Head coverings: East vs West?

This is in response to a comment by theo(il)logical:

The issue of head-coverings and, more generally, the position of women in Islam is a very complex one. And one that Muslim women deserve to have their own voices heard rather than being spoken for, especially if you or I claim to be feminists or want to “say something.” A good place to start is Shahnaz Khan’s book *Aversion and Desire*; it has a lot of raw material from interviews with Muslim women that you will find fascinating:


The issue of head coverings is very complex.   I haven’t read that book- although I have read similar ones.  My initial response was too long, so I place it here.


If you had asked me about head coverings ten years ago I would have argued that they were good- even beneficial. 

If you only listened to the voices of the women who were wearing them, you would have thought that they were only positive.

This is not to discount their voices, but you must also take into account their world view.  Why are people promoting head coverings?  Because they grew up in it?  Because they examined it in detail?  What emotional ties do they have to it?  What do they have to lose or gain because of it?

While each person’s voice has just as much merit as another’s, the reasons behind what they are saying may not have as much merit as any others.  We must be discerning as well as respectful. 

We must look at the root beliefs surrounding head coverings and what they represent. 

For Christians in the west, the main reason is based on Paul’s (illogical) arguments of male superiority.  Thus, it symbolizes female submission and inferiority.  I cannot support this.

From my understanding of reading passages in the Koran dealing with women, head coverings are for modesty’s sake and there is disagreement in the Muslim world whether they are even necessary. 

It can be interpreted as respecting a woman or as blaming her for a male’s sexual thoughts and actions.  Or both, as submission is also touted by some Christians as being more respectful to a woman than equality.  According to the laws of many Middle Eastern countries, the head covering represents the responsibility given women for men’s sexuality.  This I cannot support.

The added layer is that head coverings are part of the mainstream Middle Eastern culture, where they are no longer that here.  Female head coverings used to be part of Western culture until secularization became more popular.  Thus,  they are parts of culture upheld by religion.  Or is it ‘religion’ being upheld by culture? 

I have little issue with the head coverings themselves.  They are a symbol.  It is what they represent that I have issue with.  If the symbol can be redeemed, as many Muslim women are trying to do, great!  I do wear hats on occasion, not to promote female inferiority, but to keep warm, not do my hair, or signal to a certain group that I belong.  

If a Muslim woman is wearing a head covering to redeem the symbol, to promote racial sensitivity, celebrate her culture, and champion a woman’s right to choose what she does… great.  I will support that.

It is not for me to tell her what to do or speak for her. 

It is for me to challenge assumptions of female inferiority and female responsiblity for men’s sexuality.  It is for me to point out double standards.  It is for me to care that each person has the right to make their own informed choice.  And to examine my own beliefs.

A three year old girl dressed in heavy black layers on a hot summer day has not made her own choice.  Similarly, a three year old dressed in sexualized clothing a la prositot has also not made an informed choice.  Nor are they capable of it. 

In both cases I have no right to tell the parents how to dress their children.  I do have the right to question the messages being given by those actions.  And the responsiblity to listen.


All voices should be heard.  This is not the same as giving all reasons equal weight.

2 thoughts on “Head coverings: East vs West?

  1. Lorena says:

    Great post! You’re right. It isn’t the piece of cloth that’s important. It’s what it represents. I never thought of that.

    So what we need to fight is the idea behind the veil, not the veil. And that’s perhaps what countries like France are doing wrong. Instead of forbidding the women from wearing it, they should make an effort to educate them and show them their personal worth. It would be more helpful, in my opinion.

    • prairienymph says:

      I agree.
      I listened to an Egyptian girl explain why she wore the hijab. She described the shame she felt when men harassed her for showing her hair. She said it was all her fault! Then she told of the relief when going out covered because the incidents of harassments stopped.
      She concluded that “if you respect yourself then others will respect you.”
      So sad that she accepted the violations of her person as her own culpa instead of the perpetrators.

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