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Veiling in the United States

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Stephanie Smith

Introduction to Critical Feminist Studies

Anne Dalke

November 14, 2008


                                                          Veiling in the United States


             One day while I was at home, my mother had a friend come by in order to return a favor and I went to greet her on behalf of my mother.  My mother’s friend, who is a Muslim woman who veils, was accompanied by another Muslim woman.  As I sat in her car to talk to her for a few minutes, her friend turned around to introduce herself to me and I noticed that her face was partially covered with a veil.  At that moment, I felt a sad feeling upon seeing her wearing what I came to know as a niqab. Although I had been used to seeing Muslim women, including my mother’s friend, who veil, I had never seen a Muslim woman with her face partially covered.  I felt sadness at seeing a woman with her mouth covered because I felt that it represented the silencing of a woman’s voice.  However, as a woman who does not veil and an American, the sadness with which I reacted reminded me of the misconceptions and notions of oppression that sometimes surround Muslim women who veil. 

            Personally, I have always wondered whether women who veil chose to or felt culturally and/or religiously obligated to veil.  Although I have been in association with women who veil and have not felt self-conscious, I felt so in the previously-mentioned situation.  Perhaps, since she was an older Muslim woman and a stranger to whom I was in close proximity, I felt ashamed for not having as much as my body covered.  While speaking to a Muslim colleague who veils in the United States, she mentioned how classmates assumed that she would judge them as a result of deciding to veil; however, she confirmed that this was not true.  It is interesting how one might assume that he or she is being judged as a non-participant in a particular culture, when perhaps it is he or she who belongs to the mass culture that is acting as the primary judge. 

            The stereotypical and general Western attitude towards women who veil, whether they reside in the United States or in another geographical location, is that such women are oppressed and are forced to veil within their respective cultures and societies.  Specifically, women who veil in the Middle East have been identified as “victims” deprived of their rights.  Interestingly enough, it can be noted that Muslim women had certain rights long before American women achieved those same rights.  Yet, the oppression of Afghan Muslim women and the enforcement of veiling under the Taliban have been exploited by the Bush Administration as a means to wage “war on terrorism” after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC.  However, historically the United States has played an important international role as a first world power and key enabler of many of the global political factions it now maligns.

            As a first world power, the United States has colonized and subjugated many people and cultures from other parts of the world.  As a result, the United States or Western civilization, generally speaking, has a history and a present of representing cultures with differences and practices distinct from those of Western civilization as “other.”  Under such a context, veiling is no exception.

            According to Lila Abu-Lughod, who authored “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?,” the burqa, a robe that covers the body from head to toe, was not created by the Taliban, but was worn by women of an ethnic group, the Pashtun, in Afghanistan.  In fact, the burqa was worn throughout the Middle East as a manifestation of a woman’s modesty and respectability.  Therefore, veiling was widely practiced by women in the Middle East before the Taliban came to rule in Afghanistan.  However, this fact, if known, has been rejected by the Western notion that veiling was enforced upon women as a form of oppression.  Such rejection is not only a result of well-intentioned pity, but also a result of the stubborn, Western lens through which dissimilar cultural practices are distanced and labeled “other.”  Abu-Lughod advocates “…recognizing and respecting differences-precisely as products of different histories, as expressions of different circumstances, and as manifestations of differently structured desires…”  Perhaps, the recognition and respect of veiling as a different cultural practice is difficult for some Westerners because of the essentialist theory of the West, the idea that “the West knows best.” 

            Colonial feminism or Western feminism can best be attributed to what Abu-Lughod describes as the seemingly earnest desire American politicians, activists and Western feminists have to “save” Afghan women who veil.  Western feminism is a form of essentialism, and is oftentimes seen as the “true” model of feminism, a feminism to which all “others” should subscribe..

            Some Western feminists might view veiling as a form of oppression of women due to misconstrued information, misconceptions, and ignorance.  Women who do not dress as conservatively or modestly might view the covering of a woman’s body as the silencing of a woman’s self-expression or individuality.  When asked why they veil, both colleagues with whom I spoke, first and foremost emphasized that they chose to veil and expressed personal and cultural significance of veiling.  For instance, one colleague recalled a desire at the onset of maturity to grow more spiritually and religiously which was manifested in her wearing a hijab, a head covering, and dressing modestly.  Significantly, both colleagues mentioned how wearing a hijab and veiling identified them as Muslim women and set them apart in their faith and ideals.  Although veiling might be thought of as a form of oppression by some in the United States, for the most part, both colleagues have not felt discriminated against on Bryn Mawr College’s campus.

            Such a sentiment might not be of surprise since one would expect a college environment to be more accepting of the diversity of cultures.  However, both women cited exceptions in their or a friend’s hometown, middle school, or college campus experiences.  For instance, one woman went through a difficult period in middle school due the ignorance of classmates as a result of her choice to veil and post-September 11th anti-terrorist sentiments.  In War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges discusses the false sense of nationalism that enveloped the United States after the September 11th attacks and the resulting declaration of “war on terrorism.”  I believe that the anger, fear, uncertainty, and insecurity that a lot of Americans felt in the aftermath of September 11th made them more vulnerable to political propaganda and anti-terrorist sentiments, which targeted and affected mainly people of Middle Eastern nationalities.

            An intervention to the anti-terrorist sentiments and the superficial superiority displayed by some Americans over Middle Eastern cultures and societies proceeding, in the wake of, and during the aftermath of the September 11th attacks would entail Western society re-examining the lens through which it sees other cultures and societies, particularly those of the Middle East, as estranged and “other.”  As Abu-Lughod states, “we [those a part of Western society] do not stand outside the world, looking out over this sea of poor benighted people, living under the shadow-or veil- of oppressive cultures; we are a part of that world…”  Although it would be more favorable for such a crucial re-examination and intervention to be effected on a large scale, especially since Western imperialist attitudes have had and continue to have dire consequences on the United States of America’s international relations, history has taught that such change is often brought about on a smaller scale.

            Through researching and speaking with two Muslim colleagues in respect to their personal experiences of veiling in the United States, I have gained valuable insight from two individual women into a religious and cultural practice which Western society has stereotypically equated with homogenous oppression of women in the Middle East.  For instance, both women addressed and dispelled stereotypes, such as Muslim women lack agency.  One colleague addressed and negated any validity of the assumption that it is taboo for a Muslim woman to be active in her community.  She, herself is very active in her college community.  Another colleague, from personal perspective, emphasized how Muslim women did not have to wear a hijab, but dress modestly, in the presence of male family members. 

The wearing of the hijab in public spheres outside the familiarity of home serves as affirmation of not only Muslim faith, but also as affirmation of respect for a woman’s personhood in lieu of  sexual objectification in public spheres.  In addition to stereotypes of veiling as an embodiment of oppression of women, both women addressed and disbanded notions of Western feminism as “true” feminism.  I greatly appreciated the diverse perspectives both women offered on what feminism means to them.  One colleague stated her belief that women and men are complimentary to one another and that women should not try to be like men because there are observable differences.  Another colleague stated that “feminism is relative” to the [cultural context], which I believe is such a powerful model of insight not only into multi-faceted feminism, but also into cultures and societies across the world,  a world which we are all a part of.

Works Cited

1.)    Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?.” American Anthropologist: Vol. 104, No. 3. September 2002.

2.)    Hedges, Chris. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Random House, Inc. June 2003.


skumar's picture

Veiling in the US


You presented an example of your mother's Muslim friend, one who continues to wear a face-covering despite her geographic location in the United States--the land of opportunity and of freedom. In a reply to Julia's essay, I mentioned a woman who discontinued veiling herself since being in America. What else I particularly enjoyed reading in your paper was your reaction to the woman's covered face. You said you "felt a sad feeling upon seeing her." I get that you were saddened by the restriction the woman was experiencing. I wonder, though, if veiled woman feel a sense of jealousy towards a Western woman's freedom to dress? This goes back to one of the ideas I had earlier this semester--that feminism was a choice. Do you think wearing a hijab is a choice for Muslim-Americans such as your mom's friend(wearing hijab) and my mom's friend (no hijab)?



stephanie2's picture

Hi Sonal, I'm sorry I did

Hi Sonal,

I'm sorry I did not see your comment earlier.  I want to say that from what I've read and learned in the two interviews I conducted in order to write this paper, most women who veil choose to do so and do not feel jealousy towards the way Western women dress more freely. I have thought about this and agree with both the perspective of how veiling empowers a woman and how less modesty in dress empowers a woman. Veiling protects a woman from the male gaze, allows her to be taken seriously, etc. However, I recognize this as empowering only if it is a choice. Personally, I have felt really strongly at times that I can definitely identify and understand why women choose to veil when for instance, I notice that a man's gaze had been on me for too long. Although it might seem silly--it's nice to be looked at, but an intense gaze is very objectifying.  On the other hand, I do admire women who express their bodies and sexuality and do not let the male gaze intimidate them. Oftentimes, it is thought that when a woman does not dress as modestly as she can, she desires male attention; however, I think it's also about feeling confident about your body, not to say women who veil or dress more modestly do not feel confident about their bodies. I think veiling and not veiling, and what constitutes modesty lie open to interpretation, choice, and culture.

Anne Dalke's picture

Multi-faceted feminism

your project makes quite a compliment to several other explorations of veiling written by your classmates: see a "Western Feminist's Perspective" on Female Veiling in Iran; an interpretation of Veiling in Persepolis, and an essay about gender segregation in Islamic architecture which will add another dimension to your project.

What gives your work its force and power is the dimension of the personal that you've been able to encompass in this paper: you begin with your own feelings of sadness, and learn to temper them by speaking with colleagues who have been able to address both your own and our culture's misconceptions, by explaining the reasons for their practice. That's really the most valuable research you've done here--though I'd also like to see a little more evidence for some of your larger claims (regarding, for instance, the long-standing rights of Muslim women, and the Bush Administration's use of veilng as a reason for waging the "war on terrorism").

You've developed a convincing challenge to the "one true model" of feminism, which fails to respect cultural difference. The feminism on display in your description of veiling in the U.S., @ least as it is practiced by two people you know, is one that claims agency, advocates the maintenance of sexual difference, and refuses sexual objectification. You have certainly piqued my interest in knowing more about what motivates a desire to be "set apart," in faith and ideals, from those around us, without passing judgment on them for failing to live in accord with those principles.