Friday, October 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Interpreting veils: Meanings have changed with politics, history

Seattle Times staff reporter

Varieties of veils

The veil's many forms and styles are as diverse as the myriad peoples and cultures that wear them. Illustrations show some of the many varieties.
Last week Northwest Life brought you a story about turbans, which — like veils and other types of clothing — have different forms and meanings depending on who is wearing them and how they are worn. The story, "Understanding Turbans," is available on

To many Western eyes, the Muslim veil is not an innocent piece of cloth.

It is a symbol of women's oppression, a metaphor for Islam's inscrutability, a way of identifying those who don't share "our" values.

These ideas have been projected onto the veil for ages, and were clinging to it long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Since the colonial era — and perhaps ever since it was first donned — the veil has been defined more by the imaginations of those viewing it than by the voices of those wearing it.

But with the new focus on Islam and terrorism, the imagined meanings of the veil have made Muslim women targets. In cities in Australia, England, Canada and the U.S. — and here in Seattle — veil-wearing Muslim women have reported being harassed, attacked and insulted.

The anger directed at them has left those beneath the veils feeling saddened and misunderstood.

They are being defined, they feel, by a piece of clothing they proudly wear but whose meaning to others they cannot control — whose meaning, in fact, they don't even agree on among themselves.

It is impossible to say exactly what the veil means. Its use predates Islam. Its many forms and styles are as diverse as the myriad peoples and cultures that have adopted the religion. And its significance has never been static or monolithic.

Instead, the veil and its meanings are constantly evolving and changing, often the subject of intense debate and political agendas, and always buffeted by the tides of history and individual preference.

A question of semantics

The difficult relationship between Westerners and the veil often begins at the basic level of language.

In English, the word "veil" has mostly negative connotations, bringing to mind ideas of concealment and obfuscation.

In addition, English speakers in the West tend to use the word "veil" broadly to refer to all Muslim headcoverings, which diminishes our ability to differentiate between the many types, some of which involve no veil at all.

Muslims use Arabic and Persian words to make these distinctions clear.

The word hijab, which in classical Arabic means simply to cover or screen, is used by American Muslims to refer to all types of headscarves, and by Middle Easterners to refer to the tight, white headscarves favored by many younger Muslim women. The word nikab refers to face veils. And the word for full-body coverings varies from region to region.

In Saudi Arabia, the full-body cloak is called the abaya. In Iran, a similar cloak is called the chador. In Afghanistan, the full body and face covering is called the burka.

Origins are ancient

The origin of veiling is unknown, but scholars agree it existed long before Islam. Some 4,000 years ago, in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, women wore veils, said Paula Holmes-Eber, professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at the University of Washington.

More than two millennia later, when Islam arose in the seventh century C.E., the religion absorbed local veiling practices into its culture.

And at first, Holmes-Eber said, even among Muslims the idea of the veil was less about religion than it was about class.

In the dry, desert plains of what is now Saudi Arabia, where Islam was born, nomadic and rural women were too busy working to be bothered with something so impractical as a face veil. But in the urban centers where Islam later took hold, veiling was seen as a sign of privilege — a luxury afforded women who did not have to work.

In the Koran, the Muslim holy book, there are only vague references to the need for headcoverings and humility before God, but no description of what form this should take.

"It's so unspecific that those who interpret it the most richly can walk around wearing these things that look like black sacks, and then on the other hand there are devout Muslims who don't cover their hair at all," said Samia El-Moslimany, a Seattle woman who wears the hijab.

As with many ancient religions, the right to interpret the rules of Islam was in the past mostly given to men, who over the years divined some forms of head and body covering for women that are far more elaborate than El-Moslimany thinks necessary.

"I think that a big part of it is that the books have been interpreted in a very, very male-oriented way," she said.

Their infinite variety

When she is in Seattle, El-Moslimany's hijab takes the form of a loose headscarf that covers her hair and neck but not her face. It is tied beneath her chin in a manner so sturdy she has worn it water-skiing.

But for the nine months of every year that El-Moslimany spends in Saudi Arabia, she must also wear an abaya, the loose robe that women in that country are expected to wear when going outside.

In America, El-Moslimany chooses to wear the hijab because it identifies her as a Muslim and because it allows her more control over how men treat her. In Saudi Arabia, she wears the abaya because "that society has decided that this is the norm."

But just because the abaya is the norm doesn't mean Saudi women lack ways to express regional differences and individuality.

These days the abaya in Saudi Arabia comes in different colors, designer fashions and with detailed embroidery.

In Egypt, a country that does not require headcoverings, it would not be hard to find a family in which the different generations display the nation's wide variety of veiling practices.

In such a family, the grandmother might be too illiterate to even read the Koran, but because of tradition would wear a scarf called a mandil covered by a length of black cloth known as the tarha; the mother, an urban professional, might wear no headcovering because she wants to be seen as a modern woman; and the daughter, a college graduate, might wear the white hijab out of respect for her culture and resentment toward her country's increased Westernization.

"A woman wearing a veil could be living in a hovel, with six children who have died and no education," Holmes-Eber said. "Or she could be a minister in the government with a $200,000 income and a fancy car."

Symbolic meanings

Muslim veils and body coverings, like all types of fashion, are constantly evolving despite recent efforts to dictate their one true and proper form in a small minority of Muslim countries.

Iran began requiring women to wear the chador after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Saudi Arabia requires women to wear the abaya outdoors under penalty of arrest. In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime forces women to don the burka.

Many Muslim women in these countries chafe under the restrictions and often resist them by wearing makeup or Western clothing under the body coverings.

Most Middle Eastern countries have no laws requiring veiling, and in fact, in Tunisia, veiling is illegal.

But that doesn't mean that in countries without veiling laws, women aren't pressured to veil. Among fundamentalist and very conservative Muslim men, there is a tendency to expect women to cover their heads.

However, that tendency has to be seen in the context of the rapid modernization and increased Western influences affecting cultures across the Muslim world, writes Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi in the 1987 edition of her book, "Beyond the Veil."

"The fundamentalist wave is about identity," she writes. "Their call for the veil for women has to be looked at in light of the painful but necessary and prodigious reshuffling of identity that Muslims are going through."

The profound cultural changes brought about by women's increasing access to education and positions of power, Mernissi contends, are still being worked through.

"To understand the fanatic rejection of women's liberation in the Muslim world," Mernissi writes, "one has to take into account the time factor. Most of us educated women have illiterate mothers.

"The conservative wave against women in the Muslim world," she continues, is "a defense mechanism against profound changes in both sex roles and the touchy subject of sexual identity."

Customs are contradictory

Still, many Westerners see the veil as simply backward, anti-feminist and oppressive.

Scholars and Muslims counter that there has long been a certain amount of hypocrisy in this view.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, when European powers colonized much of the Muslim world, the need to free veiled Muslim women from oppression was often cited as a justification for colonialist actions.

But, as anthropologist Dawn Chatty has pointed out, the colonists themselves were rarely proponents of women's liberation back home.

In one example, Chatty notes that a staunch British colonialist who promoted the "liberation" of Egyptian women was, back home, a member of the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage.

Such apparent contradictions continue to this day.

For example, Western bridal veils have their origins in the Mediterranean tradition of female seclusion and arranged marriages — but they are rarely criticized as vehemently as the Muslim veil.

"We in the West clearly find veiling offensive," Holmes-Eber said. "Which is very bizarre because we don't find it offensive that nuns walk around in essentially the same clothing."

El-Moslimany adds that she thinks the veil is "actually a very feminist ideal."

Many of her friends, she said, see the hijab as a source of freedom from oppressive male advances.

"I can tell you, I look a whole lot better with my hair showing," she said.

But in her work as a photographer, she said, wearing the hijab helps to keep her dealings with men "on a professional level."

"I choose whom I want to deal with on a sexual level," she said. "It's an equalizer to me."

Attacks change the equation

After the terrorist attacks, however, it was less an equalizer than an identifier, and El-Moslimany began wearing her hijab differently out of fear.

She tied it in a more Western style, covering it with a straw hat.

She warned her mother not to cover her hair. A friend in Arizona told of having her hijab ripped off.

It was only in the past few days, after time had passed and the anger had subsided, that El-Moslimany went back to wearing the hijab as she normally does — over her head, loosely, in the way that best expresses her sense of self.

Eli Sanders can be reached at 206-748-5815 or


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