x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The veil: a declaration of independence

For many Muslim women, the veil is a way of seizing control of their bodies, reclaiming them from outside influences and outside ideas, while also serving as a metaphor for resisting foreign domination of their countries and forging their own destinies.

A hijab-wearing woman walks past a mural symbolising protesters wounded in clashes with security forces in Cairo. Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters
A hijab-wearing woman walks past a mural symbolising protesters wounded in clashes with security forces in Cairo. Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

In a video making the rounds on social networking sites, a waggish Egyptian filmmaker has juxtaposed images of Egypt's uprising with Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution that ousted Syrian forces from the country.

The images from Egypt are familiar: men and women in Tahrir Square being attacked by security forces, demonstrations of tens of thousands of people. In particular, women in hijab are featured, serious faces calling for serious change. These images are contrasted with images of Lebanese women, unveiled and often partially unclothed, smiling and laughing for change. "Damn our bad luck," the film quips.

The joke speaks to a stereotype, in the Arab world as elsewhere, of women in hijab as serious and devout, while unveiled Arabs are seen as free-spirited, sexy and - indeed - modern. The stereotype speaks to a fear and a question that has often arisen in discussions about the Middle East, but has gained an added piquancy as the Arab Spring has swept the region.

The fear is that a democratic Middle East would bring to power Islamist governments that might push socially conservative policies. Interestingly, the great fear of western governments in this regard is also the fear of liberal and secular Arabs: that Islamist governments would be more responsive to the beliefs of their citizens and thus that a more conservative society would emerge. The fear of Islamists among Arabs is not that they might change the economy or foreign policy, but that they might change society, making it more socially conservative. The symbol of that conservatism is the veil.

The veil is everywhere in the Arab world. In almost every country in the region, a significant minority, sometimes even a majority, of women, wear some version of the head-covering. Yet it wasn't always thus. The rise of the veil is one of the most intriguing facets of modern Arab life. How did this rise come about and what does it mean for the modern Middle East?

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In A Quiet Revolution, the author and academic Leila Ahmed sets as her task discovering an answer to this question. Ahmed, a professor of divinity at Harvard, grew up in Cairo in the 1940s, when the sight of women wearing the hijab, the scarf that covers the hair but leaves the face uncovered, was rare, let alone the sight of women wearing the full face veil.

For Ahmed, as for her parents' generation across the republics of the Arab world at the time, the hijab was on the way out, part of an outdated mode of dress. Yet the exact opposite occurred: across the Arab and Muslim world through the 1970s and 1980s, the wearing of the hijab made a comeback, to the extent that today in the Arab world a majority of women again wear the headscarf or face-veil.

The wearing of the hijab has transcended social class, transcended even religious devotion. It has become an extraordinary social movement, a visible sea-change. And it has spread to the West. Ahmed notes her surprise, even shock, at seeing young, well-educated women across America reclaiming the headscarf, often to the anguish of their parents. The same trend can be seen in Western Europe today.

How and why that happened is the subject of Ahmed's detailed, clearly written book. The history of this piece of cloth proves extremely complicated, a weaving together of many complex threads. Her analysis is hard to disagree with, although not necessarily palatable.

Ahmed starts where so much of the commentary about this subject starts, in the Arab republics of the 1950s, countries where veiling was unusual, even socially frowned upon. Such was the trend against the veil that the great Middle Eastern historian Albert Hourani, then a young academic at Oxford, could write about the disappearing veil as if it were vanishing into history.

Ahmed unpicks the intellectual trends that led thinkers of the period to see the veil as part of the reason why Arab societies were not as technologically advanced as Europe. In that is an idea that still, even today, dominates thinking about the headscarf.

As Western European countries expanded and colonised huge parts of the globe, many societies came up against the technological superiority of Europe and keenly felt the contrast with their own ways of life. For these societies - in the Arab world, in Africa, in Asia - there was a natural tendency to wonder what it was about Western European society that had allowed those countries to invent and acquire such technology that they could so easily dismiss the militaries of so much of the globe.

They equated the answer with culture, something the European colonial powers encouraged. The culture of Europe, so the thinking ran, had created the military might of the West, and thus emulating European culture must be a path to progress. Qasim Amin, an Egyptian writer who wrote The Liberation of Women, one of the classic texts of Arab feminism, wrote: "Do Egyptians imagine ... [Europeans] could possibly fail to know the means of safeguarding woman and preserving her purity? Do they think that such a people would have abandoned veiling after it had been in use among them if they had seen any good in it?"

For the Arabs, or the Muslims more generally, this question had an added weight, due to the Middle East's proximity to Europe, and to the fact that for so long - for hundreds and hundreds of years - large swathes of Europe were under Arab and Muslim rule. Moreover, that Islamic culture so valued learning and science and that many of the texts that underpinned the European Renaissance only came to light through Arabic translations made Arabs feel their civilisations were instinctively more developed.

Thus it was a shock to find, beginning in 1799 when Napoleon invaded Egypt, that the lands of the Arabs were unable to repel their European neighbours. Cultures that had produced such technology must also be more developed (so went the thinking) and thus the trend - replicated around the world - to emulate the West began, accelerating once Britain took control of Egypt. Unveiling became an essential part of modernity.

That intellectual idea - which Ahmed shows is still alive - posited modernity as a continuum, a road on which unveiling was an essential milestone.

Implicit in the idea of modernity as something that was better represented abroad, in Europe, was the idea of tutelage, that, not simply in technology but in culture, the Arab world (and elsewhere) had much to learn from emulating Europe.

While that idea was common at the start of the 20th century, it began to lose traction as the history of the region in the last century was written. Modern thinking recognises that modernity isn't exclusive to any part of the world, but even were that the case, the history of the European powers in the Middle East wasn't static. It wasn't benign. The European powers were not in the region to bring modernity; they were there to take resources.

Thus even while, speaking broadly, Arab societies were changing themselves in complex ways to adjust to the new reality of outside powers, those outside powers were working to change Arab countries to better serve their interests.

This background of political interference is an integral part of the veil story in the 20th century. Because the idea of modernity as better represented elsewhere gradually collapsed in the Arab world from the 1970s onwards.

To understand why, it is important to look at the history of the region during that time, a turbulent era when the region's vital strategic importance meant it became part of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union.

Simultaneously nervous about the ambitions of the Arabs to maintain their independence and concerned about Soviet influence in the region, throughout the 1950s and 1960s the United States and France supplied Israel with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military equipment, much of it funnelled to the country in secret. Thus in the summer of 1967, when Israel launched an attack on Egypt, the armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan found themselves retaliating against a vastly superior military force. The use of the "oil weapon" by Arab governments in the early 1970s so rocked the economic stability of the world, that the West began to pour money and military might into maintaining "stability" in the region at all costs.

The turn against unveiling as a symbol of modernity, and the idea of modernity as something better represented elsewhere, began to break down with every interference in the region. The influence of the outside world, seen in western political, financial and military support for Israel and for Arab dictators, the constant use of western military power against Arab citizens, began to seem pernicious. Better to look within Arab culture for answers, for strength to resist this encroachment.

This turn reached its height in the 1970s, as religious organisations began to come to the fore in political thinking, partly as a consequence of Arab countries clamping down so much on political activism that the mosques were the only place for citizens to gather.

What begins to change in that decade is the idea that identities, and markers of identity like the veil, can come from outside. And it changes precisely because the outside had been so detrimental to the Arab world.

At the same time, there was a personal turn, fed by organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood that used religious justifications for political action, for Muslims to look "within themselves" for answers, to be - to coin a phrase from another region - the change they wanted to see in the world. For the Brotherhood and groups like them, being a good Muslim was inseparable from doing good in the world. It was not a private conception of faith, but a very public one. Muslims not only had to take control of their own lives, but also had to try to take control of the communities around them, offering charity and doing good works. And they needed to dress like Muslims, hence the veil.

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Much of that can seem very abstract, but there were real, concrete implications. What is often missing from discussion of the veil is how individual women negotiated their identity and their decision to veil in light of these wider political trends. As the conception of the veil changed in the Arab world, so a whole generation of women changed their relationship with it. For many, many women in these countries veiling does not represent the return to something of the past, but a continuation of some essential part of Arab culture. The whole notion of viewing the veil as a regressive rather than progressive force changed.

Indeed, the same ideas that were driving the resurgence of the veil were those that had driven the feminist movements of the 1960s in the West. Feminists had sought to reclaim the bodies of women, to reclaim them from the way they were packaged and consumed in mass popular culture. The feminist gestures of bra burning and not shaving legs were symbols of a refusal to believe in a consumerist version of femininity. Western feminists had sought to change the conventions that bound how their bodies were perceived.

Yet while those ideas have largely vanished from western feminism - this is a time of third-wave feminism, when sex work and lap dancing are seen as empowering - they survive among Muslim women, in Islamic countries and in the West.

For a whole generation of young women, wearing the veil became a way of asserting control over their own bodies, an idea almost inconceivable to the liberal secular Arabs of their parents' generation.

It also spoke of a greater wish for Arabs and Muslims to assert themselves, both in their own communities and in their own countries. As Arab states stagnated under military control and were unable to provide many of their citizens with basic services, Islamic movements stepped in.

In international relations, it was Islamic movements that sought to repel outside influences, often with significant numbers of women in headscarves. When Hizbollah expelled Israeli forces from south Lebanon, their victory rallies featured many women, most of them veiled. The veil took on new meanings.

If there is one thing the veil has come to represent in the modern world, it is independence. It is a way of seizing control of your own body, reclaiming control of it from outside influence and outside ideas. The veil also represents a larger independence, independence from foreign control over countries, an inherently political pathway, a metaphor for the reality of countries shaking off outside domination and controlling their own future. And, for many women in the West, it represents independence from a western narrative of Islam, a narrative of difference and even violence, as symbolised by the veil.

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The question of the veil seems like a small question, but in fact it goes to the heart of the modern Middle East, the heart of what these societies will look like, what they will be. The question is of the moral underpinnings that these societies will have. Questions of power and politics so often preoccupy the Middle East, questions that are often philosophically uncomplicated.

The question of the veil goes beyond this. The veil is a symptom of a wider debate about the philosophical foundations of the Arab world. It is about the proper role of faith, of religion, in public and private life.

Politically, the veil matters too: what might be called the "project of the veil", the way the veil is used in public to promote, or be seen to promote, particular political views. Naturally this is mainly part of the Islamist movement, but the veil has a symbiotic relationship with the Islamist movement. The idea of Islamism is one of activism in the cause of Islam - it is not a private view of faith, but a view of faith that encourages political action. Islamist movements have encouraged the veil as a way of increasing their influence in the society. But it also works the other way: many women decide to wear the veil because they come to believe a worldview that sees faith not solely as something private. This worldview doesn't necessarily come from a particular political movement, though it may lead to one.

At the same time, the veil is not just a symbol of these wider conflicts, it is a question in its own right, a private question. For millions of women, it is a live question. They negotiate their own reactions to the veil, to whether they are ready to veil, to what people will think of them if they veil. It goes to the core of how they perceive themselves and how they feel others perceive them. This negotiation is part of both the public and private spheres.

This is why the question of the veil is complex. It raises questions philosophically, politically and personally. It is influenced by events in the outside world. The veil is elusive, recurring, a symbol of private matters made public and public matters made private. What is most amazing is how many threads of history it has taken to weave together this most complex of cloths.

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National.

falyafai@thenational.ae