Unveiling Illusions: Embodying Feminism, Embodying the Veil

“What’s in a woman’s head is a lot more important than what’s on it.”
-Sherifa Zuhur

“The Outer- from the Inner Derives its Magnitude.”
-Emily Dickinson

Most feminists do not like labels. Labels promote the tendency to apply one’s own understanding of the world to those who have very different ideas about what it means to operate in a larger social system. Yet Western women often simplify and stereotype women who choose to veil. In failing to recognize the veil’s complex and multiple meanings, Western women not only reduce the headscarf to a political or religious symbol, but also hinder the advancement of thoughtful and inclusive feminism. As Dr. Banu Gökariksel, associate professor of Geography, explains, “We are presented with social and cultural systems wherever we are. The ways that we dress and the ways that we conduct ourselves are shaped by those kinds of values and norms. I would argue that all women, and all men, too, are constrained by a lot of things. We operate within a given society—the societies that we live in.” The veil, in its varied and intricate meanings, can be liberating and empowering. As a symbol of humanity, the veil is a physical representation of the contradictions between a woman’s individual thoughts, desires, and commitments and the labels that society places on her. In assuming that Muslim women are forced to veil, and by passively offering up sympathy for their supposed lack of political freedoms, Western women inherently contribute to their oppression, instead of actively working to understand the multiplicity of contexts in which the veil functions.

Politicizing the Veil
To have a deeper understanding of the headscarf’s role as a political symbol, a marketed commodity, a religious custom, and a method of liberation, one can look to understand the geopolitical context of veiling in Turkey following the turn of the millennium. The veil became particularly politicized following the headscarf ban, which took root in 1984 among Turkish university students and was strictly enforced after Islamically oriented political parties were removed from power. Veil scholars also emphasize the importance of the postmodern coup in 1997 and the regime change that followed after the current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, recited a nationalist poem. His imprisonment led to a time of staunch secularism. Some political parties argued that the ban promoted the secularization of the state while other politicians believed that the ban should be lifted out of respect for religious custom. Still, women were not included in the national conversation. Women were “tired of hearing the same male politicians talking for women or making decisions for women.” This was problematic because women had no forum to discuss the ban and its effects on them. What did the ban mean for women who chose to veil? How did it shape interactions in the community?

The Economics of Veiling Fashion
Although many scholars agree that women choose to veil primarily for religious reasons, in the past decade, the emergence of a global veiling fashion industry has greatly influenced the economy. Headscarf styles change every season as designers coordinate colors, textures, and patterns with the chic industries in Paris, Milan, and Rome. Women change veils depending upon place, time of year, popularity, and the type of events they are attending. Arguably, the purpose is not necessarily to coordinate Western and Eastern fashion styles, but rather to change outward perception about the veil. Following September 11, there was some organized effort among Turkish women to stop wearing dark colors. Instead, many Muslim women opted to wear brightly colored hijabs in order to seem less threatening to outsiders. With an established market base, retail stores began to commodify the hijab. In this process, space played an important role as it influenced consumer accessibility. As Dr. Gökariksel explains, “There was the growth of a wealthy, Islamically-oriented, more conservative group of people, and they came to the malls, but there were few stores to cater to them. Those stores were located elsewhere in Istanbul. So women have to go to different neighborhoods to find the kinds of clothing they want.” Thus, there exists some intersectionality between the veiling fashion industry and the economic ramifications of mass consumption.

The Feminist Behind the Veil
So, can women who practice veiling also be feminists? Are the two mutually exclusive? The ability to define one’s own worldview and the choice to veil seem deeply interconnected. Dr. Sahar Amer, professor of Asian Studies, believes that, while many Muslim women do not feel oppressed, they do feel “societal pressure to act in a particular way or to speak for an entire population of Muslim women.” Some choose to wear their hijab as a statement of modesty. Others prefer to express modesty in a way that better suits their own lifestyle. A compelling argument made by many Turkish feminists is that the veil focuses attention not on a woman’s physical appearance, but rather on her thoughts and actions. In this sense, veiling is liberating because interactions are focused on her character and her thoughts rather than on her appearance.

Although we are all products of our own societies, as women, we must recognize when the norms that we perpetuate contribute to a loss of individuality. When women lose the right to define their individuality, they consequently lose an integral part of their humanity. Beneath the veil, there is an individual. There is a woman. And her life and the ways in which she sees the world are both unique and important. Her veil is a sign of her own challenge to operate within a complex society. As students, as friends, and as community members, we must strive to define the women not by what they wear, but by their thoughts, their words, and their actions. We must recognize the multiplicity of contexts under which the veil functions, in order to recognize the humanity inherent in our own struggles. In this way, we do not lift the veil; rather, we work to understand it in the context of personal choice, identity, and femininity.

The Siren Global Women’s Committee would like to thank Dr. Sahar Amer and Dr. Banu Gökariksel for their thoughtful contributions to this article.

Dana Calloway-Landress is a sophomore History and Peace, War, & Defense double major.