Sahar Amer
Martine Antle Introduction


Uncovering the Meaning of the Veil in Islam

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Sahar Amer
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Islamic veil, head scarf, or hijab, has come to symbolize in the Western mind, and especially in the popular imagination, an entire world religion, in fact one of the fastest growing religions in the world, a faith that affects over one thousand million people in the world, namely Islam. In many cases, the hijab has also even come to mean terrorism, repressive attitudes towards women, lack of democracy, fear, fundamentalism, etc. In France today, the veil and the debate surrounding it in public high schools crystallize all the problems France has to deal with in terms of postcolonialism, national identity and the Maghrebian immigrant situation. Equally important and deplorable is the focus and obsession of the French media (click here for statistics) on Muslim women and girls caught between their religious and cultural traditions and the Western way of life offered by the immigrant land they now live in (by choice or more often by necessity).

What is the veil? What is this hijab that is so often invoked in the French press as symbol of, and threat to, the civic ideal of la´citÚ? If in the Western, but also oftentimes in the Islamic mind, the hijab has come to stand for Islam, what does Islam say about the veil, and where does it prescribe that it must be worn by all Muslim women? The following is precisely an attempt at uncovering the meaning of the veil in Islam [1]

Before embarking into an overview of the teachings of Islam on the "proper" dress code for Muslim women, it is crucial to distinguish from the outset between what Islam, or the sacred texts of Islam, preach and the practices of Islam which, more often than not, are culture and country specific. Therefore, when one remembers that Muslims are found on all continents (except in Antartica), one may safely say that in each case, Islam is practiced slightly differently. Most importantly for our purposes is that in each of these countries, the notion of the veil is understood differently. This situation results in great variations in the ways women wear the hijab. This may be seen by clicking here. (LINK)

Each of the women seen in these pictures earnestly claims (or is forced ) to wear the prescribed "true Islamic veil." And yet each of these veils looks different, in colours, in fabrics (from sheer to black and everything in between) and in the extent to which it covers the hair, the face, or the rest of the body. Evidently, the cultural practices of Islam, evident in the ways the veil is understood to mean and therefore to be worn, differ widely. These cultural practices all claim to put into practice the teachings of Islam, as delineated in the following sacred texts: the Quran, the Sunnah and the Shari'a.

Sahar Amer
[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Works Cited:
1. This piece is heavily indebted to Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite. Trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (NY: Adison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1991).

*: Mainstream dailies: Le Figaro (conservative), Le Monde (independent), Libération (liberal), L'Humanité (communist), The TImes (conservative), The Independent (independent), The Guardian (liberal), Morning Star (communist)

Religious papers: La Croix (Catholic), Church Times (Anglican)

Education papers: Le Monde de l'Education, Times Educational Supplement