Explained: what the Islamic veil shows and hides

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“As much as the veil is a fabric or a garment, it is also a concept. It can be illusion, vanity, artifice, deception, liberation, imprisonment, understatement, divination, concealment, hallucination, depression, eloquent silence, holiness, ethers beyond consciousness, the hundredth hidden name of God, the final passage in death, even the biblical Revelation, the lifting of the veil of God, signaling the so-called end of time. Writer Jennifer Heath in her massive edited volume, “The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Traditions and Politics,” written entirely by women, describes the highly controversial piece of cloth in these words.

The veil, as scholars have noted, has symbolized different things for different people over the centuries. Why and how his practice started in the first place is difficult to determine for sure.

As Heath notes in his work, “the idea of ​​veiling began when humans began to observe the mysteries of nature.” In ancient societies, however, the veil was most often associated with rank, religion, marital status, or a marker of ethnicity.

In modern times, as the veil has become most intimately associated with Islam and Islamic societies, it has had the effect of polarizing opinion on a global scale. The Sri Lankan government on Monday banned covering one’s face with veils under emergency regulations put in place following the Easter bombings in the country that killed more than 250. In recent years, the veil, especially the form in which it is worn by Islamic communities, has been banned in several countries.

Early origins

The earliest evidence of the veil is believed to be in ancient Mesopotamia, where it was worn as a sign of rank and respectability. “The rules on the veil – especially women who must wear the veil and those who could not – were carefully detailed in Assyrian law,” writes Islamic studies scholar Leila Ahmed in “Women and Gender in the Church. Islam ”.

Therefore, the wives and daughters of the “lords” were to veil themselves while prostitutes and slaves were not allowed to veil themselves. “Those caught illegally veiling were liable to flogging, to have put pitch on the head and to have their ears cut off,” she wrote.

Similar traditions were also followed in other parts of the ancient world. Ahmed writes that in classical Athens “respectable” women stayed at home and “their clothes hid them from the eyes of foreign men: a shawl was worn which could be pulled over the head like a hood.”

Judith Lynn Sebesta, editor of the book “The World of Roman Costume”, notes that in ancient Rome, women were required to wear a veil as a symbol of her husband’s authority over her. “Indeed, the black headscarf worn for centuries by women in Greece, Corsica, Sicily, Sardinia and other countries of the Christian Mediterranean is almost indistinguishable from that of rural Turkey, of the Egypt or Iran, ”writes Heath.

Modern world

In the contemporary world, the veil is most often associated with Islamic communities. A wide variety of headdresses worn by Muslim women in different parts of the world are called veils. While most Islamic traditions do not mandate the wearing of the veil, some, such as the Salafist movement, a reformist tradition within Sunni Islam, consider it compulsory for women to cover their faces in front of women. unrelated men.

The burqa is prohibited in public spaces in several countries and territories including Austria, the Canadian province of Quebec, Denmark, France, Belgium, Tajikistan, Latvia, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chad, the Republic from Congo, Gabon, the Netherlands, China and Morocco. . The Sri Lankan ordinance mentions a ban on covering the face, but remains silent on the headscarf.

A public debate had emerged in France when the burqa was banned in 2010. Arguments for and against the law centered on issues of nationalism, secularism, sexuality and security. Supporters of the ban see the veil as a security risk and an emblem of gender inequality. Those who oppose the ban, on the other hand, see it as an attack on the religious freedom of individuals.

The veil’s intimate association with Islam was highlighted again recently when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donned a black headscarf when she met members of the Muslim community after the Christchurch shooting in March.

In much of Europe and America, the Islamic veil is seen as an object that separates the West from Islam. In most countries of South Asia, on the other hand, the veil is considered the marker of Islamic identity and values. Under the Taliban, Afghan women were required to wear a burqa at all times in public.

Pakistan does not force women to wear the veil. However, the Council of Islamic Ideology, which is a constitutional body in Pakistan, maintains that it is best to cover your face, hands and feet.

India has seen intermittent protests for and against the wearing of the burqa. In August 2016, a Mangalore College of Pharmacy banned a first-year student from wearing a hijab or burqa on campus. Soon after, a group of Muslim students began to protest the ban, citing the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. A group of Hindu students then protested by wearing saffron scarves in class.

The judiciary, however, has repeatedly confirmed the personal choice of Muslim women to wear the hijab or burqa.


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