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hen I was an innocent high school senior, I decided to go to a women’s college and major in women’s studies.

Little did I know how much that decision would irreparably damage my thinking. Because when I left college and entered the big bad world, I realized that many debates that had been settled in feminist literature a long time ago were frequently issues most people hadn’t even considered.

Take, for example, the issue of purdah (the Islamic tradition of modesty, also known as veiling, burqa or hijab).

In your typical introduction to women’s studies class, you might spend a few weeks (near the end of the semester) on “women of color.” If you’re lucky, one class period will be devoted to Islam and feminism. You’ll study a typical “liberal” feminist who criticizes the institution of purdah and asserts that it doesn’t allow women freedom. Then you’ll read the Muslim feminist who waxes lyrically about how she doesn’t have to worry about having abs of steel in time for bikini season. She then goes on to conclude that purdah is just fine, as long as it’s the choice of the woman herself.

At this point, everybody in the class is in solemn agreement: It’s not the fabric that’s the issue. It’s the coercion. No one should have to wear either a hijab or a bikini if she doesn’t want to. Class dismissed.

There are many, many women out there who practice some sort of purdah. We are not oppressed, repressed or depressed.

Like I said, being a women’s studies major has skewed my perspective a little, so forgive me for naively thinking that your typical feminist defense of purdah wasn’t needed in the 21st century. It seemed to me that feminists had settled long ago that women should be able to choose what they want to wear, whatever that might be.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a friend of mine pointed me to an NPR show on Zoe Piliafas. Piliafas decided, as part of a project, to wear a burqa for a few months. Along with it, she donned the name “Zhooda” and a slight Middle Eastern accent in order to study the psychological effects the garment might have on women.

Admittedly, I was intrigued: I wear a hijab too, and mine didn’t come with an “authentic” Middle Eastern accent! Unfortunately for me, the accent is sold separately, just like Barbie’s cowgirl outfit.

Piliafas admitted that she went into her experience with a negative view of the burqa, and her own experiences “confirmed” her first judgments. She found that she spoke less, became more of a follower and was generally less outgoing in public than she usually was, and so concluded that the burqa does indeed have a psychological effect on the women who wear it.

Right: We can’t ignore Piliafas’ experience, and the fact that she actually wore a burqa for a semester is actually pretty amazing. And, let’s face it—what we wear does affect us. Otherwise we’d all be walking around in burlap bags. But I’m not clear that Piliafas’ initial impressions of the burqa didn’t come into play when she reached her conclusions.

Actually, no. Let me put it this way: I’m quite clear that Piliafas’ initial impressions did come into play. There are many, many women (including South Asian and American ones) out there who practice some sort of purdah. We are not oppressed, repressed or depressed. We do not shrivel up in our shoes; we don’t think that purdah means we must sit quietly and allow ourselves to be steamrollered over. We do not stand down. We’re educated, professional women who can speak for ourselves and speak up for others.

Many people still assume that by placing a piece of fabric on my head, I’ve pitched my brains into the dumpster, given my rights away to any male in a 50-mile radius and buried my voice in the backyard.

Listening to the Piliafas’ story reminded me that maybe Women’s Studies 101 isn’t that cliched after all. Many people still assume that by placing a piece of fabric on my head, I’ve pitched my brains into the dumpster, given my rights away to any male in a 50-mile radius and buried my voice in the backyard.

So I have to ask: Are people that naive? Am I still going to be forced to explain the obvious and point out that the burqa can actually be empowering, by offering me the privacy and anonymity to just carry on with my work instead of worrying about whether my hips look huge in that dress? Because there are psychological effects of not wearing a burqa as well—a tendency to get too caught up in trying to achieve the perfect look, for example. Women who freely choose to wear the burqa are confident, engaged, powerful women, because they feel that it in some way shields them from the outside world. So, really, it’s not a surprise that wearing a burqa may have psychological effects—whatever you wear will.

But in a world that is paying new attention to Muslim women and why they wear what they do, it’s important to emphasize that purdah isn’t necessarily a way of fading into the background—it can make you stand out instead.

In the end, that stuff you heard your freshman year in college is still true: It’s the coercion that’s the problem, not the burqa itself. Apparently, we can’t repeat that often enough. n

Nakasha Ahmad has been writing for Nirali since the very beginning. She lives in the Midwest.
Published on September 1, 2006.
Photography: Vikram Tank for Nirali Magazine.
Comments are closed.
  1. September 3, 2006, 1:48 pm Amara

    Does this thing work?

  2. September 6, 2006, 12:21 pm Kayhan

    2 comments,
    One: many anthropolgists would probably question Piliafas’ findings as being “culture bound”, that is seeing the world through one’s own cultural values and assumptions.

    Two: I am a theater artist and toured a one-woman show about immigrant women’s experiences post 9/11. After every show I lead an audience discussion and a theater making session where audience members make images on stage with their bodies. At one performance at Queens College in NY, the most outspoken member of the audience was a South Asian girl in FULL purdah, all your saw was a slit where her eyes were and she even wore black gloves. But she was boisterous and funny and honest in sharing her thoughts and ideas. At one point she said the images on stage that the audience members made looked like one guy was stiking something up the other one’s butt!

    Anyway, both these examples are to basically agree with the author in saying that it isn’t the item or object that oppresses, but the circumstances and influences that make someone and keep someone attached to the object. Clearly this young woman at Queens College is supported, loved and encouraged to be herself, including being in full purdah.

  3. September 9, 2006, 10:23 am Qudsia Lone

    Scientifically speaking Zoe Piliafas’ experiment cannot be used to measure how women will generally feel wearing a burqaa, regardless of whether they want to wear it for religious reasons or if they have been coerced to wear it. This is because Piliafas’ reasons to wear the burqa does not come in either category, and how she feels wearing a burqa will depend largely on her reasons to wear it.

    The only thing such an experiment may measure is how people will react to her wearing the burqaa, and even that will be affected by how Pilafas feels and projects her emotions while in the burqaa.

    As a personal experience, I decided to wear the hijab when I started university. It took more than a semester to get used to it completely, because of the apprehension of looking even more different than I was being an ethnic minority and over weight.

    The decission to wear the hijab eventually made me a different person–more confident, more outspoken, bolder and much stronger. I can honestly say, that decission freed me.

    Purdah/hijab/veil mainly takes away the freedom of men to look at women. The world is left open to the women. The negative perceptions of purdah are mainly due to the environments where purdah is practiced, whether in the East or the West.

  4. September 22, 2006, 5:26 pm Nadia SK

    I do not intend to offend any hijab wearers– but hope that this can offer a different perspective. Every woman has the right to choose what they want to wear. However, I personally think that educated women who wear hijab are doing a disservice to other women…especially those women who are lawyers, work in media, the public sphere, etc. They are perpetuating the notion that women can’t be taken seriously unless they are covered or “protected” by fabric. I find it interesting that many of the women I know who wear hijab also wear heavy makeup. In fact, I think wearing hijab in western society attracts more attention because it’s making a statement and the hijabi is announcing to the world that her hair is so distracting that she must cover it up, but then highlights her other attributes by painting her face. Personally, I believe that the verse in the Quran regarding the way a woman should dress is about general modesty, not about hiding behind a veil. I have a hard time reconciling that God would discriminate against half of the population. Why should women carry the burden of protecting men from their weaknesses?

  5. October 31, 2006, 2:20 am Aradhana

    [Quote]Purdah/hijab/veil mainly takes away the freedom of men to look at women. [/quote]

    Wow, I guess that means that any woman who does not wear a veil or cover herself is allowing men to ‘freely’ look at her.

    Kinda like this guy here, eh?
    http://melbourne.indymedia.org/news/2006/10/128389.php

    Context is important, but questioning why certain traditions exist and who benefits from these traditions more is far more important.

    Unfortunately, women are the ones who lose either way. Do you want to side with white patriarchy and say head covering’s are imposed by evil brown men? Or do you want to side with brown patriarchy and say that veils do not allow men to look at you freely.

    Rather a sticky position to be in.

    I think it’s men that need to change. Men need to speak up and take ownership that women who don’t wear hijabs are still their sisters. Religious paternalism helps no one. Men need to stop looking at women as ‘meat’ when they chose not to wear a hijab. Men need to stop asking women to look like meat when they wear a bikini – i.e. down with beauty pageants, liposuction and plastic surgery.

    Men need to change. Society places far too many expectations on women’s bodies – veiled or bikinied ends up being the samething when you look at it from the perspective of men. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

  6. November 1, 2006, 3:16 pm Ayesha

    I actually agree with Nadia SK’s point about hijab. I also believe that verses in the Qu’Ran that discuss modesty have been “hijacked” by many extremely conservative muslims to mean that if you don’t wear hijab you are not being a modest muslim women. I am a Muslim attorney and feel that I am just as respected for my mind as any muslim women who wears hijab because overall I dress modestly and professionally and because I try to carry myself as a respectable person at work and in my personal life. I don’t mean to offend anyone but I honestly think that hijab has become the focal point of how to practice Islam and many Muslims have forgotten about much more important aspects to the religion especially being charitable and being active in community service.

    Also I think Aradhana has a great point about men changing. One of the reasons the concept of hijab was introduced was because women were very unsafe in Arabian society and could not leave their house alone for fear of being harassed or assaulted by men. I would hope that in 2006 women are much more empowered than they were when Islam was revealed and do not need to shroud there heads and faces in order to feel safe and respected.

  7. November 1, 2006, 6:47 pm Haj

    Aradhana,

    Men should change, but unfortunately it is not biologically possible. Scientifically speaking, men will always (in most cases unconsciously) look at women as a potential mate. It is called the selfish gene and in that regard humans are no different than any other animal.

  8. November 2, 2006, 8:09 pm Nakasha

    First of all–I’d like to thank everyone for their comments! I love a good discussion–

    Now, where to begin? 🙂 My aim in this article really wasn’t to look at Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab and criticize them–to wear a hijab is a very personal decision, and dressing modestly can take lots of incarnations. But I did want to point out that feminism and the hijab aren’t incompatible–you can be both.

    Also, I wasn’t suggesting that hijab is the most important or the “true” indication of a good Muslim either. I think Ayesha makes a great point: that Islam stresses things like social justice and kindness, and that these are really important–it’s not just purdah that makes you a Muslim.

    Finally, I just want to stress that rape is NEVER the fault of the woman. Aradhana is right that men have to change–but I think that Islam does emphasize that men have to be respectful and practice “purdah” too. Just because a woman doesn’t wear a hijab doesn’t give men the right to look at her at all.

    That said, my point was to explain some of the reasons why a woman would choose to wear a hijab, and how that can be compatible with feminism.

  9. November 3, 2006, 3:46 pm Aradhana

    Haj,

    I think it’s a little cruel of you to assume “Men should change, but unfortunately it is not biologically possible. Scientifically speaking, men will always (in most cases unconsciously) look at women as a potential mate.”

    I’ll give men the benefit of the doubt here, because I know men, many of my friends are male. Many of my friends are close cousins and distant cousins. And luckily I don’t assume that they ‘view me as potential mate material’.

    If you reread my post you will possibly get the gist of what I am trying to say.

    Men who believe women do not need to conform to rigid notions of beauty or other types of social conduct (either attire etc) need to speak up. Men need to start taking ownership of their ‘conduct’ too. And I don’t think men are incapable of that (I am saddened that you feel that they are).

    “It is called the selfish gene and in that regard humans are no different than any other animal. ”

    Geez, for all my years of taking biology and anthropology – I’ve yet to come across the ‘selfish gene studies’.

  10. November 3, 2006, 3:59 pm Aradhana

    Nakasha,

    I enjoyed reading your article, I know many women who do practise hijab. My comments were directed more at the comments by Qudsia Lone, where she wrongfully suggests that it’s women’s fault for getting male attention if they do not practise hijab.

    Some my friends have only recently begun to practise wearing the hijab too. I think a component that is missing from your analysis is why more women are beginning to take up the hijab. I do think increased xenophobia against islam plays an important role in reclaiming the hijab as a practise amongst moderate muslims too.

    As you have rightly stated there are many reasons why women decide to practise hijab wearing.

    I do however, want to point out that there is a problem in general with how we focus on women’s empowerment in feminism. And that is placing ownership on men, and facilitating ways in which men can help and support women’s causes.

    I think it is more truthful to say that there are women who both choose the hijab and those that are also under various social obligations and pressures to wear it.

    It’s not unlike other the position that women are in when they participate in other practises such as dieting, wearing modest/immodest clothing, virginity etc… All of these are done for either personal reasons or because of social pressures. But often in these situations it’s a kind of bind that women are put in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. And the ‘fine line’ of ‘balance’ is often blurred.

    So, what I mean to say is – that we need to stop focusing on how/what women should /can do to empower themselves – but rather how men can support women especially in situations where women do feel pressured. Men can group, assemble, write/encourage/teach other men that respecting women’s choices whatever they may be are vital to everyone’s wellbeing.

  11. November 10, 2006, 1:05 am MRaj

    The veil must be assessed honestly on seven factors below :

    1) Other’s Safety : If veils and loose clothes are used to hide guns and bombs then frisking and checking of such dressed persons is essential for safety of society . Such persons must stay in their own surroundings and avoid public places like banks & public transport.
    2) Own Safety: If an Australian Mullah calls uncovered ( non muslim ) women as exposed meat , then his followers may be considering muslim women as safely covered meat – so there is no safety to wearer.
    3) No identity or status: A vieled lady loses opportunity to build own identity. So marriage and friendships loose meaning and women can be replaced soon.
    4) Legal Losses :Hard to be a witness or find others as witness for a veiled lady’s legal aid . People can swap wives with impunity, human traficking is cakewalk when a man frequently moves with upto 4 veiled women .

    5) Financial loss : Better career options and business opportunities which build from identity may be lost and low paid hourly worker jobs are only option.
    6) Health & Personality defect : Lack of sunlight is a defect enough. If Women with poor personality hide defects behind the veil (no worry about bulging hips) – then said defects may become more pronounced and affect long term health. After wearing one for few years it may be psychologically impossible to give up in changed circumstances.

    7) Lost freedom : Once you accept any restriction of society getting freedom is a big nuisance.

    Wearer is of course paying so much price in the Darwin’s competitive world and becomes very dependent .

  12. March 6, 2007, 3:52 pm moni

    how can i help stop the seclusion of weomen?(purdah)

  13. June 2, 2007, 5:29 am Haj

    It is not coprrect on your part to write any views of women . These mattters are strictly prohibited in Islam and this site should be discontinued to avoid more sins.

  14. June 11, 2007, 8:18 pm FM

    I agree that coercion is the point here. No woman should feel coerced by her society to wear a veil to feel like a pious Muslim. Likewise, no woman she be coerced into wearing a bikini or miniskirt to feel like a sexy woman.

    What I don’t agree with is that people who encourage or wear the veil think that it is part of being a good Muslim. The Quran and the Prohpet only mention women (and MEN!) being dressed modestly. No where in Islam does it say that you have to cover your hair, face, arms, legs. The veil/purdah are only cultural practices that stemmed out of Middle Eastern countries and from that particular time period (the Prophet’s lifetime) where women were not safe without a veil/purdah. And it just seemed to continue as a cultural practice in those Islamic countries.

    So wear the veil or don’t wear it, just make sure that YOU made the choice (and that the choice was NOT made under social/peer pressure) and know that wearing it does not make you more Muslim.

  15. August 3, 2007, 1:04 pm Farrah

    The decision to wear a veil should be in the hands of the woman wearing it, neither coerced nor shamed. I agree with Nakasha that many many women practice some sort of purdah, be it wearing an actual veil or dressing professionally and modestly and both should be respected for making decisions on their own.
    MRaj, if you were being sarcastic, that was very funny but if you really want a serious discussion then your post was BS. Haj, in what world are you living in??

  16. September 17, 2007, 11:29 am venenu

    This discussion has become complex. I am not sure where to start.

    In my opinion, for us to really know why Muslim women chooses or has to wear a veil, we have to first find out when, why and in what circumstances did the first Muslim women wore one.

    Did they choose to wear it because: It was the fashion statement at the time? – protection against men wanting or rejecting them for their physical appearance? – Did they choose to wear it\forced to wear it, as part of a protection strategy or pure jealousy from their husbands or fathers, against other men? Did they feel more confident, empowered and more active in their society knowing that they could wear the veil and not be judged or chosen as a mate by their looks alone? Maybe they had to wear the veil as protection against stinging sands blown by strong winds in the desert. Maybe it was religious/social pressure, when only those who used the veil were decent in the eyes of the God/ society!!

    Wearing a veil for the Muslim women compares with wearing high heeled shoes for the rest of the women in the world. For whichever of the many good reasons not too, try telling, encouraging, or enforcing the women in general not to use high heeled shoes, today. You will most probably very soon find out that there is no point in trying, because it will not happen. Even though, most of these women do not really know how and when or why women started using high heeled shoes, they will defend the right to use it for the simple fact that it is a fashion that they like, makes them look sexier and more attractive; for most men anyways. Therefore, for those who do not know, and correct me if I am wrong, wearing high heeled shoes started in the mid 1500 as, by both men and women, for social class distinguish. I will bet you that this would be enough reason for some women not to wear the shoes; but, they have no idea. And same with the Muslim women, they might have good contemporary reasons to wear the veil, without really knowing how it started.

    Just to refer to other points in the discussion. I do not agree with the thought of forcing Muslim women not to wear a veil; in fact, I do not agree with forcing anybody to do anything they do not wan to do. Keeping that in mind; when traveling to another country with a totally different culture and mind set, refusing to remove, in this case the veil, in required places, when taking picture ID photos, and so on, is trying to force another culture to accept a particular way of living they are not used to. Just to give another example; in the Latino communities, most of the people refuse to speak and learn English. This has forced the Spanish language to be the second most spoken language, and soon to become the primary spoken language in the country.
    Now, here in the United States, that might be O.K., because this country tries to accommodate to every culture, that is why I live here. However, the French are not Americans; they have a style of life that they choose to stick with. If they see wearing veil in public places as a security threat, as a country/society, I believe they have the right to make rules regarding veil usage, in public places, in order to ensure their security and peace of mind. Therefore, if I was a Muslim woman, and I did not want to remove my veil in public, places, I would choose not to travel to France or any other country that has same rules. If I was responsible to decide, I will not lie that I would try to restrict usage of veil in highly protected areas, buildings, and mass social gatherings. but public places in a regular day would definitely be O.K.
    I really would like to say more but I feel tired already. 😉 one love.

  17. September 18, 2007, 7:25 am J. Kallis

    I note with interest that most people want to know when veil first originated. The answer is simple – about 1200 years ago during the period of Christian rule in Modern Turkey and Syria it was normal to order prostitutes or slave girls for sex and these would be brought covered in a black veil for certifying that they had not met any one one else along the way. Since then this notion of purity haunts the middle east along with that of slavery of women.

    Once the educated women read the veil context correctly, they will certainly wonder about wearing it!

  18. October 4, 2007, 5:40 am rysha

    I guess the discussion has taken this shape primarily because people are unaware of the first and foremost reason why Muslim women wear/should wear hijab. Here, i would like to clarify what Islam and being a Muslim are all about. The Arabic word Islam means ‘surrender to Allah’, which essentially signifies submitting yourself to the Will of Allah as expressed in the Quran because Quran is the Word of God. Looking into what the Quran has to say:

    And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their headcoverings (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs), and not to display their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or what their right hands rule (slaves), or the followers from the men who do not feel sexual desire, or the small children to whom the nakedness of women is not apparent, and not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to make known what they hide of their adornments. And turn in repentance to Allah together, O you the faithful, in order that you are successful
    -Surah an-Nur ayah 31

    O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their outergarments (jilbabs) close around themselves; that is better that they will be recognized and not annoyed. And God is ever Forgiving, Gentle.
    – Surah al-Ahzab ayah 59

    I believe this is reason enough for a Muslim woman to wear the hijab, not ignoring the other plausible benefits as pointed out by Nakasha. For further clarification please visit the site:
    http://www.muhajabah.com/whyhijab.htm

  19. October 6, 2007, 9:18 am Mohammad

    You keep your valuables in the locker and nobody will ask you why ?

    You maintain self respect by not exposing your body..all will ask you why?

  20. November 3, 2007, 7:46 am jiah

    I use veil regularly and I am thinking about against the post by J. Kallis who are expressing views about Hijab being used by Christian prostitutes. If it is so why was Prophet Mohammed ( PUBH) so firm to prescribe the veil?

  21. November 16, 2007, 1:20 am J Kallis

    I still think that Islamic world did not have any use of purity of its women- so that the belly dancing culture coexists with the veil. I think finally islamic writings equate women like opium- to be stored & traded for money but with no sense of loyalty. The Prophet PUBH even asked his son & married his own daughter in law and this shows the extent of flexibility about a particularly married woman’s fate in own house.

  22. November 28, 2007, 1:13 pm anon

    The Christian practice of covering prostitutes may have come about 1200 years ago, but the Islamic practice of women observing hijaab/purdah orignated more than 1400 years ago, so it stands to reason that the burqa was NOT derived from that christian custom.
    J Kallis comment about the Prophet PBUH and his son…… firstly, the Prophet Muhammed’s sons did not survive childhood. In the Quran it clearly states that ‘Muhammad is not the father of any of you men…’ He did, however, have an adopted son, and the rulings regarding an adopted son are not the same as a biological one. After his adopted son divorced his wife, he married her.

    Someone said that no where in Islam are women required to cover their hair, arms legs etc. During salaah (daily prayer), a woman has to make sure that her whole body is covered, except for the hands, feet and face, and rysha has mentioned other evidence from the Quran.

  23. February 3, 2008, 12:44 am Faiza

    Well… I guess to sum it up, if we look at the modern world, especially in countries like America where freedom is stressed, a woman should not be forced into wearing/ not wearing purdah; however, if this topic is discussed from the quran’s view, then woman should wear purdah… So its back to the same point for most muslim americans, religion, or atleast slight discrimination?

    Sometimes I wonder if this rule would have been different if the times were different back then in the Middle East.

  24. February 5, 2008, 12:15 pm Gita Kajre

    How can we feel secure about veiled muslim women in our ladies train compartment when so many instances of muslim men clean shaven , wearing burkha & even lipstick – are now coming to light ?

    We should get some security women to find the truth by inspecting the sex organs – whether the person is male or female?

  25. September 3, 2008, 1:36 am Mesmerised

    Have they wondered whether their hips look huge in that burka? BC they usually do. They must think people can’t tell and so they gain tons of weight or something.