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Is The Veil A Symbol Of Oppression? - Facts & Infographic

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The Story Of The Veil

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines veil as "a length of cloth worn by women as a covering for the head and shoulders and often especially in Eastern countries for the face; specifically: the outer covering of a nun's headdress". The veil is a piece of clothing worn with the intent to cover the head, face, or torso and is associated usually with women.

The wearing of the veil has deep-rooted religious undertones. While the origins of the veil were perhaps intended to set apart a sacred object or person, the socio-cultural and gender segregation functions of the veil have evolved over time. The veil has been a matter of heated debate, more so in recent times.

The practice of using a veil to cover the head, face, or body is an ancient one and has been found across religions, cultures, and geographies. Among the earliest recorded instances of veiling by women are Assyrian texts from the 13th century BC. The Mycenaean Greek and elite Persian women are known to have used veils. In India, the Vedas refer to veils indicating that the practice could have been prevalent at the time they were written.

Upper class Anglo-Saxon women of the 12th century AD were known to have worn fitted veils that covered most of their faces. Veils have been a symbol of sanctity, mourning, seclusion, chastity, and seduction - depending on the culture and the context.


Common Veils From Around the World

Al-AmiraThe Al-Amira is a two-piece headscarf that includes a fitted cap and a scarf draped over it.

Burka – The burka is a full veil that covers the entire face and body of a woman. It leaves a netted screen for the woman to see through.

Chadar – The Chadar is a long cloak-like garment used as a veil in many parts of southern Asia and Iran. The Chadar or Chador is worn over a smaller headscarf.

Coif - While early coifs were fitted headgear, in modern times, a white coif and black veil are part of a Christian nun's habit.

Doa GaunThe Doa Gaun is a cotton veil that is rather long, and is tied back with a ribbon. It is usually ceremonial and is intricately patterned.

Dupatta The Dupatta is a long rectangular piece of cloth used by many communities in northern and eastern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other Asian countries. It is draped over regular clothes as a mark of respect and is worn regularly despite its ceremonial importance.

EsarpThe Esarp is a square scarf, usually silk, which is draped around the head and neck. The Esarp is a fashion statement in countries like Turkey where it comes in many patterns and designs.

GeleWorn mostly by women in Western Africa, the Gele is a large head tie, usually bright in colors and festive in design, and is wrapped around the head.

Ghunghat – Traditionally worn by Indian Hindu women, the Gunghat is an extension of a saree that is draped across the head and hides the face partially or fully.

HijabHijab is the generic name for a number of Islamic headscarves. Usually the Hijab is a triangular piece of cloth worn around the head and neck, which leaves the face visible.

Khimar – The Khimar is a cloak-like veil that is worn to cover the head, neck, shoulders and the upper part of the woman’s body, leaving only the face clear.

Niqab A Niqab is a face veil that leaves the area around the eyes clear. Usually black, Niqabs are popular in Afghanistan, the Middle East and most Arab nations.

Shayla - The Shayla is a long headscarf worn primarily in the Gulf region. It is rectangular and worn around the head and pinned to the shoulder.

Tudung - Popular with Malaysian and Indonesian women, the Tudung is a layered and patterned one-piece scarf that allows for a clear face.

Wedding VeilsWedding veils worn across the Christian world come in different types. The most common among these are Mantilla, Bouffant, Fingertip, Elbow, Blusher, Ballerina, and Flyaway


Religion And Veil Culture

Veils and head coverings form an important part of most of the major religions of the world. While veils may be part of the attire donned by members of religious sects or clergy in some parts of the world, they are part of everyday clothing and religious injunctions in others, and part of special ceremonies in yet others.

The veil became a common symbol of sanctity and propriety in the ancient Greek and Roman societies. The veil is still mandatory in many religious groups

Judaism Traditional Jewish women often wear veils and head coverings during prayers or weddings and other ceremonial occasions.

Christianity – While in the bygone centuries, Christian women frequently wore the veil, in modern days veils have remained only part of the nun’s attire or a part of the Christian bride’s wedding outfit.

Islam – The Islamic veils are the most debated, banned, endorsed, and protested across the world. While the veil is a mandatory part of a woman’s attire according to the religion, many Islamic women, especially from the west, are embracing the veils of their own volition. Veils are viewed as symbols of subjugation and oppression especially in the Middle East and many Eastern nations.

Sikhism – Men and women are expected to cover their heads while entering places of worship. Veils and most other injunctions have been done away with as part of the progressive approach of this religion.

Hinduism – Hinduism has very conflicting views about veils. While head coverings are common in many parts of north India, they are more social requirements than religious. In some parts of south India, veils are considered inauspicious and associated with misfortune.


Veil-wearing Women & Public Offices

  • Sheikh Hasina - Prime Minister of Bangladesh

  • Benazir Bhutto - Former Prime Minister of Pakistan

  • Fawzia Koofi - Member of Parliament, Kabul Vice President of the National Assembly

  • Begum Khaleda Zia - Former Prime Minister of Bangladesh

  • Hayrünnisa Gül - First Lady of Turkey

  • Safia Farkash - Former Libyan First Lady

  • Azam Sadat Farahi - First Lady of Iran

  • Najla Mahmoud - First Lady of Egypt


Do Women Want to Wear Veils?

In 2011, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced a ban on veils and face coverings including Niqabs for people swearing their oath of citizenship. This sparked off the debate – Do women want to wear veils? Is wearing a veil a form of oppression against women or should women be free to choose the veil as a symbol of their religious freedom and personal choice?

A 2010 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project concluded that over 82% French respondents supported the ban on veils. According to the poll 71% in Germany, 62% in Britain and 59% in Spain said they would support a similar ban. Only about 28% of the US citizens surveyed were in support of the ban. About 17% in France, 28% in Germany, 32% in Britain, 37% in Spain, and 65% in the US disapprove of the ban.

February 1 is celebrated as World Hijab Day in over 50 countries. Bangladeshi American, Nazma Khan, initiated the commemoration. On this day, both Muslim and non-Muslim women wear the Hijab in a show of support towards the personal freedom to wear veils of one's choice. The World Hijab Day movement has been formed almost completely over social-networking sites. It encourages non-Muslim women and Muslim women alike to wear the Hijab and cherish the experience as part an attempt to foster better understanding. Iran's Women Soccer Team was banned from the 2012 Olympics in the second round of qualifiers because of their use of Hijabs. Much criticism followed the incidence.


Veils, Veil Bans, and Protests

France - On April 11, 2011, France became the first European nation to ban the full-face Islamic veil in all public places. A penalty of €150 was imposed on all women wearing a full-face veil. They also had to undergo an instruction in citizenship. Anyone inciting or forcing a woman to wear a veil would face a €30,000 ban. Protests which had been raging since 2004, when the country introduced a ban on Muslim headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols, boiled over and country’s Muslim population of five million has been resisting the ban.

Belgium – In July 23, 2011, Belgium became the second European nation after France to ban "any clothing that obscures the identity of the wearer in places like parks and on the street". The law does not explicitly mention the Niqab and the Burka but includes the full-face veils. Violators of the law in Belgium face fine of €137.50 and up to seven days imprisonment. Belgian MPs went on record to say that full face veils such as the Burka or the Niqab were a symbol of oppression against women. A number of Islamic women protested the law.

Tunisia – Back in 1981, Tunisia had introduced a ban against Islamic headscarves and veils in public places. In 2006, on the insistence of President Zine El-abidine Ben Ali, the police came down heavily on veiled Muslim women of the country. The ban has not been enforced following the Jasmine Revolution of 2010-2011 though some places still continue with the ban.

Turkey – In enforcing a policy of constitutional secularism, Turkey has traditionally banned women from wearing headscarves in public places. The ban was not uniformly enforced. The Muslim majority population in the country started to face severe restrictions through the last decade when women wearing headscarves were prohibited from working in public offices, attending schools and universities. In 2010, universities in Turkey abandoned the official prohibition on women wearing headscarves.

Syria – Syria's minister of higher education, Ghiyath Barakat, invited much criticism with his announcement that Syria would ban women from wearing full face veils including the niqab at Syrian universities. The minister claimed that the veils undermine the secular principles of the country.

Afghanistan – The Taliban had enforced the burka in Afghanistan, often persecuting women who defied the rigorous impositions. While the obligatory sanctions on women’s clothing are not legally valid, the social sanctions are still just as rigid. The government of Afghanistan has often been accused of indulging extremist views and restricting women’s freedoms.

UK – Although the United Kingdom does not ban veils in any form, schools in the country are allowed to stipulate their own dress code since 2007. There have been a number of cases where veil bans in schools have led to litigation and court cases.


Veils And Security

Airport security checks and ID checks of veiled women have been a matter of controversy for some time now.

In 2006, the British Home Office confirmed that immigration officers had the right to ask women to remove their veils for purposes of identity verification when they first arrive in the UK.

In 2010, news that the CATSA, the Canadian Air Transport Security Agency, does not check the identification of women in full-face Islamic veils, caused an uproar in the country. Many were horrified at the breach of security.

In 2012, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) announced that many French airports including the Nantes Atlantique Airport had made it mandatory to remove headscarves at the X-ray screening area. This led to an outrage among the Muslim population in the country.

In the US, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) allows for a headscarf removal request but does not exempt Muslim women from either body scans or pat-downs. Private rooms are allowed in most cases.


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