HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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To veil or not to veil?


In May of last year, Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad created a Facebook page to spark discussion about women’s personal choices about the veil in Iran. “My Stealthy Freedom” has garnered international media attention and accumulated over 700,000 likes from people around the globe. The page is filled with photo submissions of women from all over Iran posing without the compulsory hijab establishing a sense of solidarity between them. It should be noted that if caught in public, women are subject to a host of punishment by the strict morality police. On the same token, the morality police has authority to challenge anything they aren’t particularly happy with.


The Iranian government has mandated women to wear the hijab ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution. According to Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, Chief of Iran’s national police, just last year the security forces issued warnings to 3.6 million women about their non-proper hijab. Eighteen thousand women were arrested and sent to the courts. Of course, the police don’t keep statistics on how many women were kicked or punched or slapped because of their bad hijab. Unfortunately, this piece of cloth, in the hands of a regime that has made compulsory hijab into the law of the land, is an instrument of oppression against women.

Overall, the mission of Alinejad’s page is to shed light on the women in Iran who wish to have a choice of whether to wear the hijab. Since then, she received a human rights award in Geneva for bringing awareness to the campaign. There have been men on both sides of the debate, some in support of women’s freedom to choose to veil while others have mocked them. While men have poked fun at My Stealthy Freedom, a “Rights of Women in Iran” page refuted the argument that the hijab restricts women’s rights, instead its a form of liberation and expresses modesty.

These kinds of movements within the Middle East are not so few and far in-between because of how much Muslim women today are challenging not only traditional patriarchal dominance but old interpretations of gender roles within Islam. A leading Muslim activist, Noorjehan Safia Niaz of India, describes the shift this way: “Emboldened by the conceptualization of God as merciful and just, Muslim women are now seeking justice and equality within the families and are reclaiming their right to read the Quran and arrive at their meanings based on their own lived realities.”


Meanwhile, while some women are protesting for their right to wear the hijab, others are fighting for their right to wear it, in places such as France and Turkey.  Its important to know that there’s a difference between the hijab and the other types of coverings such as the burqa, the niqab, etc. The question that remains is should women veil or not veil? Is veiling truly a form of oppression or a sign of religious obligation?

How people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public. Pew Research Center

How people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public. Pew Research Center

Historically, veiling was a way to symbolize a women’s social class standing. Only women in the upper ranks of society were allowed to wear head coverings while working women could not due to the nature of their labor. However, its difficult to figure out whether head covering was the result of civilization culture or influence of Islam. Over time, the philosophy of head-covering has differed from country to country in addition to what is deemed socially acceptable by the people there.


Its fair to point out that the Western perspective on veiling believes that the practice is oppressive to women because of their lack of individual choice on how they would like to dress. There’s a clear assumption here that if given the choice, the majority would choose not to wear the hijab although how can we know that to be true?  A lot of Muslim women, perhaps not in Iran, choose to wear a head-covering after getting married in order to show their appreciation and commitment to Islam. Throughout the Middle Eastern region, there have been instances of forced banning of the hijab which made a lot of women feel unsafe, uncomfortable, as if they lost their identity.

Diff religion coverings

In addition, its interesting to think about how women in various religions are covered in the name of God, so why are we hypocritical towards Muslim women? As as society, I believe that we should be just as supportive of women who want to wear a head-covering regardless of the reason.

– Cari Fundora




  1. mdsmith910 says:

    Wow when I saw the image of “Woman 2” and how 63% of Saudi Arabians think that is appropriate attire, it blew my mind. Coming from the U.S. where we have so many freedoms, it is difficult for me to think that women have to dress like that. At least for some of the veils you can see the woman’s face, but not to be able to see a persons face, is kind of like saying you don’t want to know their expression/who they are. I believe woman should have the choice of what they wear, and even if they still choose to wear the veil, at least they would have a sense of freedom in choice.

  2. Travis says:

    If I have learned anything in this course, it’s that Muslims take religion very seriously, and, as a result, often incorporate religion into their regulations and politics. From my perspective, I think that the women of Iran should be able to wear whatever they want due to the fact that regulating what they wear violates their freedom of expression. However, from a Muslim perspective, there is so much more encompassed in wearing the veil than simply freedom of dress. As you mentioned the veil is linked to Muslim history, signifying different things such as rank and Muslim identity. Muslim women who are considered to be very traditional will more than likely prefer that the veil remain, while Muslim women who are less traditional will say otherwise. In past blog posts, there have been issues that have arisen due to the strong connection between religion and politics, and changing such situations is possible yet difficult due to such a strong, preexisting way of life. I want to end my response by saying that your blog post was very interesting.

  3. khospedales3 says:

    I can’t say a nation ruled by the principles of a religious faith is inherently bad. But it is always dangerous, as the interpretation of the religious texts by those in power will shape the law of the land, for better or for worse.

    History has shown us that any position of great political power is prone to corruption, and it seems this strong advocacy of women being obligated to wear a veil is just one of many examples of this corruption. Considering that women weren’t obliged to do so until very, very recently in Iranian history, I find it difficult to argue that the motives for this mandate are truly grounded in religion. It all just seems political.

    I also like that you stressed the importance of not being restricted by our western perspective. The right to wear a veil is just as valid and worthy of protection as the right not to wear one, and it pains me to see women who are reprimanded for wearing a veil just as much as it pains me to see those who are punished for removing it.

  4. emartin36 says:

    This is clearly a tradition that needs to be treated as an option and not a requirement. While I disagree with the double standard that veiling presents, if a woman chooses to stick with this tradition, it should be her personal choice. I certainly support the choice if it is entirely personal. The nations in which women are being publicly shamed or even attacked are in desperate need of reform, however.

  5. lmoghimi3 says:

    As someone from Iran who has had to wear a hijab because of the laws, I can say it is my least favorite part of visiting the country. I know a lot of Iranians who if given the choice, would stop wearing their hijabs tomorrow and some who like wearing it. It would be interesting when/ if Iran allows women to choose what they want to wear what percentage of women would continue wearing the hijab and what percent would stop.

  6. wcarter31 says:

    I think it’s very interesting how different the various countries of the region are in terms of what is deemed acceptable attire for the women. Saudi Arabia appears to be the most strict on its requirements while Lebanon appears to be the most relaxed, which appears to be a very modern style of dress for women. Also interesting is the difference between woman 3, 4, and 5 in the photo – only the face is exposed in each case, but there is a very noticeable divide among all of the countries surveyed.

  7. ashumway3 says:

    I feel that it’s important to give every person the right to choose whether they want to veil or not. It is not the job of the government to dictate what anyone has to wear. This belief applies to both sides of the issue: governments should neither make it obligatory nor forbid the wearing of these articles of clothing. Anything else is an invasion of citizens’ rights to follow what they believe in.

  8. trevormcelhenny says:

    I think it’s interesting that 47% of the people surveyed in Saudi Arabia said they believed women should be able to choose their own clothing, but the total percentage for those who chose Woman #1 or Woman #2 as being most appropriate is 74%. I would think that with almost half of the sample population having liberal views towards a woman’s choice of dress, more people would say the less concealing clothes were appropriate. Surprising that almost 3/4 of them would choose the most concealing clothing as most appropriate. Very interesting post!

    • amiteichenbaum says:

      I think what we have to take into consideration is the backlash of what the other “headgear” would have. While they may believe that women should be able to choose a certain style, the fact still remains that those who don’t are not only subject to physical and sexual abuse, but also are victim to the law. Therefore I think people put what they believe would be most comfortable to wear in public, considering the risks. For example, I was in Jerusalem this summer. You can wear whatever you please, however I chose to dress more modestly at times simply due to the sheer sexual harassment from men on the street. I was willing to sacrifice my self expression through clothing in order to be spared screams and approaches from men.

  9. missypittard says:

    The graphic depicting appropriate women attire by country was shocking to me. The Saudi Arabian preference for the full covering of women especially. It seems the criticism of the Muslim headgear could be rooted in psychology. Seeing someone covered up to that extreme gives me the impression they are hiding themselves, ashamed to be who they are. It draws the same emotion as seeing a toddler on a leash.

    Beyond the garb, the fact that there are laws dictating women have no choice in the matter is absurd. I agree with your point in that people do assume given the choice, women would choose to not wear the headgear. There are many societal evolutionary factors that brought this to fruition, but if women hope to establish themselves as equals in the Middle East, they need to recognize that laws dictating their attire will not coincide with mutual respect, or any evolution of gender roles.

  10. vlobo3 says:

    I agree with you with your viewpoint on the subject.
    The thing that was the most shocking to me was that certain head coverings were not “modest enough” in some places. I guess I had always kind of assumed that as long as women’s heads were covered, they were fine. But I did not think that women could be persecuted in the immodesty of their veil.
    Overall, I agree that I think that this tradition should be respected, but that it should be the choice of the women. Head coverings mean a lot to many different people. It can be viewed as a sign of purity and a devotion to religion and God. I don’t think that women should have that taken away from them if they feel that that is a way for them to pray and grow. But I also do not feel that a woman should be forced to wear something, or suffer terrible punishments for doing so.

  11. jkempa3 says:

    I enjoyed this piece. I agree that the point is regardless of weather or not women want to wear head coverings, it should be their choice, not a law imposed by another’s interpretation of read laws not allowed to be read by women. Women that wish to wear the coverings should be allowed to anywhere where it does not cause undue disruption to good order and discipline among society. In the same way women that do not wish to wear the coverings should have the choice not to wear veils, at least while not in a religious setting.

  12. apabst3 says:

    I found it very interesting that many women said they feel uncomfortable or unsafe when they don’t wear their headwear. I always assumed that Muslim women would dislike having to cover themselves up, because in my eyes it seems a bit demeaning to women. However I have to continuously remind myself that I am from a completely different culture and I almost cannot comprehend what the headwear means to Muslim women. Having said that I obviously believe that Muslim women should have a choice on whether or not to wear it. Hopefully movements like “My Stealthy Freedom” will continue to spread across the Middle East.

  13. jyount6 says:

    In some of my reading about recent affairs in the Middle East, it seems to me as though the “freedom” to choose one’s head covering would not be taken to heart in many of the more oppressive countries. If freedom is not something they have had, and they don’t value it or seem to take advantage of freedom, is it really doing them any good? I think this article is good, however fails to take into account men in the equation. If the male head of the house still wants the women to wear head coverings and the women have the supposed freedom of choice in that matter, then more than likely there is no real freedom present. Do I think that women should have a choice? Absolutely! But the real question is, what law says and what actually happens can be two very different things. I think there is more to oppression than just the laws that are in place.

  14. mlucchi says:

    What people wear is a form of speech and free speech is generally considered a good thing for society. Whether people want to wear a veil or not should be a choice. When that choice is taken away, so is free speech, which unfortunately, is beneficial for dictatorships, oligarchies, monarchies, etc. Perhaps veiling is a way for the iranian government to keep control of its citizens. The other likely reason is that because Iran is an Islamic country, veiling is a cultural custom, of which there is no tolerance for not following it. Enforcing religion on people is also freedom of speech and again, encroaching on that right is inherently bad.

  15. ssweeny3 says:

    While veils can be seen as oppressive, I feel like there is a larger choice by women than most believe. Seeing veiling by Muslim American’s is a prime example. Moving to a country where choosing to not wear a veil will not result in persecution can be a huge deal for some immigrants. But there are still a good number who choose to veil anyway. I believe that this stems from both tradition and modesty. Muslim women who choose to veil are used to always wearing it, so when they come to America they don’t see a good reason to stop veiling. The same principles and rules of the Quran apply in America as much as their home country, so why change? The sad part, is that despite the religious freedom that America provides, some are still discriminated for choosing to veil. It is a huge unnecessary culture shock coming from a country where veiling is required to a country where who are almost treated differently if you choose to veil. It is a very sad state that we live in.

  16. corypope6 says:

    If Middle Eastern women are split on the issue of whether or not head coverings are oppressive or a display of religious or marital devotion, I think that the most obvious path to take to protect rights and also ensure religious freedom is to allow women to make their own choices, which seems to be a radical thought in the Middle East. However, the movement is clearly gaining ground. 700,000 like is a lot of likes. Looking back in American history though, women were viewed as incapable of making their own decisions until recently (100 years ago). And I think that most people would agree that Middle Eastern nations are behind the United States in certain arenas, so I think that we just need to give it more time and the situation will work itself out.

  17. owest3 says:

    Great post! You brought up a lot of good points and most of this is new information to me! I think that change in any country takes time. This is a revolution for women in the Middle East and we can’t expect it to change overnight even if the majority of the world supports this change. These women have been veiled for many centuries so it is expected that some of them will feel uncomfortable without a veil. Over time, this practice will disintegrate. Banning the veil completely is not the right thing to start with though, maybe we should work towards banning punishment for not wearing the veil to begin with.

  18. kimpgt says:

    I feel shocked, but not surprised about the treatment of women in Iran. I think it is completely absurd that there is punishment by a morality police for women if they do not wear the proper attire. I understand that the state and religion are very closely tied, but veiling is not a strict Muslim practice. In parts of Africa, Muslims do not veil because that is not something their society believes in, yet they are still of the Islamic faith. I feel that the same should be for every Muslim nation. Women should have the choice to wear a hijab. If they want to wear modern versions of the hijab, they should be allowed to. Women should not be getting arrested and beat because of a piece of fabric. The men in their family should stand up for them or try to support them as much as possible, but I know that many cases have abuse rooting from the home. I am not saying to remove veiling, I am just saying that if a women does not want to cover her head/face, it would be great if she was not forced. The veil is a representation of Islam and its adherence demonstrates piousness. In the West, veiling is uncommon and women of the faiths that practice veiling may feel uncomfortable or targeted for wearing traditional attire. I agree with this post that regardless of why a woman wants to cover her head or does not want to, she should be given the freedom to choose without punishment and fear.

  19. nsumi3 says:

    These sort of stories inevitably boil down to the issue of choice. It seems that pretty much every country struggles with the level of choice they give their citizens, especially women. It’s been mentioned above, but religion is particularly dangerous to choice: it gives those in power who are willing a reference they can point to and from which they can claim legitimacy. In the US, anti-contraception arguments are often framed in a religious context, using the Bible as justification for narrowing women’s choices.

    I thought this article did a great job at highlighting the many sides of the debate, from the women who draw a cultural significance from their coverings to the women who feel victimized by a cultural icon they view as archaic and unjust. Hopefully the modern social media tools at their disposal will empower the women and their supporters to achieve fairer laws in their countries.

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