Veils and Postcolonial Feminism

by Stephanie Cawley

Within the mainstream Western media representation of the Middle East and Islam, almost no other image carries the resonance and ubiquity of the veiled woman. She connotes passivity and weakness and is usually represented as a powerless victim of oppression who must be liberated by an outside, Western, force. In Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, J.C. Young explains that “for many Westerners, the veil is a symbol of patriarchal Islamic societies in which women are assumed to be oppressed, subordinated, and made invisible” (80).

The veil has come to recent public attention in the West in part because of legal decisions in countries such as France that ban or limit women from wearing forms of veils in public areas. Such laws are often supported by Western feminists who believe that the veil is a marker of oppression, although these feminists seem to overlook the idea that denial of religious practice is itself a kind of oppression, or fail to question the oppressive beauty standards of Western culture they would impose  on these women. Indeed, according to Manuela Costantinto, in “Marji: Popular Commix Heroine Breathing Life into the Writing of History,” Satrapi herself spoke against banning the veil in France. Although Satrapi says she “is clearly opposed to wearing the veil” in general (434), she was frustrated by the French and Western feminists’ viewpoint that their Western standards of dress, “the miniskirt” (434) etc., offer women liberation.

This short film, produced by youth through the nonprofit Reel Grrls, tells the story of Sabar, a young girl who moves to America from Iran and chooses to wear the hijab. She explains how difficult it was to resist Western culture and continue wearing her hijab, but also asserts her own individuality in the choice to wear it:

(Hijab-Ban Protest)

Within Iran, the veil has a complicated history with ties to the colonial, imperial influence. In the period before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Western-backed Shah of Iran outlawed the chador, a “black head-to-toe body wrap worn by rural and traditional urban women” as part of his project of modernizing and thus secularizing and Westernizing Iran (Young 84). After the Islamic Revolution, when Satrapi’s Persepolis opens, all women were forced to wear veils but women also participated in advocating for this mandate. In contrast to the Western liberal feminist critique that views the veil as oppressive, a postcolonial feminist critique – like Satrapi’s critique of the veil-banning in France – acknowledges the oppression of both the imposition of secularism on Islamic women pre-Revolution as part of a project of Western modernization, and the imposition of Islam on secular women post-Revolution. This critique emphasizes that understanding the full historical context surrounding a particular wearing of the veil is necessary to understanding its meaning in that instance.

Women fighting for rights both to wear and not wear veil in Persepolis (Satrapi 5).

Works Cited

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