There’s a certain irony in conservative members of a faith that has a long history of invading three continents, countless cultures, institutionalised slavery, building a Mosque on Temple Mount, building a Mosque over the church in Istanbul, destroying the Gods worshiped by others in the Ka’bah, appropriating the centuries old veil as its own, and borrowing Pagan and Gnostic Christian myths for its own holy book, to then claim others are “culturally appropriating” its symbols. None of them were the symbols of Islam in the first place, including the veil. The charge of offensive “cultural appropriation” is thrown at the pop star from the conservative sect of Islam. I find this to be a particularly dishonest explanation for the claim of ‘offence’ on this subject.
It is a similar tone – based entirely on western colonialism and a disingenuous ‘victim’ mentality – to that made by several conservative Muslims – including Mo Ansar – when they speak of western ‘imperialism’ of the past. Ansar once mentioned the French invading Muslim Tunisia in the 19th Century as an act of western imperialism. He neglected to mention that Tunisia was only “Muslim” by the 19th Century, because imperialist Arab Muslims had invaded it and established the Arab Aghlabids dynasty in the first place.
When we analyse where the problem actually lies, it isn’t long before we find the predictable occidentalist, anti-western undertones that drive the ‘offence’ this time (as with most other times). The problem doesn’t seem to be based on cultural ideas or garments making their way across cultural boundaries, or a desire to keep a symbol of faith particular to Islam, nor on Lady Gaga’s intentions, but simply, that white people from the west have done it. A sort of “it’s not fair! They’re copying us! And we don’t like them!” child-like attitude.
– It’s a curious charge to make. It suddenly became a ‘race’ thing. Let me be clear, it is quite obvious that privilege based on gender, sexuality, and ethnicity persists and oppresses. This is true in Islamic countries, as it is in Western countries. The struggle for equality is ongoing, and I am quite sure that only secular democracy provides the mechanism for correction and progress. It is also true that the suggestion of privilege, sometimes – like this time – doesn’t stand to even the most basic of scrutiny, and is quite obviously used as a tool to deflect from a weak argument or a complete inability to address the content of the argument presented. That is the case here. The last half of the above tweet is the suggestion that all white people – including Lady Gaga – are actively trying to destroy another culture. All of us. We plot against Arab muslims; the eternal victims of colonial white devils. One suspects this line of reasoning isn’t extended to white, western muslims. In which case, what she means is, white non-muslims should not be allowed to wear the clothing of their choice, if a particular religion – one that appropriated it in the first place – has decided they now completely own it.
– To claim ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘not your costume’ of the veil from conservative Muslims, is to suggest Muslims have completely monopolised the use of the veil from every other culture that’s ever used it and continues to use it. The very same ‘colonial’ attitude that Lady Gaga is charged with. Religious hypocrisy at its finest.
Islam appropriated the veil from Pre-Islamic Arab culture, which in turn, probably inherited it from earlier semitic cultures in the north. The veil is first mentioned in Assyria, centuries prior to Islam. Millions of non-Arab Muslims wear a veil, appropriated from those pre-Islamic cultures. To suggest Lady Gaga wearing the face veil is an insult to Islam, further suggests that non-Islamic cultures that have always had the veil, and long before Islam are not to be considered, and that it is an Arab Islamic garment only, with anyone else wearing it to be compared to the Arab Islamic standard only. Ironically, this is an Arab Islamic imperial attitude. Check your privilege!
The veil existed long before Islam, and across cultures. It isn’t just Arabic, nor Islamic. About 20 centuries before Islam appropriated cultural symbols of lands that it invaded, Assyrian kings introduced a ban on slave women wearing the veil, whilst high ranking women wore them as a symbol of honour. For the Assyrians, the veil was a symbol of the class system. Later, according to the 6th book of Herodotus, the deposed King of Sparta – Demaratus – left Sparta for exile, with his face veiled to show he felt insulted by the tone of the new King Leotychidas. Tradition tells us that Sikh Guru Ji refused to meet a Hindu Queen unless she removed her veil. According to The Lalitavistara – a biography of the Buddha – describes how Yasodharā, the wife of Prince Siddhattha was constantly insulted for not veiling her face. She replied:
“Those who are restrained in body and behavior, measured in speech, with senses controlled, calm and at peace, why should they veil their faces? Even if covered with a thousand veils, if they are shameless and immodest, dishonest and devoid of virtue, they live in this world uncovered and exposed. Even without being veiled if their senses and their minds are well-guarded, they are faithful to one husband, never thinking of another, they shine like the sun and the moon. So why should they veil their faces? The sage reading the minds of others knows my intentions as do the gods know my conduct and virtue, my discipline and my modesty. Therefore why should I veil my face?”
– Tertullian writing in the 3rd century speaks of Arab women veiling their faces, as well as Greeks and Africans. Strabo in the 1st century speaks of Persian women veiling their faces. According to the Jewish apocrypha, and the story of Susanna:
“31: Now Susanna was a very delicate woman and beauteous to behold. 32: And these wicked men commanded to uncover her face (for she was covered) that they might be filled with her beauty.”
– Indeed, today there exists a denomination of Christian nuns who completely cover their faces with a veil. In Rome, they ascend the Scala Sancta steps on their knees, with their faces covered by the veil. As a part of the Nishimonai Bon Dancing in Japan, female dancers wear the Hikosa zukin face veil. The Hindi word ‘ghunghat’ is a that describes a face veil worn by some sects of traditional Hindus in regions of Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Gujarat among other places in India. The veil has never been, and never will be a garment specific to Islam, with a meaning controlled by whatever conservative Muslims decide it means.
One would have to travel far, far back in the history of mankind to find an era when all cultural groups kept to themselves, and did not benefit and grow from constant exchange of ideas and symbols. Britain is a melting pot of beautiful cultures. Indeed, as an Atheist I celebrate Christmas on December 25th, despite it being Christian and Pagan in origin (Christianity appropriating that particular festival for itself). I get the “you shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate Christmas!” nonsense from angry Christians claiming it an insult to their faith, but that isn’t the point. I enjoy that time of the year, the family traditions, the happiness. I also enjoy the evening out on Diwali. In the UK, you will find Muslims celebrating Christmas, giving cards and gifts and love on St Valentine’s day. We are a melting pot, and it’s a good, progressive thing.
There is no reason to suggest that Lady Gaga’s use of the face cover, was in any way malicious. In fact, in 2012, she explained she wears it as a symbol of “mourning” for problems in the World. Clearly she’s a very expressive person, and clothing is a wonderful form of self expression, whether you like or agree with the sentiment behind the expression or not. Other forms may include making a comedy movie, like The Life of Brian, or a piece of art, like ‘Christ in Piss’. It is self expression; a way to convey how one feels. That is absolutely everyone’s right. Her skin tone, the country she was born, or her religious beliefs are not relevant, the expression in this case was not based on anything like that. To suggest it, is a weak counter-argument that is only used to perpetuate an east vs west, Muslim vs Everyone else false narrative and it is incredibly destructive and intellectually bankrupt. Lady Gaga is not setting out to intentionally mock or insult anyone else. Crucially, Lady Gaga wearing the veil, does not intrude upon the freedom of Muslim women to wear the veil as an expression of faith or cultural heritage. The basic freedom and right should always be protected.
For Muslim women the veil may indeed be a symbol of modesty, it may be a symbol of faith or culture. It may symbolise whatever that particular Muslim woman decides it symbolises to her alone. But that in no way impacts on how non-Muslims have worn the veil throughout history, or how anyone else chooses to wear it today. The veil is a garment like any other, and all should be free to wear whatever they choose, to express however they choose, for it to mean whatever it is the individual decides it means to them, without harming the liberty of others, and free from state or religious coercion. In this case, the charge of ‘cultural appropriation’ does not stand up to scrutiny, and is quite obviously used as a way to express anti-western sentiment, a perpetual fantasy conflict, hidden behind wrongly appropriated language that denotes oppression. It isn’t.