After reading my last post on niqab, a friend flipped me this Guardian article by Karen Armstrong that was published back in 2006. It’s oddly timely and looks at colonial and western influences on the modern history of veiling (primarilly in Egypt). I’ve included my favourite bits below, but you might as well go read the entire thing, since I’ve reproduced much of it here:
I spent seven years of my girlhood heavily veiled – not in a Muslim niqab but in a nun’s habit. We wore voluminous black robes, large rosaries and crucifixes, and an elaborate headdress: you could see a small slice of my face from the front, but from the side I was entirely shielded from view. We must have looked very odd indeed, walking dourly through the colourful carnival of London during the swinging 60s, but nobody ever asked us to exchange our habits for more conventional attire.
When my order was founded in the 1840s, not long after Catholic emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of barbarism. Two hundred and fifty years after the gunpowder plot, Catholicism was still feared as unassimilable, irredeemably alien to the British ethos, fanatically opposed to democracy and freedom, and a fifth column allied to dangerous enemies abroad.
Until the late 19th century, veiling was neither a central nor a universal practice in the Islamic world. The Qur’an does not command all women to cover their heads; the full hijab was traditionally worn only by aristocratic women, as a mark of status. In Egypt, under Muhammad Ali’s leadership (1805-48), the lot of women improved dramatically, and many were abandoning the veil and moving more freely in society.
But after the British occupied Egypt in 1882, the consul general, Lord Cromer, ignored this development. He argued that veiling was the “fatal obstacle” that prevented Egyptians from participating fully in western civilisation. Until it was abolished, Egypt would need the benevolent supervision of the colonialists.
When Egyptian pundits sycophantically supported Cromer, veiling became a hot issue. In 1899 Qassim Amin published Tahrir al-Mara – The Liberation of Women – which obsequiously praised the nobility of European culture, arguing that the veil symbolised everything that was wrong with Islam and Egypt. It was no feminist tract: Egyptian women, according to Amin, were dirty, ignorant and hopelessly inadequate parents. The book created a furore, and the ensuing debate made the veil a symbol of resistance to colonialism.