Beyond the veil, before and after Ibn Battuta

By Kathya BERRADA

Research Associate at the Arab Center for scientific Research and humane studies-

Ibn Battuta, the fourteenth century world traveler reported what he called a “remarkable thing”. Astonished, he narrated that Turkish women did not veil themselves. Not only royal ladies but also wives of merchants and common people would sit in a wagon drawn by horses with open windows. Curiously enough seven centuries after Ibn Battuta travel to Turkey, veiling/ unveiling is still considered by some as “remarkable thing’’ in Muslim and non Muslim majority countries alike.

In mid of January in Morocco, home land of Ibn Battuta, local authorities in rather sudden and surprising move banned the manufacturing and commercialization of Burka. In 2011, the French government banned the Burka in public places. While this decision might interfere in religious freedom, it seems that France places a higher value on both secularism and social inclusion in the public sphere.

The issue of Burka has come under increasing media scrutiny, however, one should remember that only small fraction of Muslim women do wear it. Even among those wearing it, they may not share the same reasons for doing so. For some women wearing the Burka reflects the belief that they are following God’s commandments, and dressing according to “the correct standard of modesty”. For others, it is simply wearing the type of traditional clothes they feel comfortable in.

In Muslim Majority countries, the issue has often been framed only in religious terms with a single major central question; is burka a religious obligation. This controversial question among religious jurists has often masked more nuanced historical and political perspectives on the topic.

Like most customs, what women wear has reflected the practices of a region and the social position of the wearer and as such the historical, cultural and political dimensions can’t be ignored. The veil itself predates Islam by many centuries. Assyrian kings first introduced full body cover for women. Prostitutes and slaves, however, were told not to veil, and were slashed if they disobeyed this law. The practice of hiding one’s face was also common in Persia and in India among upper caste namely Rajput women. As Islam went to other lands, it adopted the local and regional practices among which face covering which was initially more common among the powerful and rich as a status symbol. It is argued that throughout Islamic history only a part of the urban classes were veiled while rural and nomadic women were not. In the middle Ages however numerous laws were issued placing Muslim women at a greater disadvantage than in earlier times. In some periods, such as under the Mamluks in Egypt, repeated decrees urged strictness in veiling and arguing against the right of women to take part in activities outside their home.

An important development took place in the second half of the 19 century with intellectuals, reformers and liberals challenging the very notion of women protective cloths. In his book-The Emancipation of Woman-, Qasim Amin called for new interpretations of the Quran with regard among others to wearing the veil. He argued that such practice had nothing to do with Islam, but was a result of customs of peoples who had become Muslims.

Nationalistic movements in their pursuit of independence adopted ideas articulated by Qasim Amin. For this group, abandoning the face cover and the changing roles of women in society were important ways to convince the colonial rulers that their nations were ready to govern themselves. Women were encouraged to be symbols of the new state. In Turkey, Ataturk denounced the veil calling it demeaning and a hindrance to civilized nation. In Iran in the 1930s, Reza Shah Pahlevi issued a proclamation banning the face veil.

A political perspective should not be ignored when analysing the going back to more conservative clothing in the 70s. Women veil materialised the growing reaffirmation of nation identity and rejection of values and styles seen as western. Such feelings grew partially in response to the seeming failure of secularism.

Just as in the past, veiling is also to be understood within a historical and political perspective. Addressing the topic from a mere theological point of view only hides the dynamic nature of societies comforting a party or the other in their arguments while ignoring other perspectives. To put in the words of another big world traveller Marco Polo; “I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is expecting, it is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear”.

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