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Behind What Veil? Muslim Female Dress and its Critics

July 14, 2010

Photo by Kitty Clark-Fritz for the NYT

Despite a title that makes skins crawl among Muslim women the world around, The New York Times’ “Behind the Veil” article published a few weeks ago was a welcome relief from the usual sensationalist and mystery-clad coverage of veiled women. In a funny, inspiring and down-to-earth fashion, Lorraine Ali recounted the stories of two niqabi (face-veiled) American Muslim women; why they decided to adopt this dress, how it affects their life in Albuquerque, NM, and what this choice means to them.

The article sparked hundreds of comments from readers in America and abroad, unveiling some of these individuals’ stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslim female dress, as well as an inability –or refusal- to hear about the meanings of the veil from those who actually wear it. Nancy from the USA is a case in point. She wrote, “The message this sends to women is be invisible, be subservient, be asexual. As an atheist and a feminist, I find it repugnant that any woman would hide behind a dozen yards of cloth to please a nonexistent God.”

Though most obviously applicable to the face veil, the critique of ‘invisibility,’ is commonly associated with the Muslim veil in general. Muslims believe, the trope goes, that withdrawal from society is necessary because this is “impure, corrupted and dangerous.” However, this astonishingly simplistic claim ignores that Muslims’ opinions about the societies in which we live are as diverse as these societies themselves, be it in China, Senegal, Egypt or Ecuador. In America, veiled Muslim teachers, lawyers, doctors, academics, etc., send a clear message: behavior, not clothing, determines social invisibility.

So if not to hide from society, why do Muslim women veil? Ascribing motives is a tricky business, and the question itself is worth a pause. Unlike what seems the norm in secular liberal spaces, for many veiled women this dress isn’t a puzzling matter, nor is it on our top ten issues of concern. When asked ad infinitum about the veil, many of us wish to say, ‘the veil is what it is, can we talk about female education, world poverty, social inequality, military occupation, anything but this dozen yards of cloth?’

Yet, fixation on the veil remains a fact, and questions are asked. Many individual women, as the ones in the NYT piece, explain that the choice to veil stems from a desire to submit to God. This being the case, Nancy almost got it right about subservience. To God, though, not men. To those who think Islam is an evil male hoax designed to subjugate women, the distinction between subservience to God and subservience to men may be illusory. Yet to those of us who choose to believe in Islam, and find solace and comfort in it, the conflation of two is meaningless.

Nancy also mentions repugnance in her comment, and this feeling is not uncommon. Many veiled women have seen our dress inspire a visceral reaction in people who believe it goes against their core beliefs and values. Behind these feelings often lies a fear of the unknown or an incapacity to relate to a different worldview. Hence, the fulfillment Muslim women feel under those dozen yards of cloth is unimaginable, their place uninhabitable.

While this repugnance may be harmless if kept under check, it is hardly conducive to feminist sisterhood (which Nancy the feminist may wish to care about) or to societal harmony. Hence, a first step to get rid of it is to dismiss once and for all the ill-conceived notion of universality of desire; Not all women find fulfillment and happiness in the same life choices. A woman may actually find happiness under a dozen yards of cloth, seeking to please a God Nancy as an atheist believes non-existent. A second step is not to insult each other’s intelligence. Muslim women have not been brainwashed into Islam, nor are we waiting for anyone’s help to awaken from our supposed “false-consciousness”. Islam is our informed choice.

So is this informed choice the case for every Muslim woman? A recurrent critique of articles that focus on empowered Muslim western women is that “while women in the West have the freedom to veil, one should not forget that in Saudi Arabia…etc…” But who is forgetting? It is perfectly legitimate to speak about an American Muslim reality independently of the experience of frustrated veiled women in Iran (forced to veil), or frustrated unveiled women in Turkey, France, etc. (forced to unveil) (though people are usually not equally interested in the latter).

Experiences vary across countries, and it is ludicrous to insist someone must tie all these experiences together, unless she has offered to provide a comparative study of Muslim women across the world. It is similarly ludicrous to ask Muslim Western women to apologize for the misguided policies of Middle Eastern regimes they have no relation to whatsoever. This analytical mishap is the direct product of some people’s incapacity, unwillingness, or flat-out refusal to accept Western Muslims as Western. Hence the insistence on tying their Western experience to Middle Eastern regimes.

As Tom from Virginia comments about the veiled women in the NYT piece, “They can dress as their conscience allows in our country, but we can’t dress as our conscience allows in their country.” Except, of course, Tom forgets “their” country and “his” country happen to be one and the same.

Janan Delgado is an Ecuadorian Muslim woman, with a B.A in Political Science from the American University in Cairo, and an M.A in Near Eastern Studies from New York University. Born and raised in Quito, Janan moved to Cairo at age 18, where she lived for five and a half years. Currently she resides in NYC.

  1. July 14, 2010 11:16 am

    Great post. Even if you want to look at the issue globally, it always boggles my mind how people will say that they have to ‘liberate’ the ‘poor’ women of some Muslim country or another where they are forced to wear a veil, they aren’t even given a choice! And then be against giving that same choice in their own country.

    Either you are for a woman’s right to choose, or you are against it. As a feminist how can I try to limit what someone else wants to wear? As long as a woman is making her own choice, then I applaud it and think that she should not face discrimination for it.

  2. Barbara Raye permalink
    July 14, 2010 3:06 pm

    Thank you for the post. I appreciate the challenge to Nancy’s comments but want to say that her absoluteness is not at the heart of most of the questions. I think the issue for non-Muslim, progressive, Western women is the visceral memory of our own struggles to gain freedom of choice, dress, life style, and civil rights in this country. The reaction to the “veil” isn’t so much a symbol of bigotry against Islam, but a reminder of our own struggles.

    That doesn’t release us from the obligation to see differences as okay and choices as rights and adherence to religious/cultural traditions as freedom. But it might better explain the reactions. We wonder if the hard won (and still limited) freedoms we have in this country (and around the world) – domestic abuse, sexual accusation/assumptions, marriage as property, workplace discrimination and harassment, voting rights, freedom of movement, leadership opportunities, job/career options, education equity, property rights, credit/economic autonomy, and more can be harmed by a desire – expressed by women – to be subservient, to cover, to choose roles (that in the Jewish/Christian heritage) were indeed controlled and defined by men. Women’s voices have even been systematically and consciously removed from the books of faith, church leadership, and historical memory of our own faiths. That is our reality.

    The questions of the veil are about us – our fears – our hopes – our struggles – and our own experiences of invisibility. They demonstrate the fragility of women’s equality here and worldwide. We worry even that it is threatened by a few yards of cloth! The sad experience is that it has been threatened in the past by things that seemed harmless or solitary but turned into systematic oppression.

    I think we might worry too much – especially among each other. The challenge to women’s freedom is not generally from other women. I embrace the choice of Western Muslim women to veil as a free choice for them. And ask them to understand that the symbol of the veil has different meaning for us than for them and we might need to have a few more discussions about it before we can universally publicly and with ease defend the collective range of choices about it. But that time will come.

    • Janan permalink
      July 21, 2010 7:29 am

      Thank you Barbara for your beautiful and inspiring comment. The idea that questions about the veil may be less about veiled women, and more about those who pose them, invites us (veiled women) to pause for a moment, and engage with the serious concerns you raise by leaving our defensiveness aside for a moment. I think this is possible when we recognize self-reflection, sincerity and humility (a prerequisite to engage with other peoples’ experiences), rather than plain discrimination and hostility towards our choices.

      This is a challenge I take seriously. I am new to feminism. It is only very recently that I have begun to learn that I, a Muslim woman, may have something to learn from it, and something to offer through it, and to it. For the longest time, I simply saw feminism as absolutely alien to my experience as a Muslim woman. I didn’t even understand why a separate movement for women was necessary. Growing up in a conservative Muslim household, my parents never discriminated between boys and girls, and I never felt that I had to fight for my rights as a ‘woman.’ The more I thought about it, the more I felt that Islam elevated my place as a woman, and protected my rights, so why seek out anything other than Islam?

      This is a very common feeling among practicing Muslim women. We feel empowered by Islam, protected, and fulfilled, so we turn our backs on something like feminism. We don’t feel we need it, and it seems to be the product of a somebody else’s experience. The secular western progressive female experience.

      I am not sure where I stand on all these issues now. I continue to feel empowered by Islam, and I derive comfort, peace, and solace from being a practicing Muslim woman. Yet, at the same time, I no longer see my religion and feminism as a whole as mutually exclusive. At least not the feminism that is open to alternative female experiences. Moreover, exposure to people like you reminds me what the feminism movement has meant for so many women, and as a Muslim woman who has to concern herself not only with her own well-being and the well-being of her coreligionists, but of all sisters in humanity, I feel I have to take this experience seriously, be humble, and learn.

  3. July 14, 2010 4:10 pm

    I really couldn’t care less about why someone would or would not want to wear a veil. My problem is with security issues, and religious freedom to break a law (its illegal to conceal ones identity in public).
    If we are going to allow people the right to cover their face for religion then we have to make it legal to wear any mask a person may wish to wear.
    There are also a lot of other religious customs which could fall into this same problem…

    • Idris DW permalink
      July 18, 2010 11:43 am

      “its illegal to conceal ones identity in public”

      Thankfully, most of us don’t live in fascist dictatorships, so this is mostly untrue.

      Where the hell do you live?

  4. July 15, 2010 12:23 am

    By now, it should’ve become clear to most of us that the concepts of freedom, agency and choice that we have inherited from secular liberalism (and, by extension, liberal feminism) are simply not helping us understand the “problem” of the veil (and, by extension, the problem of “the Muslim woman”). We have clearly reached an impasse, as we fail to make sense of why anyone would ever “choose” to wear yards of cloth and make herself invisible. But, instead of honestly admitting this shortcoming and looking for a way out of the loop, it seems that we keep rehashing the same arguments over and over again. And that is unfortunate, because all we do is remain in our comfort zones, while the real problems continue to be overlooked and unaddressed.

    To say this is not to belittle those of us who can’t understand the veil. Rather, it is to invite ourselves to self-reflexive critcism precisely in order to find helpful modes of analysis and understanding. And that is what some scholars (notably Saba Mahmood, Judith Butler, Talal Asad, etc) have already begun to attempt: for example, by trying to understand the role of concepts like docility, subjection, etc in ordinary human life.

    But we need not even fully abandon the framework of classical liberalism to figure some of this out. Martha Nussbaum, in her recent article at NYT, breaks down each of the liberal arguments against the burqa/niqab, including the one that JB makes above. It’s a limited analysis, but of some worth nonetheless.

    On an aside: until recently, the burqa and the niqab were simply that: burqa and niqab. Their transformation and conflation into “the Muslim veil” or “Muslim female dress” is, I think, the result of several unfortunate processes, the consquences of which are not very good (and which include, to the dismay of the critics, the further reinforcement of the problematic idea that all Muslim women must veil). Something to think about.

    • July 15, 2010 3:50 pm

      I get what you’re saying. I think there is a some confusion about the burqa, niqab and the hijab. You’re correct all these things just became lumped together to mean “Muslim dress” or “Islamic dress”. People never really learned the difference.

      Also I think a lot of Western feminists fail to realize that when we make the assumption that these women are choosing to make themselves invisible and that they fail to realize perhaps they don’t feel invisible when they wear the, the hijab, burqa or niqab. Or even that these women don’t feel oppressed.

  5. July 18, 2010 10:45 am

    I think Janan is a brilliant writer and I am so excited that Gender Across Borders is featuring her relevant perspective on such an intriguing issue. I look forward to seeing more of her work on this site. Thank you!

  6. Alexis permalink
    July 20, 2010 10:46 am

    Interesting piece, but my experience with veiled children makes me extremely sceptical. While I am more than willing to believe that adult women can make such choices for themselves, it is clear that small children cannot. Yet such children live in my apartment building — not veiled, it is true, but scarved and swathed in layers and layers of clothing. I see the little girls sitting in the hot sun on the side of the swimming pool, while their brothers and fathers play in the water. Hard to believe that any little girl would freely choose that!

    In addition, professionally, I run into issues of competing rights. I have several hearing-impaired students, all of whom depend on lip-reading. They cannot participate in the discussion at the same time as the women with scarves over their mouths, as they cannot lip-read what they are saying. So they end up cut out of the discussion. This does not seem fair, but apparently one cannot ask these women to lower their scarves in order to accommodate the deaf students. It seems to me that in this case disability, which is not at all a choice, should trump religion, which definitively is a choice.

    • July 21, 2010 4:22 am

      Yes but we clothe children, don’t we? And most children want to run around in the buff. Keeping clothes on children can be a serious chore. Yet we cover them in cloth and make the choice for them but no one raises an eyebrow about that until the cloth ends up on the girls’ heads. What of Amish children with their kapps? Or Hutterite girls? They cover from a very young age as well but you don’t see anyone outlawing or protesting Christain head coverings. Er… yet.

      And plenty of girls freely choose not to engage in mixed bathing. Even a girl can understand and choose the beliefs of her religion. I don’t think we give children the respect they deserve: these wee creatures are incredibly smart, even if they cannot verbally communicate as well as adults. This boils down to the concept of “universality of desire”: All girls desire to have their heads uncovered and to engage in mixed swimming, etc. We as a society seem to have no problem with very young girls (like 3 years old!) being given sexy dolls to play with and sexy music to listen to and clothing with sexy slogans, mini-skirts, little girl thongs et. ~ a choice made by adults for them. But when it comes to adults choosing modesty we suddenly become frightented? Why the double standard?

      Our society claims on one hand that young girls can make informed choices and adopt beliefs about birth control, extra-marital sex, and abortions ~ but on the other hand or society balks at the idea of girls making informed choices about modest dress and head coverings, religious beliefs and mixed bathing. This doesn’t make any sense.

      As for the disability argument: sometimes discrimination is a necessity. We can’t always be 100% fair to every party. If a woman wants to veil her face then she needs to avoid applying for positions where lip-reading is a necessity. Rather then force her to unveil she should not be hired in the first place. Sorry but life’s not fair. We can’t accomodate everyone in every situation.

      • Janan permalink
        July 21, 2010 6:50 am

        Thank you Coffee C! (for your comment and for sharing this in your blog). These are precisely the double standards that bother so many Muslim women.

        Our appreciation of ‘choice’ is not questioned often enough. Girls who are taught by their parents to veil and love modesty from an early age are seen as coerced to veil, but when girls who are taught by popular culture to dress and act seductively (tiny bikinis, the ‘sexy’ dance moves they learn from age four or so, the ‘sexy’ poses they reproduce on facebook pictures, etc) then that is supposedly not coercion… It seems to me that either way we are being “educated” into a certain form of dress and behavior, and that we need to start getting a more nuanced view of free will.

  7. Sandra permalink
    July 20, 2010 11:04 am

    Great article, very eloquently written!

  8. July 21, 2010 4:11 am

    This is a fantastic article. I had to post about it on my blog. People just do NOT get it. There is a very serious case of tunnel vision going on with regards to modest dress of any kind.

    And now with the French government setting the state for draconian dress codes… they’ve opened Pandora’s Box. No one is thinking about the fact that hey, the Liberals might become weak and the Conservatives might become more powerful and then these laws can be used to *enforce* the veil onto women.

    Now how would Feminists, Athiests, and Liberals feel about that? We all see from the repeat of history that more often then not, what comes around goes around…

    And yet people totally fail to see this.

  9. Jodi Lustig permalink
    July 22, 2010 12:42 pm

    I thought both the original NYT article and this response were fascinating, but I still feel like we tiptoe around some of the stickier issues in the name of good sisterhood. I have no doubt that Muslim women are as tired of discussing the veil as American feminists of a certain age grew tired of having any discussion of feminism reduced to “What if I want to shave my legs?”

    But it does seem relevant to me that feminists of all stripes acknowledge that the only Muslims wearing or not wearing veils are women. True, Modest Muslim men may show their subservience to Allah by wearing various headcoverings, but it is their head that is covered–their hair and its exposure just doesn’t seem to be an issue in the way it is for Muslim women. Modest Muslim men can wear yards of cloth that cover their bodies from neck to toe–or not–but again, is there any urgency at all to leave only their eyes uncovered?

    Of course it’s too simplistic to insist that men and women have to be treated exactly the same way in all things religious or cultural. (It might be nice in theory but life isn’t lived in abstraction.) However, sometimes straight goose vs gander comparisons are an effective means of exposing what gender conceals.

    In this case, the gendered differences speak volumes as to what these particular clothing choices signify. Women may indeed be choosing to wear the veil in deference to their deity; but the customs they have adopted to display this deference have also been constructed to show deference to men. It is men who are tempted by women’s hair and faces, not Allah. Yes, I suppose traditionalists would argue that Allah was and is a man; but I have to think one of the reasons women like Janan say that a distinction between men and Allah is immaterial is because it is exactly the opposite–a very tangible difference that one must either ignore or more likely, chalk up to the inconsistencies and contradictions that everyone faces at one time or another when trying to live an authentic life without having to sacrifice all the comforts of community.

    We all make choices and compromises every day–men and women both–in an effort to be accepted, to feel like we’re connected to other people. And we all have our ways of rationalizing those choices. Not because we want to be willfully ignorant or delusional, but because we have to in order to get through the day with out losing our sanity.

    I absolutely understand why some Muslim women would like to “turn the page” and focus on less seemingly superficial issues. Saccharine as it seems, I’m sure all women, like all people, have more in common than we do not. But maybe it would help if we all acknowledged that there are choices all women make–from what we wear to how we speak to what we do with our lives–that accommodate one sexist ideal or another.

    Maybe one day Muslim women will look back to this time with the same bewilderment today’s Western women have towards women who wore corsets or three-foot-high hairdos. But that day isn’t today any more than today is the day that all American women decide they can live without make-up or figure-accentuating clothes.

    Doesn’t mean we can’t focus on other issues. But let’s not pretend that any of us live in a world of absolute free choice in a vaccuum either.

  10. Shahzadi permalink
    July 23, 2010 5:06 pm


    This post (and the ensuing comments) are quite productive and interesting to read. However, sharing this blog post (and I’m assuming others on your site) would be made much easier by adding a widget that posts and shares the article directly to various social networks. [It makes it easier for people at work to share articles with networks without actually having to go on Facebook, Twitter, Newsvine, etc.]

    Anyways, thank you for opening up the discourse on this subject and providing another unique view.

    • July 24, 2010 7:10 am

      Thank you for your comment, Shahzadi! Unfortunately we are unable to add a widget that posts/shares articles directly to social networks BUT we will be adding that by the end of the summer, so be on the lookout 🙂


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