Categories: Gender issues Letters Opinion Society

Veil and Muslim Women: Between Feminist Deaf Ears and Western Media

Casablanca - There exists a plurality of approaches to the veil worn by Muslim women. For some Western feminists, the veil is emblematic of Muslim women’s oppression and marginalization.

Casablanca – There exists a plurality of approaches to the veil worn by Muslim women. For some Western feminists, the veil is emblematic of Muslim women’s oppression and marginalization.

It symbolizes inequality, subservience and backwardness, characteristics that are for those feminists typical of all Muslim societies. The feminists who hold this view are usually misinformed or uninformed about Islam, its history and philosophy. Their assertions stem from the mainstream conception of the veil disseminated by Western mainstream media (Bullock 15).

A more sophisticated approach to the veil is the one held by Western feminists who are highly informed about Islam and have a greater understanding of its philosophy. They reject the extremist approaches to the veil, which link the later to extremist and violent occurrences in the world. These Western feminists are more critical of the allegations that are usually leveled at Muslim societies, which usually maintain that women are forced by both their religion and men in their society to wear the veil. However, this version of feminism still argues that a lot of Muslim women do not wear the veil by choice. Their activism is thus concerned with those very women.

Nevertheless, the version of Western feminism described above tends to fall into the trap of generalizing their assumptions on Muslim women. As a corollary, they tend to turn deaf ears to Muslim women who incessantly affirm to have chosen to wear the veil without any oppression or brainwashing. Feminists in this category find fault with the veil in that it adds nothing to these women’s lives. Their study of Islam and its history seem not to be enough for them to elucidate the significance of the veil in Islam. They tend to probe the rational of wearing a veil from a Western magnifier, hence their arguments against the significance of the veil are usually based on Westernized conceptualizations of modernity and beauty.

Besides feminist approaches to the veil, the most dangerous view of the latter remains the one held by the Western (non-Muslim) public. They are mostly uncritical, happy-go-lucky consumers of mainstream media. Anything that demonstrates a delusory link between extremist acts and Muslim people is for them unwavering evidence that all practices in Islam, including wearing the veil, are destructive and extremist. Most violence and discrimination that veiled Muslim women experience in Western societies come from this very category of people. The discrimination and hostility might even target converted Western women who wear the veil.

Katherine Bullock, a feminist and the writer of Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes, accounts in her book the discrimination and hostility she experienced after converting to Islam and wearing the veil. According to Katherine, the discrimination she experienced as a veiled woman did not come from one specific group of people, but was rather a generalized discrimination that she experienced everywhere she went from almost everyone in her entourage. For her, it was exactly those people’s perception of Islam in general, which they mostly constructed from the media that she used to have of Muslims and the veil before converting to Islam while working on her PhD thesis.

Bullock (2002) argues that most approaches to the study of Muslim women have been Orientalist in their methodology. Bullock refers to Edward Said’s (1978) survey of Orientalism to elucidate the current Western perceptions of Islam and Muslim women. According to her, perceptions of Islam, being one of the constituents of the Orientalized East in Said’s (1978) analysis, are still persisting until today. Islamic practices are still approached from the Western vantage point as not subscribing to the standards of modernity and civilization that prevail in the West.

Such Orientalist views of Islam, which finds its roots in the Western colonial era, is still manifested in contemporary Western approaches to the study of some practices in Islam, including wearing the veil. An argument that one might usually come across in some Western feminists’ writings is that the veil is a symbol of reluctance to modernize one’s lifestyle, a preposterous attachment to tradition and backwardness. Those very arguments ingeminate and replicate the same arguments put forth by Orientalist scholars in their study of the East, years ago, when Orientalism was still at its summit.

What most Western approaches lack is profundity of perception, a discernment of the complexity of the veil in Islam. The veil cannot be relegated to a simple social practice that symbolizes women’s oppression in a patriarchal society. Patriarchy itself should not be always attributed to Islam or essentialized as a characteristic of Eastern societies.

In his article “What Western Feminists Should do About the Veil,” published on The Guardian, Al Yafai (2008) masterfully pinpoints the weakness in most feminist approaches to the veil:

Naturally clothing is rarely a free choice in any society, but by focusing on what the veil conceals, feminists have lost sight of what it may reveal: those Muslim women who choose to wear it (and not all do) often claim they are reappropriating their own bodies from the public sphere. The veil is complex.”

Yes, ‘the veil is complex’, as Al Yafai puts it. The complexity of the veil resides in its significance, which is rooted in the history and profundity of Islamic philosophy. A true understanding of the veil should not disdain the voice of those Muslim women who wear it. By fault of wanting to stand as a representative voice of the so-called marginalized and brainwashed Muslim woman, feminists and other activists thus adopt the oppressor’s voice, disallowing those women to speak their mind and define the veil and its significance to the world. Mainstream media adds insult to injury by propagating very simplistic, yet destructive, stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women, hence encouraging violence and discrimination against them.

Surprisingly, Wikipedia’s definition of the veil, though perhaps accidentally, puts a finger on one fragment of the veil’s significance in Islam, which Western feminists are loath to grasp: “A veil is an article of clothing or cloth hanging that is intended to cover some part of the head or face, or an object of some significance. Agreeably, things of a particular value and significance tend to be protected by a multitude of means, ranging from a veil to the most sophisticated means of protection and preservation. If one is to equate this simple designation of the veil with the veil worn by Muslim women, one is more likely to approach the sophisticated and noble meaning and purpose of the veil in Islam.”

One thing is sure is that the the veil is culture-specific. Its meaning in Islam has roots in its history and philosophy. Therefore, imposing one’s conceptualization of the veil on the other’s is almost a crime against diversity and multiculturalism. An acceptance of differences, which is a cause that has always been promoted by Western entities, includes an acceptance of the veil in all its manifestations in the world.


Bullock, Katherine. Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes. Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2002. Web: 15-18

Al Yafai, Faisal. “What Western Feminists Should do About the Veil.” The Guardian, 2008.     

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy

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