COMMENT: Of fairytales and the veil —Tammy Swofford - Friday, April 29, 2011

Looking at an online hijab site, I noted that the sales pitch included, “One size fits all” and, “You can see out but they cannot see in”. This pitch would never work with a western woman

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is based on the German fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. The animated film adaptation produced by Walt Disney in 1937 remains a classic, which provides a sense of enchantment for American girls. Perhaps the most popular remembered quote is that of the Queen, the stepmother of Snow White. Her possession of an animated magical mirror provides truthful answers to her questions. Obsessed with her reflection she asks, “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who in the land is fairest of all?” The mirror always responds, “You my queen, are fairest of all.” The Queen leaves the mirror satisfied until the day when the mirror answers, “Queen, you are full fair, ‘tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.” Flying into a rage, the Queen embarks on a course to destroy this new standard of beauty. The fairytale plays out with suspense and romance.

The pitched fight over the issue of veiled women is not unlike this classic fairytale. The veil and fashion in general are symbolic of the animated mirror. But the mirror supports two reflections, which are dependent on both geographic location and the face that peers into it. A symbol that casts more than one reflection is always a problem. In this case, one reflection of beauty is that which adheres to the strict understanding of the Quranic sciences. The public beauty is one that shows piety. A Muslim woman is to draw her veil over her body, face, neck and bosom, as noted with the use of the word ‘Juyubhinna’ in the Quran (24:31). It is the beauty that tells the believer to draw her cloak and screen her body. She is a respectable woman (Quran 33:59). The veiled woman is the one who triumphs in the Ahadith, which give the four reasons for marriage (wealth, lineage, beauty and religion) and admonishes the male to prioritise his choice based on religion. This would be the reflection of the Queen, a tradition rooted deep in history, dear to the heart of many Muslims.

That reflection of beauty is being tested by the western standard of beauty. It is a younger and more vibrant reflection, which believes that beauty is something to be celebrated, enjoyed and embraced. In the open society of the West, a woman is due her full right to show the flower of her youth. She enjoys clothing her unique frame with which she is endowed. The Creator may have slapped the men together, but He took more time with us! We want the dress that displays our curves, flattens our tummies or adds an illusion of height to our frame. We also want the shoes to match! Also of extreme importance with regard to our reflection in the mirror is our smile. It is a powerful gift when combined with the multitude of emotions reflected in the face. It can launch a ship, start a war or calm a soul. It is the power and the beauty of an open face society.

Honour does not start at the top of our heads and end at our ankles. Honour is a place in our hearts.

Looking at an online hijab site, I noted that the sales pitch included, “One size fits all” and, “You can see out but they cannot see in”. This pitch would never work with a western woman. Fashion sense is important. Dressing for success in the marketplace is a priority for women with a career outside of the home.

The movement of the Queen into the West has caused both problems and hard feelings. A veiled face speaks of lack of assimilation into the host culture. There are minimal accommodations of an immigrant into the fabric of a new nation, which are absolutely necessary for community cohesion. Within the West, one of the benchmarks of societal health is an open face culture. It has served us well and provides psychological welcome from the counterpart. Reducing the issue to one of ‘religious liberty’ in the West negates the greater complexities of allowing veiled women. I am firmly opposed to the veil in the West for reasons that also include national security. Beyond that, I am personally uncomfortable with the veil in the West. It can speak of militancy against the host.

Last summer, I stood at a perfume kiosk in an area shopping mall whilst conversing with a Muslim friend. She was wearing a traditional hijab from India with only the oval of her face showing. Her hands were covered with intricate henna tattoo. Wearing shorts and a light top appropriate for the Dallas heat, I was quite comfortable with my choice of attire. From afar I saw a woman approaching as if on a divine mission. Stopping with her entourage of younger women clad in appropriate Islamic manner, she pulled herself up to her full five feet height and her eyes swept between us like a hawk after a field mouse. Talking loudly she proclaimed, “Sister! What a beautiful hijab! Did you sew it yourself?” Casting her gaze at me, the scorn was apparent in her eyes. Silently, I remembered the old parable about washing the outside of the cup but neglecting to wash the inside. The interloper paid another compliment to my friend on her hijab. Then she swept by as quickly as she had come, dragging her robe behind her. Mission accomplished! The Queen had held court and her ladies-in-waiting were adequately impressed. The perceived ugliness of my attire had been filleted as quickly as a salmon under the knife of a skilled fisherman.

Looking at my reflection in the mirror I remembered how my husband had told me that morning that I was beautiful. Looking after the Queen with soft eyes full of merriment, I wished for her the same: beauty.

The writer is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserves. She is a Nurse Corps officer who resides in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She has written articles and book reviews for the Marine Corps Gazette, and Op-Ed commentary for the Dallas Morning News

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