Perspective on the Muslim Woman's Veil
My years in a habit taught me the paradox of veiling.
If ministers really want a proper debate, they must learn that where the veil is forbidden, women hasten to wear it
By Karen Armstrong
(Karen Armstrong is the Author of Muhammad: Prophet of Our Time)
The Guardian Thursday October 26, 2006
I spent seven years of my girlhood heavily veiled - not in a Muslim niqab but in a nun's habit. We wore voluminous black robes, large rosaries and crucifixes, and an elaborate headdress: you could see a small slice of my face from the front, but from the side I was entirely shielded from view. We must have looked very odd indeed, walking dourly through the colourful carnival of London during the swinging 60s, but nobody ever asked us to exchange our habits for more conventional attire.
When my order was founded in the 1840s, not long after Catholic emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of barbarism. Two hundred and fifty years after the gunpowder plot, Catholicism was still feared as inassimilable, irredeemably alien to the British ethos, fanatically opposed to democracy and freedom, and a fifth column allied to dangerous enemies abroad.
Today the veiled Muslim woman appears to symbolize the perceived Islamic threat, as nuns once epitomized the evils of popery. She seems a barbaric affront to hard-won values that are essential to our cultural identity: gender equality, freedom, transparency and openness. But in the Muslim world the veil has also acquired a new symbolism. If government ministers really want to debate the issue fruitfully, they must become familiar with the bitterly ironic history of veiling during the last hundred years.
Until the late 19th century, veiling was neither a central nor a universal practice in the Islamic world. The Qur'an does not command all women to cover their heads; the full hijab was traditionally worn only by aristocratic women, as a mark of status. In Egypt, under Muhammad Ali's leadership (1805-48), the lot of women improved dramatically, and many were abandoning the veil and moving more freely in society.
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