Wednesday, August 8, 2007

You Got Veiled, Bravo!

In this month's Campus Magazine, an English language publication based in Heliopolis, several readers voiced their opinions of the following video, "You Got Veiled, Bravo" by Hussam Hag. In it, a teacher, clearly impressed, gives the only veiled girl in class a chocolate bar. Also, an unveiled woman watching music videos is interrupted by a youger, veiled sister, who mutes the TV so she can pray. This prompts the woman to don a veil as well. Her super-model boyfriend, initially appearing sullen at the change, decides to put a ring on her finger as if proposing marriage. The 'ring' is in fact a string pulled from her veil.

Several readers' comments were published in the article - almost all negative. Many felt that the message was insulting to Islam with its suggestion of "commercial religion," which uses the veil as a tool for marriage. As one young woman put it, "All the song did is stereotype the veil and place the veiled girls exactly where they have been initially striving to get themselves out of!! I pity all the girls out there who took ages to think about the veil; how to take the decision and how to face the world, only to discover that it's all about marriage and a bar of chocolate!" Another, who'd been to school in the UK and US and returned without a veil, and who was therefore "...immediately labeled by everyone as a whore..." says, "I am not against the veil in principle, but I am completely against the way it is getting promoted for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately this applies to Islam as a whole , as part of a disturbing phenomenon that is on the rise in Egypt at alarming levels. I'm starting to fear the day that I get stoned to death in a public square."

The magazine, with ads for BMW and Burger King, is written in English and so excludes most Egyptian readers. 80% of female respondents were unveiled, while a large majority of Egyptian women are veiled. For those who read the article, the issue of whether or not to wear a veil was a personal decision. For many poor women in Egypt, however, the veil is not a matter of personal choice about religion and spirituality. These women do not have the option of telling their families and husbands that the veil does not fit with their own personal convictions and that they have chosen not to wear it. In these cases the veil is a matter of tradition rather than religion (if we understand religion as something in which there can be no compulsion); two issues that are often confused, as those who deny that the veil is required by Islam claim.

So why are so many women returning to religion or tradition? As I understand it, the veil has become increasingly popular since the 70s and especially since the first Gulf war and this popularity has followed a general rise in religiosity in the region. How much of this is a reaction against the West and Western materialism? And why does the suggestion that women should wear the veil for the material benefits this will confer hit such a nerve? According to one male respondent, " have to admit that a considerable majority of girls in Egypt do have nothing on their minds but marriage..." - implying that many women will adopt the veil if they believe it will increase their chances of getting married. And another woman observes, "The majority of Egyptian women are veiled, but let's look closely at the 'veil'; brightly colored long, multi-layered, multi-hued scarves flying in the wind, tight tops and jeans, short pants, full makeup, and heavy musky perfume...I'm sorry, but I do not see how that is more modest than a girl who's simply not covering her hair."

So, do women who have a choice in the matter don the veil because of broad social trends, as a means to a worldly end, or as the result of deep meditation on religious matters? Certainly the reasons defy easy explanation. What strikes me though, as a non-expert in Islam, is the preoccupation with physical appearances in spiritual matters - especially when these matters are supposed to be a counterweight to materialism. Less surprising is that it seems to be a preoccupation focused exclusively on the appearance of women - something shared by many cultures and epochs. My favorite response was the following: "Are there any videos promoting men to grow their beards and wear pantacours?!?"

Chris McClure


L said...

Fabulously interesting video. Two thoughts: A) On the one hand, there can definitionally be no compulsion in religion, as it requires belief from a person and belief cannot be "compulsed." But, on the other, I'm not sure that tradition can be so neatly separated from religion: aren't even most of our beliefs first taught to us through the practices of our community? Furthermore, our beliefs are sustained in community. B) The "preocuppation with physical appearance in spiritual matters" seems to me to hit on a truth of being human (that our souls are connected to our bodies). And, even if this truth is denied explicitely in the dogma of a religion, it doesn't surprise me that it would be revealed through the practices of that religion.

Chris McClure said...

While it's true that in practice tradition cannot easily be separated from religion, the case discussed in “You got veiled, Bravo” may be something different. Some argue that practices such as wearing the veil, not allowing women to drive, or requiring women to spend most of their lives inside are not a part of Islam, but are simply devices that men developed for controlling their women; methods that were given a religious veneer for the sake of legitimacy and which eventually became traditional - hence the confusion of religion with tradition.

Also - if some of these practices are part of religion, although we may learn our beliefs through our community, isn't it the case that in the more sophisticated religions there is an expectation that once a person has reached the 'age of reason' they will be able to freely accept or reject those beliefs? Isn't this at least part of the premise of the sacrament of confirmation? And if a religion does not have such an expectation, either in dogma or in practice, doesn't that mean that people are being compelled to 'believe?' So, although there are good reasons to criticize a lack of community, developing the capacity for independent thought and having some sort of ‘opt-out’ clause in religious matters is essential.