The Veil Feeding Gender Inequality

Linked to male ownership of public space is the notion that the veil propagates a culture of gender inequality leading to gender segregation. This changes the organization from a being merit-based unit into becoming a neo-traditional entity based on non-professional values.16 Instead of values of perfect equality in terms of what is expected of males and females, the organization now is liable to alternative sets of values. The veiled woman is telling her employer, her supervisor, her organization, and everybody else that she is different. This view even extends this assertion to note that the veiled woman is expressing her agreement that she is inferior to men.17 She hides what they do not hide. She covers her hair while they don’t. Through her dress, the veiled woman is effectively apologizing for entering the “male space.” She ends up re-inserting herself in the domestic private space.18

Because of this preoccupation in gender segregation and women’s clothing, critics note that the Islamist discourse has distracted reform initiatives in more than one Arab locality. Tracing the discussions and controversies around ikhtilat in Saudi Arabia, Roel Meijer notes that19:

The liberals accuse the conservatives of derailing the debate over the future of the country by referring to nonissues such as ikhtilat, the prohibition against women driving cars and the introduction of cinemas. Compared to “real problems” like poverty, drug abuse, unemployment and the nuclear threat, these are nonissues. The conservatives, they believe, are damaging the image of Saudi Arabia and isolating it from the rest of the world. (p. 84)

As an example of this contempt for the strict understanding that prohibits all types of mixing, Mona Elhaidari, a female Saudi journalist noted that there seems to be confusion between two different concepts in Islamic jurisprudence as applied by many in Saudi Arabia.20 First is the concept of khilwa which refers to the event when two unmarried individuals, a man and a woman, meet alone in a closed place, which is strictly prohibited in Islam, versus ikhtilat which is a normal event necessitated by social and professional demands:

With the surge of extremist views in the last three decades, people confused between khilwa and ikhtilat. Any meeting between the two opposite sexes in a public space is a form of [religiously] permissible ikhtilat... which represents a normal coexistence between people in the streets, in the markets, and in the workplace (p. 21).

Another argument that is presented by critics of the veil relates to the observation that the veiled woman becomes less visible. This would result in her missing out on work and promotion opportunities.21 In addition, the veiled woman becomes more prone to be discriminated against. Compared to the above reasons, which are more values-based, this argument is more utilitarian. As a woman adopts the veil, she is less likely to become noticeable, and thus would not be taken seriously for career development. Lazreg uses this argument in reference to a female inspector in a public entity in Algeria, who was a dynamic unveiled professional performing her job duties effectively and efficiently. Then at one point in time she decided to put on the veil. By doing that, Lazreg reports, this veiled Muslim woman has “knowingly removed herself from the world of competition for advancement” (p. 110). Lazreg does not dwell on why this was the case for this employee, or why this would be the case for other women. Would it be based on discrimination against veiled women? Or would it be founded on an emerging perception that this woman became less qualified the moment she decided to don a veil? The only explanation that Lazreg provides is that this woman decided to stay indoors more and thus became less visible as “she was seen less frequently in the waiting area.”

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