By Dr Bhaskar
28 October, 2003
The veil is a fascinating piece of clothing.
It seems to be present in almost all cultures throughout the centuries.
I grew up seeing women draped in veils and saw them in more than 40
countries around the world while working. Sometimes it was funny when
I saw a veiled lady in Anne Summers, sometimes it was a bit of a fright
when me and my friend AJ saw this lady completely veiled, top to bottom
in black, but having a pair of spectacles perched over the veil (something
like cousin Itt in the Adam's Family Values). Sometimes it was pity
when I saw a woman wearing very tattered, therefore, revealing clothes,
carrying a load of bricks on her head, but still amazingly very conscious
of her veil down to her shoulders. Then again it was religious awe which
struck me in Eastern Europe, looking at veiled women pouring into church.
Wondering about it, I decided to take a bit of a deeper look at what
drove women to hide their faces.
In Corinthians I
11:3-10,16, St. Paul's views on the veil come across pretty strongly
and I quote: "Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered
dishonours his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her
head unveiled dishonours her head - it is the same as if her head were
shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off
her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven,
let her wear a veil... That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her
head, because of the angels... If anyone is disposed to be contentious,
we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God."
That seems to be
the start of the entire issue of the veils. In the 1917 Code of Canon
Law, it is clearly stated that women must cover their heads. It has
come down since the ages, but it was mainly in the last century when
the strictures were slightly relaxed in the hallowed precincts of the
Vatican around 1960. Archbishop Annibale Bugnini lead a group, which
significantly reformed the liturgy relating to Catholic mass. This was
during the time of Pope Paul VI and besides other rationalisation of
the rites, the requirement to be veiled was dropped. This Vatican II
reform was picked up by other churches as well, and now it seems that
the veil is only required in church and that too only for communion
and weddings. Mind you, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini was chucked out
of the position of power in the Vatican and sent to Iran for being a
suspected mason. Go figure.
So a man (St. Paul)
decreed that man was created for God and woman was created for man and,
umm, somehow the veil comes into the picture. I did not quite get the
connection, but it was a bit of a long time back, 2000 odd years to
be precise. So, women have been wearing the veil to show submission
to authority, to God and men! The veil was supposed to be a sign of
modesty and chastity. Even in the Old Testament, removing the veil was
seen as a way to humiliate a woman, punish adulteresses etc. (Numbers
5:12-18, Isaiah 3:16-17, Song of Solomon 5:7). Some Christian sects
such as the Amish and Mennonites insist on females being veiled to this
day, as a way of being modest and chaste and as a symbol of the woman's
subjection to man and to God. This modesty and chastity bit will be
a recurring theme in other religions too, as we shall see.
Then again great
men like Moses also wore a veil. The Talmud says in (34:29-33) "...and
when Moses had finished speaking with the Israelites, he put a veil
over his face". Apparently he was very humble and wore a veil to
hide the light of his face. The book of Isaiah in the Torah relates
how a husband has to provide his wife with the basic necessities such
as food, shelter and a head-dress (veil).
In ancient times,
Jewish women would go out in public in a full veil as well, as a bare
head was considered "nudity" and the woman could be fined
a serious amount (Numbers 5:18, Isaiah 3:17, II Maccabees 4:6, Sus.
32). A man could even divorce his wife if she was found bareheaded in
public. While most Jewish communities have moved on since then, there
are still some where Jewish ladies would go as far as to shave their
heads and then cover it with a wig or perhaps a handkerchief or a small
veil. Currently, only during weddings is a veil required, but that too
is observed more in the breach than stringently.
Moving to India,
the status of women was right at the bottom of the totem pole of society.
Sanskrit literature is replete with instances where women have to wear
veils. It is not surprising, as the laws of Manu clearly state that
the status of women is completely dependent on the man. The various
religious texts have got a bewildering array of proscriptions and rules
for the behaviour of women, all for modesty and chastity's sake. Scholars
such as Bhavabuti, Grants, Vakaspati and Sriharsh all have mentioned
how women have to dress, behave and generally conduct themselves in
public, which was generally under a veil, figuratively and literally.
India is a huge country and traditions relating to women differed significantly
from place to place. Women were right oppressed across the board, horrible
practises such as Sati, shunning of widows, discrimination etc. was
With the British
rule and then following on with independence, many atrocious practises
were eradicated from the rule book and slowly died away in real life
as well, although if one walks around in certain parts of the country
it still looks like the dark ages to me as far as the status of women
goes anyway. Still, veiling as a measure of modesty and chastity seems
to be pretty much prevalent across the country. Even now, going into
the remote rural areas, one would find that veils are very common indeed.
In the urban areas, it has pretty much disappeared from day to day life,
but in weddings (specially the bride), the veil comes on.
So that was the
Hindu woman, reasonably emancipated but still a long way to go yet compared
to her western counterparts. What about the Muslim woman? Growing up
in a Muslim town, I will remiss, if I do not mention the other great
religion, Islam. Well, needless to say that is making most of the waves
these days. France and Germany want to ban them, stories circulating
in the media about photographs of faces not being allowed to be taken
for driving licences in the states, Turkey an Islamic country and its
reaction to veils in schools, women getting acid thrown on their faces
and threats made if they aren't veiled in Pakistan and Bangladesh and
so on and so forth. What does the scripture say about this?
Sura 24:31 in the
Quran is the key to this entire debate. Shakir's translation of this
sura goes as follows: "And say to the believing women that they
cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display
their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their
head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except
to their husbands or their fathers... and let them not strike their
feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn
to Allah all of you, O believers! So that you may be successful."
This is the crux of the matter and reading this translation, its pretty
clear that veiling is compulsory and the woman is not to show herself
except to her husband or close relatives. There are also many other
verses which talk about modesty like 33:59 and 24:30. This url http://www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org/english/books/socialsystem/chapter_08.html,
gives a good overview of the various opinions and discussions around
this issue (skip the "foaming" bits in the beginning). Even
in Islam great men have also been known to wear a veil, the Prophet
wore it at times and the Tuareg men wear it all the time.
For a non-Muslim
like me, the question which comes up is - Why is there such a huge hoo
haa about veils when it comes to Muslim women? It has suddenly taken
up such a huge significance that it is almost impossible to discuss
this issue logically. If you look at the above mentioned url, the discussion
is arcane, dependent on interpretations of Arabic words, the juxtaposition
of words into sentences, references galore to other verses, sura's and
hadith's, and by the time you come to the end of the long document you
are no longer sure of where they stand or what they mean. Mixing my
metaphors and phrases horribly, Salome had an easier time with the seven
veils than me dancing around this topic.
For another perspective
of this issue, look at what Professor Ibrahim Syed of the University
of Louisville, Kentucky, USA says in http://www.geocities.com/forpeoplewhothink/Topics/Women_in_Islam_Syed.html
He explores the history of the hijab (veil), how only the prophet's
wives were explicitly enjoined to wear it, how modesty and not the veil
is a requirement for all women. All in all, a bit difficult to make
out who to go for. Looking at actual implementations around the Muslim
world doesn't help either. Iran, which is a theocracy, had Ayatollah
Khomeini insisting that women wear the full veil and chador. The Iranian
women revolted and there were huge demonstrations. The sainted Ayatollah
quickly shifted gears and said that the chador was not necessary but
modesty is. The position of various Islamic countries differ as to their
requirements for women to be veiled. Malaysia doesn't ask, but most
have a head covering, India doesn't have any requirements, nor does
Bangladesh or Pakistan. The gulf countries have requirements, but Egypt
does not. We all know about Afghanistan, but seems like it is driven
more by tradition than Islamic injunctions and its very tribal to boot.
Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon are quite liberated and no requirement
is there for any kind of head covering or veils. Turkey had a reverse
requirement for schools, so who is right?
Reading the stories
of the women who have freely and voluntarily taken the veil, it seems
like their motivations range from a desire to be seen separate from
the mass of other women, to portray their faith, to affirm it in a visible
manner and in certain cases, to fulfil cultural traditions. There are
other reasons as well. The current western backlash against Islam has
been reported as one of the bigger reasons why more and more women have
been veiling themselves, defiance and thumbing their noses at their
western interlocutors. For example, prior to the liberation of Afghanistan
from the Taliban, the western news would be full of how oppressed the
women of Afghanistan were and the veil was particularly held up as a
very visible symbol of oppression. Now that the dreaded Taliban have
gone with their religious police and strange requirements, women are
still wearing the burqa in Afghanistan. Cultural factors? Traditions?
Needless to say,
the veil for the Muslim woman is far more prevalent than the others.
I am sure somebody will ask and has asked why this is so? Man supremacy?
Religious edicts? Cultural traditions? Modesty? Chastity? Better people
than me have tried to explain this and I would not like to get into
that discussion but I would say this, pushing people to stop wearing
the hijab is not going to work (are you listening, Europe?), pushing
people to wear the hijab is forcing one's religious beliefs down somebody's
throat and may well give rise to oppression (very easy to do so, as
I found out during my research for this piece). I will end with a quote
from the good Professor Syed, which stuck me as a wonderfully sculpted
and a beautiful way of looking at God and life: "In the matter
of hijab, the conscience of an honest, sincere believer alone can be
the true judge, as has been said by the Noble Prophet: Ask for the verdict
of your conscience and discard what pricks it." This goes for all
religions, your relationship with your god (s) is your own, you define
it the way you want according to the degree of faith in your heart,
but using the name of God to oppress women is cowardly and should be
shunned, may your conscience be pricked.
All this to be taken
with a grain of salt!
(Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta,
currently working on a doctorate at Kings College in International Relations
and Terrorism, also holds a Doctorate in Finance and Artificial Intelligence
from Manchester Business School. He works in the City of London in various
capacities in the Banking Sector. He also lectures at several British