I returned recently from a week in France where a debate is raging over whether Muslim women should be permitted to wear the burqa, the traditional Middle Eastern garment that covers not only the whole body, but the face as well. President Nicholas Sarkozy unleashed a firestorm of controversy with his recent call for a ban against the veil, with supporters calling it a necessary stance to protect women’s rights, and opponents decrying the proclamation as racist and symbolic of Europe’s bigotry towards its Muslim population.
But what is really going on here? Why does a simple choice of women’s attire inspire such fierce emotion? What is it about the veil that brings out such a visceral response? The issue that is not being examined in this debate is one that is perhaps too close for comfort, too sensitive to examine in a post-modern world where assumptions about male and female identities are wrapped in decades of political ideology. The question is not about banning efforts by Muslim men to forcibly wrap women in burqas against their will. The question is over whether Muslim women who freely choose to don the veil should be legally prevented from doing so.
So the real question beneath the debate, the question that is too troubling to ask aloud, is whether there is something about the veil that is actually attractive to some women, and what that means for Western sacred cows about potential differences in masculine and feminine psychology.
I have been forced to look deeply into the issues of masculine and feminine dynamics in recent days. The publication of my novel, Mother of the Believers, which tells the birth of Islam from the perspective of Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha, has pulled me into the heart of modern discussions regarding the role of women in Islam. On my book tour through the United States, I have found myself at the center of impassioned arguments about women’s rights in the Islamic world and the intention behind ancient traditions such as veiling.
I have often found myself standing silent as women in the audience argue the issues among themselves with great passion and intensity. My role as an observer among these debates has allowed me to come to certain perceptions that might surprise both men and women used to speaking of women’s rights in the language of modern feminism. And the most startling perception, certainly for me, is that for many women, power is not defined in masculine terms of leadership over others, but in terms of social identity. And for many women, how their bodies are perceived by others is deeply central to their sense of who they are and their power over the world. And I have learned that for some women, the veil is actually a representation of an ancient kind of power, one that is rarely acknowledged in polite circles today – the power of feminine mystique.
Before I wade further into the dangerous waters of post-feminist social critique, I would like to acknowledge a point that opponents of the burqa have made – that the veil is not an Islamic religious requirement. They are correct. The veil predates Islam and was actually invented by Byzantine Christians and subsequently adopted by Zoroastrian Persians, long before Muslims appeared on the scene. In fact, the ironic social origin of the veil is that it was once used as a mark of power, not oppression.
Wealthy Christian women wore veils as a sign of high social status and nobility, while women who were unveiled in Byzantine culture were denigrated as low class, and indeed prostitutes in Byzantium would go about unveiled as a means of advertising their wares. “Respectable” Christian women believed that showing their beauty to all and sundry was cheap and demeaning. This Christian social tradition was not widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia. Like their Semitic sisters among Jews, Arab women would often wear headscarves, but face veiling was uncommon.
As I discuss in my novel, the only women that were required to be veiled in the early days of Islam were the wives of Prophet Muhammad, known in the Qur’an as “Mothers of the Believers.” Their role was to serve as the spiritual matrons of the Muslim community, and as a result they were required to live and dress differently from other women to designate their status. According to early historical sources, the veil was introduced for the Mothers after the the Prophet’s enemies taunted them and subjected them to demeaning slurs.
The triggering incident (which I recount in my novel) occurred when Aisha, a beautiful and charismatic woman, was being too forward at a social gathering, leading men at the event to ogle her and speak in demeaning terms about a woman they were supposed to revere as a spiritual guide. Shortly thereafter, the Qur’an commanded the Mothers to speak to men “through a curtain” so that their dignity would be preserved and harassment minimized.
This unusual requirement of veiling remained limited to the Mothers of the Believers and was not extended to the entire Muslim community. After Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Muslims conquered the neighboring Byzantine and Persian empires, where they first encountered widespread veiling among the upper classes. The egalitarian Arabs were offended by the social hierarchies of their conquered subjects, and Muslim leaders began to encourage veiling across every social spectrum to neutralize the haughty pretenses of aristocracy. So the mass introduction of the veil in the Middle East was originally an effort at elevating lower classes and defusing the privileges of the wealthy. While hard to imagine today, the veil was actually tool of social progress in a world with very different values.
So the critics of burqas are only partially correct – the veil is not Islamic in origin, but was definitely used by Muslims as a means of social engineering in the early days of the religion. Flash forward to the 21st century, where the veil no longer holds the same meaning as it did for Byzantine Christians. Today the veil is perceived by many in the West in opposite terms from its social origins, as a sign of oppression rather than nobility. And thus we come to the debate raging in France and much of Europe over whether the veil should be banished from the public sphere.
But the question then arises as to why Muslim women in free and open societies choose to don the veil in the first place. Certainly for some women, it is the result of social pressure from family members, and so their choice in the matter is not truly free. But in my talks with Muslim women, I was intrigued to hear stories from converts who have chosen to don the burqa despite strong social pressure from family and friends against it.
For these women, the veil represents something that is never raised in the modern debate. It represents an embrace of mystery. A reclamation of feminine mystique. An embrace of an age-old belief that less is more, that the power of the feminine is heightened by the allure of the unseen. Throughout human history, poets have written of love sparked just by seeing a glimpse of a woman’s eyes. The veil has often been the ultimate symbol of feminine coyness that activates masculine desire, the quest for the hidden pearl that sparks the dance of Eros. For some women throughout history, the veil has been a symbol of femininity on a deeply primordial level.
There is a strange duality to Western attitudes toward women’s liberation. Women are encouraged to pursue and master traditionally male roles in the worlds of business and politics. And yet they are also valued primarily for their physical looks and encouraged to display their charms at every opportunity. And so a strange schizophrenia has set in, where women are encouraged to be masculine in their ambitions while pressured to flaunt their feminine sexuality in public. Carla Bruni, the First Lady of France, is held up as an archetype of the empowered European woman, and is widely admired in the press for her beauty and style. But her intelligence and political savvy are rarely mentioned as assets.
The Muslim argument for the value of modest dress, whether it be the burqa or the less-restrictive hijab (headscarf) has always centered on a critique of the demeaning attitudes of the West toward women’s bodies. As the covers of popular magazines from Cosmopolitan (for women) to Maxim (for men) reveal, women’s social value in the West is determined by the size of their breasts, the beauty of their curves, the commoditization of their flesh. The end result has been a society in which women struggle with their self-esteem due to their perceived attractiveness. Eating disorders among women are commonplace, and even teenage girls feel pressured to get breast implants to increase their social value. Muslim women who choose to don modest dress say they are making a feminist stance against this cheapening of their bodies by modern culture. For them, wearing modest dress is the contemporary equivalent of burning their bras.
Undoubtedly others would disagree. But then we face the crux of the problem – is it the place of the state to define for women what values they should have? How they should see themselves, their clothes and their bodies? Even if the French are able to successfully enact a ban on the burqa, the attitudes behind the veil will not go away. The argument that the veil serves as an automatic barrier to Muslim women achieving leadership positions in business and politics is false. In my novel, I demonstrate how the Prophet’s wife Aisha, was able to become a politician, a scholar, a poet and a military commander – all while donning the veil. Muslim women from the Egyptian queen Shagrat al-Dur to the Mughal empress Nur Jahan have ruled nations from behind a veil. The burqa is not an automatic barrier to success in the public sphere for women. But more importantly, those women who have no desire to embark on such professions will not be coerced into doing so by regulating how they choose to cover their bodies.
It appears that some opponents of the the veil are actually more upset about the choice many women make to continue in traditional lifestyles even though other opportunities are available to them. But many women have no desire to embrace traditionally masculine ambitions, and will not do so no matter how much others try to force them to change. And efforts to compel Muslim women will only be met by anger and resentment. If some women are required by the state to dress in a fashion they find too revealing, even demeaning, there will only be a calcification of rebellion, a hardening of resistance to social control. The unrest that Europe faces with its Muslim population will only increase in intensity. As demographics change, as Europe inevitably moves toward Muslim social prominence, the tensions between the self-proclaimed arbiters of identity and their unwilling subjects will explode.
With all that said, here are my personal opinions on the matter, for whatever they are worth. I am a believer that every society has a right to regulate conduct within its borders, including how people are dressed. France has as much right to ban the burqa as Iran has to require it. But I believe that people should be honest about their motivations in either case. In both instances, such rules are the instruments of control freaks attempting to tell women how to think and feel about themselves based on clothing. And in my experience, efforts to legislate thoughts always fail. As we have seen in recent years, Iranian women have been pushing for greater freedom of dress, despite decades of indoctrination by the country’s clerics. At the same time, Muslim women have been pushing for the right to be left alone in Europe, to dress as they wish, despite intense social pressure to conform. The European couture police will no more be successful in compelling Muslim women to think in a certain way than have been the mullahs in the Middle East.
Specifically with regard to France, my own experience in that beautiful country (I lived in Paris for several months in 2007) leads me to believe that the controversy over the burqa is not really about women’s rights. It is about preserving a certain cultural heritage from the onslaught of foreign values and perspectives. The burqa controversy is really about attempting to save a beleaguered French identity from being replaced by a new and alien social tradition that is spreading through the power of demographics. But social engineering is a poor tool to curtail the realities of reproduction. At current birth rates, Muslims will become a numerically influential community inside France within this century. The same is true for many other nations in Europe. Efforts to stem the power of Muslim culture from reshaping European identity are as pointless as trying to hold back a river with one’s hands.
Of course, fear of change is understandable. But the burqa debate is just the tip of something darker, even sinister, within European culture today. It is based on a hatred of the other that arises from Europe’s unacknowledged racism toward its immigrant population. This fear against Muslims has led to some truly horrifying incidents of violence in Europe. A few days ago, a pregnant Muslim woman in Germany was murdered while testifying in court against a man who had subjected her to slurs for wearing a headscarf. Marwa el-Sherbini was stabbed 18 times by the man she had accused of racist bullying. Her three-year-old son watched in horror as his mother was killed in broad daylight, inside a court of law. Marwa’s husband was shot by court guards when he attempted to save her life.
This truly sickening incident has received almost no media coverage in Europe, even though Marwa has become a heroine and a martyr throughout the Muslim world. The fact that Europeans have chosen to ignore the brutal murder of a woman whose only crime was that she covered her head with a piece of cloth, reveals the real issues beneath the burqa debate. It is ultimately not about women’s rights, but about power over immigrants. Marwa was no weak and submissive Muslim woman. She was highly educated, a noted athlete (she was a national handball champion in Egypt), and her husband a genetic engineer seeking his PhD. Marwa represented the future of Europe’s Muslim immigrants – empowered, educated and strong. And she was butchered like an animal for having the audacity to dress differently. The fact that her death has not been a source of European soul-searching suggests that some truths are too painful to face.
The debate over Muslim dress and women’s rights will continue. But it needs to be seen in a broader context of cultural values and history. There is much that Europe, with its ancient history and traditions, can add to the melting pot of Islamic identity. And there are important things that Muslims can remind their Western neighbors, including the value of traditional masculine and feminine dynamics. By showing respect for Muslim women’s choices in dress, the veil can paradoxically become an instrument to lift the barriers that separate human beings from each other.