These pictures are quite popular in the West: Iranian women covered by a black veil, “chador,” as they call it, from head to feet, with only the noses visible and a glimpse of their faces and eyes.
And the “burka” in Afghanistan: usually in blue, but covering even those facial parts, leaving something like a grid with small holes letting them to see something from the outside world without being seen…
Or the complete non see-through garments of Saudi women…
What do you feel as a Westerner, or somebody living in the West, looking at these pictures? Sorrow for the women? Fundamentalists? That they are oppressed by their governments and forced to dress the way they dress? Do you feel happy not to be living in those societies? Anger? Or maybe a bit disgust mixed with the proud feeling that you have to show them the right way to live and to dress?
The truth is much more complicated than that.
Chador or burka or the dozens of other ways faithful Muslim women cover themselves go back to “hijab,” (meaning “modest dress for women”), an Islamic rule based on the Qur’an that asks women “to guard their private parts and not to display their ornaments” and “to wear their head-covering over their bosoms.”
Different Islamic societies in different regions and countries at different periods of history and under different political conditions have applied this rule differently — mostly combining it also with their local, ethnic, or social conditions.
Trying to modernize Iran the way he understood in 1920s, Reza Shah Pahlavi ordered police to forcibly take off the chador of all covered women in Tehran who went out of their homes. Many faithful women stayed home. After a rather liberal time of dress freedom, the Islamic Republic reversed the forceful dress code: all women had to cover themselves. In the first years of the revolution, terrorizing thugs sprayed acid onto the face of uncovered girls and women to push everybody in the same dress code.
Still, the result of forced covering was not uniform. Now the ways Iranian women cover themselves are different. The black chador; or the chador in different colors; or headscarf and a long jacket: lose or tough depending on the person, city, family and culture, religiosity; or more relaxed and colorful in villages.
Other Muslim countries have other dress traditions that are usually governed by the local culture or, in countries with strict Islamic rule, by a mixture of local tradition and the dress code imposed by the government. Most Central Asian countries, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, most of Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa (with exception of Saudi Arabia and some other), Palestinian territories, Indonesia, and Malaysia are not imposing any Islamic dress code. Iran and Saudi Arabia belong to the minority of countries forcing women to the way of clothing that these regimes consider as “God’s will.”
Even during the Shah rule in Iran, the majority of women in cities and towns wore chador, although the government indirectly forced them not to do so if they wanted to go to school or become state employees.
In 2002, a few months after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, I went to Kabul to set up RFE/RL’s bureau in the Afghan capital. Walking on the streets, a puzzled German friend asked me why many Afghan women still wore burka although the Taliban were overthrown? Yes, the Taliban enforced the covering but many women in Afghanistan didn’t — and still don’t — wear burka just by order of the Taliban and they won’t throw it away just because the Taliban are gone.
Covering of women’s bodies is not limited to Islam. In Europe, starting probably from the third century, nuns wore a veil that was also required of all married women. We had and we still have Catholic nuns in Christian countries, heavily covered in black, white, or grey.
It is about the religion, the culture that matter and stay longer than the regimes, the governments, and the laws. My aunt in Iran still wears a black chador when she goes out. She is a faithful, peaceful, and tolerant Muslim woman. She wore the chador at age 15 and still wears it now at age 80. I am used in those images of life and society. But I wouldn’t want my daughters to wear chador because I think it is an obstacle for women to become equal and free members of the society.
Faithful Muslim women voluntarily covered in veils say they prefer the veil to the demonstration of sexuality in public life. But maybe the “golden middle” is the best? Modest but not packed in veil and isolated? “Free” (”azad,”as we called it in previous years) but not “inviting”? Whose choice is that if not your own, free choice?
The point is that the governments and regimes must stay away from forcing the citizens to a way, to their way of thinking, believing, and clothing.