“The Veil: Modesty, Fashion, Religious Devotion or Political Statement?” a discussion of the show by Rania Matar…
The veil has many meanings and symbols in the Middle East. While often perceived in the West as a symbol of female oppression and submission to male authority, it takes on a very different meaning in the Arab world. In this photo essay, I will focus on the spread of the veil amongst women in Lebanon and the different interpretations the veil takes on.
Lebanon is a small Middle Eastern country wedged between the West and the Muslim world, where Christians and Muslims have lived together for centuries, where one would witness a blend of the West and the Arab world, of Christianity and Islam, in addition to ostentatious display of wealth and extreme poverty. After fifteen years of a brutal civil war that ended with no clear winner and no real solution, life in Lebanon goes on in a surreal way with a mosaic of co-existing religions.
The Muslim population is growing larger due to a higher birth rate. It is highly politicized and seething with anger at the news coming from Iraq and Israel/Palestine. In addition, since September 11, it feels threatened in a world looking at any Islamic piety with suspicion, with a resulting retreat into more religious consciousness. While many Muslims, especially the upper class, look westward in their dress and lifestyle, and are not antagonistic to the Christian presence, many feel the need of belonging to the larger Muslim community. The female veil which was almost non-existent a decade ago in Lebanon is making a comeback, even among the younger generation, and is taking on different symbols ranging from religious devotion, to self-assertion vis-à-vis the West, to a new item of fashion, all leading to the increased social pressure of wearing it among Muslim women of all ages.
While wearing the veil among Muslim women is becoming more common in Lebanon, the different ways of wearing it is often misunderstood by the West. Women who are wearing the veil are mostly doing it by choice, even though their motives and the extent to which they are covered vary. Older traditional Muslim women wear the headscarf because of religious devotion and modesty. They only take it off inside the home and only in the presence of other women or close male relatives. Upper class Muslim women who often dress in a western style now wear the headscarf as an instrument of fashion and an added accessory, whereby the scarf has to match the clothes, the sunglasses and the handbag. Some women wear it as a political statement of resistance to the West and a symbol of solidarity with Muslim countries at odds with the West. Pubescent girls are now succumbing to social expectations and are wearing the veil by choice as a symbol of growing up. Some would spend hours fixing their headscarf in front of the mirror. They wear it layered, braided or plain but always color coordinated with their clothes.
What makes this project interesting to me is that it provides a microcosm of what is going on in the world today in terms of the growing differences but at the same time the existing inter-dependencies between the West and the Arab world, or Christianity and Islam. Lebanon is a westernized country, home to a growing Muslim society but also to a very western Christian population, hence providing different interpretations of female fashion, and a juxtaposition of the veil with a very western dress code and life style. The veil as a result takes on different meanings and can be seen worn in very different ways ranging from a chador to a fashionable headscarf. It is not uncommon in Beirut to see veiled women walking next to women in mini skirts or tank tops, or under posters of beautiful supermodels, eating at McDonalds or having coffee at Starbucks.”
More info about Rania Matar can be found at www.raniamatar.com.