UNC conference focuses on understanding the Muslim veil
Feb. 24, 2013 @ 03:48 PM

Although the practice of wearing a Muslim veil can be viewed as backward, Cary resident Marriam Azam said women who wear the coverings are out and are productive in society.

A Muslim who was born in England and now lives in the United States, Azam said she could recall living in Greensboro when she felt like she was the only one wearing the veil. She wears it because she’s asked to by God.

“I do it to please him,” she said.

Azam attended a conference on Saturday about the Muslim veil that was held at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill FedEx Global Education Center. She said she wanted to see how the veil would be presented to the public.

The conference, “ReOrienting the Veil,” was hosted by UNC-Chapel Hill in partnership with Duke University. It was held to offer resources for understanding the veil to the public and academics, said Sahar Amer, an event organizer and a UNC-Chapel Hill  professor of French and Asian studies. She said the veil is one of the most visible signs of Islam, and is also one of its most contested.

“A lot of people have very strong views either in favor of or against (veiling), and people are afraid of it because they don’t really understand it,” she said. “They think sometimes it’s associated with violence, with political movements, with extreme conservatism.”

Some progressive Muslims say there aren’t explicit instructions in the Quran that require women to cover themselves, she said, while there are interpretations by orthodox scholars in the 10th and 12th centuries that maintain the text is clear.

“(We) need to do a lot of historical digging into the socio-cultural context of the 7th through 12 centuries (to understand) why certain interpretations have been favored instead of others,” she said.

The conference included presentations from scholars on topics such as veiling in Italy, how the veil is represented in political cartoons and veiling in women’s sports in Iran.

A table was set up in a classroom at the center with different types of veils for participants to try on. In the lobby, there were photographs from artist Todd Drake’s “Esse Quam Videri: Muslim Self Portraits.” For the project, he worked with Muslims to create the self-portraits in response to stereotyping.

Marilia Marchetti, a professor at the University of Catania, presented a paper about the veil in Italy, a country that, with its history connected to the Roman Catholic Church, would be expected to have a “strong opposition” to the practice.

But she said it has a long history of veiling. She showed images in Italian art of women wearing the veil, including the Virgin Mary, as well as figures in Greek and Roman mythology.

The veil is also present in Italian popular tradition, she said. Women used to wear head scarves when they went out, she said. She also showed images of the wives of political figures, including Michelle Obama, wearing head coverings while visiting the pope.

Typhaine LeServot, a Wesleyan University associate professor, spoke about cartoons representing Muslim women and veil since the practice sparked controversy in France in 1989. In 2010, a nationwide ban of face coverings went into effect in the country.

Lervot showed an example of a cartoon that she said depicted women wearing burqas that was meant to convey the idea that the coverings are “prisons enforced by men.” She showed another that she said drew a parallel between the burqa and the bikini, and portrayed both styles of dress as prisons. She said it that raised a question about a view of women’s emancipation as degrees of a “state of undress.”

Najmi Azam, a Cary resident, said she was amazed to see so much interest in veiling from the university and from younger generations. There’s a lack of education about the practice, she said.

The veil is a way for women to protect themselves from unwanted attraction, she said. A woman can show her inner beauty through her words and behavior, and general conduct, she said.

“But not her physical beauty; it can harm us,” she said.

Nasira Sayed, also a Cary resident, said that while she believes the media portrays the veil as something that holds women back, it’s liberating for women.

“You’re not looked at because you have a beautiful body, you’re a respected lady,” she said.

She said she attended the conference to see the artwork and to hear what other people view the practice to be.

“I think how we view it is – it’s something that is very good for a woman,” she said. “It’s not something that will put you down.”

The conference also drew Ellen McKnight, a UNC-Chapel Hill junior, and her mother, Atlanta resident Becky McKnight. Ellen McKnight said she knew little about the Muslim veil before taking a class about it.

“Mostly I learned I have a lot to learn,” she said.

Becky McKnight, a French teacher, said she’s followed the controversy in France surrounding veiling, and said the subject is of professional and personal interest.

“It’s also interesting as a woman, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.