Why do some cultures require women to wear veils?

Women wearing burquas wait to cast their votes in the 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan.
Women wearing burquas wait to cast their votes in the 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In 2009, French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave a speech that called burqas "a sign of subjugation, of the submission of women." Sarkozy vowed that burqas, the facial veils worn primarily by Muslim women, would not be welcome in France because the country didn't believe that women should be "imprisoned" or "deprived of identity" [source: Carvajal].

Veiling has been a particularly hot-button issue in France, which has the largest Muslim population in western Europe. Just a year earlier, the country made headlines for denying citizenship to a woman who wore a veil. Despite the fact that her husband and children were born in France, authorities claimed that the woman had not assimilated properly, presumably assumedly because she refused to take off her veil [source: Bennhold]. And it's not just a topic of discussion in France: British politicians such as Tony Blair and Jack Straw have said that the veil sets women apart, and Egyptian officials banned veils in university settings, citing concerns about security [sources: Eltahawy]. In the U.S., a judge dismissed a small-claims court case because the plaintiff refused to remove her face veil [source: Applebaum].

As Sarkozy's speech suggests, it's very hard for some people to imagine that women wouldn't want to remove their veils immediately if given the chance. Requiring women to wear a burqa is just one way that the Taliban terrorized women in Afghanistan; failing to don the garment earned women public beatings. After troops entered Afghanistan to take on the Taliban in 2001, reporters spoke of women walking into the streets and ripping off their veils [source: Whitlock]. To some, this made the burqa an enduring symbol of an oppressive and dangerous regime.

That's not the only symbolism the burqa has taken on; the garment now means so many things to different people that it can be difficult to suss out its real meaning and purpose. To those like Sarkozy, the veil is a dehumanizing prison that turns women into second-class citizens. To others, the veil is a sign of modesty and piety as well as a badge of honor. It's possible to see the veil as a rejection of Western values and the uniform of a dangerous subculture, while some who wear the veil insist that a ban like Sarkozy's would represent censorship, repression and an affront to freedom of religion.

So what does the veil mean, exactly?

Veiling Vocabulary

The history of veiling is so long that it's impossible to know when or where it started. Though Muslim women are associated with veiling, the practice began before Islam. It's likely that the veil started as a sign of privilege; women who didn't have to work wore veils because they didn't have to worry about the practicality of the garment.

Before we go any further, though, it's necessary to stop and clarify some vocabulary. Often in the West, all veils and head coverings are thought to be burqas, but that term only applies to a small subset of garments. A burqa is a word primarily used in Afghanistan to denote a full-body cloak that thoroughly covers the face of the wearer; there may only be a mesh screen for the eyes. There are also full-body cloaks that don't obscure the face, such as the abaya in Saudi Arabia and the chador in Iran; both of these countries mandate that women cloak themselves.

Hijab is a very general word that encompasses all sorts of head coverings and scarves. These scarves don't necessarily have full gown accompaniments, but they might. A niqab is a face veil that can be worn with a hijab so that everything but the eyes remains veiled. The two terms at the center of debates about the veil, therefore, are burqa and niqab, as these are the coverings that obscure the face.

Though hijab refers to the headscarves that Muslim women wear, the word also refers to the reason why many women wear the scarves in the first place. In Arabic, hijab means barrier and partition, but within the Islamic religion, it also refers to principles of modesty and behavior that adherents believe the Prophet Muhammad wishes them to live by. Calls for modesty appear in the Quran, but as with most things involving these veils, scholars are divided on what exactly the verses mean.

Burqas and the Quran

A woman wearing niqab.
A woman wearing niqab.
Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

In the Quran, policies for women's dress are mentioned in several passages; we include two of the most oft-cited here, using translations from the BBC:

Chapter 33, Verse 59: O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons: that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested.

Chapter 24, Verses 30-31: Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof.

There is no doubt among Muslim scholars that the faithful, both male and female, must maintain modest dress. Men should be covered between the navel and the knee, and in another passage, they are directed not to wear silk. But scholars differ over female dress because of the words "except what must ordinarily appear thereof." Some believe that the hands and the face must ordinarily appear in the course of a woman going about her day, and that a full face veil isn't required. After all, if Muhammad meant for women to be completely covered, then why would men be instructed in the very same passage to avert their gaze in the name of modesty? If a woman was fully covered, there would be no need for a man to look away. To these scholars, hijab, or a head covering, is necessary, but a niqab or a burqa is not [source: BBC].

A minority of scholars, though, believe that since full covering is possible, thanks to the burqa and the niqab, then faithful women should cover their face and their hands completely. Full covering, including of the face, is a sign of extreme piety. Regardless of which way women choose to interpret the passage, hijab is a religious obligation and will fulfill the first passage, in which women are called upon to be recognized as Muslims in public.

It's worth noting that another passage in the Quran includes a list of people in whose presence a woman may go unveiled. These include husbands, brothers, fathers, slaves and other Muslim women.

On the next page, we'll consider some reasons why women wear the full veil when some scholars say it's unnecessary.

Reasons Women Wear Burqas

A woman looks through the mesh of her burqa.
A woman looks through the mesh of her burqa.
Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Stringer/Getty Images

Debates over whether to ban the burqa often assume that women are forced by men to wear it. In many Muslim countries, women lack equality and basic rights that other women take for granted; therefore, the burqa may seem to be is just one more example of patriarchal control.

There is some evidence that women in particularly conservative countries are forced to wear a burqa or niqab out of fear of beatings, arrests or honor killings. But what of those women in France who Sarkozy addressed in his 2009 speech? Many of these women, both in strictly Islamic countries and in Western countries, have insisted to countless reporters that wearing a full covering is their choice and their right [sources: Vincent; Clark-Flory]. As believing Muslims, they interpret their holy text to mean that their faces must be covered.

Many women also say that the hijab isn't a tool of subjugation at all, but rather a means for equality. Their reasoning for this is that in public, they aren't judged on their appearance. They are free from unwelcome male advances and liberated from objectifying leers. Naomi Wolf, writer of "The Beauty Myth," commented in an editorial for the Sydney Morning Herald that these women were far from sexually repressed; they just kept their sexual appeal under wraps in a way that made it more special within the bonds of marriage.

Another reason women say they continue to wear the veil is for purposes of group identity [source: Perlez]. It's a badge of honor and solidarity in a world full of negative opinions about Islam. Some women have suggested that if countries like France were to ban the veil, it would only cause more women to wear it in defiance [source: Sullivan, Adam]. So should it be banned?

Should Burqas Be Banned?

A Muslim woman protests British politician Jack Straw's statements about the burqa.
A Muslim woman protests British politician Jack Straw's statements about the burqa.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In a piece for Slate, writer Anne Applebaum argues that the burqa should be banned for reasons of politeness and respect to local customs. Just as tourists cover their arms and legs when entering places of faith on vacation, she writes, so, too, should women living in places like France remove their veils. It is, some say, extremely difficult to converse with someone wearing a facial veil, so it could be argued that removing a niqab, while maintaining a head covering, is a sign of simple courtesy [sources: Clark-Flory; Applebaum].

Some who would ban burqas focus solely on the garment as a sign of a human rights violation. These people would argue that the veil should be removed both in France and around the world in order for women to have any chance of achieving equality; you cannot, they would argue, ever be seen as a full person if your face is covered, and to continue to wear it is to be somehow complicit in your own subordination [source: Fitzpatrick].

However, to women who choose to wear a veil, the call from the West to remove it seems hypocritical. If a burqa is, indeed, a sign of submission to a male-dominated society, then what, these women ask, would you call the Western woman's enslavement to certain fashion trends such as makeup, high heels and miniskirts? Those are also fashion choices that are often designed to meet with men's approval. Who has the right to decide what is oppressive to women and what is not? Yes, there are countries where women wear burqas in which the women are horribly repressed; under the Taliban, for instance, women weren't allowed to attend school or leave their homes without a male companion. Muslim women claim these are the causes worth fighting for, and matters of wardrobe are silly [source: Abu-Lughod].

And if certain, Western religious coverings are considered acceptable, you might wonder why the hijab is not. After all, no country is trying to ban nuns from wearing whimples or Jews from donning the yarmulke. In the past, both Christians and Jews have been responsible for terrorist acts, so fear of only Islam seems irrational. If nuns choose to take a veil, how is that any different from a Muslim woman's choice to wear one? Then again, some scholars may argue, a burqa or niqab is not strictly required by Islam, and so far no one is trying to ban hijab, or headscarves.

Such a question touches on whether freedom of religion and expression is truly extended to everyone in Western countries. Does it make any sense to say women have freedom of expression, yet aren't allowed to decide what they can or cannot wear? Or is a burqa truly a threat to others' ways of life? In a world where people have to take off their shoes before boarding an airplane, is it fair to ignore security concerns about a full-body sheet?

These questions will be debated for a long time, and the answers will likely be imperfect when it comes to this controversial piece of cloth.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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