Veiled agents of political Islam: burka, hijab have new meanings

Veiled agents of political Islam: burka, hijab have new meanings, by Ida Lichter, the author of “Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression.”

Veils are a distinctively Islamic form of dress, and their message is almost entirely political: our God is greater than yours, or Allahu akbar. The author writes as for a clueless western audience, and sidles up ever so gently without ever saying it openly.

Islamists such as Islamic State enforce the full veil in the public space and the hijab is obligatory according to the Muslim Brotherhood. What is the meaning of the veil and why is veiling such a central issue?

Burqa etc.

According to the holy texts, Islamic dress is not mandatory …

Most Western states have opted not to ban the niqab or burka. However Syria and Tunisia, before the so-called Arab Spring uprisings, had no such scruples. …

Islamic dress is symbolic for the Islamist movement; however, the discourse on Islamism is perplexing for Westerners because many politicians, educators and faith leaders have not given clear guidance or addressed all facets of the controversy. …

Issam al-Aryan, a leading figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, affirmed the veil’s centrality to Islamism when, in 1980, he prophesised that an increasing number of women wearing the veil would herald the Islamic awakening and future Islamic states. It would be a “sign of resistance to Western civilisation (and) the start of political adherence to Islam”. …

Veiling was always crucial to the theocracy in Iran. Following the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government took the step of legislating women’s covering when it criminalised “mal-veiling” and appointed morality police to issue warnings and fines. … During the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the symbolic meaning of the veil was evident when the black chador, the woman’s cloak, became the image of the Islamic revolution. …

Before Muslim women decide to cover themselves, Manea entreats them to become aware of the religious and political campaigns that promote the veil, and to avoid being persuaded by three common, false arguments in favour of veiling. The first assumes that Arab men cannot control their sexual urges and women are only sex objects. The second claims that veiling produces moral probity, when, in reality, sexual segregation has not prevented sex outside marriage and hymen reconstruction operations. Finally, the claim of a religious edict for veiling is the weakest argument, as it wasn’t advanced until the late 1970s, when extremist ideology was becoming established. …

Activists who promote veiling have generally shown little interest in campaigning against forced marriage, child marriage, poly­gyny, unilateral divorce for men, unequal rights to custody or compensation, women’s entitlement to only half the inheritance of a male, or a woman’s testimony in court being regarded as half the value of a man’s testimony.

They adopt human rights arguments that tend to focus on the right to wear the veil but ignore the right not to wear it.

Conventional wisdom might suggest the veil represents female disempowerment, but among many Muslim women today, particularly the well educated, the veil has come to symbolise a new purpose that serves the Islamist movement and its view on the importance of veiling.

As enlisted cadres, many women have adopted a new political identity, empowered as a ­vanguard of activists, formidable flag-bearers and proselytising advertisements.

There is no doubt that many Muslim women wear the veil as an expression of piety. However, its political purpose is critical to Islamism today.

hat-tip Stephen Neil