In the following interview, Sahar Amer, author of What is Veiling?, talks with Caroline Rudolph about one of Islam’s most misunderstood and controversial practices.
Caroline Rudolph: What is Veiling? is the first in a series of books from UNC Press that will explain key aspects of Islam. Why might the topic of veiling be an appropriate starting point for such a series?
Sahar Amer: Veiling is one of the most visible signs of Islam as a religion and likely its most controversial and least understood tradition among non-Muslims, and perhaps surprisingly, among Muslims as well. Many non-Muslim and Muslim readers are often unfamiliar with the religious interpretations and debates over the Islamic prescription to wear the veil, the historical and political background to current anxieties surrounding the veil, or the range of meanings the veil continues to have for Muslim women around the world. In many ways, understanding the complex and often contradictory meanings of veiling is also understanding how Islam has come to mean so many different things to different peoples.
CR: You were a professor in the Asian Studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill for many years before moving to your current position as Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at The University of Sydney. What differences, if any, have you noticed about veiling practices between each of these campuses specifically and in these different countries generally?
SA: There are some fascinating differences between veiling in North Carolina (U.S.) and veiling in Sydney (Australia) that I have noticed in the six months I have been living in the Pacific. One of the most interesting things I noticed is the much wider range of ethnicities in the women who veil in Australia compared to the United States. In the United States, most women that we see veiled are from either an Arab or an African American background. In Australia, on the other hand, because of its proximity to Asia, most veiled women I see on campus are from Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, and even China. Of course, there are many Arab students who veil as well (mostly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, but across the Arab world, too), but they are not the majority. In addition, one of the most striking things for me is the fact that Muslims in general seem to be better integrated in Australia than in the United States. On UNC’s campus, we tended to see veiled Muslim students hanging out with other veiled students. In Sydney, veiled Muslim women are always in groups with non-veiled ones. This is forcing me to rethink the relation between veiling and Islamophobia.
CR: You were born in Egypt and grew up in France, home to one of Europe’s largest Muslim populations. How did your early experiences shape your perceptions of veiling? Have you seen a change in attitudes in these countries since the time that you first lived in each?
SA: While I was growing up in Egypt (in the 1960s), very few women wore the veil. Since the early 1980s, a growing number of women started wearing the veil. Today, the majority of women in Egypt veil (I am often mistaken for a Copt because I do not veil). So this is a huge change.
When I lived in France throughout the 1970s, hardly any Muslim women wore the veil. This situation too changed in the late 1970s and 1980s as a result of legislative changes that increased the number of North African (largely Muslim women) immigrants. This is when we began to see in France a growing number of women who veiled. This change happened at the same time as a weakening economy took hold. The Far Right movement (led at the time by Jean-Marie Le Pen) started rising to prominence by pointing to the presence of veiled women and immigration policies as the main causes for France’s problems and unemployment. This is when we can date the beginning of a heated and politicized debate over veiling which led to a law banning headscarves from public schools in 2004 and another law banning the niqab (face veil) from all public spaces in 2010. Today, and as a result of these laws, one sees many fewer women who veil in France. They have not disappeared entirely, and some women continue to defy French laws (by wearing the face veil in public, for example), but generally, one can say that most Muslim women no longer wear the hijab in France.
The problem in France, however, is that veiling (the hijab, but especially the niqab) is always assumed to be imposed on Muslim women, and is hardly ever thought of as individually and personally chosen. This is perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings surrounding this practice. In addition, veiling has become in France an easy platform for politicians to deflect attention from pressing social, economic, and political issues and to focus attention elsewhere to gain electoral advantages.
CR: Have you had any personal experience wearing a veil? If so, how did it impact you?
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