Sex, veils and stereotypes

Cloak of modesty, sexy accessory or symbol of oppression? Yasmin Alibha i-Brown discovers that wearing the traditional Islamic `hejab' may not be what it seems

Two years ago, Shahida, a young Muslim college student in London, took on the hejab to assert her Muslim identity, much to the consternation of her middle-class Westernised family. Last month, she decided to give it up.

Her reasons? Receipt of another anonymous letter from a young white student, declaring his lust for her in no uncertain terms. He wanted to rip her clothes off and possess her, he said, because she seemed so utterly unattainable. To her astonishment, a Muslim male student had also started whispering suggestive things to her as she walked past, all about how her modesty turned him on.

This is not an isolated case. The veil draws to it and releases all sorts of contradictory meanings and heightened emotions which can shock even those who take the decision to wear it for rational and understandable reasons. After an article I wrote about Muslim women in Bosnia - photographed in hejab - I had five letters from white men telling me how intensely desirable they found women who covered themselves. Interviews on the subject I recently conducted with men in London were equally disturbing.

Although only one of them found the hejab distasteful, and some were hostile to the rise of Islam in Britain, many of the men confessed that there was something challenging and arousing about veiled women. A dashing young designer spoke with some ferocity against "bloody feminists" who had emasculated men and against women who invited men to "take them sexually by exposing everything". What he wanted was one of these demure ladies who seemed so pure and serious and precious.

Another man, ardently obsessed with the Eastern babe fantasy, said it must be like unwrapping a Christmas present. Yet another spoke earnestly about how he desperately wanted a relationship with such a woman because he could be sure that she had not beensleeping around. Haleh Afshar, an Iranian academic and writer, told me how a policeman wrote her a six-page letter begging for pictures of women in veils.

None of this is surprising. The eroticisation of purity has always been part of the Western cultural tradition; conflicting images permeate Eastern life, too. Just as lifting the bride's veil is a quivering moment in Hollywood films, unveiling a (virginal) woman on her wedding night is the emotional high point of most Hindi films. In the more vulgar variety, the heroine will throw off her black robes half way through an awful song to reveal as much as she is allowed by the censors. Pornograph e rs and fashion designers on the subcontinent (mainly in India) also regularly subvert and appropriate the real purpose and significance of the hejab.

The appeal of the forbidden goes back at least to Victorian men such as the explorer Richard Burton, who despised the East but harboured insatiable fantasies about the hidden, assumed sensuality of Islamic women. This was, argues the writer Dr Rana Kabbani, because they wanted possession of something they knew they had no access to; it showed them that however much they were the dominant power, one part of Islamic society would always elude them. Hence the infuriation and the desire.

There is the same schizophrenia now - with some added twists. The French go apoplectic over schoolgirls covering their heads, but excitedly applaud models on Parisian catwalks swirling about in chiffon veils and harem trousers. It is all right to use theveil to titillate the senses and to sell products, but not to protect yourself from male attention. For a society consumed on the one hand by Islamaphobia and by the commercialisation of sex on the other, the hejab is an affront on both counts.

Hence Muslim women's motivation for wearing the hejab - to feel connected to their religious roots, to de-sex themselves in order to be taken seriously, to avoid being molested - is being thwarted.

Yasmine, whose father is Pakistani and mother an English convert to Islam, decided to take on the hejab when she started at university in London. Modesty, she felt, marked her out, got her noticed and respected by her lecturers, especially those who takemore than a professional interest in the female students. She thought it would help to change stereotyped perceptions if she, a veiled Muslim woman, gave up her seat to an old lady, or read (as she does) Aristotle's Poetics on the train, or rode a Harley-Davidson (as she wants to). She was also trying to test people who are not threatened by a "bum skimming skirt" but are petrified by a headscarf which, she sweetly points out, is what Christ's mother is often shown wearing.

But now Yasmine is less sure whether wearing a hejab is possible. Apart from becoming the object of male lust, women like herself become inadvertently identified with militant Islamic groups.

The feminist reaction to the hejab is caught in a similar labyrinth. The majority of white feminists dogmatically see it as a sign of male oppression, even though increasing numbers of Muslim women in Europe are actually choosing to take it on. Some Muslim feminists agree with this view and argue (quite plausibly) that the choice is often the result of brainwashing or disenchantment with the West. Others reject these views as sophistry. Choice, they say is what feminism ought to be about - even when thechoices are unacceptable to other feminists. There are independent women who do find their sense of self confirmed by the hejab.

But then how do you distinguish between those who have freely made the decision and those who are forced by families or young male militants to wear a veil? What about the Algerian women who are apparently being attacked and even killed for not wearing the hejab?

And what about those who have changed their minds? Afshar, in her study of three generations of Muslim women in Bradford, finds that many of the same young women who opted for the hejab when emotions were high after the Rushdie crisis, now feel they havebecome victims of fundamentalism: if they don't wear a hejab, their brothers force them to.

Meanwhile, many Iranian women who took on the veil when they were part of the revolution are now resisting it. Earlier this year, an Iranian child psychiatrist, Homa Darabi, set her veil alight and burnt herself to death in protest at the renewed subjugation of women in Iran. These women are not like the middle-class women of previous generations who discarded seclusion and the hejab in order to join what they thought was the progressive Western world. They took on the hejab for radical reasons and to reject what their mothers had done. Now they find they are being denied basic freedoms.

Is it right, then, that European Muslim women who have taken on the hejab should ignore these grotesque injustices just because acknowledging them would interfere with the clarity of their own motives?

There are other reasons, say Kabbani, Afshar and others, why the whole issue needs to be re-thought. The hejab is not as strictly Islamic as it is professed to be. It was a practice taken on by middle-class Muslim women in the seventh century partly because that was the tradition of the (Christian) Byzantines, who wanted to keep themselves aloof from the masses.

Michelle Messaoudi, a French convert, says that the Koran asks women simply to dress modestly and this can be interpreted creatively: by wearing trousers and a loose scarf, for example. Thus Muslim women can achieve a definable identity while remaining part of the occidental world - enabling them to move into desirable careers and take opportunities that might otherwise be denied them. Prominent Muslim women such as the Channel4 newscasters Zeinab Badawi and Shanaz Pakravan seem to be doing just that.

The hejab has proved to be an important cultural and political touchstone. It has revealed the limits (and hypocrisy) of liberal tolerance and feminist understanding. It shows that even liberal democracies like France are capable of religious persecution. It has given dignity and a sense of belonging to European Muslims - including, these days, those in Bosnia, where young women have started wearing veils for the first time ever.

It is an important reminder that not everyone is falling over themselves to join the materialistic, individualistic circus of the West and that people do need faith and religion. And it is also true that the hejab liberates women from the agony of livingup to the dictates of fashion, and challenges the idea, popularised by Madonna, that a woman becomes more free, the more she flaunts herself. Some women feel it is empowering to be in a position to observe men whilst keeping themselves hidden.

But despite all this, the hejab is now so invested with different (and sometimes appalling) connotations that it is not possible to extract the meaning you wish to promote and hope the world will somehow understand.

Even more important, many of those involved in the struggles to negotiate a legitimate place for Islam in the new Europe feel that the hejab is becoming a damaging distraction, a crude emblem that polarises people and helps to justify - as in France - the exclusion and maltreatment of Muslims.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

    £15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

    Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map