Hajib hijacked: Politics of the Veil

The murder of a Muslim woman, who was shot and killed recently while walking with her three-year-old child, has been labeled as a hate crime--sparked by her veil. In response, Concerned Women of Fremont have proposed Wear a Hijab for the Day as an act of solidarity with Muslim women.

I salute their concern, and I think a public outcry is essential to show solidarity with veiled women. But “Wear a Hijab for the Day” sounds to me as though supporting women’s freedom of wardrobe choice has been confused with support for veiling women. Whether the confusion is due to the organizers’ political naivete or their political inclinations, I have no idea. But in our complicated world, the veil is a politically charged symbol.

Gone those days when I used to sit in my parents home in Tehran, in my miniskirt, next to my mom with her modest dress, my aunt and her head scarf and my grandmother and her chador. Three generations of women, who were united in respecting, tolerating and defending one another’s choice of outfit without even thinking politically.

Today, the veil is far from a personal choice – the veil has turned to a symbol of political significance that has many layers. For some women, the veil is a sign of religious devotion and asserting one’s Islamic identity; for others the veil is keeping up with a fashion trend. For Arab youths who are angry over the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the veil is a silent protest against their governments’ collaboration with Washington.

The veil also is at the crux of cultural clashes and East-West tension. Wear the veil in the West and it can easily be read as a public statement of devotion to traditional reading of Islam, and provoke fear that Islamic fundamentalism may seep into the West. Remove the veil in the east and you are importing corrupted Western values!

It should come to us as no surprise then that the veil has become a permanent topic in the news. Yesterday, Australia's most senior Islamic cleric described immodestly dressed women without headscarves as “uncovered meat” inviting sexual attack -- while the Iran women's karate team boycotts the veil ban. Last Friday, Judge Paul Paruk, in Hamtramck District Court, told Jina Muhammad to take off her niqab -- a scarf and veil, which covers her face and head except for her eyes -- or he would dismiss her case. The judge said he needed to see her face so he could judge her truthfulness.

In Britain a debate over the veil was set off earlier this month when Jack Straw – the former foreign secretary, said Islamic women visiting his office should remove their veils, while an Islamic teaching assistant in Northern England was suspended from her job for refusing to remove a black veil that left only her eyes visible. Last year, when France banned the veil in schools, Muslims around the world poured into the streets in protest. But in Egypt, the nation's most powerful cleric scandalized his followers by preaching in favor of France's banning of the veil.

Meanwhile, cultural interpretation of sharia law in Islamic countries determines whether women wear the veil or not. In some Muslim countries such as Saudi and Iran, women including visitors must wear veil in public. Yet, in Turkey and Tunisia, hijab is banned from public schools and offices, and veiled women are ridiculed and abused.

What are missing from this political debate are the voices of women and the very personal nature of each woman's decision to cover--or bare--her hair and the emotional and complex consequences that she has to face once she has made a choice. Women choose the veil in different stages of their life and for very different reasons. Some chose to convert to Islam and wear the veil; others are born Muslim and have never experienced the public life without veil.

For some women it is a choice, for others it is enforced. Some find comfort in the veil, for others it is a means to have greater choices. For some the veil liberates; for others it limits.

No matter what a woman’s reasons or the outcome, I think democratic societies have only one way to go: To support, respect and tolerate a woman’s choice. As for the public outcry on Nov 13th, and “Wear a Hajib for the Day,” I too am outraged with the murder of an innocent woman. Regardless of whether it was a hate crime or not, a public out cry in support of veiled women is a right thing to do.

But I also wish to see an eclectic mix of men and women wearing what truly reflects their own choice of outfit supporting women’s basic human right to decide and choose what they wear for themselves. By doing so, these people would demonstrate that -- no matter what their faith, gender or political belief -- they support a woman’s freedom to choose how, whether and when she veils.

Contributing editor Pari Esfandiari is the editor of http://irandokht.com

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