Elevate Difference

Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women

We are not [wo] men for whom it is a question of either-or. For us, the problem is not to make a utopian and sterile attempt to repeat the past, but go beyond it. _ — Aime Cesaire, _Discourse on Colonialism

These are the words that begin the autobiographical journey Questioning the Veil, where Marnia Lazreg, an Algerian-American professor of sociology at the City University of New York, touches on one of the most sensitive strings of Islam, the hijab.

Is veiling mandatory for all Muslim women or is it a cultural, political, or a social practice? Lazreg presents her research in the form of a collection of letters, where each letter analyzes interviews with several Muslim women combined with Lazreg’s personal experiences growing up in a Muslim family. From modesty and sexual harassment to cultural identity, Lazreg distills the very many explanations used in adorning the veil to deconstruct its religious substantiation.

Lazreg further analyzes modesty and its association with the veiling practice. She poses questions: if modesty is a prime explanation given for wearing the veil, would a woman who does not wear a veil, but dresses conservatively be considered immodest? Similarly, what if a woman wears the veil, but is immodest in her mannerisms. As more and more prepubescent girls are being made to wear the veil based on the notion of modesty, Lazreg points out some of the mind-boggling questions that had disturbed her back in the days when she was coerced to adorn the veil upon reaching puberty.

As a child, Lazreg often questioned the partial adoption of the veil amongst the global Muslim women. As she grew older and sexual harassment was revealed to be another factor leading to the hijab, she often questioned the men who continued to harass women wrapped up in hijabs.

From the ‘reveiling’ trend in the West to the imposition of veiling laws in Islamic countries, Lazreg reveals how coercion more often than choice or faith ultimately results in veiling. Yet, using the veil to strike against anti-Muslim prejudice in the West or rejuvenate the Muslim civilization is not a means to women’s liberation. Ultimately, Lazreg’s research depicts how the practice of veiling is constructed out of reasons external to what a Muslim woman really wants to do. Until states mandate veiling by law, as in the Islamic Republic of Iran, or prohibit veiling by law, as in France, Muslim women will never realize the meaning of autonomy and choice. Their human rights will remain marginalized.

Wearing the veil is not the triumph of Islam over its detractors. At the present historical conjuncture, it degrades Islam to the level of a creed and impoverishes its humanistic import. This is time for women to free themselves of it and by the same token free men, too.

Cross-posted with Gender Across Borders

Written by: Maria Khan, October 17th 2009