The veil: emancipation and liberation

Understanding the veil means looking at its historical context, as both symbol of oppression, and symbol of resistance. 

Tony McKenna
29 November 2013

The question of the face veil or the full body veil in the twenty-first century is a particularly vexed one. It is inexorably bound to issues of female emancipation – but also to notions of religious and cultural identity more generally; notions which are in a state of historical flux and can attain multifarious political meanings therein. 

The Iranian state regime under Reza Shah, for instance, as part of a broader attempt to modernize, made the wearing of the veil illegal. Many women in Iran then took to wearing it anyway – and suffered physical violence and state repression as a result. Their intransigence was not only designed to reassert traditional religious values however – but also to register a protest at an enforced modernisation enacted from above by a ruler who had taken power in a British sponsored coup. A ruler who had opened up the country, and Iranian oil in particular - to exploitation by foreign and especially British capital; the latter retaining a military presence in the south of the country for several years. At this point, therefore, along with traditional and more backward ideological elements, the veil became a focal point for a sharp set of radical anti-imperialist sensibilities also. 

A similar but more general tendency can be observed in the strata of students from Islamic countries in the Levant, North Africa and parts of western Asia. A surfeit of qualified students would often be unable to find positions in the higher echelons of the state and academic apparatus at home - or abroad where they tended to be monopolised by their western counterparts. Positions available to them in the large European universities were limited and marginal – and this was sometimes supplemented by a corresponding ideological atmosphere which had come to emphasise ‘western civilisation’ at the expense of ‘eastern primitiveness’. The wearing of the veil in such a context, even among more secular female university students, would often attain a symbolic resonance expressing pride in one’s origins and defiance in the face of an increasingly racialised wall of disdain.     

In the case of out and out imperial conquest and war, the veil could become a potent symbol of resistance and a statement of freedom and independence – as in the example of Algeria where it came to express unswerving resistance to French colonial rule.  In other contexts, of course, the veil has acted as a symbol and expression of repression; specifically the repression of women by men, and the exclusion of women from the public sphere and the possibility of full self-determination.  Iranian women, for instance, who had donned the veil in the twenties as a way to protest against the Shah, removed it now in order to protest against the more fundamentalist and sexist prescriptions of the Ayatollah Khomeini who, among other things, had made the covering of women compulsory. 

But perhaps the most interesting example is that of Russia post Bolshevik revolution. In its youthful phase, the right to practise religion on the part of minorities was inscribed into the politics of the revolution providing, of course, it didn’t interfere with the secular framework which facilitated national and supra-national politics.  So, for instance, in 1917 an all-Russian Congress of Muslims was held in Moscow which involved 1000 delegates, some 20 per cent of whom were women.  Among other things this congress voted for equality of political rights for women including the end of polygamy and enforced separation between the sexes in the public sphere. Sharia courts also received funding in several central Asian countries – with the proviso that these courts could not vitiate transnational statutes, like a woman’s right to divorce, which would be overseen by revolution committees.  Women could wear veils if they so wished. 

But Russia after the civil war had a devastated economy. The ability to provide the economic benefits necessary to undertake female emancipation in the political sphere – like paid maternity leave, for instance – was damaged, compounded as it had been by higher levels of underemployment more generally.  As a consequence, women found themselves more and more pushed back into the home and the form of the traditional family unit was increasingly revived. In the places where veiling had been a traditional practise in the past it came back into vogue, alongside a broader attack on many of the women's rights that had been so recently won.  In such a context, the fundamentalist rationale for the veil, of protecting the ‘modesty’ of the woman, and in the guise of such paternalism, restrict and separate her from the larger community by literally veiling her appearance in the public sphere, reasserted itself. But it is worth noting only because the concrete historical conditions had shifted denying women access to the work place, and the broader society thereby, at a foundational level.            

At around the same time the newly consolidated Stalinist regime – in the guise of supporting women’s rights began a ruthless campaign against Islam; an assault (Hujum) which would culminate in the late 20s with various repressive measures including the ban of the veil in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. The Stalinist affirmation of women’s rights was a red herring; the true nature of the policy was to consolidate the power of empire very much in the Great Russian tradition of old – and once more, the repression of nationalist identities transfigured the symbolic meaning of the veil; once again women began to wear it – and were persecuted for doing so – as a means to signify resistance and their right to self-determination under the looming shadow of empire. 

The Russian example and the Algerian one are hues of the same colour; an imperial power seeking to impose colonial control on a satellite state/s but articulating the act of conquest and domination in the language of liberation and women’s rights by reference to revolutionary tradition more broadly – 1917 in the case of the Russians, 1789 in the case of the French. In both cases the symbolic value of the veil becomes galvanized; it becomes a symbol of resistance and freedom – albeit a paradoxical one in as much as the wearing of it could simultaneously enforce certain entrenched patriarchal-religious notions of the need for the separation of the sexes to the detriment of women. 

From these specific examples of Russian and French colonialism we might extrapolate two facts. Firstly, the demand for the banning of the veil cannot be detached from the socio-historical context in which it is made. A recent survey suggests that 80% of Britons are in favour of the ban on full face veils, and in France it has already been brought into force – but these phenomena should be understood in the broader context of the more than a decade long intensification of western military activity in the Middle-East and surrounding territories; the on-going attempt to impose imperial power to better secure access to and control over oil rich terrains.

The endeavour to ban the veil follows the logic of the colonialisms of yore; it is part and parcel of the ideological attempt to demonise the victims of imperial intervention as inherently primitive and sinister; to allow the murderous military force levelled against them to present as a justified and necessary measure in which bombs and bullets facilitate a flowering of ‘civilisation’.  Christopher Hitchens, for instance - one of the most eloquent proponents of such fatal logic - would describe modern day Afghanistan as a place which was easy to fall in love with because - as a result of western intervention - ‘bombing has blasted a society out of the Stone Age’.

Secondly, the attempt to repress the veil tends to engender its opposite, allowing it to become a powerful symbol of national or ethnic identity and resistance. There will always be a clear ontological contradiction inherent in this type of prohibition.  If someone wears the veil of their own volition - even if it has certain patriarchal connotations which are designed to emphasise female passivity and exclusion; tearing the veil from their face will not and cannot remove or annul those connotations. Freedom, by definition, is not something which can be imposed; it has to be struggled for and won through in the context of the life and active participation of the person who seeks it. 

Women who wear the veil and do so because they genuinely feel they do not fully belong in the public sphere alongside men shaping the economic and political destiny of their world – who feel they should linger in the sheltered ‘safe’ environs of domestic life; these sensibilities can only be altered in and through the opening up of the labour market and the public sphere to women and their participation there in practise. One might note that for this reason the struggle of workers and the struggle for true women’s liberation will always, and of necessity, remain conjoined. It is above all, a struggle which must come from below for liberation can’t be handed down or imposed. It is called into being by the very act of fighting for it.  



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