The Veil

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Why are modern Muslim women adopting the veil, hijab or turban even when their mothers did not wear it? How does veiling shape the identity of these Muslim women? Is such voluntary modern veiling necessarily more oppressive than the pressure Western women are under to always dress up, look good, feminine and desirable as they walk out of their front doors? Discuss with reference to literature on Muslim women in Western minority situations and/or in predominantly Muslim countries. Refer to essential and further readings for weeks 8, and 9 in the Reader. The full reading list is also placed on MyLO in a folder titled Study Guide.

Throughout much of Western Europe, the United States and to some degree Australia, there exists a passionate dispute, a dispute which, remarkably orientates around the subject of women’s clothing. At first glance it is difficult to believe that what appears such an inconsequential matter of attire could bring about such unrest and political debate, nether the less this deeply polarised issue has managed to divide communities, activate policy-makers, engage religious leaders and send an uncomfortable schism throughout feminist ideologues. For the purpose of this essay I will use the word ‘veil’ rather than ‘Hijab, Turban, Burqa or Niqab, since the arguments are in effect about displays of bodily coverings: Where needed there will be an indication of specific coverings. The veil has ignited a quandary which all too often poses more questions than answers. Answers will be given however to the subject of why modern Muslim women in Western minority situations are willingly adopting the veil, even when their mothers did not wear it, and how veiling inevitably shapes the identity of these Muslim women. This paper will argue that such voluntary modern veiling is more about expression than oppression, in addition it will be asserted that the veil represents a liberating and agentic symbol standing in defiance of a majority status that simultaneously presents an alternative to some Western forms of women’s clothing, often considered to be equally oppressive to women. By means of attaining these perspectives, sociological theories from Goffman and Bourdieu will be employed in addition to those views held by academics and professionals from the social and anthropologist and gender disciplines.

As Islam becomes more prolific within Western nations, cultural symbols and religious indicators are increasingly forcing the Christian and secular majorities within those countries to become more aware of their presence, this new consciousness of the mainstream culture has prompted a reaction. Although there are a plethora of religious symbols that indicate a growth in the Muslim religion, it has predominantly been Women that have born the brunt of much of their castigation. Veiled women have been legislated against, as in France (Scott 2007:1), a phenomenon rapidly replicated by a number of other European nations, Muslim women are also recurrently maligned in public by members of government and social commentators , for example, the ex-Home Secretary of the UK, Jack Straw suggested that women who wear veils or cover their faces “inhibit inter-community relations” (Scott 2007:3,BBC 2006, May 10). Even in Australia’s traditionally tolerant society prominent feminist and writer Virginia Haussegger has begun the discourse by calling for an outright ban on the Burka in public, claiming the garment constitutes a ‘War on Women’ (Haussegger 2010, May 21) .There should be no denying that in certain circumstances such clothing undoubtedly indicates oppression and subjugation, Dr. Qanta Ahmed account of ‘veiled’ women in Saudi Arabia tells of an domineering patriarchy bearing down on the lives of women (Ahmed 2008). Other such ‘survivor narratives’ as described by Professor Claudia Koonz are widespread on European book shops (Koonz 2009) , Koonz argues these accounts have undoubtedly helped to shape the...
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