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There is one narrative in Western media that makes me roll my eyes harder than any other, the continued need to attach politics to the veil. I, a Hindu, wear a looser held veil that is known as a ghoonghat or a dupatta, but for the purposes of ease I often call it my hijab. Regardless though, of if you wear a ghoonghat, a hijab, a niqab, a shayla or a chador, the dialogue about veils worn anywhere but on the wedding aisle will impact you and often speak for you. We all wear our veils for a myriad of reasons, depending on our culture and faith backgrounds, and so we can all be in agreement that really, you can’t make sweeping statements about what it means to cover your hair, and just who it is that is choosing to cover their hair at all. With this in mind, it is only us, the individuals who live their lives wearing veils, that can actually justifiably make statements about what they do and do not mean to us. We are the architects of their symbolism, or lack thereof, and the dictators of what the veils we wear are in response to.
While this may seem self evident, the veil has become the battleground of Western politics in the ever more black and white divisive landscape of the right and the left. A dichotomy forms between these two groups on a part of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh traditions that frankly, has little to do directly with the agendas of either wing of politics. It is also important to state that in the West all of us who veil are instantly assumed to be Muslim, while in reality veiling is present and has been present historically across a number or religious communities, including even Christianity. I’m frankly tired of having my experience, and my state of dress, something I do for my own religious reasons, become a tool to further a narrative one way or another. You might start to wonder exactly what I mean when I say this, what are these narrative that political factions want to push about the fabric on top of my head?
The first is far more identifiable, that of the right wing (especially of the uneducated and alternative within the right wing) who see the veil as a symbol of oppression. The tired narrative goes that we’re all wearing our veils because some man told us to, that if we don’t then our safety is at risk, essentially we don’t have any agency over what we can do and what we can wear. It seems almost too ironic that the right wing, specifically the right wing in places like the US, suddenly care about the freedoms of women when it comes to veiling while still vehemently opposing a woman’s right to abortions or easy access to contraception. The other narrative they push is the idea that underneath our veils we’re all holding a plethora of weapons and explosives. It is hard to not laugh a little as I type this, but it is a major truth in how conservative politics discusses the veil. The hypocrisy of their objections to our veils on the grounds of the freedoms of the women who wear them is laughable, while the security fears underpin a bigger conversation about how the right wing relates to non-Christian cultures and practices. Both of these narratives are ultimately aimed at making those of us who veil symbols of a more dangerous society where women walk around under an ever present submission and a shudder inducing threat to security.
It is obvious why the narrative pushed by the right wing is harmful and problematic to those of us who veil, but what of the left wing? It may appear to be less clear but it is in fact narratives of the left wing that can be just as hurtful and flawed as those of the very political group they aim to use veiled women+ to oppose. The left wing has developed a fascination and a desire to assert the fact that the veil is innately some feminist statement, the idea that my veil in a definitive response to patriarchy. While I myself may feel empowerment from wearing a veil, this doesn’t mean that the act itself is a political statement. The left wing has had a history of superseding the narratives of minority cultures and their unique practices, problems, and points of view, all in the sake of appearing progressive or accepting. In reality the assertion that my veil is inherently a feminist symbol is a major issue, because it assumes first of all that my personal politics should align to Western (read white) feminist ideas about empowerment that frankly do not speak to my experience as a Hindu. It is the same issue present in white feminist discourses about how other cultural symbols such as my bindi or protective hairstyles worn by black women should inherently be a statement about feminism. While we may find empowerment and even feminism in these things, it must be remembered that this is not monolithic or universal as white left wing feminism would have you think and it is empowerment for us within our own contexts, not for the white feminist.
It is the case that some women who veil are doing so out of social necessity as in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where laws prohibit women from not covering their hair. It is also the case that for a Hindu Hijra like myself, my ghoonghat is a source of Hindu feminism and my own empowerment, but this is not for the service of a mainstream white feminism that doesn’t speak for my experience but instead would rather supersede it for its own agenda. The veil is not monolithic, and the politically charged society of the Western world needs to learn this. Some people who veil do so without much relation to either of the main currents of opinion to do with the act. For many of us the veil is a spiritual choice first and foremost, anything political is secondary. It is with this in mind that I am telling the people in the West who wish to argue one way or another about the fact that I cover my hair to politely, keep your politics out of my veil. Thanks.