Covering Islam

Deedee Cuddihy looks at an exhibition that challenges Western myths about the hijab, the veil worn by Muslim women

The Veil in Islam

St Mungo Museum of Religious Life, Glasgow, until January 31, 1998

There are almost as many ways to wear the Muslim veil or hijab as there are opinions about it. In its briefest form, the hijab is little more than a decorative, flimsy piece of material that matches your dress and can be pulled up to partly cover the head. Then there is the nun-like scarf, the ankle-length cloak, the face mask and, most extreme of all, the shapeless, all-enveloping, head-to-toe garment with a slit for the eyes (and even the slit is sometimes veiled).

Photographs of Muslim women from all over the world, wearing a wide and fascinating range of hijab, have been gathered together for The Veil in Islam exhibition, which forms part of Glasgow museums' year-long Salaam Festival.

One particularly haunting picture shows a figure shrouded in a white bag with two holes poked out at eye level. Faced with this kind of image, it's hardly surprising that, according to the curator of the show, "the veil or hijab has become the most potent negative symbol in Western eyes of Muslim fundamentalism".

But as visitors will discover, Muslims also have negative feelings about the veiling of women for, as well as photographs, this exhibition features the opinions of many Muslims, including prominent professors, writers and clerics, on the subject of the hijab. The consensus seems to be that the Prophet did not expect women to cover their faces when he told them to dress modestly.

The first part of this thought-provoking exhibition concentrates on the "myth" of the veil - as interpreted by Westerners since the 11th century, when frustrated European crusaders discovered that "direct access to Muslim women was virtually impossible".

Since then, visitors to Muslim countries have been both "fascinated and repelled" by the veil, a situation which has sparked off countless numbers of travel books, "lust in the dust" novels, exotic films and a series of Frys Turkish Delight television ads which have been run together on video, complete with catchy theme tune, specially for the exhibition. It's showing continuously from a video cabinet disguised as a bar of Turkish Delight and provides a strangely compulsive view, not only of a "popular" Western interpretation of Muslim culture but of how advertising has changed over the decades.

But why and when did women first start veiling? According to this show, the first recorded wearing of veils was noted in Ancient Greek and Roman times, when they were adopted by respectable women, brides and priestesses. The Koran of the 7th century stated that women should dress modestly when they went out but in 1848, Muslim women began to protest, in public, about veiling. In Iran, women were forced to unveil in 1936, but there was such an outcry that the law was revoked five years later. In 1983, Iran introduced compulsory veiling for women.

These days, significant numbers of young Muslim women are wearing the hijab as a symbol of "social sisterhood" and as a protest against corruption and Westernisation.

The second part of the exhibition, on "reality", tells visitors what Muslims themselves think about the hijab and features an impressive, portable display unit, "The Veil in Glasgow", created by Glasgow's Open Museum department.

It incorporates several examples of the hijab, a selection of veils that can be tried on (mirror provided) and a 22-minute video of six Muslim women in Glasgow explaining why they wear the hijab. Schools, libraries and community groups will be able to borrow "The Veil in Glasgow" after January from the Open Museum.

Probably not an exhibition for primary schools or large groups, as there are a lot of labels to read and not much space to move around in.

u "The Veil in Glasgow" from the Open Museum (tel: 0141 429 1202). A series of eight morning workshops, entitled "Veiled Encounters", is being held for senior school pupils at the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life, Glasgow, between now and December, and places can be booked on 0141 287 2747.

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