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Reflections on Symbols of Women’s History in Modern Context

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(The Following is a post by Joan Weeks, Head, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Women suffragists marching on Pennsylvania Avenue led by Mrs. Richard Coke Burleson (center on horseback); U.S. Capitol in background.1913 March 3. Prints and Photographs LC-USZ62-22262.

With the celebration of Women’s History Month in March, images of suffragettes and suffragists marching for voting rights, or women on the assembly lines such as “Rosie the Riveter,” were frequently displayed around the country.

In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980, as National Women’s History Week. March 8th is also celebrated around the world as International Women’s History Day.

Palmer, Alfred T., photographer. Woman working on an airplane motor at North American Aviation, Inc., plant in Calif. 1942 June. Prints and Photographs LC-USW361-142.
Palmer, Alfred T., photographer. Woman working on an airplane motor at North American Aviation, Inc., plant in Calif. 1942 June. Prints and Photographs LC-USW361-142.

Just as stereotypes like “Rosie the Riveter,” for good or bad, have come to symbolize the advances women have made in the United States, other symbols have come to define the subjugation or repression of women. One in particular, in Western eyes, is the full head covering of women. The wearing of veils in French schools and businesses caused such controversy that on January 26, 2010, the President of the National Assembly in France, Bernard Accoyer, published on the Assembly website the report prepared by the Parliamentary Commission to Study the Wearing of the Full Veil. M. André Guerin, the President of the Commission, states in the introduction: “the report shows with precision how the wearing of the full veil infringes upon three principles that are included in the motto of the Republic: liberty, equality and fraternity. The full veil is an intolerable infringement on the freedom and the dignity of women. It is the denial of gender equality and of a mixed society.” See a summary on the Library of Congress Law Blog.

Turkish women, Constantinople, Turkey Prints and Photographs LC-USZ62-139311.

Much has been discussed and written about the meaning of the veil in the Muslim world. In a 2013 program in the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) entitled “Women in Lebanon: Living Together and Facing Modernity,” Marie-Claude Thomas professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Culture at the United States Naval Academy talked about her village in Lebanon where “mothers, daughters, wives and sisters are fulfilling their societal roles, but also acting as agents of change and sometimes activists from behind the scenes.” She mentions, in the variety of societal changes, there has also been a return to Hijab, or the veil. Thomas noted one woman spoke of her mother who did not wear the veil but she, the daughter, was proud to wear it and believes it was a way to protect girls.

Turkey, a Muslim country, has an interesting history surrounding the head covering. In Ottoman times, most women wore veils fully covering their faces.

Hundreds of Turkish women have discarded their veils and now appear on the streets dressed as their sisters in the Western world. This picture shows a number of the wealthiest women in Constantinople who have offered their services to the American Red Cross in helping to care for Russian refugees. The young lady on the left, wearing the striped shawl, is the daughter of the Khedive of Egypt and is considered on[e] of the beauties of Constantinople. 1920. Prints and Photographs Division.
In 1934, Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern Republic of Turkey signed a law related to the wearing of prohibited garments, such as the veil. He saw the veil as an obstacle to modernization and banned students and government officials from wearing it in public places.

For decades this prohibition remained in full force, until recently when more and more women began fighting for the right to wear the full head covering in schools and in government buildings. They are defining and defending their modest dress in a new modern contextualization that has come under increasing scrutiny and even hostility in Europe and the U.S.

In a book presentation on March 8th entitled “Muslimism in Turkey and Beyond Religion in the Modern World,” Dr. Neslihan Cevik, Associate Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia and a Turkish sociologist of religion, focused on women in Turkey, and looked at “cultural sites of hybridity in which people use Islam to shape their practice of modernity.”

Contemporary Turkish Women in modest dress. Photo courtesy of Neslihan Cevik. Used with permission.

Cevik coined the term “Muslimism” as a new category that is neither fundamentalist Islamist nor liberal, but is a hybrid form of moderate Islam. She explains that Muslimism is “neither state- nor society-centered, but individual-oriented” and is “a voluntary and heart-felt choice, a religious conviction and a conscious belief.” In this context women ask “How do I conduct a pious life while taking part in modernity?” and respond by embracing aspects of modern life while submitting their life to a sacred, moral order. They create hybrid institutions, and lifestyles that include wearing the veil, but in a new and individual style, to better reflect their personality, age group, and personal preferences. The right to make such individual choices is a modern phenomenon, although the choice itself to return to the veil appears more traditional. Thus Turkish women, Cevik claims, have added a new page to the history of the veil and the stereotype of the veil as an obstacle to modernization needs a new identity.

This program, which took place on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 in the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) Reading Room, was videotaped and is available on the AMED website under Webcasts, Near East Section.

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