Culture Guides

The Dance of Several Million Veils

Muslims want to know why the world is always worrying about their women.

“When a female student wears the veil,” a professor in Isfahan explained to me, “She is protected. She can meet her tutors on her merits as a student alone and not have to worry about her looks.”

Like many other Westerners, this was hard for me to swallow. Yes, I knew Islam was a religion of peace (I don’t watch Fox News) and yes, I found the brazen sexuality of Western clothing to be vulgar at times – but the veil just seemed to be something imposed rather than chosen. A punishment for the crime of being female. An artifice belonging to the middle ages.

After all, while looking at women in the street is the staple distraction of men all over the world, it’s rare that men get uncontrollably excited at the sight of a bare nostril and pull down their trousers there and then.

Of course, being an open-minded kind of person I tried to see the veil in its historic and social context. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Islam was in fact one of the most progressive religions regarding women’s rights. Islam had long led the way when it came to things like child support and though the customs might seem archaic now to the Western observer, Muhammed himself worked for his wife and so women were always esteemed, in theory, at least. A far cry from blame of Original Sin in Christian traditions. And let’s not even talk about the witch hunts.

Moreover, the veil isn’t actually mentioned in the Koran. Women are expected to cover their heads with a scarf but covering the face is far more of a cultural phenomenon. Even some Hindus in India still advocate the veil though it’s been a dying tradition since Gandhi railed against it in a rare feminist moment.

I also knew it was a mistake to judge another tradition by our own cultural values (try explaining to the average Iranian why we put our parents in homes) but still, it seemed to me that the veil touched on universal rights. Whatever the social value of enforced modesty might have been, it was just that – enforced. In pre-1979 Iran, the veil was generally only worn by grandmothers, back in a time when air-conditioning existed almost solely to allow hip Iranians to wear the latest European styles. It was only after Khomeini and the mullahs hijacked the revolution that all-in-black became the only choice in the sweltering Iranian summers.

As much as the veil confused me as I hitched my way through the Muslim world to India, it’s now become a contentious issue in the West, too. France passed a law forbidding Muslim girls from wearing the veil in schools and a senior English politician praised Polish immigrants as their ‘women don’t wear a bag over their heads’.

But fight too hard against something like the veil and it seems like you’re trying to eliminate cultural diversity. The right to wear the veil becomes a stand against homogenity, a battle to preserve cultural identity in a culture that features naked women in the newspapers and extolls the virtues of the Wonder-Bra.

I don’t know.

But I was moved to write this article after I came across a quote from the 19th explorer Richard Burton, whose merciless generalisations continue to inspire the Road Junky writing style. In his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madnah & Mecca, Burton comments on the veil:

Europeans inveigh against this article…for its hideousness and jealous concealment of charms made to be admired. It is, on the contrary, the most coquettish article of woman’s attire… It conceals coarse skins, fleshy noses, wide mouths, and vanishing chins, while it sets off to best advantage what in these lands is almost always lustrous and liquid – the eye. Who has not remarked this at a masquerade ball?