Unveiled – the debate on the Muslim headscarf

Few debates have captured the attention of wide swathes of society for as long as the one centered on the practice of Muslim women wearing headscarves. Supporters of the headscarf point to Islamic tenets that they claim instruct women to preserve their modesty from male lust. The veil also serves as a metaphysical symbol, separating human reality from the divine. Meanwhile, critics argue that the practice is a form of female repression and misogyny, as some women are forced to wear the headscarf against their wishes. Right wing nationalists in Europe oppose the headscarf on the grounds that it is incompatible with Western liberal culture and may pose a security threat. With vociferous proponents and opponents of the practice, the debate has always remained at an impasse. This controversy was recently revitalized by the actions of a female journalist in Iran. Masih Lainejah recently sparked a revolution in the Muslim world by posting pictures of herself with her head uncovered on social media, doubly illegal as Facebook is banned in Iran. This post was followed by a request for other women to follow suit, to experience the joy of feeling the sun or the wind on their face. This brave move on her part generated a massive social media movement named the Stealthy Freedoms of Iranian Women with the Twitter handle #stealthfreedom. The Facebook page currently has over four hundred thousand likes whilst hundreds of women have been inspired by Masih Lainejah to take selfies with their heads uncovered, and their headscarves billowing in the wind or wrapped around their necks. The revival of this debate in Iran is accompanied with greater liberalization of certain government policies and a more West-leaning stance.

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The conservative elements of Iranian society have not been quiet during this development. In May, over 500 protesters gathered in Tehran to campaign against the immorality and unsuitability of Western-style dress. Yet it is not simply the conservative, ultra-religious sects of the Muslim world that support the headscarf. A range of diverse opinions exist on this side of the debate. For instance, Malina Suliman, a graffiti artist in Kabul, Afghanistan supports the wearing of the headscarf whilst battling the unequal treatment of women under Taliban rule. To her, far more pressing are the issues of lack of access to health and educational services and employment opportunities women experience in Afghanistan. She believes that freedom is more than removing the burqa, and that women can work and develop their talents while being veiled.

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It is not simply the Muslim world that is invested in this issue. This practice has posed an interesting conundrum to the feminist movement. On one hand, feminists must battle patriarchy and establish equal rights for all women. Yet, they must also accommodate the wishes of those women who choose to wear the headscarf through their own free will, as a religious or cultural observance. Distinguishing between the two scenarios becomes challenging, which is what has kept this debate alive over countless years. A number of European nations have restrictions on the wearing of full veils, such as the burqa (which covers the face but leaves the eyes free) and the niqab (which veils even the eyes). Arguments abound for governmental action on this issue, ranging from the need for cultural assimilation and treating Muslim women as all other citizens to the security threat posed by being fully veiled. As right wing nationalist governments come into power in countries such as Britain and France, we can expect further developments on this front. Is this a sign of Islamaphobia or are these countries warranted in restricting the rights of Muslim women for an alleged greater good? The answer to this question is as ambiguous as that to the broader debate.

 

-Themal Ellawala

 

References: http://www.ravishly.com/2014/05/09/burqa-patronizing-hijab-iran-afghanistan-stealth-freedom-the-veil-Facebook; http://www.tarshi.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/download1.jpg

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