To Veil or Not To Veil; That is the Question
by Aanya F Niaz
A piece on prevalent and dominating subject; women who veil, the impact this has on their lives and on the lives of those who surround them.
Written by four young undergraduates at the University of Virginia:
An article by Ms. Geraldine Brooks from the Middle East Forum explicates, on behalf of many veiling women, that “it is easy to see these grim figures in their heavy shrouds as symbols of what’s wrong rather than what’s right with women and Islam.”1 This speaks directly to our interviewee, who described her personal views and reasons for veiling, and how that has defined to her, what is truly right with women and the religion she follows; Islam. Indeed, Brooks highlights the major issue that veiling women face: stereotypes.
Walking into a college level party, where you are surrounded by half-filled red cups and the youth swinging to music that mostly boasts vulgar vocabulary, a veiled woman is bound to be eyed with reservation, discomfort and doubt. ‘Why is she here?’ would be a most common question rising in those young minds. It is no secret that one of the most ardently difficult battles to fight for women who choose to veil is against stereotypes.
The wonderfully confident Saaleha, with profound faith in herself and her decision to cover her head, spoke to us with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, for she said she would not be disparaged by stereotypes any longer. However, she empathized with her fellow ‘veiling sisters’, who had to face college students laughing at them, pointing fingers and asking them why they attend parties, dance or even wear jeans if they are claim modesty as a reason behind veiling. Saaleha adds that people have assumed things about her, “terrorist, baby maker, home maker, middle eastern, uneducated, third world, oppressed and ignorant” have been terms commonly used in her surrounding environment.
What is it that keeps her faith alive and her religious beliefs stronger? Saaleha responds that she is fortunate to be in a protected environment; in a school setting in the generation that we
1 Brooks, Geraldine. “The Hidden World of Muslim Women.” Middle East Forum. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.
live in as the youth is expanding its minds and not discriminating as much as it could otherwise, or perhaps in the real world. She adds that the convenience of the religion, the comfort that Islam provides her and the modesty with which she confidently carries herself with due to her Islamic principles makes veiling a most valuable expressive sentiment of her religious affiliation of all. It is most agreeable to note that in majority of the cases, veiled women find strength in their distinctly adamant beliefs. If they are clear on why they are choosing to veil and find solace in the benefits of doing so, most of such women are found to be completely at peace with their decision, even if they are living in a Western society where veiling is not a common practice.
Henceforth, stereotypes can most definitely cause harm to those who are faced with them, but being that it is a global phenomenon and individuals of all religious, social and political affiliations deal with them, as Saaleha explains, it is the solid belief in an individual’s reasoning behind doing something and after that, an individual has a higher likelihood of becoming indifferent to stereotypical comments but that does not, in any way, justify them. However, since reality unfortunately boasts the prevalence of stereotypes in a most dominant way, seeking self-contentment and rationalizing with one’s self proves to be the most comforting of all manners, in which a veiling woman can go on with her life.
Stereotypes, though prevalent in Saaleha’s life, certainly do not restrict her, and this is depicted in her involvement with Club Rugby. A primary reason for interviewing Saaleha was because of the fact that she is not only a practicing Muslim, but she is also a devoted athlete. In high school, she was an active participant on the girl’s lacrosse team, and continues her athletic activity in college, playing on the club rugby team here at UVA. It is not very common to see a fully covered woman engaging in athletic activity, especially in an environment such as UVA, where Muslim students are a minority. Saaleha was asked if her decision to play a sport as rigorous as rugby was influenced at all by her faith, to which she responded no. Such an answer was a surprising response for many in the group, especially because much of our class discussion and readings have toyed with the notion that wearing the hijab often inhibits many women from participating in numerous activities outside of the private sphere.
Continuing the interview, she told the group that in deciding to play rugby, she was met with a lot of support from the coaches and teammates. Additionally, the group was curious to know whether her dress code interfered at all with her ability to engage in athletic activity. She noted that since rugby is a club sport, such a standing makes it easier for her to be able to be fully covered. However, it would be much harder for a practicing Muslim such as Saaleha to participate in professional or varsity sports. Since higher level athletes are bound by more stringent rules, the risk of infringing upon either the athletic regulations or religious mandates relating to appropriate dress code is much higher. Although she is relatively unfazed by the discomfort sometimes experienced with the clash of being fully covered and playing an intense sport, she mentioned that she can empathize with Muslim girls in the same position who struggle with the conflict, recognizing that being covered can sometimes be a disadvantage in the athletic realm.
Saaleha also mentioned the fact that there are certain sports where being covered is a lot harder to successfully achieve, such as swimming. A previous swimmer, she told the group that eventually she was not able to do it anymore, because she could not adhere to her religious dress code while also participating in a sport that traditionally requires as little clothing as possible. During her stint as a swimmer however, she worked around the clothing regulations but wearing Under Armour in lieu of a swimsuit, and a swim cap to cover her hair. However, she became conflicted with the idea of continuing the sport since her tight clothing still felt like a breach of modesty, despite not being an actual swimsuit – hence compromising her faith. Despite her inability to continue swimming, Saaleha mentioned that, “[the] essence of hijab is modesty, so that when you interact with the world, you focus on your actions and words [rather than] material items.” She relates this to the world of sports, saying that athletics are in line with her faith as they do not reward for superficial qualities of people, but rather for their efforts and excellence in the sport itself. The interview further denounced, on a more localized level, the idea that “the veil has become […] the symbol of fundamentalist Islam, understood in turn as synonymous with extremism or even terrorism.”2 Saaleha did not seem at all threatening as a result of her religious ideals; in fact, one could say that the religious principles guiding her actually make her a more virtuous and peaceful individual.
Saaleha went on to explain her transition from an unveiled child to a veiled woman. She specifically started veiling in 8th grade around the age of 13, explaining that generally, women start veiling after they begin experiencing puberty. However, she emphasized the fact that there was no right time to start veiling, but that a woman could start, or stop for that matter, whenever she felt ready and comfortable. Saaleha relayed to us that for her, the transition to veiling was relatively peaceful and calm. She had prepared her school friends for her new change by talking to them and explaining her choice extensively, so they were, for the most part, ready for it. She attributes the easy acceptance of her friends partly to the fact that she went to the same, small school, for the entire duration of first to eighth grade, so she knew everyone quite well.
Saaleha also explained that it helped to start veiling at a time when she was in a leadership
2 José C.M. van Santen, “My ‘veil’ does not go with my jeans’: veiling, fundamentalism, education and women’s agency in northern Cameroon,” The Journal of the International African Institute 80 (2010): 275-300.
position, being the oldest in the school, rather than being a more vulnerable student in a lower grade. According to her, when another child insulted her on a rare occasion, she was
comforted by the fact that they didn’t know any better, and she took it upon herself to educate them as to why she was wearing her veil. It is important to note, though, that Saaleha started veiling a couple years after the terrorist event on September 11th, 2001, so rude comments directed towards her were usually derived from that crisis. Saaleha realized that these young children were just repeating what their parents said, though, and didn’t really have any substantial education on her choice to veil. Saaleha is, and was at the time, such a strong, confident woman, that she was able to rise above these few insulting comments. She mentioned that there were a couple scary experiences after her initial decision to veil, like when she was followed home from school by a boy shouting profanity at her, in which she couldn’t simply rise above the situation. But, for the most part, the transition was relatively peaceful.
The decision for Saaleha to veil was a relatively easy one, but it still surprised her brothers. Saaleha’s mother had always veiled, so she was surprised when her brothers were taken aback by her decision to veil. She had veiled for services at her local mosque, but her brothers assumed that she would choose to remain unveiled since she had grown up in a modern American culture, whereas her mother had grown up in a more traditional culture. Saaleha maintained that her decision to veil had nothing to do with her respective surrounding, though, but that it was requested of her by God, regardless of her environment, and so she was going to please God by veiling. Just as author Nilufer Gole explained, In fact, many women who choose to veil do so as an expression of their knowledge of and belief in their religion And, while her older brothers did not outright expect this from their sister, they were, ultimately, very supportive of her decision.
Transitioning from being an unveiled woman to a woman wearing the hijab was a peaceful experience for Saaleha, and she was lucky enough to have peaceful experiences transitioning from her small primary school to her large high school, as well as from her high school to UVa. Many would expect that she would feel more ostracized in her high school than she did in her primary school, but, ironically, Saaleha felt more at home in her larger high school because of the diversity, and actually felt more at home there than in her previous, smaller school.
The transition from high school to UVa was also relatively easy for Saaleha, but she mentioned a few hardships. While she has never felt discriminated against for veiling, she has noticed that people seem more reluctant to her because she is wearing her hijab. She said that “in college, there is a broader playing field to immerse yourself in, but that also means that it is easier for others to put you into a small, categorized box.” She had more opportunities to meet others with similar views as her and be a part of a Muslim community, but she didn’t want this identification as a veiled woman to limit her. Saaleha made it a goal of her to not limit herself to only having friends that were Muslim, but she realizes that accomplishing this goal is easier said than done, and that she is fortunate to not have a shy, introverted personality.
Saaleha admits that she has been extremely lucky in her transition to veiling, and recognizes that many women do not have such a positive experience. Some women are forced by their families to veil, and she firmly believes that it should always be a woman’s choice. She also recognizes that veiling can be particularly difficult for women depending on their personality and their environment, and encourages women to veil only when they are comfortable. Saaleha doesn’t believe that once you begin veiling you can never go back, or vice versa. She says that it is part of building your relationship with God, and this is a difficult process. You can stop wearing the veil, and then start up again, or you can start very late in life, and either way is okay. The veil is a symbol of modesty and maturity, as author Arlene Macleod also explains in his article, but it also symbolizes one’s close relationship with God. Saaleha explained that because the veil is this powerful symbol, one can embrace it as much or as little as she likes. And while she encourages Muslim women to embrace the veil, she knows that it is not for everyone, and each woman must make her own thoughtful, individual decision. But, no decision is irrevocable.
Veiling, though the most obvious feature of Saaleha’s faith – is only one facet; Saaleha acknowledged that she was a practicing Muslim, and with this came various other various duties and regulations, including, but not limited to, the veil. She is present at Mosque every Friday night to pray with the Muslim community, and she prays five times every day, sometimes alone and sometimes in a lawn room designated for prayer. She also told us that she will sometimes pray in public, and noted that though many may feel uncomfortable about this, she is completely at ease with it. Saaleha does not drink, follows dietary restrictions, and emphasizes the importance of interacting with the members of her community. Saaleha is also a member of the small, but close, Muslim Student Association and attends events and conferences with them. However, she stresses that she does not solely rely on the Association to form friendships and build community. She feels that her religion does not want community to be isolating and restricted to similar persons; community is about diversity and learning from others to create bonds, and she enjoys meeting people from all different backgrounds. Her involvement with rugby and the Resident Advisor program has facilitated this vision of community.
When asked if her religious duties caused her to have a different college experience than most around her, she laughingly responded “I think so.” Primarily, the veil aesthetically sets her apart from her peers and, though UVA is open to diversity, people may treat her differently because of this. She also acknowledged that her prayer sets her apart and causes planning classes to be slightly more difficult than the average student’s. When scheduling classes, she works around her prayer schedule and only schedules over prayer if it truly can’t be helped. Thus, rather than class structuring her life, like most students at the University, it is really prayer that structures her time. Finally, the most obvious way her college experience differs from others is the party scene. Saaleha does not drink and is not comfortable being around drinking, and considering the party scene found at UVA, she definitely believes that this sets her apart. She also mentioned that she has to be aware of her safety, as do all girls, but she must be prepared for hate crimes; in an environment where alcohol is being consumed, prejudices are more likely to arise and lead to dangerous situations. Therefore, she mostly stays away from this social scene. Fortunately, she prides UVA on being supportive in this decision and offering multiple things to do and having many organizations that encourage other options. She also says the Muslim Student Association is helpful in this regard as she can lean on others who may feel overwhelmed by differences or religious challenges.
Overall, talking with Saaleha was a real life example of all that has been taught throughout the semester. She is not anyone’s ‘stereotypical’ Muslim girl: she plays a very active sport, has many friends that are non-Muslim, is not forced to veil, and is just as involved in the typical college experience as any other young American woman. Saaleha was an incredibly inspiring young woman to talk to, and her pride and confidence shine far past her veil. Many might assume she would hide behind her veil, but when one talks to Saaleha, one doesn’t even notice the veil. The veil is in outward, tangible symbol of the modesty, maturity, and faith that Saaleha believes in. But, with or without the veil, Saaleha is the same amazing person. The veil is important to her because of her faith, but if she ever took it off, Saaleha would still portray all the positive virtues that the she believes the veil symbolizes.
Brooks, Geraldine. “The Hidden World of Muslim Women.” Middle East Forum. Web. 27 Feb.
José C.M. van Santen, “My ‘veil’ does not go with my jeans’: veiling, fundamentalism,
education and women’s agency in northern Cameroon,” The Journal of the International African Institute 80 (2010): 275-300.