The Concept of Agency in Relation to Practices of Veiling


According to western observers, the practice of veiling is more viewed as an oppressive symbol. Nevertheless, the increasing popularity of the practice amongst Islamic women, who live in nations that pressurize the eradication of the practice generates a considerable misunderstanding and intrigue (Diffendal, 2010). Internationally, most Muslim women put on the veil even with government regulations preventing veiling or certain families discerning the practice. These occurrences demonstrate that the veiling is a practice that is more desirable among these women, and that may not present the idea of oppression, considering that it is done favourably without force. According to feminist scholars, the practice creates a division with some scholars considering the practice to be a means of agency, while others reflecting on the practice as purely oppressive (Diffendal, 2010). Therefore, the practice of veiling has generated two most imperative concepts that amount to either elements of agency or oppression. Individuals, who favour the conception of agency, criticize the feminism’s perspectives for universalizing trends. The proponents of veiling as an element of agency consider those involved in feminism to be insensible about the cultural specificity through their perspectives on veiling as oppressive tool. The suggestion to prevent universalizing of events through the western feminism is a novel approach to cross-cultural tendencies, in which the western feminist discourses understand the underlying cultural significance of certain cross-cultural tendencies (Mohanty, 1988). The proponents of veiling as an agency practice assert that women’s choice to get into the veil is personal and that women who are engaged in a domestic violence often choose to linger within their violent marriages.

However, feminist critiques as related to veiling are not limited to individual choices on adopting or discarding the veil. This is because the individual choices are controlled and shaped through cultural and dutiful customs, thus, influencing the choices of affected individuals. Therefore, the subject of veiling and the available choices necessitate clear comprehension of religious norms that concern veiling and the choices of Muslim women in putting on the veil (Diffendal, 2010). The insights obtained through this understanding can demonstrate the suitability of women to consider wearing the veil instead of discerning it as an oppressive element. Furthermore, the secularism together with religion has served as shapers or drivers to the existing subjectivities concerning veiling (Moors & Salih, 2009). However, secular norms have sought to erode the existing religious subjectivities, thus, generating conflicts on whether veiling indicates oppression or serves as an element of agency (Bonifacio, 2012).

The feminist concepts that relate to the female agency acquire insights by condemning the republican perfectionist understanding of independence, which concerns an individual or group resistance towards certain norms (Laborde, 2006). The understanding of independence as per perfectionists refers to the capacity to question and reject the cultural perspectives and customs that individuals have engaged into for considerable periods. Critically, the female agency can be considered comparative, content-neutral and interstitial. The comparative and content-neutral elements of the agency are highly valued by the radical feminists, as well as multiculturalists. The interstitial element of agency offers the necessary resistance that allows individuals or groups to challenge certain norms that are considered to be unconstructive (Laborde, 2006). The female agency concentrates on self-discovery, rather than self-definition. This implies that it concerns the insightful re-appropriation of individual’s deepest obtainable commitments that comprise of those commitments connoting expressive connectedness. The concepts of agency require individuals to choose to conduct a heteronymous living, although this has to entail less procedural competency (Laborde, 2006). The life conduct by those, who choose agency, is regarded as a reflective consideration, since individuals have to reflect the suitable degree of agency.

Hence, espousing the agency-based approaches on the liberty instead of the autonomy-based approaches enables critics to understand that Muslim women cannot be considered to undergo the oppression through the wearing of the veil. Therefore, Muslim women may not be considered as passive casualties of their religious and cultural norms (Laborde, 2006). Muslim women deliver their choices on the religious practices, professional activities and other elements. Women make personal choices within certain contexts or perspectives, thus, making their individual choices important in their existence and their societies. Muslim women are not included in the establishment of frameworks, under which the decisions regarding wearing of veils were deliberated. However, they find space within these frameworks to create the identity and agency, as well as reject patriarchy (Baumann, 1996).

The practice of veiling indicates three categories of the female agency. Firstly, veiling is indicative of protection against the male counterparts and enhancing a woman’s dignity. Religiously, veiling indicates that women are dignified within the social standing. It demonstrates the possession of a social status and respect for Muslim women. The majority of Muslim women consider the veil as a sign of the individual safety, thus, they disregard the notion that the veil is humiliating. The veil reinforces one’s safety against the lustful nature of men and proffers the dignity and respect towards those, who veil (Laborde, 2006). This agency asserts that women gain a considerable respect from their immediate families and peers. Additionally, the agency asserts that women’s veil improves their self-esteem, since it represents admirable virtues that are greatly valued within the Islamic religion. The agency asserts that veiling liberates Muslim women from the existing fashion influences of the western culture (Kuper, 2000).

Consequently, Muslim women are saved from the sexualisation and disrespect for their bodies. This implies that veiling is a coping strategy against pressures offered by the public appearance (Tarlo, 2007). Considering these arguments, the women agency is restrictive, since an individual choice to veil is barely a consequence of the gullible internalisation of the restrictive sexist customs and introspective substantiation of the narrow collection of alternative actions (Laborde, 2006). This means that the argument on the oppression of the veiling women may be inappropriate, since women demonstrate an individual respect, privacy and improved self-esteem.

Secondly, veiling allows Muslim women to circulate within the public and conduct their activities freely. Muslim women in foreign nations are confronted with a contradictory injunction, in which the majority community pressures these women to free themselves from the oppressive norms (McBrien, 2009). On the contrary, the Muslim community and their families request them to remain faithful and loyal to traditions. Veiling is indicative of individual fulfilments, thus, preventing divided allegiances (Laborde, 2006). The practice serves as a communal allegiance that also legitimizes the women’s independent behaviour within the public space.  

Thirdly, veiling may denote personal re-appropriation of the Islamic perceptions in the women’s perspective, thus, making it an empowering tool. Consequently, Muslim women can obtain an individual dignity and autonomy by embracing Islam perceptions.  The concepts have been demonstrated through another form of the Islamic feminism that emanated from Iran. Therefore, Muslim women may be utilising practices, for instance, veiling that are historically associated with the patriarchal oppression for challenging or destabilizing patriarchy (Laborde, 2006). This presents them as independent believers as they can manage to stem out patriarchal practices through a total destabilisation. Veiling is also considered a response towards the immorality nature of the European women and is considered as a symbolic of the cultural and religious wholesomeness of Muslim women. The veil is an object that emanated from the Islamic revolutionary groups that protested the colonization from the Europeans. Therefore, veiling may be indicative of the reaffirmation and reinvention of traditional values.

Despite the assertions from the westerners that veiling indicates the oppression, Muslim women within the Dutch nation continue their challenge of the country’s norms, which concern the gender and sociality, thus, indicating their individual value for veils (Moors, 2009). Similarly, the French moves against veiling have generated a considerable negative response from Muslim women, who value veiling more as a conception of the female agency (Banakar, 2010). Muslim women within France protested the banning of veiling within state schools, in which they demonstrated that not veiling exposed them to secularism (Tarlo, 2005). Muslim women denounce secularism and consider veiling as embracing the liberty, since they embrace Islam. Muslim women consider veiling more like a religious command from Allah, and the religious norms within their religion declare that veiling cannot be considered an individual choice (Tarlo, 2005).

In the Indonesian context, veiling is considered an oppressive practice, considering that it was introduced through an insurgence movement that dictated that women had to practice veiling (Brenner, 1996). In this context, women are forced to get into veils, since they are considered the official women’s clothing. Veiling is practiced as an oppressive element, since most people within the Indonesian culture bear little traditional roots, and practices are not elements that are embraced by the majority of population (Brenner, 1996). Therefore, the practice is considered alienating, restrictive and indicative of the extremist supremacy. Women embracing the veiling practice within the Indonesian context demonstrate or symbolize the social transformation of women. In Java, the practice signifies a novel and historical awareness that consciously detaches from the previous history. Muslim women, who embrace the veil within the Javanese context, demonstrate the awareness or consciousness of their detachment from the previous experiences and history. In addition, it conceptualizes the approaches utilised in the process of reinforcing their new knowledge and practices that relate to Islam. Practices of the instance veiling are considered to be approaches that demonstrate a personal change. The approaches draw knowledge from ideological premises together with rhetorical strategies that have been brought by the contemporary Islamic movements (Brenner, 1996). Veiling may be considered an element aimed at demonstrating the renewal of the Muslim society, and individuals are obliged to be committed and promote the existing traditions or customs.

Despite veiling being considered an element of the female agency, the subject contains several radical sartorial political perspectives (Mahmood, 2004). The majority of Muslim women put on veils that are different and representative of various radical meanings that bear little correlation with the religious interpretations of the same (Tarlo, 2005). The perspective on veiling bears some political agenda, and their emphases have more religious foundations. During the Muslim women protest against the French’s proposal on banning veiling in state schools, numerous leaflets were spread, and these indicated that women were slaves, and that veiling assisted in averting Muslim women from embracing the western culture (Read & Bartowski, 2000).

According to the feedback from American Muslim immigrants, the veil generates the freeness, especially when a Muslim woman stands in a male-dominated public setting. Men within the region cannot treat them according to their physical outlooks, but treat them according to their own offering (Hoodfar, 2001). Therefore, if one is intelligent, then becomes the judging parameter instead of combining the element of beauty and intelligence. The veil can be reflected on as an element of the female agency instead of an object of the female oppression as viewed by most western feminists, considering these responses. In Egyptian context, women don veils, thus, demonstrating their independence or sovereignty. Muslim women, who disregard the veil and wear western dresses, are subjected to the cultural and religious hostility, since they are considered aliens and abandoners of their gender roles (Hoodfar, 2001). Consequently, most Muslim women consider donning their veils for the maintenance of their religious virtues and averting any criticism that emanates from the society. The veiling practice may be considered an oppressive element, especially when women are not willing to don veils, but are forced to wear them to prevent a considerable criticism from the society.

Considering different contexts, Muslim women within diverse cultures embrace veiling, since it serves as the element of agency (Kuper, 2000). It enables Muslim women within the American context to affirm their religious and cultural identities, steer themselves within the social world freely and create attention concerning the capabilities within a body-oriented culture (Kuper, 2000). Some Muslim women don the veil to bring traditional values together and demonstrate their request for respect from the male dominion. In the Purdah system that is embraced by most people within Pakistan and South Asia, the seclusion is compulsory (Papanek, 1973). Such occurrences demonstrate the need for the autonomy from the oppression within the social confines, owing to religious interpretations. Nevertheless, these reasons do not make veiling a freer action or demonstration; instead this may be viewed as a symbol of the closed circularity that concern the women’s opinionated disempowerment and colonisation (Ong, 1990). Despite the actuality that women utilise the veil as an element of the female agency, which undermines the expressed objective of veiling, they indirectly confirm the power systems that disempowered them. Muslim women don the veil for the facilitation of individual movement; however, veiling affirms that the space that they utilise is a possession of the male counterparts. 

Veiling generates criticism and unnecessary attention among Muslim women, despite the perspective that it deters lustfulness among male counterparts. The virtues that Muslim women must possess constitute of the denial of sexual identity, which ensures that men receive women with the indisputable sexuality (Baumann, 1996). Women ought to maintain their sexuality as per the men standards, which imply that they lose their autonomies for the satisfaction of the men’s sexuality standards. Veiling proffers Muslim women some measure of autonomy, respect and other important elements; however, it fails to undermine the norms that function against their existence. Muslim women may not be considered legitimate, unless they stick to the androcentric constructs present within their cultural and religious context (Ong, 1990). Therefore, Muslim women ought to accept the Islamic norms that relate to veiling, approve the exploitation by the male dominion and refute their individual sexuality.

Veiling can be viewed as a mechanism for accommodating and defending themselves within the male-dominated culture, which implies that they cannot criticise the existing norms, even when these norms are considered oppressive. This implies that women have to follow all norms as presented through the existing systems and reinforced by religious interpretations, despite the norms bearing political agendas. Veiling with the Arabian and Iranian context cannot be supported as an element that expresses the female agency despite the practices being embraced, opposed or controlled by Muslim women (Abu-Lughod, 1990). This is because women within these countries lack the discursive power that enables them challenge or dispute their dress codes publicly. In such instances, the oppressive element is predominate and influences their individual choices of veiling. A failure to veil may generate considerable consequences, considering that women lack expressive voices (Abu-Lughod, 2002). The Purdah system demonstrates the Muslim social structures that exploit the women’s passiveness to implant oppressive practices for the instance veiling. The system is sex-segregated and demonstrates the absence of the female agency, despite the practices imposed on the female gender (Papanek, 1971). 


The conception of agency influences the veiling practices among Muslim women. Veiling may be reflected on as an element of the agency or oppression, depending on the system and culture under consideration. The female agency supports its claims through different perspectives that relate to veiling. The female agency asserts that women are freer and autonomous when embrace veiling, and the veiling practice protects them from the lustful nature of men. Furthermore, Muslim women consider veiling as an empowering tool that leads to the respect, dignity and regards from families and society. However, veiling appears to be an oppressive element, despite the women’s perspective on the practice. Women within the Islamic culture are shaped through religious and cultural norms that cannot be challenged without adverse consequences. Therefore, women are obliged to uphold these norms, despite their unsuitability within the contemporary systems. The veiling practice possesses some political agendas that are interwoven within the religious discourses, thus, preventing any challenge of the norms that are considered political.

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