Why The Veil?

The West and Islam view a women's sexuality and place in society differently.  In a strict Christian sense the sexual drive is considered as evil.  Women earn the ultimate grace of God by remaining celebrate with lifelong virginity as the most desirable state allowing total devotion to God.  While few women choose this course it is still the underlaying foundation of sexual attitudes.  The Virgin Mary is an example of the revered place for virgins within Christianity.  Social progress and feminism has further relaxed the view of women's sexuality in the West but Christianity in general introduces a certain amount of guilt into a women's sexuality. 

Islam starts with a premise which recognizes women as powerful and sexual beings, so powerful that their sexuality must be masked to prevent the creation of chaos and social disorder within the community of believers.  The Arabic word "fitna" refers both to social chaos and a beautiful woman, the epitome of the uncontrollable, a living representative of the dangers of sexuality and its rampant disruptive potential. 

Women are considered the most destructive element in an Islamic society.  The social structure of Islamic society is an attempt to subjugate this power and to negate its effect on men and thus allow men to devote themselves totally to God.  If a man was to submit to the alluring beauty of a woman his sexual urges would prevent his fulfilling of his social and religious duties and ruin the social structure underlaying Islamic society. 

In His creation of mankind the Islamic faith believes God distinguished man from other animals by giving us sufficient will and reason to allow control of behaviour that in other species is purely instinctual.  Although sexual relations ultimately can result in reproduction and survival of the human race, an instinctual concept, our capacity for self-control allows us to regulate this behaviour.  Even after giving man some credit for reason and self-control Islam views women as dangerous distractions that must be used for specific purposes of providing the community with offspring and quenching the tensions of the sexual instinct.

Women should in no way be an object of emotional investment or the focus of attention which ideally should be devoted to Allah alone in the form of knowledge-seeking, meditation and prayer.  Allah does not simply forbid or allow behaviour whimsically.  Islam believes God has made these decisions with our best interests at heart, guiding man away from potentially destructive behaviour and towards behaviour that allows man to achieve his greatest potential as a human being.  A women's rampant desires and irresistible attractiveness  gives them a power over men that could rival God's and therefore must be controlled at all costs.

The entire Muslim social structure could be viewed as designed to control and contain female sexuality and eliminate the sexual power of women over men.  The rules of society go to great lengths to separate the sexes and reduce contact between them.  Particularly between women and non-family males.  Many other institutions serve to reduce female power over men, such as her need for a man's permission to travel, work, marry, or divorce.  Revealingly a traditional Muslim wedding took place between two men - the groom and the bride's guardian. 

The Qur'an provides for full equality of men and women when it comes to the status of all human beings as individually sovereign and accountable before God for their beliefs and actions.  However, Islamic scripture and jurist interpretation gives men authority over women as Allah has made man superior to women.  On certain matters related to sex, Qur'anic verses apply clearly different rules of propriety and conduct to men and women.  While both men and women are commanded to cast down their gazes, only women's dress is specifically regulated.  Those Muslims who push for strict observance by women of customs and rules designed to ensure social chastity frequently reject any attempt to impose comparable restrictions on men. 

In Islamic society man's sexual instinct is regarded as natural, God given and is praised and encouraged.  Males are given control of female sexuality and in some societies given opportunities for polygamy and concubinage.  Such practices create a masculine culture and men develop modes of false strength based on acceptance of the superiority of their gender.  Females on the other hand become isolated, insecure, and forced to accept their inferior position as part of the natural order.  Women are required to be passive, shy, virtuous and agreeable to their husband's every vim and vigour.  In Islam women earn God's grace by obeying their husbands, the message is clear, Men dominate, women obey. 

The sexual oppression of women in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world is not entirely the result of an oppressive vision of sexuality based in Islam, but a combination of historical, socio-political, and economic factors.  In colonizing the Middle East the Western powers adopted the defence of women as part of their social reforms.  At the time women in the West didn't have equal rights but they weren't forced to wear veils and they were allowed to walk freely in public.  Islamic societies were threatened by the social reforms introduced by the colonizing powers.  Islamic traditionalists and Middle East nationalists responded by defending practices which even they found anachronistic as a defence to perceived and real threats to their culture. 

In Islamic societies women's rights and equality are now associated with westernization and modernization.  In defending the traditional place of women Islamic societies believe they are defending the faith against the perceived godless and corrupt West.  The place of women in Islamic societies is considered  in the same light as modernization and the fundamentalists oppose any change based on Western thought.

The religious and nationalist fundamentalists make utmost use of this perceived threat against Muslim identity by constructing a "Muslim" or "national" female identity as a last sphere of control against the "enemy" the West.  The power of the religious right is rising and they have placed the construction of an "Islamic" female sexual identity and the control of their sexuality at the forefront of its expression of power.  Women are being pressured to become bearers of a structured group identity and the control of their sexuality is at the heart of many fundamentalist agendas.  The dress code for women is high on the agendas of the Islamic religious right as a highly visible demonstration of Islamic political power.  Aware of the power of the imagery of veiling, particularly in the West, the Islamic religious right has sought to proscribe or violently enforce extreme veiling as an universal uniform for Muslim women throughout the world.

The Islamic faith is claimed to be perfect by many of its more extremist followers.  Being perfect implies there is no need for change and criticism is not permitted and offenders are threatened with one form of punishment or another.  The claim of perfection prevents any change of a women's place in Islamic society and firmly entrenches the control of women by men.

Those Muslims who push for strict observance by women of customs and rules designed to ensure social chastity frequently reject any attempt to impose comparable restrictions on men.  Even when parallel restrictions are accepted in theory there is no push for accountability for male transgressions.  When was the last time a man was threatened with stoning for adultery?  The application of different rules and consequences to the same cases is the classic definition of a double standard.  Right-wing and fundamentalist members of the Islamic faith are unwilling to acknowledge either the existence of double standards or its roots in key source texts of Islam.  The result is that Muslim men have free reign in Islamic countries with little restraining influence from women.  Countries where women have greater equality to men are also the countries that are least aggressive in their behaviour as global citizens.

The Islamic faith may have started off with good ideals but has taken a harsh course in regards to women's rights.  The failure to recognize women as being equal to men has the faith locked in a primitive state similar to western religions before the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment.  With the Islamic right-wing and fundamentalists hijacking the control of women's sexuality and dress for political and social control purposes it will be a long struggle for Muslim women to gain their proper status within Islamic societies.

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Revised January 24, 2005