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The return of the veil

· Inquiry into the changes under way among the new generations of Islam ·

Amira is sitting outside in a bar in the centre of Milan. Wearing jeans, t-shirt and eye make-up, she jokes and laughs with her friends before diving into the shopping streets. This is a normal spring scene on a Saturday afternoon, except for one detail that still astonishes some of the passers by: Amira’s head is covered by a bright blue veil. When questioned she answers that she herself chose this veil. Her mother, who arrived many years ago from Algeria, had never worn one and was surprised by her daughter’s decision. At school some took it badly, but she did not desist. “The veil says who I am, what I believe in and where I come from. And I am not ashamed of any of these things”, she says. “Moreover”, she adds with a smile, “don’t you think I look nice in it?”.

Denis Dailleux, Le Caire [Cairo]

A few months ago on the noon television news in Egypt, the announcer appeared perfectly made- up, with an elegant black jacket and a cream-coloured hijab wrapped round her head. It was the first time that a veiled journalist had ever appeared on public television and it caused a sensation. “The veil doesn’t matter, Ultimately here too the criterion is not what you wear that counts, but your skills”, she replied to those who questioned her, amazed.

Actually her image had justifiably caused a stir: many women had been working on television with their heads covered, but until then none had appeared on screen. The veil was not accepted in the official image of an Egypt keen to affirm a secular state and government, even though the tradition is popular and has been preserved in many parts of the country and in the suburbs of Cairo itself.

We also find the veil in Tunisia. Whereas until a few years ago it was worn by girls in the countryside and villages, it is now ever more frequently worn in the large cities and at the universities where modern young women, emancipated and eager to work, prefer to appear in public with their head covered. The phenomenon that came into being several years ago has given rise to a number of problems.

While some, for example, L’association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates [the Tunisian Democratic Women’s Association] judged it “disturbing”, the League of Human Rights denounced the aggression to veiled women on the part of the police. In any case in recent times it has become so widespread that the government has deemed it opportune to relax the restrictions foreseen by the law.

If we look at what has happened in the Islamic world in recent years we can speak of a return – some are even talking about a revolution – of the veil. It is not that the religious and cultural tradition of covering the head had ever disappeared. There are some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, which never abandoned it and in which, on the contrary, the covering not only of the head but also of the entire body is obligatory. In these countries all women wear the niqab or burqa; and a woman who is not properly covered is heavily pursued by the law and by social disapproval.

The return we are talking about is rather that of the hijab, of the scarf or of the veil in countries where their use had been discarded; we are speaking of their reappearance in cities and in circles customarily described as modern, cultured and evolved, in countries in which, until a short time ago, similarity with the West was a value that governments supported and championed.

The veil is no longer relegated to women in the countryside who stay at home or work in the fields. Those who work and study too, women – although they are few – who hold prestigious posts, even some of those who are declared feminists, have gone back to wearing it. And with them are women émigrés who have settled in countries whose culture and traditions should spur them to conform rapidly, along with the daughters born to them after their emigration.

The question that is asked today – and it is asked by many – is whether this return is the result of a free decision made by women or whether instead it has been imposed on them by governments and states in which traditionalist or even fundamentalist movements are putting pressure on them. This is an important question that implies others: if it is a decision of women, what kind of decision is it? Is it simply a return to tradition or an affirmation of their faith shown in a different way? If it is a decision imposed by governments, should it be opposed? And how should the Western countries react that are seeing veiled women, or women even completely covered by the burqa or niqab? Should they accept the use of the veil or oppose it, considering it a manifestation of subordination and female slavery?

As everyone knows the debate on this topic in Western countries has been far-reaching, as well as bitter. Dozens of experts have studied the phenomenon. In her book Il velo nell’islam (Carocci 2012) Renata Pepicelli, an expert on the Islamic world today, gives us a most important piece of information: the return of the veil began in the 1970s and coincided with an extraordinary recovery of religious feeling. Women covered their heads while more mosques were being built and larger numbers attending them. The phenomenon caused surprise. In most people’s eyes the 1900s were a time of secularization and of the reshaping of religions. The use of the term “revolution” in speaking of the rebirth of the veil”, Pepicelli explains, “is justified by the fact that it was a phenomenon that took many observers by surprise, both lay people and religious, because it began towards the end of a century, the 1900s, which, as has been seen, was marked by an opposite trend”. According to Pepicelli the inversion of this trend was and is too vast to coincide with the recovery of “political Islam” and is indicative of something more important and more profound.

The veil has thus become the symbol of the Islamic world, but also of difficulties and contradictions in relations with the West (some have spoken of a clash of civilizations).”Never”, Pepicelli writes, “has a garment ever been so widely debated”. And this is not by chance. Indeed several of the most important problems of the 21st century are tackled through the discussion on the hijab: the rebirth of Islam, its relations with the West, its conception of women, the idea of change. At the same time the veil has become a sort of barometer of the countries in which it is worn. Its colour, the way it is put on, its denial or the convinced acceptance of it say far more about those countries than umpteen discourses..

Many women scholars see the return of the veil as the sign of an adherence to certain community ideals, a spiritual recovery that is also nourished by opposition to the West and the commercialization of the female body. Others note that for many women the hijab is a deterrent to male desire, if not also a protection from the violence to which they are frequently subjected. For yet others the veil is the manifestation of an autonomous female faith that is linked to the relationship with God and to surah [chapter] 24 of the Qur’an: “And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms, and that they disclose not their beauty save to their husbands, or to their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands or their sons or the sons of their husbands or their brothers, or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, or their women… or such of male attendants as have no sexual appetite, or young children who have no knowledge of the hidden parts of women”. Lastly, many observe that today wearing the veil has not only acquired the meaning of an individual act of faith but also indicates the return of religion to the public sphere, even in countries in which a separation from it had been affirmed. Hence it is not a return to the past, but exactly the opposite.

The issue, of course, continues to be controversial. Many men and women see the return of the veil as the affirmation of a form of conservatism in numerous Islamic countries and a new authoritarianism of their governments which, frightened by the dissemination of the models and freedoms of the Western civilization, are attempting in this manner to retain their control over the female population. The return to the veil would have very earthly reasons that have little to do with religion or faith. Moreover September 11 influenced the way of interpreting this phenomenon. In France a law was approved in the name of the reaffirmation of secularism. Although this law officially affirmed the prohibition of displaying all religious symbols, it actually targeted above all the veil. For other countries the problem was not posed by the hijab but rather by the burqa and the niqab. In covering both a woman’s body and her face – in many people’s opinion – they pose security problems. In Italy an attempt was made to introduce the above-mentioned law, but it was blocked. Europe is divided between countries that do not permit any full head-covering, such as France, Belgium and in part, Germany (the decision here is up to the individual Länder), and other countries that have not resorted to legislation to deal with the problem. The United States have never forbidden the use of the full veil, not even after September 11.

Ritanna Armeni

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