Veil of Tears

Fashion and its victims.
April 23 1998 3:30 AM

Veil of Tears

Why Islamic women's head scarves are less anodyne than you think.

Last week I was in Istanbul, visiting friends and monuments and taking note of what everybody was wearing. Turkey is 98 percent Muslim, but it has put an end to theocratic rule. Its government and public education system are secular, and both emphasize equality of the sexes. Turkish women got the vote in 1935, 10 years ahead of women in France. I was curious to see how traditional Muslim customs interact with modern fashion in a city where East has been meeting West for so many millennia. I'd already had some exposure to the mixture in Cairo, but Egypt is a North African country (94 percent Muslim), very far in spirit from Turkey. Istanbul, for example, is much closer to Odessa than it is to Baghdad.

Islam is notorious for veiling its women, but such veiling was once universal. Old engravings show draped, enveloping clothes for Muslim women that are not very different from ancient Greek and Roman women's clothes or early medieval clothes and that are, in fact, similar to early forms of peasant women's clothing all over eastern Europe.

Islamic women were then simply following standard ancient-world custom, which required that the head be veiled when the woman was outdoors and that the body never be exposed except in private. All around the Mediterranean, modesty was considered the primary female virtue, its public expression necessary for an ordered human society. Female physical beauty was viewed as an incendiary and corrupting influence that could lead to lawlessness, social disorder, and anarchy. Only after European fashion hit its stride in the 16th century, with women flaunting sculptured curls, rouged cheeks, and exposed chests in public, did the veiled Arab lady begin to look so alien, so alluring, and eventually so infuriating to Western sensibilities.

In the era following the Renaissance, Western women's beauty was made to function both as a creative force and as a commodity in a Europe expanding through commerce and conquest. Nude girls representing Truth and Virtue began to appear on public monuments. Titian painted great ladies young and old, saints, goddesses, and successful prostitutes, all equally delicious to look at. The virtuous but lively daughters of Protestant capitalists were encouraged to show some ankle and make advantageous marriages. Fashion-prints were published and studied. Well-placed married ladies in low cut dresses ran salons, manipulating social forces and influencing literature and politics. Female beauty helped to modernize the world.

Islam would have none of this. Female influence was potent and important, but it functioned covertly. Female beauty was valued, but it was nobody's business. Even today, traditional Muslim women wear a long straight dress with high neck and long sleeves, and a folded head cloth that wholly hides the forehead and hair, the ears, neck, and bust.

The look of such traditional Islamic dress commands instant respect from a modern beholder. It has the authority of unself-conscious ancient custom, and the costume forms a fine visual contrast to the vagaries of fashion in modern cities. The style is harmonious, dignified, and not impractical. I saw gear much like it on Hindu women in Nepal, who would wrap and tuck some of the veil around the midsection, carrying groceries, the baby, and other sundries in its overlapping folds. The spirit of the outfit, however, is utterly alien to Western assumptions.

To present-day eyes, expressions of extreme female modesty seem subversive, a stumbling block to the sane ordering of human affairs. Keeping women in the dark, wrapping them up in public like so many identical packages, is felt to corrode the social fabric, not strengthen it; to stunt, not nourish a country's modern political life. It feels that way in Istanbul, too. Many women there display the range of hairstyles and cosmetics and physical exposure found in any big city. But many more women wear a new version of pointedly Islamic costume. Below the neck, they wear modern clothes and shoes. But on their heads, they wear a modern silk scarf, a Gucci look-alike or a Hermès knockoff folded close around the face to hide a third of it, along with the ears, the whole neck, and every scrap of hair. This quasimodern Islamic "veil" makes a self-conscious religious point in a secular society.

The effect is very disturbing. This head scarf recently caused a furor in Turkish schools and universities, when an old law prohibiting its use was suddenly enforced. A similar prohibition was attempted a few years ago in Paris. France has universal religious tolerance, as Turkey does, and as part of their religion, young Muslim Parisiennes were demanding the right to wear this same hybrid scarf in school. Americans, familiar with the Jewish yarmulke or even the Sufi turban, have a hard time understanding why these two states would find this harmless religious practice improper. But they do.

Looking at thousands of examples of it in Istanbul, I came to see the problem. Women wearing short skirts and smart shoes who fold a modish scarf on their heads in the ancient veil-like manner are trying to have it both ways. Unlike the yarmulke, which is strictly symbolic, the folded scarf is functional. Like the original veil, it serves to create the conditions of female modesty.

No wonder many hate it in France, especially for schoolgirls, who are meant to mix with others on an equal footing in all respects; and in determinedly modernized Turkey, too. The girls who wish to wear the scarf in Turkey say it represents Muslim female empowerment, and they consider themselves oppressed if it's forbidden. They may claim this, but their very appearance in these scarves cancels that interpretation. Those who object to them seem closer to the mark in fearing that the scarves signal a rising fundamentalist opposition to the secular principles on which modern Turkey was founded. The girls who believe the scarves mean freedom may in fact be blinded by them. They may not realize their complicity in a movement that seems likely ultimately to take such freedom away.

Every time I saw an Istanbul girl with a silk scarf pinching her head and reducing her face, I would think, heavens, take it off, let me show you how to wear it becomingly with your nice suit--and then I would remember that, above the shoulders, unattractiveness is the whole point. It was startling to me how unnoticeable the attractions below the neck became without a personality to avow them. A tightly wrapped head, with encapsulated eyes, nose, and mouth, doubtless suited the publicly shrouded female of antiquity, whose intelligence flowered wholly unseen. It seems suitable in Saudi Arabia, for example, where women can't vote, since it squashes public expression along with hair. But in modern Istanbul, the scarf completely depersonalizes the shapely legs and curving torso displayed in contemporary clothes below it. The woman looks brainless, an antique statue of Venus with no head.

It is really too bad that such inhibiting headgear, a complex Islamic tradition, has lately acquired the status of a strict religious law, which it never was. The modest Muslim veil is in fact betraying its ancient and honorable reluctance to take on the aggressive flavor of fanaticism. Orthodox Judaism, likewise devoted to the suppression of women's hair, has long since solved the problem another way, with fashionable wigs. Islam has refrained from such an expedient. Meanwhile the ancient chaste Islamic veil and dress persist in countries where they have never been challenged, and they cohabit, more or less, with modern fashion if the two don't try to blend.

In any case, I was interested to notice that no Hermès-like silk scarves casually grazed secular female clavicles in Istanbul. The sexy girls with terrific hair would dashingly toss a couple of yards of plain wool around their necks; no sign of bright printed silk. Shiny stacks of beautiful scarves are sold in the Grand Bazaar, for Muslim girls to wrench into veils and for tourists to flaunt in New York.

Anne Hollander is Slate's fashion columnist.