The invisible power of piety wearing stilettos

November 2, 2006

The veil conceals but reveals, restricts but liberates. Meena Dhanda peers beneath the layers of meaning.

A figure in black walks by with an armload of books. I turn around to say hello. It is my student, Mumtaz. She stops. We exchange pleasantries. I ask if she will be able to attend the evening class. She smiles and says "Yes"; since I called her father he is convinced that attending classes is important and it is quite safe to do so in the evening. Mumtaz walks away. My colleague, quietly listening to the conversation, says: "They have so little freedom, don't they. I bet if she weren't forced to, she wouldn't wear that black cloak."

I'm not surprised by her response. It is a mixture of instinctive judgment and implicit sympathy.

I am not sure where to begin deconstructing the veil. Surely it is a piece of clothing, and perhaps also a screening device. Is it a mode of concealment? It conceals but also reveals one's faith and in a shallow liberal culture opens one to attack for espousing that faith. Once nuns were attacked for wearing the habit; now it is ordinary Muslim women.

It may be better understood as a means of seclusion from the rampant materialism of a hypercommercial culture. It is in this sense that some find it liberating. It frees one from the need to doll up if one follows the spirit of the injunction to dress modestly.

However, not all women who wear the hijab/jilbab/niqab do so in earnest.

The rich Middle Eastern women who frequent Harrods and order straight from the catwalk use the jilbab only to keep the dirt off their expensive suits.

Besides, it allows them the cover to dress outlandishly underneath. They've adapted. So what if in Saudi Arabia they cannot drive or vote; as long as they can accessorise with Gina stilettos and Bottega Veneta ostrich-skin weekend bags they are expressing their individuality, aren't they?

My students from middle and working-class backgrounds would disagree.

Once, in my class, a young Muslim woman gave a spirited defence of fasting as a means of identifying with the plight of those who do not have enough to eat. A self-proclaimed Marxist student tried to shout her down with accusations of backwardness. I admired the composure of the young woman.

She was not covered in the hijab, but dressed indistinguishably from many young women her age. I wonder what the discussion might have been today.

A brief survey in my class of 25 students showed that all had privately discussed the current controversy over a teacher's veiling. However, many did not feel confident enough to talk about it in public. Although on the whole they found the classroom a secure environment for debate, many would hesitate to express their misgivings about the veil for fear of offending the religious sentiments of those who wear it. Only some students believed rightly that the veil was not a direct requirement of the Muslim faith.

Others pleaded ignorance or assumed that veiling was a requirement for the pious.

These are well-intentioned students who want to be able to live co-operatively in a tolerant environment. To sustain such an ethos, the diverse ways in which Muslims live, like any other collective, need to be highlighted. The irritation with veiling has to be addressed.

Sometimes it is born of ignorance, other times because a past struggle to resist demands to wear the veil makes resurgence of the issue uncomfortable. We need to make it easier, not harder, for Muslim women to carry on their struggles to veil or not to veil. Charges of backwardness or idiocy are usually thought-stoppers and must be resisted.

Instead, we need to remind ourselves of the complex and self-interested motives of those who steer political debate. Who profits from the equation of the veil with the Muslim faith, and in what ways?

Remember the colonial zeal of Lord Cromer, who took it upon himself to "free" Egyptian women of the veil in the 19th century and was a founding member of the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage.

Lest my plea for a nuanced understanding be misread as a defence of those who wear the full veil, I should hasten to add that adoption of a sign of identity as a means to resist dominant values such as crass materialism and the myth of visibility and transparency can succeed only if the veiled ones know what to do with the power one can get from seeing without being seen.

At some historical junctures they did. I'm not sure they do now.

Meena Dhanda is co-ordinator of philosophy at Wolverhampton University.

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