In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, veiling part of the head or face is historically seen as a sign of propriety and modesty. Ancient Assyrian, Greek, and Persian women were at different times depicted wearing veils. Married orthodox Jewish women wear a veil or wig in public, Christian nuns wear habits which cover their head, and Amish women wear a head scarf. Veiling, nonetheless, is largely misunderstood in the United States. To Westerners, a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, or head scarf, is often seen as a sign of oppression, an antiquated social order, and gender inequality. However, what Westerners tend not to realize is that the issue of veiling is as heated and complex a debate amongst the women in the MENA region as is abortion in the United States.
In many countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, choosing to veil or remain uncovered is more symbolic of whether a woman is socially conservative or liberal, as well as emblematic of social class. In 2010 for example, The Oprah Winfrey Show filmed a special on marriage around the world from the perspective of women. One veiled Egyptian woman said on camera that her fellow unveiled Muslim Egyptian women lack religious morals. Other upper class Egyptian women argued that they chose not to veil because they are educated to know that it is not a requirement in the Qur’an. In black and white Egyptian film in the 1950s, women wore short skirts and tank tops. As that generation grew up, many of its women chose to veil, noting that they had become more religious with age.
In Saudi Arabia, women are required by law to wear the niqab in public to cover all but their eyes and hands. Yet when Saudi women travel outside their country, they often take on western attire. Somali women, on the contrary, are rarely seen without the hijab in countries that they have taken refuge. In the United Arab Emirates, women pin on the head scarf to show off fashionable hair styles. UAE-TV station Dubai One featured a special on the traditional culture which showed the Arab Gulf women of the desert historically only wore the niqab prior to marriage. What is evident across the MENA region is that the veil takes on many forms and varies in its significance of religious expression.
When France passed the law in 2004 that banned wearing religious symbols in school, including the veil, a heated backlash from women occurred across the MENA region. Even Christian women from the region denounced the ban for taking away a woman’s right to choose. What these women wanted was the right to choose and live in a society where her choice is met with religious tolerance and acceptance, whether according to conservative or liberal ideals.
In the coming years, young MENA women will need to choose for themselves what role the veil takes on in society. Women of all religions, conservative and liberal, veiled and not, have protested for women’s rights across the region since the dawn of the Arab Spring. Young women have become the new face for human rights and social equality, and will stand as an international symbol of culture. In the last decade, the veil has been an image that divides the Middle East and North Africa from Europe and the United States. I hope the choice to veil will not divide the women from each other. United, the young women of the MENA region will continue to be the emblem where religion and progress merge.
Amanda M. Riggs is a member of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Middle East Discussion Group. She is also the chair of the Africa and Middle East Committee for Women in International Trade. She worked in Egypt for many years at the UNHCR and the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. She currently works in international trade policy on the Middle East and North Africa in Washington, D.C., and she speaks Egyptian Arabic.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.