- Why, in a ‘free’ country, would a woman choose to veil? In I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This, director Betty Martins addresses the populist discourse surrounding the practice of veiling among Muslim women.
In Britain, the veil has become inextricably linked to the debate and controversy surrounding the oppression of women in Islam. Throughout the beginning of the twenty first century Western prejudices and stereotypes have been exacerbated by regular negative media coverage of political and religious conflict, both nationally and internationally. Brazilian director Betty Martins challenges the misconceptions surrounding Muslim veiling in her film, ‘I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This’, which was screened by the Anthropology Society in October.
Media attention and social stigma
During a case at Blackfriars crown court in August a woman was asked to remove her niqab (full face veil leaving only a slit for the eyes) when giving evidence. This, along with Birmingham Metropolitan College reversing a ban on the niqab, after 9,000 people signed a petition in protest, has prompted Liberal Democrat and Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne’s call for a national debate over whether women should be ‘protected’ from being forced to veil. The choice is private, however the discourse is public and therein lies a problem, most of the discussion is created by politicians with no authority on the intricacies of the Quran. In a country as diverse as Britain, cultural understanding and respect is conducive to social integration. With such a tiny percentage of British Muslims choosing to veil, a national discussion seems unnecessary and likely to stigmatise veiled women further. If the argument is that they are being oppressed, surely making them the focus of a national discussion in which their experiences and views are excluded will only lead to them feeling further isolated from society.
Challenging the Western bias
Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston recently stated; “women should be clear that the burqa is a symbol not of liberation but of repression and segregation”. It is significant that the discussion in the film produces a completely different dialogue than that of the media. The diversity between Islamic nations and cultures is rarely considered. An East and West ideology has been created by biased Western media coverage, which predominantly links Islam to terrorism. False depictions of Islam as barbaric and patriarchal have led to the veil being viewed as symbolic of Fundamentalist Islam, thus creating social divisiveness in Britain. With 4.8% of the British population being Muslim, these controversial misrepresentations need to be addressed and re-considered, as Martins aims to do in this documentary.
Context and individual decision
So, why in a ‘free country’ would a woman choose to veil? This question assumes that veiling is representative of unequal gender relations and that if given the choice, no woman would willingly accept this type of dress. However condemning the veil itself as oppressive is simplistic. Although in some cases it may be used as a form of gender control, to generalise collectively without considering other historical, religious and cultural factors is unconstructive.
By focusing on three women who wear the Niqab, Hijab and Burka by choice, Martins aims to navigate current discourse towards a contextual understanding of this individual decision, challenging the common belief that veiling represents female oppression in Islam. Through accounts of self-censorship, memory, feminism and faith, the film’s poetic narrative explores the journey that led each woman to their personal approach to religion. Martins said she “wanted to present an alternative view of the veil and those who wear it” and for people to see these women “as they want to be seen, not as people would like to see them.”