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The Hijab, the Veil, and Sexuation

 Henry Krips1

1Department of Cultural Studies, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA, USA

Correspondence: Henry Krips, Arts & Humanities, Claremont Graduate University, 121 East Tenth Street, Claremont, CA 91711, USA. E-mail:


Abstract I examine Ragland's thesis that, within Islamic Society, the Hijab may function not only as a marker of sexual difference but also as a signifier in a "feminine" strategy of what Joan Riviθre calls masquerade – one of the two ways in which, according to Jacques Lacan, human beings (men or women) may cope with the psychic state of lack, that is, a condition of their entry to subjectivity. I then examine Lacan's further claim that through such a strategy human beings may gain access to another form of Jouissance, which, in breaking with the dull, tedious phallic rituals of imposture, goes "beyond the pleasure principle." I also differentiate the Hijab from the Veil of Hollywood fame that has been so strongly criticized by Laura Mulvey and other feminist authors.

Keywords: Hijab, masquerade, Lacan, sexuation, liberal-feminism, Jouissance


Introduction In Islamic law, "Hijab" refers not to a specific item of clothing, but rather to a state of proper modesty: Those who harass believing men and believing women unjustifiably shall bear the guilt of slander and a grievous sin. O Prophet! Enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers to draw their cloaks over them [when they go out]. That is more proper, so that they may be distinguished and not be harassed. (Qur'an 33–58)

In a Western context, however, "Hijab" tends to refer to particular items of clothing, whether the headscarf (khimβr) or the full body covering, including eye-cover (burqa). In this paper, I address both the question of what the Hijab means for "us" here and now, specifically for US liberal-feminists, as well as what it means in the context of Islamic society.

On one hand, liberal principles insist that, especially in the area of religion, rather than adversely judging other cultures' practices for failing to meet our own local standards, we should respect their differences; if we do judge them, then we should do so by their standards, not ours. On the other hand, a contrary feminist argument insists that, because it is a tool of patriarchal repression, Islamic women should be liberated from the Hijab. Thus, it seems, for "us", and in particular for US liberal-feminists today, the Hijab has become a site of internal contradiction. In concrete terms, we are torn in our attitudes to the Hijab: on one hand, liberal respect for other cultures enjoins us not to judge it adversely; on the other, despite protests by Islamic women that the Hijab has a positive, liberating impact upon their lives (see below), it is difficult for "us" to see the Hijab as anything other than an instance of patriarchal oppression at work. In short, the Hijab is a site of ambivalence – not an emotional ambivalence (as in the ambivalence between love and hate or good object and bad object) but rather in Karl Bleuler's sense of an intellectual ambivalence that involves "simultaneous adherence to contradictory propostions" (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973, p 26).

How are we to understand this intellectual ambivalence to the Hijab? Should we analyze it as merely an ideological contradiction – an internal point of contradiction within a liberal-feminist political framework? Or should we allow that it has a psychic dimension? Should we, for example, take the Hijab as a fetish object, in which case our ambivalence towards it indicates that it is a site of disavowal between contradictory beliefs? Or, then again, should we think of its ambivalence more as a matter of vagueness – indicative, perhaps, that the Hijab is a site of non-meaning, which, through an appearance of meaningfulness, attempts to screen a hole in the symbolic order that is created through repression?

All of these questions may then be re-posed in the context of Islamic society: what does the Hijab mean within Islamic society? Is there the same ambivalence to the Hijab that exists in our society, and if so, should we understand it along the same lines as we understand our own ambivalence towards the Hijab? If we ask this question from an outsider perspective, especially one that is shaped by liberal-feminist concerns, then (rightly or wrongly) we will tend to pose it in ways that build in gender differences (differences that, it should be noted, we often ignore when we consider our own attitudes to the Hijab). In particular, we wonder not only what the Hijab means for the Islamic men who want, even insist, that their women wear it, but also, of course, wonder what it means for Islamic women themselves. In particular, we wonder whether Islamic society's attitudes to the Hijab take on a gender-specific dimension. For example (and here we see how the question of the Hijab may be couched in question begging ways), we might ask whether in Islamic society there is a difference between a dominant masculine meaning for the Hijab and a marginal feminine meaning, a difference that, in turn, would indicate a structure of patriarchal oppression. We might even ask whether the differences between masculine and feminine attitudes to the Hijab play a role in differentiating the sexes, perhaps even – and this is Ragland's (2008) bold suggestion – constituting sexual difference within Islamic society.1

Before approaching these questions, they must be qualified in several ways. First, it is clear that, no less than the term "Christian society", the term "Islamic society" poses problems of definition. But it is also clear that in most of the ways in which we might think to define it, the meaning of the Hijab for women will not be uniform across Islamic society as a whole. So, for example, to use one of Ragland's examples: consider a young single Islamic woman in England, who wears the Hijab as a means of protesting an insult to the name of the father. For her, it is clear that the Hijab has a quite different meaning from the one it has for an older married woman living under traditional Islamic law in Iran. The meaning of the Hijab may also become overlaid with a characteristically liberal emphasis upon freedom of choice: the practice of the Hijab is understood as a sacrifice freely made by a woman as an expression of devotion to her husband and family. A further complication: Tayyibah Taylor, publisher and editor of a new American Muslim woman's magazine, Azizah, makes the comment, "In this environment, the hijab has unfairly become an 'alien marker' signifying restriction and restraint. Yet increasingly, young Muslim women see it as a 'statement of womanhood' and an acknowledgement of intelligence over physical appearance" (cited in The Age, August 7, 2007, p 5). Here, Taylor seems to be suggesting that, by missing the positive aspects that the Hijab has for Islamic women, an outsider perspective of Islamic society misses some of the important commonalities of meanings that it has for a young Western Islamic woman as well as for her older, more traditional counterpart. Whatever account of the Hijab we come up with must do justice to these complications.2

It is at this theoretical juncture that Ragland makes the bold suggestion, which will be my focus here: namely, that one way (but not the only way) in which the Hijab functions in Islamic society is as a prop by which the "feminine" strategy of masquerade is executed. This is not to say that, like the Veil in Hollywood film, the Hijab functions as a tool in a strategy of seduction. On the contrary, Ragland raises the possibility that, depending upon how it is used, the Hijab liberates women from the demeaning role of an object, which, through being looked at, produces a phallic voyeuristic Jouissance for the male spectator. Instead, she argues that the Hijab provides woman with access to an-other, distinctively "feminine" form of Jouissance.

Two points must be made immediately in defense of this risky, seemingly essentialist hypothesis: (1) Ragland does not propose that this is the only way in which the Hijab is or may be used. On the contrary, as I indicated above, she allows that the Hijab takes on a plurality of possible meanings and functions. Rather, her suggestion should be understood as a theoretical hypothesis that, were it valid, would be one explanation for the positive meaning that the Veil may take on for Islamic women. (2) In advancing this thesis, Ragland does not conceive the term "feminine" biologically in terms of anatomical differences, nor sociologically in terms of gender roles. On the contrary, following Lacan, Ragland proposes a psychic difference between masculine and feminine, which cuts across both biological and sociological differences between the sexes. In particular, she proposes that there is a way of differentiating "man" and "woman" psychically, in terms of two opposing strategies for coping with the failure of the symbolic order which, she argues, as a result of the Oedipal prohibition and related processes of repression, afflicts all human beings who enter the lists of subjectivity.

Top of page ... as long as he loves his (M)Other Let us look more closely at this symbolic failure that gives rise to sexual difference. The Oedipal prohibition separates the subject from the beloved (M)Other: in particular, it prohibits not only the early close relations that the child enjoyed with the (M)Other, and around which its whole life circulated, but also the very desire to continue those relations. But such an across the board prohibition is counter-productive: as a result of this prohibition and the correlative separation from the (M)Other, the child is wracked by the prohibited desire to continue relations with her. As Freud himself puts it: for the child, the pursuit of the prohibited desire takes the place of the forbidden early activities through which it gratified itself in the mother's arms. But because the desire in question is prohibited, the subject suppresses it at a conscious level but restages it at the level of an unconscious phantasy, which he or she manifests in distorted form through the performance of symptoms – symptoms that represent in coded form the subject's restoration to the forbidden status of the object of (M)Other's desire. Because the desire in question is "repressed" in this way – that is, banished to the unconscious – the subject experiences it not in so many words, but rather as a personal and (apparently) inchoate lack – a lack of whatever it is that (at an unconscious level) the subject identifies as making him or her the object of (M)Other's desire.

Furthermore, and this is the key point, even if the subject were to get together again with the (M)Other (and why not?) the lack in question would not be filled. Why not? Because of the Oedipal prohibition, such an alliance would be unsatisfactory, obscene, shameful, and so on. In short, whether or not the subject manages to get it on with the (M)Other, the subject will experience him- or herself as always and already falling short – the site of personal lack that can never be filled, whatever concrete objects are put in its place, even (indeed especially) the mother herself. This, in turn, means that there is a hole in the symbolic order, a missing signifier in the place of that little (or big) something extra that the subject desires, and which, so the subject phantasizes, were he or she to have it, would make him or her complete. This missing signifier, like the corresponding desire, is "repressed", that is, banished to the level of the unconscious (In the case of psychotics, of course, the missing signifier is not merely repressed, but instead is totally expelled from the symbolic order – "foreclosed".).

Lacan distinguishes two ways in which subjects cope with this Oedipally induced lack and the correlative failure in the symbolic order – a failure which, Lacan claims, afflicts all human beings: First, the strategy of imposture, which Lacan calls "the masculine strategy" (albeit without reading any biological significance into the name). This strategy, which is open to biological men and women alike, involves subjects hiding their lack – their failure to come up to the mark. They do this by displaying symbols of their plenitude: fast cars, military regalia, and so on – which stand in for, and thus conceal what they lack. Lacan's name for these symbols is "phallic signifiers"; and his name for the object, the lack of which the signifiers hide, is the "phallus." In the context of the masculine strategy of imposture, the phallus emerges as what a subject must have in order to be the object of (M)Other's desire.3 To be specific, the phallus is what the "real man" must have in order to do the job that would make him the object of (M)Other's desire. In this respect, we see, contrary to popular misreadings of Freud/Lacan, the phallus is not what the (M)Other wants – on the contrary, it may hold no interest for her at all in the sense of being something that she wants for herself. Rather, it is that which a man must have if he is to be the object of her desire. Indeed, in this context, what the (M)Other wants remains totally inscrutable – functioning merely as a pretext in response to which the subject's lack emerges: "she doesn't want me because I am lacking."4

John Wayne's apparently tautological injunction that "a man's got to do what a man's got to do", beautifully captures the ambiguity of the phallus. It implies both that there's some task that a man – a "real man" – is destined to perform, but also that there's some thing that he has which will enable him to perform it. By saying that the task in question is something that men have got to do, Wayne's injunction implies that for any actual men (as opposed to the real man) the task in question is difficult, perhaps even impossible. Why? Because "they (actual men) simply haven't got what it takes," "they're not up [sic] to the task," and so on. To be specific, they haven't got the thing that a real man has got, which enables him to do the job. In short, in the equipment department, actual men fall short of being real men, because the "thing" they need to be real men is beyond their reach. According to Lacan, it is a defining characteristic of "men" – by which he means the imposters who adopt a masculine strategy – that they respond to this lack by a strategy of imposture: filling the place of the thing that they lack with substitutes, qua phallic symbols, that falsely signal that they are up to the job. (In the case of biological men, of course, behind the impressive phantasy screen of the phallus lies the pathetic penis, as the anatomical slag that is left behind when phallic signifiers are stripped away.)

The second strategy that Lacan distinguishes for coping with lack is (what Joan Riviθre calls) the strategy of masquerade – and which (again with no biological connotation intended) Lacan calls "the feminine strategy." Rather than hiding lack, the strategy of masquerade involves its agent situating herself on the side of truth by recognizing the inevitability of lack, indeed identifying with it – "I know/admit that I am lacking, and there's not much I can do about it."

How does masquerade go beyond merely recognizing lack to coping with it? Lacan illustrates his answer to this question in the context of the hysteric (although without implying that cases of masquerade are always cases of hysteria).5 The hysteric copes with her lack not by hiding it (as in the case of the masculine strategy) but rather by (a) blaming the big Other while also (b) handing over to particular little Others the task of filling the lack, in the process (as Lacan puts it) making men of them (faire l'homme – 1988, p 85). More generally, the strategy of masquerade enables woman to cope with her lack by a double-deception: she displays her flaws not as personal, but rather as visited upon her as a reflection of more general flaws in the Other – il y a une faute, mais ce n'est pas ma faute, c'est la faute de l'Autre (there is a fault, but it's not mine, it's the Other guy's). In this way, she displays her fault, but, and here's the double-deception, she does so only in order to distance herself from it by laying it at the feet of the Other. To be specific, she affirms her fault to others in such a way that they come to recognize that after all it is not hers personally but rather part of some more global fault.

So, for example, the woman at a party who, listening politely and saying nothing, interpellates those who engage with her to fill the silence that gathers around her. From her point of view, the silence is not her fault, and, in particular, not a matter of her personally being stuck for words. Rather she experiences the fault as the result of there being nothing worthwhile to say. In short, the fault lies not with her, but rather with all the others, who chatter on so meaninglessly. In this way, through her fault (whose ownership she does not acknowledge) she identifies with the Other – her fault becomes the Other's fault. At the same time, however, she ingeniously passes responsibility for doing something about the fault to the unfortunate little men (imposters) who, like moths drawn to a black flame, gravitate into her presence, where, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, they chatter nervously in the hope that what they offer is what she lacks. The woman thus displays her fault in a universalized form that conveniently removes her from the frame-up: namely, in the form of what Lacan calls the signifier of lack in the Other – designated "S(Ψ)" – which symbolizes the fault in the Other. (The bar across the capital "O" indicates that the Other is present here as barred, that is, flawed.)

What is not clear in Lacan's exposition of the masquerade is how much of the psychic structure of hysteria should be assimilated to the masquerade. At the very least, it seems, the masquerade duplicates the structure of double-deception-plus-identification-with-SΨ that we find in hysteria. But for two reasons, it seems unwise to go much further in claiming a homology between masquerade and hysteria. First reason: on good feminist grounds, it seems inappropriate to pathologize the category of women by drawing it into full coincidence with the category of hysteria (a point which Freud already made). Instead, it seems more reasonable to take hysteria as a clinical condition in which the structure of woman is laid out especially clearly (in the same way that for Freud, perversion provides an especially clear clinical instance of the splitting of the subject).

The second reason: because hysteria is a form of neurosis, characterized by symptoms and a corresponding structure of repression, the pleasure of the hysteric falls under the aegis of the pleasure principle – what Lacan refers to as "the phallic ... jouissance of the idiot", which, like masturbation, is dedicated to dull and mindless repetition performed in the throes of the partial drives. But a key point for Lacan is that the pleasure of woman is associated with a special feminine form of Jouissance that exists, and is produced in a domain "beyond the pleasure principle."6 Therefore, it seems, if Lacan is to retain some purchase on his principle of a special "feminine Jouissance", then he cannot afford to equate the condition of woman with the combination of hysteria and the correlative idiotic phallic form of Jouissance. And, indeed, Lacan associates feminine Jouissance directly with the disintegration of the symbolic order – as embodied in S(Ψ) (1988, p 84). (I return to this point below in my discussion of the Hijab.)

Top of page The Hijab Now let us turn to the Islamic Hijab. I will focus upon three suggestions for its meanings/functions here (without implying that they are in any sense exhaustive) and in each case comment briefly upon the political possibilities as well as opportunities for pleasure that they offer. First, it is tempting to understand the Hijab as a conventional item of clothing, which functions purely at the level of the symbolic order, namely as a signifier with a meaning that is constituted through its differential relation with other signifiers (in particular, other items of clothing). In Lacan's terminology, then, the suggestion is that the Hijab functions as a binary signifier, S2. From this perspective, although there may well be pride on the part of those who wear it, there is no pleasure in the technical sense that Freud associates with the pleasure principle. Why not? Because the trompe l'oeil effects of double-deception that Lacan associates with the pleasure principle, especially in its scopic form, are missing (see Sections 6–9 of Lacan, 1981). Thus, it seems (and here the usual feminist critique gains some traction) the Hijab works to the political disadvantage of its wearers. That is, without offering them any pleasurable compensation, it consigns the women who wear it to reduced public visibility, which, in many cases seems to amount to a total vanishing from public life. In traditional Islamic society, it is said, the public sphere belongs to men: Wives of the Prophet, you are not like other women. So, if you fear God, do not be too complaisant in your speech, lest the lecherous-hearted should lust after you. Talk with such people in plain and simple words. Abide still in your homes and do not display your finery as women used to do in the days of ignorance. (Qur'an 32–33)7

Although against this one must balance the point made by Tayyibah Taylor (see above) that, even considered as a purely conventional item of clothing, the Hijab carries a positive meaning, namely that, by making invisible the aspect of woman that traditional Western clothing highlights, namely her body parts, it refocuses attention upon women's intelligence. To put the point even more strongly: the Hijab functions literally as a physical interruption to the masculine fetishization of woman's body of which traditional Western feminism is so critical (on this last point, see the classic critique by Laura Mulvey, 1975). In short, the Hijab interrupts the fetishistic pleasures of the men who look at it as a point of access to the women who wear it.

But (and I return to this point below) even as a signifier, the Hijab has more to offer than merely spoiling the pleasures of the spectator. By taking the Hijab as not only an item of clothing S2, but also, more specifically, a uniform, its wearers accord it the status of a phallic signifier l ek's concept of overconformity is helpful (l ek, S. (1977). The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso.


About the author Henry Krips is Chair of Cultural Studies and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities at Claremont Graduate University. He has published several books, including Fetish: An Erotics of Culture (Cornell University Press, 1999), The Metaphysics of Quantum Theory (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987), Der Andere Schauplatz: Psychoanalyse, Kultur, Medien (Turia Kant, Vienna, 2001), and Science, Reason and Rhetoric (Pittsburgh University Press, 1995). Currently, he is working on a book that explores possibilities for subversion at the intersection of politics and psychoanalysis.


Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2008) 13, 35–47. doi:10.1057/palgrave.pcs.2100146

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