To veil or not to veil

Article from the United Reformed Church Magazine REFORM

Anjum Anwar responds to the recent French ban on the wearing of veils in public by appealing for consistent principles to be applied to the judging by others of what we choose to wear

From a mini skirt to a veil – why do women dress the way they do? When is it ok to show more flesh and when is it ok to wrap yourself?

Most Muslim women wear the headscarf (hijab) and not the veil. I, too, wear the hijab, as I believe I am following God’s command to dress modestly. What constitutes modesty in different lands and times has changed, but the law of God has not. As a Muslim woman, I feel I can wear various cultural attire as long as it is not transparent or tight fitting and covers my body, showing only hands and face.

Those women who chose to wear the veil, hiding their face, believe that they too are following God’s command. This difference in Islamic opinion is best left to the scholars of Islam – however, when discourse on the veil affects wider communities, dialogue becomes a necessity.

So why do women wear what they wear?  I decided to find out what young and not so young women in veils had to say on the subject, and found them to be feisty and to the point. They explained that for them the veil is a religious requirement. They feel comfortable in it, confident, liberated and do not feel that, for them at least, the veil creates a barrier to communication. But is the veil barrier for others?

Whilst at Selfridges at Oxford Street yesterday, I saw many women in veils shopping and they appeared as confident in themselves as I could ever be. Neither did I see any communication problems when one of the staff came over to a veiled lady asking if she could find the right size of a particular garment for her. Maybe money reduces many communication barriers!

I also asked some veiled women if they ever thought about how they are perceived by the outside world. Their responses again were that God’s law transcends any other laws or values.  They want to be seen as women who are obeying God’s laws, who are dressing modestly. They wish to be seen as intelligent women who are not concerned with showing whether or not they fit a size 8 as dictated by market values. If women have the right to show what some believe is too much flesh, then why should those who are perceived by others to show too little be the target for legislation?

The message that these sisters want to send to the rest of the world is very simple. We are human beings underneath the veil; we respect ourselves, and do not wish to be treated like sex objects, but wish to be respected for our minds, rather than our bodies.

President Sarkozy’s handful of veiled women are being portrayed as a threat to the establishment. But will banning the veil actually reduce the number of veiled women, or will this move be seen within Muslim communities as impinging on human rights? Will more women come out in sympathy – so that instead of seeing fewer veils we may see an increase in women adopting the veil? We only have to observe what is happening in Turkey today, and what happened in Iran after the 1979 revolution – have we learned nothing from history?

I also asked these ladies whether they are being forced to wear the veil by their men-folk. The answer among my sample was a simple and categorical “no”, although I suspect there are those who are conditioned at an early age to accept the veil without questioning it.

I do not believe that banning the veil will resolve anything. Has legislation ever changed people’s hearts and minds? Maybe the veiled and un-veiled need to come together in a safe environment to ask each other the questions that concern them – maybe that way the unveiled will find they encounter the human underneath the veil, rather than a figment of some politician’s or journalist’s imagination.

Whether we wear the mini skirt or the veil, we need to ask ourselves how we are perceived by others. Do we make people feel uncomfortable by what we do and what we wear? If so, how do we get over this hurdle, by legislation or by education?

Anjum Anwar MBE is based at Blackburn Cathedral as dialogue development officer and director of the women’s advocacy campaign Woman’s Voice