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Veils: Who are We to Judge?


Veils: who are we to judge?

by Anne Kingston (Macleans)

No item of female apparel summons more attention, animosity, debate or censure in Western society than the veil covering Muslim women. That’s saying something in a culture inured to the sight of sweatpants with “Juicy” on the backside, Abercrombie & Fitch’s padded “push-up” swimsuit tops for eight-year-old girls, and women teetering on skyscraper porno heels as hobbling as the “chopines” worn by 16th-century Venetian prostitutes.

Governments are racing to restrict the veil in its various declensions: hijab, chador, abaya, niqab, burka. France and Belgium banned face-and-body concealing burkas and niqabs last year; similar legislation is in the works in other European countries, echoing campaigns to rid cityscapes of minarets. Last June, Muslim women were singled out by FIFA, the world soccer body, which banned players from wearing Islamic headdresses on the grounds they could cause a “choking injury.” The Canadian federal government drew its first line in the sand last month when Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced a ban on face veils during the swearing-in of the citizenship oath. Quebec’s Bill 94, which would deny essential public services to women in niqabs in the name of “public security, communication and identification,” is wending through the legislature.

So what’s really going on here? Why are women many see as subjugated the ones being censured? Part of what’s driving this is the visceral response a veiled face summons in the West: it’s a mystery and a threat. Unless you’re a surgeon, a goalie, a bride or a belly dancer, masking one’s face is anti-social, a prelude to robbing a bank or attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting. Faces confer identity, legally and socially. Covering them can signal Darth Vader menace. It’s dehumanizing.


A covered or veiled woman summons more complex associations, given that female emancipation in the West focused on bodily autonomy and was mirrored in fashion trends—beginning with Coco Chanel, who believed women should share the same liberties as men and replaced restrictive corsets and long skirts with jersey dresses, knits and pants. Instructing a woman to cover up to preserve sexual modesty and prevent lustful thoughts is viewed as archaic and misogynistic—harking back to the Victorians hiding curvy table legs or the kind of dystopian theocracy depicted in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The “liberated” woman eschews modesty; any instructive to preserve it is code for oppression, as seen in global “SlutWalks” protesting “victim-blaming” after a Toronto police officer suggested women could avoid sexual assault if they stopped dressing “like sluts.”

Western women may be shackled by clothing and customs—six-inch stilettos, Brazilian waxing, cosmetic surgery, the imperative to be thin—but that’s seen to be their choice, their self-expression within a culture that often conflates female empowerment with female sexuality. A veiled Muslim woman is therefore even more freighted, thought to represent a second-class citizen deprived of identity and isolated from public life, a trapped victim of “gender apartheid,” as witnessed by the horrific acid attack on Afghani schoolgirls who abjured the offensive burka.

Yet we didn’t always see it that way. In the 1990s, the niqab, the veil that leaves only eyes exposed, was exotic, a marketing ploy: Loblaw put a photograph of a woman wearing one on the box for its “Memories of Marrakech” couscous. The “otherness” of a veiled Muslim could occasionally inflame bigotry, as seen in 1994 when female high school students in Montreal were expelled for wearing the hijab; the head scarf worn to preserve modesty was deemed an “ostentatious symbol.” But the burka was off the political radar, with the exception of feminist groups that protested the repression of women in fundamentalist Islamic nations, particularly Afghanistan, where Taliban rule in 1994 torched advances made by women.

Then came 9/11, and the burka was hijacked as a handy accessory for the emerging “war on terror.” The week after the twin towers fell, The Economist sent out a “free trial offer” mailer recycling a February 2000 cover of a woman in a niqab below the line: “Can Islam and Democracy Mix?” The image was sultry, destined to boost subscriptions, even if linking a veiled woman with all of Islam was below the magazine’s usual intellectual rigour. Not all Muslim women wear face-covering veils; many Muslims oppose the practice. The Quran, an enlightened text regarding gender equality, enforces no dress code; “hijab,” or cover, refers to the curtain that separates man and the world from God, not to clothing. Men and women are only called to “lower their gaze and guard their modesty.” Nor are Muslim nations in sync on veiling, which has come to represent an oppression-meter of sorts—from Afghanistan, where women faced a mandatory burka law punishable by death, to Tunisia and Turkey, where burkas are banned in schools and government buildings.

Turkish-born sociologist Necla Kelek dismisses the idea that the burka has anything to do with religion or religious freedoms, but rather represents an ideology whereby “women in public don’t have the right to be human.” France’s Fadéla Amara views the garment as a form of religious obscurantism, “a kind of tomb for women.” In her 2004 book, The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji rejects any notion of “spiritual submission” to the veil, calling adherence “closer to cultural capitulation”: “To cover my face because ‘that’s what I’m supposed to do’ is nothing short of brand victory for desert Arabs, whose style has become the most trusted symbol of how to package yourself as a Muslim woman.”

Yet as a symbol, the “desert Arab” packaging of women offered powerful visual shorthand for the indeterminate “war on terror.” It was harnessed to garner support for the invasion of Afghanistan, where the road to female freedom was measured in media reports in terms of women’s access to lipstick and beauty salons. Then the burka was tied to Islamic terrorism itself, linking the “war on terror” with a “war on Islam”: video footage that appeared to show one of the failed July 2005 London bombers wearing a niqab implanted fear that the garment posed a national security threat. That risk migrated to Muslim immigrants’ seeming unwillingness to conform to European and American mores. Even global cultural juggernaut Disney, whose 1992 Aladdin came under fire for promoting racist Arabic stereotypes, joined the hijab jihad last year, telling more than one Magic Kingdom employee that they were “not part of the Disney look.”

We can only await the Disneyfication of the burka, which has acquired near magical powers in its ability to turn right-wing politicians into situational feminists. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the garment “a debasement” of women that rendered them “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social contact, deprived of all identity,” ignoring the fact that his ban would closet these women in their homes. As British writer Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a Muslim, puts it: “[Governments] have a funny idea of liberation: criminalizing women in order to free them.”

Sheema Khan, author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman, likens the paranoia over female veiling to another trumped-up distraction: “These new WMDs (women in Muslim dress) seem to evoke the same fear as those other WMDs (weapons of mass destruction),” she writes. Khan, who wears the hijab, sees a cultural disconnect over the female body and its display: “Muslim women value their bodies, they simply don’t believe in flashing skin.”

In their covering and attempt to disappear from the public sphere, veiled women have acquired paradoxical power in a society that pays attention to women for what they’re not wearing: as the most visible of visible minorities, they’re a measure of multiculturalism’s limits. And as a graphic reminder of the world’s fastest-growing religion, they test how much religious observation and cultural defiance we’re willing to accommodate—and accept.

Jason Kenney described a covered face as “un-Canadian” when announcing the new citizenship ruling: “Allowing a group to hide their faces while they are becoming members of our community is counter to Canada’s commitment to openness, equality and social cohesion,” he said. The minister admitted he found it “frankly, bizarre” that women had been allowed to veil their faces. Some 81 per cent of Canadians agreed with the veto, according to a Forum Research poll, which raises questions as to whether we’ll see similar rulings in other public spaces; Muslim women’s right to veil their faces while giving testimony is currently being challenged.

Canadian political scientist and Middle East scholar Katherine Bullock predicted that Muslim women would become “the visible link between Western power politics and an anti-veil discourse in the West,” in her 2002 book, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil. The University of Toronto professor, a convert to Islam since 1994, wears the hijab. She was prescient: Sarkozy’s targeting of the Muslim minority is viewed by many as a pander to voters on the extreme right.

Bullock challenges the common view that the veil is oppressive and degrading. While she acknowledges the horrific violation of women’s rights in Islamic states, she writes that these must be addressed by the courts, and that a woman’s right to wear the veil should be separate from other human rights issues. That argument is a hard sell in the West, where high-profile murders of Muslim girls and women are associated with their rejection of the veil in “honour killings,” the odious term that segregates extreme domestic violence: Aqsa Parvez, the 16-year-old Mississauga, Ont., girl who was murdered in 2007 by her father and brother for refusing to wear the veil, and the ongoing Shafia trial in Kingston, Ont., in which a husband, wife and son are accused of murdering three teenage girls and a first wife. At that trial an expert prosecution witness overtly raised the connection when speaking of Muslim mores: “A woman’s body is considered to be the repository of family honour,” he said.

That any woman would willingly wear an “ambulatory prison,” as Christine St-Pierre, Quebec’s minister for the status of women, has called the niqab, is a mystery in a culture focused on the exposed female body and the distorted “body image” resulting from artificial Photoshopped standards. Amid “Does this burka make me look fat?” jokes, female Western journalists took the garments out for test drives, reporting back that they were confining, isolating and even elicited hostility, which is predictable. Veiled Muslim women have become doubly dehumanized in the West—by the veil itself and incendiary responses to what it’s seen to represent—which makes them vulnerable to the kind of violent Islamophobic attacks seen in France.

Yet the defiance expressed by hijab and burka wearers confounds the stereotype that they are submissive and lack will. Disney’s hijab ban has been successfully challenged. Last September, Hind Ahmas and Najate Nait Ali made headlines when they were fined for disobeying the French burka ban.

Inscrutable and complex, the veil is a code that can’t readily be cracked. Many women are veiled against their will, it is true, yet many others choose it. The idea that the veil could represent an assertion of identity, defined by daily connection and devotion to God, is alien for many in a secular culture. Liberal ideas of equality and liberty, which distinguish want from need, trump other ways of looking at the topic, says Middle Eastern historian Christina Michelmore, a professor at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pa.: “A lot of women want to wear it because they have to,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001. “It was a commandment, and I would obey,” Bullock writes. That’s a mindset alien in the West, Michelmore observes: “For many Americans, cultural restraints on individual behaviour automatically look like oppression. I think that’s a very American look at the world. For lots of cultures, communal standards aren’t seen as inhibiting individual freedoms.”

Women wear the veil as a rejection of Western values, Michelmore notes: “They see it as part of their identity, as separate from this globalized McDonald’s world.” Many of the veil’s most vocal proponents, ironically, are Western women who’ve converted to Islam, among them Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, Lauren Booth, German broadcaster Kristiane Backer, author of the 2009 book From MTV To Mecca, and Yvonne Ridley, of Islam Channel TV. Ridley extols the veil as offering freedom from Western sexism—the male gaze that renders a woman “invisible” after a certain age and undue judgment of women based on their appearance: “What is more liberating: being judged on the length of your skirt and the size of your surgically enhanced breasts, or being judged on your character and intelligence?” she asks. Yet to frame the debate as an either-or duality between two cultures is to ignore the continuity that exists. There’s synchronicity in the burka being stigmatized at the same time female display in the West has geared into cartoonish, hyper-sexualization—the mainstreaming of the stripper aesthetic, the creepy Toddlers and Tiaras commodification of girls, and billboards like Estée Lauder’s: “Beautiful gives her daughter something to look forward to.” A new study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism reveals women are increasingly under-represented and overly sexualized in top movies: they’re far more likely to be seen in “sexy” clothing (25.8 per cent, compared to men at 4.7 per cent) and to be partially naked (23.6 per cent compared to 7.4 per cent). Yet the barbaric repression of women in fundamentalist Islamic nations—stoning for adultery, being denied the vote and access to education—renders complaints about continuing gender inequities in the West trivial by comparison, when, in fact, they are all extremes on a vast continuum.

Legislating what women wear under the guise of freedom is a worrisome portent, one Human Rights Watch calls a “lose-lose situation”: “[Burka bans] violate the rights of those who choose to wear the veil and do nothing to help those who are compelled to do so,” Judith Sunderland, a senior researcher with the group, said last April.

Art allows an exploration of the ambiguities that politics cannot. Canadian photographer Lana Slezic captured a fearful complexity in her famous portrait of Lt.-Col. Malali Kakar, Afghanistan’s most senior female police officer, who was murdered by the Taliban in 2008. Taken in profile, the image shows Kakar shrouded in a half burka, holding a handgun, her fingernails painted bright red. The image of the Afghan police officer working to emancipate Afghan women wearing a symbol of oppression upends the assumption that an unseen woman can’t yield power. Last week, Michelle Risinger, an NGO worker, blogged on about a successful uprising in Kabul by women disguised by their burkas; it forced her to redefine the garment “from a symbol of repression to a means of protection, and even the sustainment of women’s empowerment activities.”

Parisian guerrilla artist “Princess Hijab” explores the power of the veil in her work, using a black marker to “hijabize” and “niqabize” billboards to subvert consumer imagery and push cultural boundaries. “The niqab is very powerful, not just religiously,” the artist told Al Jazeera in 2010: “It has been used in fairy tales, it’s part of the collective memory, a symbol of religious observance, mourning and death.” The veil doesn’t belong to a single religious or ethnic group, she points out: “It’s an empowering piece of clothing but it also can be frightening.”

Exiled Iranian artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, known for her “Women of Allah” series, similarly creates haunting, powerful images of veiled women, some with guns, their bodies superimposed with Farsi poetry. “Western culture generally tends to mystify women behind a veil,” Neshat told hEyOkA magazine: “It seems ironic but true that the more a female body is covered, the more desirable it becomes. Therefore much of the credit goes to the phenomena behind Islamic culture that by controlling female sexuality, it ironically heightens the notions of temptation, desire and eroticism.”

That would explain the bizarre spectre of the increasing sexual fetishization of the burka in the West. In 2003, rapper Lil’ Kim appeared in a half-burka, naked below, on a magazine cover. In 2009, Mattel endorsed a “Burka Barbie.” The pneumatic plastic doll, once banned in Iran as a threat to “morality,” was outfitted in lime-green and Day-Glo orange “burkas” and auctioned off at Sotheby’s for Save the Children. A few months ago, Kim Kardashian, of sex tape infamy, pranced around in a burka in Dubai. Paparazzi swarmed. It was defiant, outrageous, more shocking than nudity. And anyone who sees it as cultural progress hasn’t been paying attention.

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  • S73

    Too bad the article does not carry the Cover page photo – a Women in burqa staring questioningly at a naked woman whose eyes and breast and private areas are blanked out – If a picture is worth a thousand words then the message is clear

    Women should be free to decide how they dress -and define modesty.
    Covering the body does not make the woman any less Western
    and Nakedness(exposing skin) also carries it’s set of prejudice

  • Géji


    1)- Hi, first I will like to ask you to stop beating around the bush and discuss the matter please. Diverting the attention from what you’ve been asked by attacking people’s spellings wont work, and last I’ve checked this is not a class room, neither are you our professor, nor are we your students. And not that I owe you any explanation “professor”, but do I make spelling errors sometimes when I’m fast writing comments and can’t double check because of lack of time? sure, but that’s normal, everybody does….English is my 4th language, though my education from Kindergarten through University has always been in French, I’m a self-taught English speaker and writer, who’s very proud of it and think did a pretty decent job. With that been said, before immaturely attacking the “style” of writings addressed to you, it would be more smart if you start addressing the content first, in less of course you can’t refute what’s been addressed to you, thus have nothing better to say but empty distractions. So lets stop turning the attention from what’s important, and lets start.

    2)- You first said: “A restriction is not quite on the same level as an imposition”
    Then added: “I don’t like it, but I abhor the latter much, much more”
    Then finally said: “I like what this girl did” — (i.e, an Iranian woman posing nude in France).

    HGG, what you like or don’t like it’s none of our business, but your own, and although I fail to see the point, or grasp the full meaning behind your need to bring a link of an Iranian woman posing “nude”, at a thread where veiled Muslim women are discussed. Nonetheless, you must have realized that your little “move” of bringing a “nude” pic of an Iranian woman, at a thread discussing veil, that it will be nothing short of an insult to the subject and to the veiled Muslim women that comments on this Site. As if when you emphasized – “I like what this girl did” (i.e, posing nude)- you were indicating that nudity it’s better choise than veil for Muslim women, therefore what’s more insulting to a veiled Muslim woman than that? go figure out… Were you trying to make a drop the veil point? I don’t know, but in any case courage lies in straightforwardness, not zig-zag and double-tongue which you seem fond of.

    You also said, you “abhor much, much more” Saudi “imposition” of the veil, than France “restriction”. Although I have an issue with the word “restriction” defining the law France imposed on those women, because the word implies “regulation” and “limitation”, in such case I don’t see what they’re regulating or limiting other than the Muslim woman herself, and I refuse to believe this whole disgraceful French saga is about the piece of cloth(veil), but rather I believe what France is tacking issue with is the Muslim IDENTITY-(just for you, so have fun)- of the women herself, thus maybe thinking by forcing her through laws, she’ll eventually in the long run abandon it. So its more of an imposition of something rather than restriction of something, because forcing women to take off veil, is as much of an imposition as forcing her to put on, both have been imposed by force, both are heavy burden on her. But anyway, choice of words put aside, I sill don’t get why you said one is worse than the other. Why is forcing her to put on worse than forcing her to take off? Explain to us please.

    3)- And since you’ve taking issue with my post saying that we abhor when they (the-Other) do something, but seem pretty okey with our own doings, lets address the issue. I’m sure you view the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda actions to achieve aim as terrorist actions, thus – Terrorists -, right? me too. So with the same honesty and straightforwardness you condemned them as terrorists, can you then like wise with guts say that US and Israel actions to achieve aim are also terrorist actions? thus – Terrorists? answer please.

    4)- HGG said on January 21st, 2012 at 7:25 am, addressing me: – “In any case, congratulations on losing the childish capitalized words and improper use of quotation marks”.

    But himself incoherently screamed out of the blue, in what can only be the invasion of capitalized words and improper usage of quotation marks, in a single sentence, yelling to me, Quote — [ WHAT’S “funny” is that you don’t “realize” how similar you “sound” to those who HATE Muslims and Islam ] — On January 13th, 2012 at 8:12 pm.

    And what provoked HGG furry you may ask? well, because I’ve said on the thread of US soldiers urinating on Afghan death bodies, that this action is nothing compare to the bigger manifestation of the evil of their everyday job at going around carpet bombing Muslim countries, which is nothing short of legally, institutionalized terrorism. So HGG is saying here, how dare you say such thing. Thus maybe implying the word terrorism is only applicable to Muslims (i.e, Hamas, Hezbollah ect), and not to others, especially not to mighty USA and its “soldiers”, and if you say so? then you’re no better than “Islamophobes”. Is he then an “Islamophobe” if he applies to Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah? — I think he should look into that, instead of playing the local “professor” here at LoonWatch. What do you think HGG?

    5)- So congrats at dropping them too old friend!…. By the way HGG, please don’t get distracted by the quote I brought, its not important, I was just making a point to our local “professor” that he too unfortunately make mistakes. But please answer what’s important (i.e, the questions). And to conclude my friend, if you can’t back up your inflammatory posts, nor have the time to answer people who address them, then avoid posting them in the first place, simple as 1-2-3. —- For now, Chio habibi! hope to hear from you soon.

  • deccal


    This is a video of Gamal Nasser, the late President of Egypt, on the subject of the hijab. Unfortunately there are no subtitles, but it breaks down to Nasser saying that when he met the Muslim Brotherhood, their first demand was “for every woman walking in the street to wear a headscarf.”

    “Nasser continued by saying he told the Brotherhood leader that if they enforced the hijab, people would say Egypt had returned to the dark ages (to more laughter), adding that Egyptians should uphold such matters in the privacy of their own homes.

    But the Muslim Brotherhood leader informed him that, as Egypt’s president, Nasser himself must enforce the hijab, to which Nasser replied:

    Sir, I know you have a daughter in college—and she doesn’t wear a headscarf or anything! [laughter] Why don’t you make her wear the headscarf? [laughter] So you can’t make one girl, your own daughter, wear it, and yet you want me to go and make ten million women wear it?!” [burst of laughter and applause]”

    Notice the crowd sporadically erupting at the mere mention of the hijab returning to Egypt.

  • JT

    Rob Hermann, contrary to popular opinion, the universe does not implode when lots of burqa wearing women stand in the same room.

  • AJ

    “To non-Muslims: imagine for a moment, if you will, that you walk into a Walmart or a Nordstrom and all the shoppers, without exception, have their face covered, but for eye slits.”

    Rob, that actually happens most of the time in all the malls/stores such as IKEA and including American stores such as H&M, GNC, American Eagle, Saks Fifth Avenue, Guess, etc. etc (even the lingerie store Victoria’s Secret) in Saudi Arabia where most of the shoppers are women and have their faces covered besides the eye slits. I assure you that hell has not broken loose.

  • Just Stopping By

    Rob Hermann says, “To non-Muslims: imagine for a moment, if you will, that you walk into a Walmart or a Nordstrom and all the shoppers, without exception, have their face covered, but for eye slits.”

    Okay, here’s my guess. At first I would be a bit surprised. But I would also be surprised if every shopper, without exception, was a woman wearing a red shirt or a man with a cowboy hat. Maybe I would ask a salesperson if there is a special sale or event, and see if there was anything I might be interested in on sale. Then I would shop and get in line at a cashier, pay, and continue with the rest of my day.

    Mr. Hermann: I don’t really see the point of your comment. Though, I am now stuck wondering whether I would be better off going to the women’s section of the store looking for some hot item that attracted the shoppers or to the men’s section since it could be less crowded. Perhaps I should thank you for creating that interesting question.

  • JT

    “A restriction is not quite on the same level as an imposition.”

    Two sides of the same coin.

    By restricting women from wearing the veil, they are imposing upon them their own dress code.

  • Nur Alia

    HGG…you posted

    “What are my “fears” that have to be appeased?”

    The fact that you respond so animated to the notion that a woman chooses to viel her face shows that you have some objection to her choice in dress. Tell us why this piece of cloth has so much power over you, and your kind, as to make judgements about someone you dont know.

    Usually, making unmerited judgements about people you dont know, and beliving those people…individually…will harm you based on ancedote…is manifested in fear, and expressed in the mob mentality of slander and propaganda against them to justify you purposeful ignorance.

    I am a woman who wears hijab. I live in a nation in which a Muslimah is not really judged by what she wears. I choose hijab styles (because I am comfortable with it) and some women dont.

    Personally, I dont think a woman who doesnt wear hijab owes me an explaination, as to why she doesnt, or has to explain to me her ‘Islamness’. In fact, walking down the streets of my city, I dont think much at all about what other people wear.

    You, and people like you tend to ‘obsess’ with this topic. You hide it in the notion of ‘women’s rights’, or ‘human rights’, pretending to be ‘concerned’ about the women…and then in the same paragraph speak of ‘cultural purity’, and ‘uniformity’.

    Can you answer my questions.

    Tell us, How restricting or denying the right of a woman to chose what she wants to wear is less oppressive than forcing her to wear something she doesnt want.

    Tell us why you belive that she owes you an explaination on her choice of clothing, and tell us why you fear a piece of cloth placed in a certian area of her body.

  • HGG

    “and when confronted tend to run away with his tale between his leg.”

    My, don’t we have a lot of unwarranted self importance?

    No, Geji, I don’t run away with my ‘tale (sic) between my legs’ As amazing as it might sound, I don’t have all the time of the world to post here and, also amazingly, life tends to get in the way and sometimes I don’t even bother to check threads where I have posted.

    By the same token, i.e. limited time to spends, I would prefer to engage in discussions where both parties have respect for each other and their points of views.

    That’s obviously not the case here. By assuming (and I’m sure what they say about those who assume) that I’m “afraid” Nur Alia has already ascribed some sort of nefarious motive, which in case you didn’t get, was the reason for my sarcasm laden post, therefore negating any kind if truly respectful discussion.

    In your case? Well, I was going to reply to you until I read your weird screed about carpet bombing and decided it would be a waste of time, as any reply to you would result in a similarly incoherent response filled with non sequitors and varied other logical fallacies.

    In any case, congratulations on losing the childish capitalized words and improper use of quotation marks. It doesn’t make the contents of your posts any better, but at least they read slightly better. Cheers, mate.

  • DrM

    Deccal, you’re posting nonsense. How is the Burkha a “political symbol”? This BS line is used against hijabs as well. Islamophobia pure, and simple.
    Which disinfo sites are you getting your propaganda from?

  • Sir David ( Illuminati membership number 5:32) Warning Contains Irony

    Rob Herdmann
    Whats a Nordstrom? I’ve heard of Walmart .
    Why are you scared of women in Burkas or veils ?

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