Is the veil a symbol of freedom or submission?
Few things are as simultaneously modest and radical as the religious veil. The veil tells of a life of humble obedience, but also of radical choice and self-identity. The wearer boldly shouts without words, “This is who I am!” and it is impossible not to notice. However, as the wearer shows the world her choice to veil, she also conceals a great deal. What is hidden, physically and spiritually, is generally kept for a personal relationship with God and with her own spirituality. She understands that her identity is found deep within herself and her relationships, and the veil is a symbol of the depth and sacredness beyond it. She hides herself to become herself.
Neither the paradoxical nature of the veil, nor its importance to the individual, is quite understood by a larger secular society. In general, the onlooker does not distinguish much between the veil of the Catholic, the Muslim, or the Hindu; all veils are viewed with a certain curiosity, and sometimes, suspicion. Even among the religious, there can be a misunderstanding of the importance of the veil within different religions. This is probably why, in France, a tolerant western society, national and local governments have outlawed the religious veil in many settings. The outlawing of the burkini (a modest full-body swimsuit for Muslim women) has made the news recently, but many are not aware that Muslim girls have been forbidden from wearing veils of any kind to school since 2004. In addition to this, Muslim women may not wear their veils to work if they are employed, or even visit a location in the public sector. The same ban applies for Catholic nuns.
As an American living and teaching in France a few years ago, it was difficult for me to understand why the veil was banned, and why such a large percentage of the French population (60%) consistently supported the ban. It became even more difficult to comprehend, as I learned that many Muslim girls did not attend school or had been expelled because of the law. I felt the same surprise recently when the burkini ban was not only passed, but strictly enforced on many French beaches, requiring Muslim women to remove their coverings on the spot, and pay a fine. But, as I think about these occurrences more and more, I believe it all comes down to our individual perceptions of the religious veil.
To me, the religious veil is a sacred thing, which is why I view it and the individual wearing it, as inviolable. However, from a non-religious perspective, it is easy to see a veil as a symbol of oppression rather then as a symbol of freedom. It is easy to look at a veiled woman and to feel sorry for her – to assume that she has locked herself away, or that some outside power has forced her to carry the veil. While this may be the case in some situations, to assume that a woman has been forced to wear or do something, and then to force her to wear or do something different in return, is not freedom, and it is not respectful to the convictions of the individual. As Catholics, I believe it is important for us to communicate the complexity and the sacredness of the veil within our own religion, and to try to understand and communicate the beauty of the veil within other religions as well.
In the midst of a crazy political election in our own country, and the question of religious freedom and motivation being posed here and around the world, now is a good time for us to begin talking to each other about what we value and why. Ask your friend in the convent or Muslim co-worker why they wear the veil and be ready to listen. More often then not I think you’ll be hearing from women who have a strong sense of identity and strength, and who are not afraid to shout, “This is who I am!” to a world that does not want to understand them.