Inside USD

Humanities Lecture Looks Behind the Veil

Friday, February 13, 2009

hijabIt’s a symbol of Islamic culture and religion that people in the West find fascinating, says Bahar Davary, University of San Diego assistant professor of theology and religious studies. They view it as “sort of a mystery.”

Indeed, in modern times, few symbols have engendered as much emotion as the veil. On one extreme, some see Muslim women who choose not to wear the “hijab,” or traditional head covering, as unscrupulous or immoral. On the other end of the spectrum, some in the West imagine that no woman would ever wear it without being forced to do so.

The reality is much more complex, says Davary, who will present the university’s second annual Humanities Lecture on “Obsession with the Veil” on Tuesday, Feb. 17, at 5:30 p.m. in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Theatre. The event is free and open to the public.

Davary, who teaches courses in Islam, world religions, and comparative religious ethics, said that the call for women to dress modestly in public — often with a veil or scarf — has roots in the Jewish and Christian faiths, as well as Islam. Many orthodox Jewish women wear modest forms of dress and until recently, many Christian women would not enter church without their heads covered.

While the Quran is no stricter than the Bible in requiring a woman to cover herself, Davary’s lecture will explore why so many more Muslim choose to do so. The answer is not monolithic, and has much to do with notions of identity and politics, as well as religion, she said.

“For the longest time, Islam was viewed by the West as an inferior religion and culture,” she said. Wearing the veil, she said, is a way of saying, “I’m a Muslim and proud of it.”

In fact, wearing the veil could even be seen as something similar to the “bra burning” that American women did in the 1960s and ’70s, she added. Many Muslim women, even professional women, want to send the message that the Western way of dress shown in magazines or on television is not the only appropriate model. They are saying, “we want to determine our own norms and standard of beauty,” Davary said.

Davary said that many of her students are also surprised — and pleasantly so — to find out that for many Muslim women, wearing the veil is viewed as a choice and not a requirement.

“It’s good to have this awareness,” says Davary, that “those who are different are not necessarily forced to be that way.”

Davary received her doctorate from the Catholic University of America and has published articles on the subject of gender and Islam. Her book Women in the Quran (2009) is forthcoming.

— Liz Harman

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