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Behind the Veil: Professor reveals its political, religious and cultural significance

Throughout history, the veil has symbolized many things to different people. Though typically associated with religion and ethnic customs, the veil has played an important role in politics and has even found its way into Western pop culture.

Dr. Faegheh Shirazi models a black head veil called Abbaya
Dr. Faegheh Shirazi models a black head veil called Abbaya. It is a single piece garment placed on the head, covering the entire body, but not the face.

Dr. Faegheh Shirazi, associate professor in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin, is the author of "The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture." She describes the Western idea that the veil in the Middle East is a symbol of female repression as simplistic and misplaced.

“Although the veil is just a piece of clothing, it has much more meaning attached, making it a complicated and controversial topic,” she said. “Historically, it has taken on great political, religious and cultural significance.”

In Iran, for example, one form of veil or hijab consists of a rupush, a loose outer garment that flows down past the knees and covers the arms, and a rusari, a large scarf that covers the hair, shoulders and neck. According to Shirazi, different colors and fashion can often express a woman's political and religious belief. Though some modern women experiment with different color scarves, fashion and materials to maintain some individuality, they are careful not to break the law of hijab, a mandatory code for women to veil in public in parts of the Middle East. Failure to comply can result in imprisonment, harassment or physical punishment.

Shirazi gave an example of how opinions about the hijab may even differ within the same household in Iran, where the law of hijab is practiced.

"I know of a home where there are four women,” she said. “The mother, the oldest, feels very obligated to wear the hijab. She thinks of it as part of her clothing and would feel naked without it. Out of her two adult daughters, one hates to wear the hijab, and the other more orthodox daughter wears the more conservative black hijab. The youngest teenager wears the minimal requirements."

Although the custom of veiling is typically associated with Islam, the practice actually outdates Islamic culture by thousands of years. Veiling and seclusion were marks of prestige and symbols of status in the Assyrian, Greco-Roman and Byzantine empires as well as in pre-Islamic Iran.

Dr. Shirazi models a face veil called Arosiya
Dr. Shirazi models a face veil called Arosiya, a wedding veil from Bedouin tribes in Jordan. The veil is originally in red gauze, decorated with colored glass beads, gold coins and embroidered in red cross-stitching. The color red is known by many cultures to divert the evil eye.

Throughout history the veil has been used to promote political agendas, to demonstrate political protest and even to show political support. For instance, when the French dominated Algeria, the women of Algeria substituted wearing the traditional white veil with wearing a black veil as a non-verbal form of protest.

Some countries, such as Iran, have gone from being unveiled to being veiled and back again. Shirazi's book "The Veil Unveiled" gives an account of the significance the veil has played in Iranian politics.

"The Iranian women were forced to unveil to fit Reza Shah’s delusions of grandeur, and forced to reveil to fit Ayatollah Khomeini’s visions for true religion," Shirazi said. "Women in Iran during the Islamic revolution in 1978 were told by donning the veil they would fend off the assault of Western culture, and by sending their sons to fight the Iraqi army and becoming a martyr they would help save the Islamic Republic of Iran and support the defense of Islam. Ten years after the war with Iraq, she was told that by not veiling according to the guidelines of the clergy she would cause the downfall of the Islamic Republic. In Iranian politics, the veil has proved to be the most effective weapon of the rulers, secular and clerical."

Dr. Shirazi models a side view of a veil worn during festive occasions     Dr. Shirazi models a back view of a veil worn during festive occasions
Dr. Shirazi models a side and back view of a veil worn during festive occasions by the Arab Bedouin Jewish women of Yemen. This specific headdress is cut to fit the shape of the head in front and hangs loose at the back to display the gold hand embroidered work.
During her yearly visits to Iran, Shirazi finds that the hijab is still a controversial topic conjuring many emotions. While conducting research for her book, Shirazi viewed graffiti plastered on the walls of houses and factories bordering the roadway. It conveyed slogans such as “Death to the improperly veiled woman" and "If unveiling is a sign of civilization, then animals must be the most civilized."

The veil, which has become synonymous with religion and politics in the Middle East, has taken on quite a different meaning in Western culture. From advertisements as diverse as those for Reebok, Jeep Cherokee, IBM and Virginia Slims. To magazine cartoons and layouts in Penthouse and Playboy. To the newest Las Vegas resort, Aladdin, veils are being used to create an image.

"Although veiled women sell a great variety of products in the United States," Shirazi said, "we can discern three major advertising strategies exploiting three different stereotypes about the Muslim woman: the mysterious woman hiding behind her veil, waiting to be conquered by an American man; the submissive woman, forced to hide behind the veil; and the generic veiled woman, representing all peoples and cultures of the Middle East."

Shirazi noted that many American-born Muslims choose to wear the hijab out of respect, humility and religious solidarity, providing yet another image of the veiled woman.

"Some people think of the veil as erotic and romantic, others perceive it as a symbol of oppression, still others consider it a sign of piety, modesty or purity," Shirazi said. "It has become so ubiquitous that everyone seems to have formed an opinion about it. The various connotations it has, the many emotions it arouses, testify to its continuing, perhaps even growing, significance in the modern world."

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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