, flying above and left of a Muslim woman, attempting to the remove her veil (in this case her hijab). To the right of the woman, attempting to hold the hijab in place and pull it further down over her face, is an imam dressed in traditional clothes, representative of the more conservative Islamic state.

Of course, situated in the middle between these two sides is the woman herself, questioning why she is not able to do decide over what goes on her own head, with the decision to wear the veil essentially being made for her on either side (hence the thought bubble above her head). This is indicative of women’s lack of agency over their own bodies as a result of control from both sides of the conflict. On the one hand, there are certainly Muslim women who view the veil as a symbol of oppression, as it is depicted in Persepolis, and would like to see a world where women are veil-less, as in Sultana’s Dream. However, on the other hand, there is also a certain feminist orientalism, as Weber describes in her piece Unveiling Scherezade, whereby western notions of what it means to be feminist or empowered generates this idea of veiling as “backwards”, with Muslim feminists considered “less rational, less civilized, and less modern than the West”, totally discounting Muslim women’s reasons for wearing the veil. Often worn to show modesty while in public or while praying (as is required of both men and women in the Quran), or simply to as part of one’s identity as being Muslim, wearing the veil is not mutually exclusive with being against education and empowerment of women. In fact, some women feel that the veil is a symbol of their faith and focus on their own personal betterment, effectively serving as deterrent from men in an otherwise male-dominated society (per interviews and clips shown in lecture), or as Weber puts it, “protection from male lechery”. Ultimately, it is this depiction of the monolithic “Islam” as the “other” coupled with a general lack of understanding of Muslim traditions, that contributes to distrust of the West, and thus in part, fuels the radicalization movements that those promoting this sort of “un-veiling” likely aim to prevent.

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