The Veil as Law
By MARGARET AVERA | April 27, 2018
Protests in Iran have continued, as the unrest revolves around the regime and theocratic dictatorship. Activism against the authoritarian regime has involved backlash against both secular and religious policies. Part of the protest has involved women and the strict rules surrounding veiling in the country. Women have removed their hijabs as a protest to the compulsory garment, and have been met with arrests and detainment.
There is a history of activism bringing increased opportunities for women in the face of national struggle and uprisings. In the 1990’s, Palestinian Christian women engaged in a similar unification of religious expression and women’s rights. Palestinian Christian feminists argued that modern day dominant interpretations and traditions had skewed the original meanings of the scriptures. These revisionist theologians were informed by their politically oppressive environment and related to oppression not only within gender but through race and sectarianism. This was a larger movement termed Palestinian liberation theology, in which the rights of women and national struggle needed to be merged. Suad Younan stated that the church could not rightly speak out against national injustice while denying full rights to women within the church. Here, a nationalist struggle used religious institutions to draw attention to inconsistencies between the message and the practice of the church.
Instances of struggle for women’s right in a religious framework is not unique to Christianity either. Karen Armstrong writes that while the Prophet Muhammad was known for preaching revelations that supported the emancipation of women, Caliphs in the generations after the Prophet restricted the rights of women. Specifically, the Caliphs were “copying the Greek Christians of Byzantium, who had long veiled and segregated their women in this manner; they also appropriated some of their Christian misogyny.” This reveals how, like Christianity, institutions within the Islamic faith used religion as a justification for the suppression of women’s rights. The implementation of religious law marks a connection between scripture and historical practice, where political authorities can have a great effect on the construction of women’s rights within a religion.
The restrictive influence of religion constructed norms associated with women adhering to the faith. A prominent example is the association between the veil and Islam. Although the veil certainly has a presence in the Muslim community, it is not a rigid link. The dress code for Islamic women has varied over time through different regional practices and, particularly, under different religious and political authorities. Additionally, Islam is not the only religion or culture to restrict females through dress codes. The veil and similar modest garments have a history that dates far before the rise of Islam. It is believed that the first known veiling law was instituted in Mesopotamia, the text of which was analyzed by Dr. Foreman for a BBC special on women. So, while the hijab is frequently referred to as an “Islamic dress code,” the practice of requiring women to wear head coverings originated almost 2000 years before Islam. In pre-Islamic times, the headscarf had no religious connotations. Instead, a veil indicated class and sexual status. Thus, although the veil and Islam are indeed linked, the two are not strictly attached to one another. The history of the veil reveals an evolving relationship between the religion and women’s rights.
Leila Ahmed states that the rights of women decreased under the Code of Hammurabi, established sometime around 1752 BCE along with the rise of urban society in Mesopotamia. She finds that the conquests and resulting cultural exchanges between the first millennium BCE to the Islamic conquests in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean region resulted in a lower status for women and the spread of practices such as veiling. Ahmed purports that the rise of Islam was not a radical loss of rights for women, but rather continued the trend set forth in the previous millennium by those who conquered Egypt, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Scholars like Ahmed, who study women in Islam and the Middle East, often note the particularly strict laws of the Assyrian Empire.
Assyrian laws in the 12th century BC allowed domestic abuse, selling or pawning wives and women like property, and the death penalty for adultery and abortions. If a man committed a crime, his wife could be the one punished. Women had many burdens, and the laws differed based on their economic and sexual statuses. Some women were required to cover themselves, while others were punished if found wearing a veil. Wives, daughters, and concubines of the upper class were required to wear a headscarf in public. Prostitutes and slaves were not forced to don the veil. Instead, if they were found wearing a veil, they could be arrested, whipped, publicly stripped, and have their ears cut off. These rules divided women into different types of property and commodification.
Under the Assyrian Empire, wives wore veils as way to signal their husband’s ownership of them and declared them sexually unavailable. This ensured her place as a respectable woman in the Assyrian Empire. Not wearing a veil, therefore, is a sign that a woman was not given the status or protection of a rich husband or a male guardian. Without the veil as a sign of male ownership, uncovered women were considered public property. Here, the veil signaled a woman’s status in society. Religions still use veils to signal devotion to an interpretation of faith. However, it is not a norm shared by every adherent to the faith.
In modern Islamic discourse, there is disagreement over dress codes. At the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Dalia Mogahed finds that Iranian clerics differ on whether the hijab should be a legal mandate. Summarizing one cleric’s view, Mogahed says, "If the headscarf is indeed an act of religious devotion, then it becomes meaningless if it is mandated by the government.” The hijab then becomes a question not only about political freedoms but also about religious expression as well. The freedom to choose whether to wear the hijab is particularly poignant in conservative Iran, where wearing a hijab is required by part of law rather than social practice. Therefore, as protesters and activists challenge the regime, they call for increased freedoms for women.
When women are considered property, visual symbols concerning sexual availability and propriety in the public sphere become of the utmost importance. Similarly, in conservative Islamic cultures, the modesty portrayed by veiling is paramount. The history of the modern debate requires the comparison of previous practices, such as Assyrian laws and modern Iranian laws. While the punishments vary drastically, both states encoded female apparel in laws. This article attempts to show part of the early history of veiling practices, and how the requirement for a headscarf has changed over time. The story of the veil is not linear; instead it varies by time period, region, and political power. Islamic veiling has been debated as different figures came to power and social attitudes differed over time.