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Messages from Under the Veil: Rhetorical Analysis of Islamic Veils (Thesis Paper)

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Only the woman's eyes show in this traditional Islamic clothing.

Only the woman's eyes show in this traditional Islamic clothing.

Ladies scurrying hurriedly in long black robes with a narrow slit for eyes. Some not even allowing their eyes to be seen, but instead opt for versions with a piece of black cloth over even the eyes. Others shop with downcast eyes in blue robes with netting over the eyes. These are the images that many people think of when they hear about Muslim women in burkas. There are automatically preconceptions such as the women are being forced to wear “Afghanistan’s veil of terror,” (McLarney 1) however there are many messages being sent when a woman dons a burka, and just as many different messages being received by the burkas audience. As in many situations, the message depends on the surrounding situation, in modern times it seems that this means mainly the geography and surrounding political situation. This paper will analyze the rhetorical messages that are produced by the burka wearer in different circumstance such as burka wearers in the modern day Middle East, in France on the Paris runways, and in the United States.

In the United States, the Islamic veils send many messages. To those that have escaped persecution and oppression, it is an unwanted reminder of they survived and left behind. To the young women who did not experience the oppression, they simply want to express themselves and worship Allah in the way that they see is acceptable.

A young girl wears a brightly colored hijab while on vacation.

A young girl wears a brightly colored hijab while on vacation.

An example of a woman wearing burqa.

An example of a woman wearing burqa.

What is a hijab?

There are variations of the head covering that include the burka, the nigab, and the hijab. An article from the Religious News Service website, (which claims to be “The only secular news and photo service devoted to unbiased coverage of religion and ethics—exclusively.”) explains the differences between a burka, nigab, and hijab. A burka is a robe that covers the women from head to toe, and has a veil that covers the eyes. They are worn over daily clothing, and can be taken off as soon as the woman is in a private place. (Garcia 3) The nigab is similar to the burka, however there is a slit that shows the eyes. Some women still wear dark glasses to cover the eyes if they wear a nigab. (Garcia 4) The hijab is a head covering that can be worn many different ways, depending on the conviction of the woman. (Garcia 6) It can be worn so that all of the face and a small amount of hair is showing, all the face shows but no hair is visible, or it can be worn so that no hair is visible and the face is partially covered. A Muslim woman will also generally dress modestly even if she wears the hijab and shows her face and hair. Depending on a woman’s conviction, or the political situation where she lives, a woman may choose to also wear black gloves to keep from showing her hands and wrists. (Garcia 7)

Hebah Ahmed on ABC's 60 Minutes

Qur'an teachings about the hijab

In her interview for ABC’s 60 minutes, Hebah Ahmed, a devout Muslim woman, explains that nowhere in the Qur’an does it explicitly say that a woman must cover her face. The Qur’an says that women must be modest. She goes on to explain that Muslim scholars generally accept that “modest” means covering everything but the face, hands, and feet when a woman is in the presence of males with whom she is not related. In western societies where women do not have a strict dress code, then a Muslim woman may choose to wear modest clothing and the hijab, or may choose to go the extra step and wear a burka or nigab. (Video: Muslim Explains Why She Wears the Veil)

Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan

The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996 and again in 2001. (Bruno 1) They enforced harsh extremist Islam measures on everyone in the country including curfews, laws against music, and stoning people to death for crime. (Bruno 4) However, they were harshest on women who were not allowed to leave the house without a male escort, were denied education, married as young as ten years old, and forced into submissive roles with the penalty of death if the women did not act as the Taliban thought was proper. (Report 3-12)

The International Security Assistance Force drops off school supplies for children in Afghanistan.

The International Security Assistance Force drops off school supplies for children in Afghanistan.

The Rise of Veils in Afghanistan

In the country of Afghanistan, the burka has a very clear message to many women. Mary Ayubi is young female journalist in Afghanistan, she is one of the first women every to be trained to be a broadcast journalist in Afghanisan. She grew up in Kabul, and revealed in the documentary “Afghanistan Unveiled,” that her mother was murdered by a militiaman who objected to the fact that her mother only wore a headscarf and not a full burqa. (Curiel 11) For many of the women who lived through the Taliban regime want nothing to do with the burka after actions like these. When the choice to become closer to Allah by covering with a veil was taken away, and instead enforced with barbaric force then the cloth no longer symbolizes a beneficial religious lifestyle. Mary puts it simply and bluntly “When you wear a burqa it’s a (sign of) shame.” (Curiel 4)

Even though the journalists in “Afghanistan Unveiled” are all young women who do not wear burqas themselves, there are still many women outside of Kabul who are forced to stay clad under the blue prison. These rural areas still have Taliban tendencies forcing women into submission. (Curiel 3)

The message that is sent out to when a woman in the Middle East wears a burqa is commonly one of the following. The first message is one of repression and shame. Shame in the manner that extremists turned what once was a wonderful choice for a woman to become closer to her god into a forced requirement with threats, mutilation, and murder. (Curiel 9) Then there are women who still willingly wear the burqa out of their pious devotion, and manage to separate the oppression form the religion. (McLarney 7)


France's Ban on Burqas

On Tuesday September 14, 2010 France approved a ban against wearing burqa, or any veil that covers the face. (French 1)

Even though France is banning the burqas in 2010, back in Fall 2006 burqas inspired fashion flooded fashion line ups in Fashion Week and high fashion magazines. (McLarney 15) In fact the editor-in-chief at the time, Joan Juliet Buck, at the French Vogue wrote about how burkas where the seasons sun protection that helps keep the skin looking young and about the protecting power of the burka. Buck went on to describe how the burka allows the wearer to not feel repressed, but have the feeling of, “I can see you, you can’t see me…I am safe and I am free.” (McLarney 14) Debatably the most startling collection at fashion week that featured the burqa-like designs belonged to Jun Takashi. Takashi mixed traditional burka and nigab elements with punk sadist themes to form a collection that is believed to show some of his less than optimistic political views concerning the war in Afghanistan, although he denied these comments. (McLarney16)

Veils as Part of Fashion

In the fashion scene of 2006, the burqa had a completely different connotation. That it was fashionable, even in Western society. One reporter described this phenomenon as being “from shock to chic.” (McLarney 17) The fact that the veil was talked about but not expected, made it desirable in the fashion industry. However, these where items that were used photo shoots and fashion shows. These were not ready-to-wear items made to outfit the public. This brings up a question of even with its involvement and positive press, where the veils placed in a light of acceptance?

Stylish Hijab Tutorials

Why Muslim-American Youth are Choosing to Wear Veils

The burqa takes on a new message to young women who have grown up in the safety of a land that they are given the choice to choose to wear a burqa. Young women who choose to wear hijabs or the more conservative burqas sometimes confuse their mothers who may have never wore a hijab themselves. The Pakistan Daily wrote a story about young Hekmati, who is the daughter of Iranian immigrants and who grew up in Detroit. Her mother, Behnaz, never wore a hijab growing up; she said that most women who attended universities did not wear hijabs. So when her daughter choose to wear a hijab in a culture that is not always accepting of the Muslim dress, worried Behnaz who knew that some would see her daughters actions as political and not as the pure action of religion that it was meant to be. (Uncovering 27)

Muslim-American youth feel that wearing the burqa makes them more beautiful, empowers them, solidifies their identity, and is liberating. (Uncovering 4-11) However, there are other Muslim-Americans that lived under oppressive laws that forced the wearing of the burqa and moved to the United States to escape such things. Young women wearing the hijab remind them of the times living under the oppression of extremists, and Hekmati says that it is in fact the Muslim-Americans that give her more trouble for wearing the head scarves. They tell Hekmati, “We got rid of you guys. We came here because we didn’t want to see you guys anymore.” (Uncovering 29)

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So what do veils say about the women who wear them?

In the United States, the Islamic veils send many messages. To those that have escaped persecution and oppression, it is an unwanted reminder of they survived and left behind. To the young women who did not experience the oppression, they simply want to express themselves and worship Allah in the way that they see is acceptable.

The Islamic veils, the hijab, the nagib, and the burqa all send rich host of rhetorical messages. The messages sent and the messages received by others are not always the same, but regardless the sight of these robes and head scarves immediately cause preconceptions to rise to the foremost of the mind, and opinions are never far behind. They are prisons of oppression, they are an artistic tool used to express political views, and they are liberation to a new generation.

Works Cited


Bruno, Greg. Kaplan, Eben. The Taliban in Afghanistan. Council on Foreign Relations. August 3, 2009. Web.

Curiel, Jonathan. “Afghanistan, through eyes of young women.” San Francisco Chronicle 3 December 2003: E1. Student Resource Center – Gold. Web. Nov. 2010.

French senate approves burqa ban. CNN World. 14 September 2010. Web.

Garcia, Alfredo. What’s the difference between hijab, burqa, etc. Religious New Service. 16 July 2010. Web. 30 November 2010. whats_the_difference_between_hijab_burqa_etc/

McLarney, Ellen. The Burqa in Vogue: Fashioning Afghanistan. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies Vol. 5, No 1 (Winter 2009).

Report on the Taliban's War Against Women. BUREAU OF DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS AND LABOR. November 17, 2001 Web. 30 November 2010.

Uncovering myths about the hijab. Pakistan Daily. 14 August 2009. Web.

Video: Muslim Explains Why she Wears the Veil. 60 Minutes. ABC. 30 September 2010. Web.


Haley (author) from Baltimore, MD on December 04, 2011:

Thanks Libby, I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub!

Hebah Ahmed, Thank you, your interview was one of the reasons that I chose this topic for the paper.

Guest of th e Sheik? I haven't heard of it, but I'll be sure to check it out Stephanie.

Stephanie Das from Miami, US on December 03, 2011:

This is really interesting...there are so many varieties of viels and they mean so many different things. If you're interested in women in the middle east, you may enjoy reading Guests of the Sheik by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. It had a lost of influence in the way I view the hijab.

Hebah Ahmed on December 24, 2010:

Thank you for quoting me in your paper! You did an excellent analysis and helped me to better understand why many of my family members are hostile toward my choice to veil. We need more perspectives like yours and voices of understanding!

libby101a from KY on December 08, 2010:

Awesome hub! Very informative! You did an outstanding job. Voting up.

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