In Europe, the debate over the Muslim practice of veiling has intensified in recent years, culminating in the 2011 ban on face coverings in France. Popular opinion in the West generally holds that veiling is a violation of women’s rights and individual freedom, and that the wearer of the veil is either suppressed by men in the name of religion, or engaged in fundamentalism that runs counter to modern secular values.
In a new article published in Current Anthropology, Anjum Alvi, a Pakistani anthropologist, disputes the limitation of veiling to a solely female concern, or as a dress code symbolizing different
|Concealment: veiled bridegroom (Lukas Werth) |
social and cultural functions.
Without defending or criticizing the practice, she exposes the popular as well as academic understanding of veiling as fragmented and incomplete. Drawing on her field work in the Punjab province of Pakistan, the author aims to gain an inside view into a particular Muslim phenomenon.
Alvi elucidates the importance of veiling in Islamic contexts and the reasons for its persistence. Veiling, she argues, is a value held by both genders and may be located in diverse contexts, such as architecture, death, marriage, gift-exchange, Sufi-poetry, asceticism, mysticism, and sacredness.
The word sharam, so often invoked with regard to the Muslim veil, is commonly translated in English as shame, and is associated with modesty, morality, piety, and female sexuality. Alvi, however, points out many more meanings of the term, including: nakedness of humans and sacred items, virginity, honor in responsibility and as embodied self-control, reverence for the other, self-sufficiency, vulnerability, security and protection, embarrassment, an obligation to be humble, and humiliation.
All this shows that the veil is much more than a female garment, and Alvi argues that concealment is a way of life, not merely a fashion or a religious obligation, and it reflects a culturally specific relation of a person to the world.
To such contented issues as honor-killings she refers to as the dark side of veiling, a dimension which also includes such European reactions like the French ban on the veil in public spaces.
|Gift exchange (Lukas Werth) |
Alvi acknowledges the temptation to see the veil as a symbol referring to a certain meaning. However, she argues, by recognizing veiling as a complex and fundamental value of Muslim culture, and opening up space for difference, Western societies can take a more ethical stance on the issue.