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The Veil Wars

Across the world veiling has been making a comeback. Whether sheathed in scarves covering only the head (the so-called “hijabs”), the face and head (the “chador” and “burqa”), or the entire body, shrouded females are now visible in public places everywhere, from public schools and universities to parliaments.

Why is this resurgence happening? Although the veil is supposedly grounded in tradition, its reappearance appears to be a response to today’s social and political instability. In Afghanistan and other parts of Asia the collapse of Communist regimes incited a rise in religious orthodoxy, as did the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, indeed throughout the Middle East, the resurgence of veiling has many roots: some argue that it arose out of the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel; others say it began with the disintegration of the dream of Arab unity.

This connection to politics suggests even more strongly (as veiling is hardly mentioned in the Koran) that the practice is a social and religious construction: veiling allows for the creation of an instantaneous new political identity - a sort of “instant tradition” - which is particularly powerful when the veil is enforced by public sanction. This sanction can be achieved from the top down - ie, by government or other decrees reinterpreting Islamic tenets - as well as from the bottom up, through communal norms and social pressure.

Where the impetus to “cover” comes welling up from below, from family and community, such veiling practices provoke countervailing state actions. In Turkey, the government banned headscarves in public schools and universities. Crackdowns have seen thousands of young women excluded from classes and even from receiving their degrees if they appear in headscarves. The headscarf has also been forbidden in Turkey’s parliament.