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The paradox of veiling

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    If ministers really want a proper debate, they must learn that where the veil is forbidden, women hasten to wear it My years in a habit taught me the paradox
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 2, 2007
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      If ministers really want a proper debate, they must learn that where
      the veil is forbidden, women hasten to wear it


      My years in a habit taught me the paradox of veiling
      Karen Armstrong
      Thursday October 26, 2006
      The Guardian


      I spent seven years of my girlhood heavily veiled - not in a Muslim
      niqab but in a nun's habit. We wore voluminous black robes, large
      rosaries and crucifixes, and an elaborate headdress: you could see a
      small slice of my face from the front, but from the side I was
      entirely shielded from view. We must have looked very odd indeed,
      walking dourly through the colourful carnival of London during the
      swinging 60s, but nobody ever asked us to exchange our habits for more
      conventional attire.

      When my order was founded in the 1840s, not long after Catholic
      emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing
      their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit
      and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the
      Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of
      barbarism. Two hundred and fifty years after the gunpowder plot,
      Catholicism was still feared as unassimilable, irredeemably alien to
      the British ethos, fanatically opposed to democracy and freedom, and a
      fifth column allied to dangerous enemies abroad.

      Today the veiled Muslim woman appears to symbolise the perceived
      Islamic threat, as nuns once epitomised the evils of popery. She seems
      a barbaric affront to hard-won values that are essential to our
      cultural identity: gender equality, freedom, transparency and
      openness. But in the Muslim world the veil has also acquired a new
      symbolism. If government ministers really want to debate the issue
      fruitfully, they must become familiar with the bitterly ironic history
      of veiling during the last hundred years.

      Until the late 19th century, veiling was neither a central nor a
      universal practice in the Islamic world. The Qur'an does not command
      all women to cover their heads; the full hijab was traditionally worn
      only by aristocratic women, as a mark of status. In Egypt, under
      Muhammad Ali's leadership (1805-48), the lot of women improved
      dramatically, and many were abandoning the veil and moving more freely
      in society.

      But after the British occupied Egypt in 1882, the consul general, Lord
      Cromer, ignored this development. He argued that veiling was the
      "fatal obstacle" that prevented Egyptians from participating fully in
      western civilisation. Until it was abolished, Egypt would need the
      benevolent supervision of the colonialists. But Cromer had cynically
      exploited feminist ideas to advance the colonial project. Egyptian
      women lost many of their new educational and professional
      opportunities under the British, and Cromer was co-founder in London
      of the Anti-Women's Suffrage League.

      When Egyptian pundits sycophantically supported Cromer, veiling became
      a hot issue. In 1899 Qassim Amin published Tahrir al-Mara - The
      Liberation of Women - which obsequiously praised the nobility of
      European culture, arguing that the veil symbolised everything that was
      wrong with Islam and Egypt. It was no feminist tract: Egyptian women,
      according to Amin, were dirty, ignorant and hopelessly inadequate
      parents. The book created a furore, and the ensuing debate made the
      veil a symbol of resistance to colonialism.

      The problem was compounded in other parts of the Muslim world by
      reformers who wanted their countries to look modern, even though most
      of the population had no real understanding of secular institutions.
      When Ataturk secularised Turkey, men and women were forced into
      European costumes that felt like fancy dress. In Iran, the shahs'
      soldiers used to march through the streets with their bayonets at the
      ready, tearing off the women's veils and ripping them to pieces. In
      1935, Shah Reza Pahlavi ordered the army to shoot at unarmed
      demonstrators who were protesting against obligatory western dress.
      Hundreds of Iranians died that day.

      Many women, whose mothers had happily discarded the veil, adopted the
      hijab in order to dissociate themselves from aggressively secular
      regimes. This happened in Egypt under President Anwar Sadat and it
      continues under Hosni Mubarak. When the shah banned the chador, during
      the Iranian revolution, women wore it as a matter of principle - even
      those who usually wore western clothes. Today in the US, more and more
      Muslim women are wearing the hijab to distance themselves from the
      foreign policy of the Bush administration; something similar may well
      be happening in Britain.

      In the patriarchal society of Victorian Britain, nuns offended by
      tacitly proclaiming that they had no need of men. I found my habit
      liberating: for seven years I never had to give a thought to my
      clothes, makeup and hair - all the rubbish that clutters the minds of
      the most liberated women. In the same way, Muslim women feel that the
      veil frees them from the constraints of some uncongenial aspects of
      western modernity.

      They argue that you do not have to look western to be modern. The
      veiled woman defies the sexual mores of the west, with its strange
      compulsion to "reveal all". Where western men and women display their
      expensive clothes and flaunt their finely honed bodies as a mark of
      privilege, the uniformity of traditional Muslim dress stresses the
      egalitarian and communal ethos of Islam.

      Muslims feel embattled at present, and at such times the bodies of
      women often symbolise the beleaguered community. Because of its
      complex history, Jack Straw and his supporters must realise that many
      Muslims now suspect such western interventions about the veil as
      having a hidden agenda. Instead of improving relations, they usually
      make matters worse. Lord Cromer made the originally marginal practice
      of veiling problematic in the first place. When women are forbidden to
      wear the veil, they hasten in ever greater numbers to put it on.

      In Victorian Britain, nuns believed that until they could appear in
      public fully veiled, Catholics would never be accepted in this
      country. But Britain got over its visceral dread of popery. In the
      late 1960s, shortly before I left my order, we decided to give up the
      full habit. This decision expressed, among other things, our new
      confidence, but had it been forced upon us, our deeply ingrained fears
      of persecution would have revived.

      But Muslims today do not feel similarly empowered. The unfolding
      tragedy of the Middle East has convinced some that the west is bent on
      the destruction of Islam. The demand that they abandon the veil will
      exacerbate these fears, and make some women cling more fiercely to the
      garment that now symbolises their resistance to oppression.


      ยท Karen Armstrong is the author of Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time
      comment @ guardian.co.uk

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