Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The meaning of the Veil

Isabel's reply to my 8/13/09 post on "acceptance, respect and toleration" contains this interesting fact.

The first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in an Assyrian legal text from the 13th century BCE, which restricted its use to noble women and forbade prostitutes and common women from adopting it.

The interesting thing is that this legal text clearly considered the veil a privilege not a restriction, because it forbade lower class women from wearing it. It's important to remember that the same social practice can have a variety of meanings depending on the social context in which it occurs. I have read about a Muslim queen in pre-British India who always appeared in public in a veil. This woman was an absolute monarch, and did not wear the veil out of humility. Instead, her veil said " I am not your plaything, and you will not be permitted the pleasure of seeing my face. Your job is to listen to me when I give you orders, not fantasize about my beauty." Remember that the Old Testament says that no one was allowed to see the face of God. In this context, the veil of a powerful queen gave a very similar message.

I don't think that the veil has that meaning for any modern Muslim woman, but it also has a very different meaning now than it did Muhammad's time. The Koran actually requires only the wives of the prophet to wear the veil. According to Karen Armstrong, this rule arose because Muhammad always consulted his wives when he made an important decision, and took their advice very seriously. Consequently, people who wanted to persuade Muhammad of anything would often talk to his wives. Understandably, young men would often try to use flirtation as a persuasive tool, and this resulted in gossip. The purpose of the veil was to remove this flirtatious element in those communications. When the rest of the women in Muhammad's community heard about this, they demanded the right to wear the veil as well, and Muhammad said in effect, "sure, why not?". Once Islam began to acquire an empire, it encountered cultures (including Byzantine Christianity) which regularly veiled women, and this right to wear the veil gradually transformed into an obligation.

What does the veil mean today? Some women say that wearing a veil in a non-Muslim culture is an expression of national pride, not an expression of weakness. I've also talked to other Muslim women who REFUSE to wear the veil for a similar reason. They say the purpose of the veil is to make you less ostentatious, and because wearing the veil in the west draws unnecessary attention, it is therefore immodest. The important point both sides are making is one I will return to again and again: the exact same action can have a different meaning and moral significance when performed in a different context. That's why it's a mistake to treat the Koran, or the Bible, or any other sacred text, as a computer algorithim that should be followed mechanically the same way in every circumstance.

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