Pakistan: The veil and Muslim women

There is again heated debate going on around the veil worn by Muslim women.

The new controversy was sparked by the comments of British ex-Foreign Minister and leader of House of Commons, Jack Straw. This issue is not only controversial in the West but also in countries with a majority Muslim population. In recent years, especially after 9/ 11, right wing political leaders in the West have used this issue to muster political support from more reactionary sections of the population. On the other hand the Islamic Mullahs use this issue to get support from the most rightwing section of the Muslim population. Both the political right and religious right are using this issue for their own interests. One forces women to remove the veil, while the other wants to force the women to wear the veil.

Socialists oppose both approaches, for us it is the right of every woman to wear or not to wear the veil. The state and the religious right have no right to interfere in the personal lives of individuals. Every woman has the right to choose. Most Muslims think that it is wrong to force women to remove the veil, but for some it is not wrong to force women to wear the veil. Socialists oppose a ban on the veil but they also oppose the forced wearing of the veil. This debate is mainly focused on Muslim communities living in Europe. But very few things have been said about Muslim women of the so-called Islamic countries.

Is the Veil custom or religion?

There is lot of confusion around the veil about whether it is custom to wear it or a religious obligation according to Islamic teachings. The Islamic fundamentalists and illiterate Mullahs argue that the veil is a must for Muslim women as a religious duty. They argue that face showing of a woman in public is un-Islamic. These are completely wrong arguments, because the veil is not an Islamic tradition or a religious obligation. The veil predates Islam. The veil, as an article of clothing that covers parts of the head or face, was first worn more than 5000 years ago. According to Dr Muazzez Cig, a well-known Turkish archaeologist specializing in ancient Sumerian civilization, “veils were first used Sumerian temple priestesses whose job it was to initiate young men into the world of sex”.

In the 13th century BC, Assyrian kings had “introduced both the seclusion of women in the royal harem and the veil”. In pre-Islamic Persia, there is recorded evidence of veiled women (especially those married to wealthy individuals). In pre-Islamic Arabia, the veil was worn to protect the face from sand-laden desert winds. In Judaism as well as Christianity, the veil was once associated with modesty and property (the definition of both modesty and property changes over time). In India, some 2000 years ago, a few Hindu tribes started the veil to save the “modesty” and “honour” of their women. Indian Rajputes, a Hindu tribe still strictly enforces the veil and the complete segregation of female members. It is a historic fact that the veil is a custom and not a religious obligation. This is a centuries old tribal and feudal tradition which now has become a part of religion.

There was no specific dress code during the period of Prophet of Islam (PBUH). The founder of Islam (PBUH) never required Muslim women to cover themselves up in an Afghan or Saudi style head-to-toe burqa or any of the burqa’s cousins. From the 632AD to 661 AD, Islam spread to Basra, Syria, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Jerusalem, Algeria, Libya, Morroco, Sudan, Cyprus and Tunisia, and still there was no dress code for Muslim women. As Islam spread outside its place of birth, some early Muslims adopted regional practices including veiling. During both the Umayyad and Abbasid Dynasties (during this period feudal relations were fully established) , a period of almost 600 years, only a part of Muslim urban classes opted for veiling, seclusion or both, mostly as a status symbol depicting that the women of the family did not need work in order to make both ends meet. All through Islamic history, rural and nomadic Muslim women, a majority among Muslim women, did not take to veiling.

In the mid-1700s, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahab, an Arab theologian, set out to purify Islam in his own colours. His principal thrust was his belief that Muslims had “misunderstood Islam for centuries”. Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahab and Muhammad Ibn Saud agreed to rule by dividing Islamic interpretation and political administration between the two of them, respectively. From then on, Saudi Arabia’s political rulers have been from House of Ibn Saud while the Grand Mufties (religious clerics which has the right to interpret the religion) fro the House of Ibn Wahab.

Saudi rulers and Grand Muftis have spent billions of dollars to spread the teachings of Ibn Wahab in Muslim societies (that includes severe discrimination of women in education, employment and the justice system). Saudi women are not allowed to drive and religious police enforce a strict code of dress—face veil, headscarf and full black cloak. All customs, nothing to do with religion.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, some Muslim intellectuals argued that interpretations of the Quran in regards to polygamy and wearing the veil had nothing to do with Islam. In 1923 Turkish intellectuals began to denounce the veil. The same year, there was public unveiling in Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia. Reza Pahlvi issued a proclamation (Iran 1925-1941) banning the veil. On November 3, 2006, the Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court banned women lawyers from wearing the veil.

The veil was not an issue in the 60s and 70s but become one in 80s and 90s. The question of the veil has come back with the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism, which is a reactionary phenomenon. It is still the case that a majority of 700 million Muslim women do not wear a full-face veil.

Are women free to choose?

Muslim women in many Muslim societies are not free to make a choice to wear or not wear the veil. The majority of veil-wearing women in Pakistan do not make a decision to wear the veil. On the contrary their male family members make decisions in this regard. In conservative families, girls start to wear the veil from a very young age as tradition and custom. Even small girls of 6 or 7 years old start to wear the veil, and this is decided by the family, and not by the girl. Women are forced to wear veil on the basis of religion, tradition and custom of the family. For many women, the veil is a precondition to allow them to go out of the home. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and some other countries, state laws force women to wear a specific dress. It is not a choice but a compulsion. In many areas, it is not a state law but local religious clerics force women to wear the veil. For them, every woman without a veil or burqa is not modest and is like a prostitute. They regard the veil as a sign of modesty, honour and nobility of the family. So women are not free to make a choice. This discussion is between men on what a woman should wear and what they should not wear. Both male politicians and religious clerics are men dictating to women.

Is it the key issue faced by women?

The media, politicians and religious leaders try to give the impression that it is the key issue faced by women. There are millions of women in the Muslim societies around the world, who cannot cover their bodies because of poverty and hunger. Millions of women are living in abject poverty, hunger, exploitation and repression because of the rotten and reactionary capitalist and feudal system. The key issue for these women is not the veil but to get rid of this exploitation and horrific conditions. This issue like some others is an effort by the right wing ruling class and religious right to divert the attention of the masses from the real issues. The issues like domestic violence, social, political and economic discrimination, unemployment, poverty, hunger, education, health and gender discrimination are the main problems faced by the both veiled and non veiled poor working class women. On the one hand poor women face capitalist exploitation and on the other, the feudal and tribal culture, traditions and customs are making their lives miserable. The main issue is to fight against these horrific conditions to change them.

This article was first produced in the Socialist, monthly newspaper of the SMP

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December 2006