In her 2002 speech supporting the invasion of Afghanistan, former First Lady Laura Bush argued that one of the benefits of going to war was the liberation of Muslim women, who were rejoicing at their freedom from the oppressive veil and burqa.
More recently, France and Turkey have toyed with the idea of banning women from covering themselves in schools, hospitals and government buildings.
To outsiders looking in, the covering of women in Muslim cultures is the ultimate sign of oppression. But inside Muslim cultures the sentiments are very different. My experience living and working in a Muslim country showed me the cultural importance of veiling and what it signifies to women. To many Muslim women, the act of covering their hair and/or face is an act of liberation and self-respect. If given the choice, many women would continue to wear a veil or burqa like they have been doing their whole lives.
In the summer of 2013, I accepted a job as live-in nanny for a Muslim family in Turkey. While the mother and young girls covered themselves with veils, I was allowed to remain uncovered. Wherever I went in public, I could feel eyes on me. Men walked too close, stared too long and sometimes went as far as to make inappropriate comments about my appearance. Making friends was difficult because my unveiled hair either made people uncomfortable or attracted negative attention.
After a week of remaining unveiled, I decided cover myself with a hijab — a light scarf wrapped around the hair and tucked under the chin. The difference in how I was treated was immediately apparent.
The attention I received was no longer based on my appearance, but on my words and actions. I felt respected and empowered because I now had control over the way others treated me. I felt less like a sexual object and more like a human being. Coming from a culture where less is more in terms of clothing, it was liberating to no longer feel the pressure to be overtly sexual. I was able to focus my energy on building positive relationships based off mutual interest instead of attraction.
Before covering myself, I was concerned that the hijab would take away from my individuality and make me invisible, but it had quiet the opposite effect. I felt that my personality was able to shine through without being clouded by appearance-based impressions.
Many people associate the covering of women with the Taliban’s oppressive rule in Afghanistan. While the Taliban does enforce standards of modesty on women, veiling did not originate with the group, nor is it restricted to the Afghan region. Veiling originated in the Pashtun region and subsequently spread around the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia, where the traditions remain today.
The ultimate purpose of covering is modesty, which Muslims believe is the outcome of their professed desire to be closer to God. The Pakistani anthropologist Hanna Papanek noted in her studies that the use of veils and burqas is culturally associated with respectable women who come from strong families. In most veiled countries, such as Turkey, India and Pakistan, women have the choice to cover themselves in certain contexts. They decide for whom it is appropriate to veil.
It should come as no surprise that when the Taliban fell, Afghani women did not start throwing off their burqas — their markers of modesty and respectability. In Turkey, where veiling is frowned upon by the secular government, it is still the cultural norm to wear a hijab. This shows that, given the choice, many Muslim women will chose to cover themselves.
This is because the cultural connotation is positive, not negative, as some outside cultures wrongfully presume. The covering of women is not a symbol of oppression, but a symbol of respect, modesty and morality.
Natalie Pimblett is a junior political science major.