Behind the veil

Wheaton senior Roxanna Azari will spend the year after graduation, studying the religious, political and personal meanings ascribed to the veils worn by women in many Islamic countries as a Watson Fellow.

-The $25,000 fellowship will allow Azari to spend a year of travel and research in France, Morocco, Turkey, India and the United Arab Emirates, exploring her interest in the stories of women behind the veil and the ways in which political, social, economic, historical and religious perspectives shape the meaning of their clothing.

“This has been a subject that has been a passion of mine for a long time,” said Azari, who regularly visited family in Iran during her childhood. While studying abroad her junior year, she took courses at the American University in Cairo that helped her recognize the way in which context shaped her own and others’ responses to the veil.

“The veil, like society, is constantly transforming, often times as a tool to meet the political agenda of those in power. What many casual observers do not recognize about the veil is that it can also be an indicator of piety and the power of a woman’s choice,” she wrote in her Watson application essay.

The Queens, N.Y., resident is one of 40 students nationwide to receive the fellowship, which the Thomas J. Watson Foundation awards  to college seniors of unusual promise for a year of independent exploration and travel outside the United States. Nearly 1,000 students from up to 40 selective private liberal arts colleges and universities apply for these awards each year.

A double major in women’s studies and English with a concentration in creative writing, Azari plans to lead poetry workshops  as a means to engage Islamic women in conversation about the veil and their lives. The countries in which she will work represent a range of responses to the veil. For example, both France and Turkey have outlawed wearing the veil in public schools and universities.

The senior, who holds the college’s Whittemore Trustee Scholarship, plans to film the women’s stories as a way of documenting her scholarship and ensuring that Islamic women share their perspectives in their own words.

“My main aim is to show that the Western understanding of veiling only symbolizing ‘oppression’ is problematic because it overrides the women’s movements, opinions, activism and personal stories that lay behind the veils,” she said. “In fact, some women view the veil as oppressive while others might see it as a declaration of faith, a fashion trend and/or even a form of physical protection.”

Azari’s focus on poetry and writing as a vehicle to learn about the world reflects her interests. She began writing and reading poetry at the age of seven. At Wheaton, she founded the iSpeak slam poetry club. She has performed her works widely and has won a number of competitions, including two major poetry slams in 2006, in which she beat over 500 competitors.

In addition, she has been active in a number of other campus activities, including serving as the social justice intern for the Office of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility, a senior preceptor to first-year students and a mentor for HERO, which helps students in nearby Brockton prepare for higher education.