In light of the controversy over Laci Green‘s comment that Islam is “the most sexist religion,” I wanted to share a paper I wrote a few years ago about Islam and the custom of veiling. Researching and writing this paper exposed me to important ideas about women and Islam that I had never considered before. The paper is on a very specific topic about a specific geographic area, but I think it gives some important historical information about the roots of some Islamic practices that many people believe to be sexist. I would like to add that this post is not meant to claim that Islam is or is not sexist; I am simply trying to challenge some of the ways we talk about and think about certain people and religions.
If you are looking for further resources on understanding Islamophobia, I highly recommend the film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Villifies a People, which can be watched on YouTube below. Some other interesting ideas about sexism in Islam can be found here. I also highly encourage reading the works of Lila Abu-Lughod, especially her paper titled “Seductions of the Honor Crime,” if you have access to academic databases.
“Bad Hijab”: The Importance of the Veil in Modern Iranian Culture
For women in modern Iran, the veil has become a sign of the recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the increased cultural and political oppression of women. Though Iran is known as one of the most modernized and educated Middle-Eastern countries, the hijab and its related social constructs remain a heavy influence on the social status of women in the country. The veil continues to be manipulated as a symbol of power and oppression on women in Islamic countries and in marketing and media in the Western world. In this paper, I will discuss the historical importance of veiling in Iran and the influence of Sharia law on determining the veiling customs of Iranian women. I will also focus on the veil’s role in the modern cultural life of Iranian women, specifically in the central city of Tehran.
The first reference to the veiling of women in the Islamic world was in an Assyrian legal text dated to around the 13th century BCE, which stated that veiling was a privilege restricted to respectable women and prohibited for prostitutes (Shirazi). From its origin, veiling evolved into its role as a fashion statement for wealthy Persian aristocratic women. The veil was a display of social class rather than an indicator of religious affiliation or loyalty. The veil continued to have cultural meaning in Middle-Eastern society before it was specifically affiliated with the Muslim faith. Through history, Islamic countries adopted veiling as a custom to display social class and religious affiliation, but it was not until the 19th century that the veil became an inherent factor in the Islamic religion. For many women, the veil’s significance in their cultural life cemented it as a symbol of resistance against Western colonialism and feminism (Nafisi).
The concept of veiling women –and its consequent social oppression– has no basis in Islamic Sharia law. Sharia, which literally means “the path to the watering hole,” is the ultimate governing body over the Islamic faith and is made up of four layers of authority, including the Koran, the holy word of Allah; the Sunnah, daily customs expected of Muslims set by Muhammad; the Hadith, the recorded word of the Prophet Muhammad outside of the Koran; and ijma, the agreed upon interpretation of the Sunnah and Koran in terms of Muslim life (Minai). Though the Koran states that women should “lower their gaze and guard their modesty,” as well as “not show adornment except what normally appears,” the fundamental values of the prophet Mohammad do not enforce any gender inferiority. In most interpretations of the Koran, scholars believe that the passages concerning women were intended to protect them, not oppress them. One passage that allegedly validates veiling is “good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because Allah has guarded them” (Shirazi). However, translation and interpretation over many thousands of years may have muddled the exact meanings of any aspects of Sharia law that speak directly on the issue of veiling.
The prophet Mohammad had a direct role in introducing the custom of veiling women into Muslim society. Mohammad was not sexist— in fact, he was ahead of his time in many aspects of equality, abolishing female infanticide, slavery, and levirate, the custom of marrying a widowed woman to her husband’s brother. He also allowed women to inherit property and control their own wealth, a value that remains part of Islamic Sharia law today. Mohammad’s first wife, Khadija, is one of the most prominent female figures in Islam. Khadija is known to have been much older than her husband, and was financially independent before they married. She owned her own business and managed her own wealth before she initiated the marriage between herself and the prophet (Goodwin). Veiling was not an issue for Khadija or Mohammad’s other wives until the society began to grow and the need for class distinction was becoming more imperative.
The main Koranic support for veiling is in the “Verses of the Curtain,” a passage in Sura 33:53 of the Koran. It dictates the proper rules for etiquette in Muslim society, stating that one must “…speak to [women] from behind a curtain. This is more chaste for your hearts and their hearts.” This “curtain” may not be speaking about a hijab or chador at all—some textual evidence suggests that it was actually a custom for women of high status to sit behind a curtained wall when entertaining guests (Shirazi). The veil could have also been a tool to protect Muhammad’s wives from other men. After the death of his first wife, Muhammad and his remaining wives were very poor and would have to relieve themselves in public fields. The longer veils may have been a reaction to this situation in order to protect the wives from other men as well as the elements. Therefore, the passage from Sura 33 may have only been relevant to cultural customs in that time, and was adopted by later Muslims as support for the hijab tradition which had already become a prevalent custom in Islamic cultural life.
The Koran and the Islamic faith are not inherently oppressive to women. Most of the restrictions on women in Islamic countries have occurred in the past century due to the efforts of Islamic fundamentalist groups. These organizations have begun mandating and enforcing the wearing of full hijab, as well as punishing what they call “bad hijab.” In this phrase, hijab has become ambiguous, referring not only to the headscarf, but also to the concept of the veil in any loose or extreme interpretation. Therefore, when referring to the hijab in this paper I will be using it in the ambiguous definition of “veil,” or any covering of the female body, unless explicitly stated.
Through the 20th century, the veil’s role in Iranian cultural life has shifted dramatically multiple times. In 1936, Iran became the first Islamic country to ban the veil completely though a royal decree announced by Reza Shah Pahlavi. This ban was an attempt to fully modernize Iran and promote equality. For generations of women who had been wearing the veil as a respect to their god, their faith, and their family, this declaration led to opposition and rebellion. Women either would not leave their homes at all, or would leave in full cover of the long black chador at the risk of being beaten in the street and having the veil ripped off of them (Harrison).
During the Iranian Revolution in 1979, cultural pressures required women to return to the custom of veiling. Radical Muslims viewed unveiled women as a threat to the fundamental ideals of Islam. This custom prevailed through the time of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s. During this time, Iranian women were under great scrutiny by the government, who expected all women to adhere to the rules and represent the proper conduct of an Islamic woman.
Though the preamble to the Iranian constitution explicitly states that it is forbidden to use a women’s image to sell things, propaganda and graffiti showed the properly veiled Islamic woman as a sign on the Islamic ideological cause and a supporter of the Holy War. The country’s patriotic stamps and banners depicted women as the image of the proper wife, delivering to society “the pious children for the Prophet’s kingdom.” In 1983, an Amendment was added to the Iranian constitution that prescribed 74 public lashes to any women appearing in public unveiled or with bad hijab (Shirazi).
Tehran is the capital city of Iran, the largest city in the Muslim world, and with over 7 million inhabitants, the sixteenth most populated city in the world. Tehran has become a center of Islamic cultural and religious life. Because of its intense Western influence, Tehran has always been a city where women are offered many opportunities to become educated and to work in professional jobs. Though westernization has influenced education and political aspects of life in Tehran, veiling remains a common cultural practice for most women in the city (Goodwin).
In Tehran in the mid 1990’s, veiling became increasingly important in its religious and cultural meaning. Strict and often violent police enforcement of veiling continued, but men in the community also made it their cause to enforce proper veiling. Stickers and posters in taxicabs, bus stations, and restaurants showed the silhouette of a properly veiled woman and stated, “For the respect of Islam, hijab is necessary” (Shirazi). Propagandist graffiti painted around the city of Tehran indirectly enforced proper hijab. Slogans were plastered on walls and buildings in urban areas as a constant reminder of the importance of veiling. These phrases equated the veil not only with religious devotion and purity, but also with a woman’s strength of personality and character. One motto stated, “Veiling represents your dignity and personality.” The slogan, “veiling is a divine duty” played up the religious aspects to the custom, while “your veiling prevents corruption” tuned the issue more towards political duty and nationalism. Other mantras about proper hijab more directly link properly veiled women and men’s power, such as “lack of hijab means lack of a man’s manhood” (Shirazi).
The veil as a barrier between peace, obedience and corruption may be tied to the status of women as well as the ancient Arabic idea of fitna. Fitna is a broad concept in Islam that most often refers to mutiny, corruption, political upheaval, anarchy and chaos (Minai). In terms of women, however, modern fundamentalist belief states that women’s sexuality – or the viewing of any unveiled woman – causes fitna in the home, city or nation. The veil is often viewed as a device to prevent fitna and control the Islamic people. This idea utilizes the veil as a device to protect women from the world, but also to protect the world from women.
In modern Iran, veiling is loosely enforced. Most women are expected to cover their hair and to wear long blouses or coats, called manteaus, to cover any bear limbs. These coverings can be worn over long skirts, pants or jeans, as long as the legs are covered. In countries where veiling is still enforced with strict rules and harsher punishment, any sign of make-up or nail polish could have a woman arrested. In modern Iran, westernization of the country has led most women to embrace adornment of the face and hands as long as their head is covered (Goodwin). Many younger women who continue to honor the tradition of the hijab do so for cultural reasons. These women use the hijab as a symbol of their faith and culture and less as something to hide their faces. Many Iranian women will push back the covering so that some hair around their face is visible. This is typically not a problem unless the police decide to enforce the rules more strictly that day. Women residents of Tehran say that the enforcement of proper Islamic dress is usually loose, but the rules are not written down and may vary from week to week. One day, a woman could get in trouble for having gold buttons that are too large or the wrong color, leaving many women asking, “When are buttons big enough to be called un-Islamic?” (Shirazi 108) Older generations of women who lived through the harsher enforcement of veiling still wear long black chadors, although in Iran these are becoming increasingly uncommon. Young girls are expected to adhere to the rules of proper hijab before puberty, typically around the age of nine, which is historically the age when Islamic society considers them old enough to marry.
Tehran is one of the most westernized cities in the Middle East when considering its loosely enforced Sharia laws and the amount of women allowed to work, attend school, or hold public office. However, the country of Iran is not uniform in its interpretation and implementation of Sharia law. In the city of Qom, about a hundred miles outside of Tehran, religion governs over culture and the people more strictly adhere to the rules. Qom is the center of Shi’a scholarship in Iran, and houses a major holy site for Shi’a Muslims. The Qom community of Shi’a Muslims was the center of the movement against Reza Shah Pahlavi, who attempted to ban the veil in 1936 (Goodwin). Today, Qom still enforces strict and proper Islamic dress.
The veil has gone through many changes over the years as a cultural symbol, religious icon and tool of control and oppression. Sharia law, which governs nearly all aspects of Islamic life, is ambiguous and unclear about whether women should be completely veiled at all times. Just as laws about the veil have changed over time, the rules that govern Islamic tradition are not uniform in all communities. Even within Iran, religious fundamentalism, Western influence, and minority populations affect the spoken and unspoken social norms regarding the veiling of women. Though global trade and expansion continues to loosen many cultural restrictions on women, the hijab remains an important part of Iranian and Islamic culture.
Goodwin, Jan. The Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.
Harrison, Frances. “Crackdown in Iran over Dress Code.” BBC World News. 27 April 2007. Web. 2 December 2009.
Minai, Naila. Women in Islam: Tradition and Transition in the Middle East. New York: Seaview Books, 1981. Print
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Toronto: Random House, 2003. Print.
Shirazi, Faegheh. The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture. Florida: University Press of Florida, 2001. Print.