Naqiya Saifee, an 18-year-old girl from Surat in Gujarat says that she started wearing the “Rida” by her personal choice. “Some of my Muslim friends do not choose to wear it and that’s their decision”, she says.
The veil has various forms in Islam, ranging from the ‘hijab’, ‘niqab’, ‘burqa’, ‘chador’, and ‘Rida’. The Quranic verses talk about statements referring to veiling by the prophet’s wives but do not make it clear whether it applies to all Muslim women as well.
An argument can be made that the West’s decisions to ban burqas have less to do with liberation and more to do with islamophobia.
According to critics, the veil has been used as a patriarchal way of negating the male gaze and sexual desire toward female bodies. But many women who cover their heads or bodies say that it demonstrates their religious piety and submission to God.
However, covering the head or bodies does not only stand true for Islam. Jewish, Christian, and Hindu women have also covered their heads at various times in history in different parts of the world.
The question arises then why have western countries banned the veil if women are choosing to wear it willingly.
France was the first country in Western Europe to impose a ban on face-covering Islamic veils in 2010.
One of the main reasons was the view of the French people to regard headscarves worn by Muslims as a sign of oppression faced by women, which in turn is believed to be a symbol against secularism.
The French define secularism as based on three principles: the freedom of conscience, the separation of public institutions and religious organizations, and equality of all before the law regardless of their beliefs. It also includes the freedom to practice a religion that is free from religious dogma or prescriptions.
But who gets to decide what is oppressive and what is not? Certainly not the powerless Muslim women who are subjugated to these draconian laws made by non-Islamic entities and bodies.
Saifee argues that there are two extremes to veil wearing, one in the Middle Eastern countries where women are forced to wear it and in the west where they are forced to take it off. She says this removes women’s agency to control their bodies and freely express themselves. “The problem is not the clothing, but other people seeing it as something to control us and make us surrender to their rule,” she says.
She is not wrong. French and British colonizers encouraged Muslim women to remove the veil and emulate European standards. While, in African and Middle Eastern countries, the veil became a symbol of national identity and opposition to the West during independence and nationalist movements.
Proponents of the hijab say that women wear it to symbolise pride in their ethnic identity. This has increased in immigrants based in Europe and the U.S. where there has been a rise in Islamophobia.
For other women, the common headscarf has become a means of resisting standards of feminine beauty that demand more exposure. Proponents of this view argue that removing clothing for the benefit of the male gaze does not equal liberation.
Saifee also says that empowering women means giving them the power and authority to wear what they want. “Clothing plays an essential role in self-expression.”
Increasingly, burqas and hijabs have become fashionable with different designs and colours being made by designer brands. This is also true for models wearing it on ramp walks, photoshoots, and even the new trend of wearing the burkini (burka-bikini).
The other strand of thought thinks that wearing the veil is religious subjugation and the burqa has also become a symbol of Islamist radicalism and even terrorism and is increasingly being seen as a threat to efforts to integrate Muslim migrants into British and European society.
Many movies and books have illustrated this view.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini, the burqa is a symbol of control over a woman. Rasheed forcing Mariam to wear a burqa represents his possessive ownership of her. When the Taliban issues the order that all women must wear burqas, it further represents the power of all men over women under their rule.
The moral question however arises then what is empowering to women.
Saifee correctly points out that women making their own choices is what is truly liberating.
Beyond that what matters more is tackling the root causes of oppression both at home and outside such as discrimination, lack of access to services, and unequal economic opportunities.