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The Hijab as Symbol of Islam


Wednesday, May 21, 2008 

1. Is Islam a Religion Without Images?
2. The Power of Ambiguity
3. Contemporary Examples of Veiling
4. Short History of Veiling the Muslim Communities
5. The Veil of Representation: A Survey
6. Noticing ‘The Gaze’
7. The Economy of the Gaze: Marx, Mitchell and Schiller
8. Towards an Islamic Imagery: The Icon of the Veil
9. Veiling: The Personal is Political, Interviews
10. Works Cited

Over the course of a semester considering Islam and religious images, the question of Islam as a religion without images implies a far more incendiary query, mainly, is Islam a religion without art? The historically evident, if not intuitive, response to such an implication is of course, no. Islam is from its inception, and if nothing else, a cultural heritage steeped in rich artistic diversity and expression. Though, over the course of the semester we have considered the ways in which Islam has been written and conceived of polemically as a religion (and a people) without a visual culture. Thus, considerable time over the course of the semester went to recasting, reinterpreting and ultimately re-envisioning the narrative of visual religious imagery, symbol and iconography in Islam. It not difficult to describe how imagery is interpreted discursively through the ‘lens’ of Islam, but examples revealing the noticeable similarities Islam shares with other confessional faiths, especially those dominant in the West, is more instructive as to the manner in which art history has been theorized in the ‘West’ rather than how it is practiced in the ‘East’. Empty categorical assumptions aside, there is, more substantively, the question as to what a ‘new’ narrative of Islamic religious imagery could be, holding in tandem the imperative of considering what imagery in Muslim communities was historically.
In view of these questions in relation to our course, I am intrigued by the possibility of imagining what the contemporary images of Islam might be? Furthermore, how have these images been used by Muslim and non-Muslim communities to communicate, ritualize and confirm ideas and conceptions of what Islam is in the contemporary world. Thus, I felt that it was prudent to choose an area of focus that hadn’t yet been explored by our course. The Muslim veil or hijab, has only become an emblem of Islam in relatively recent history. Additionally, the hijab is really only a signifier of Islam in very specific contexts, for example, the United States post September 11, 2001. Thus, making a case for the possible iconicity of the veil within Islam spars with obvious issues related to the cultural appropriation of images for the sake of, in the U.S.’s case, geo-political motives. Additionally, I choose to look at the veil as a signifier of Islam precisely because I felt that there was reason to be critical of the association of Islam with the veil, the veil with women, and women’s status with an ideology-- Islam. While simultaneously recognizing that these sorts of associations are most likely connected to the images and representations that evolve into symbols and eventually icons. If iconography can be defined as, “the imagery or symbolism of a work of art, an artist, or a body of art” including the “pictorial material relating to or illustrating a subject” and subject matter, such as religion, then taking a closer look at how certain images get raised to the status of icons might provide many insights. I hope to use this paper to draw out precisely what these insights might be, and why they matter to a study on Islam and religious imagery.
An additional tension with choosing to explore the possibility of the hijab’s iconicity in Islam is a scarcity of resources defining what contemporary Islamic iconography includes. Literature on symbolism in Islam overwhelmingly sustains that Islam is a religion of vegetal, calligraphic and geometric art. Our course explored the possible reasons why the ‘traditional’ study of iconology might have contributed to a narrative detailing this ‘lack’ of Islamic religious symbolism. However, since the hijab in popular vernacular refers to a textile worn on the head for a variety of reasons, which may represent political, cultural and social ideologies, none of these definitions of what a hijab is, easily fit into discourses on iconography as traditionally defined in Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Thus, I recognize, most assertions a propos the hijab to Islamic iconography are speculative, or at best, daring!
W.J.T. Mitchell’s work Iconology attempts to get at three particular questions that are helpful frames to initiate a study on the iconicity of the hijab. The questions he raises are: What is an image? How do images and words differ? And, finally what is the relationship between images and ideologies? In my study I hope to use Mitchell’s first and third inquiries to help frame my discussion of the hijab as an image of Islam, and how its image is related to the development of ideologies around what the hijab is both within and outside of Muslim communities. I will look briefly at historical as well as contemporary veiling including, briefly, 19th and 20th century literature on veiling. Then, I would like to tease out the idea of “an economy of gazes” as a way to grasp the how the “variety of visual practices” forms engagement with images and ideologies in and outside of Muslim communities. I hope to conclude with a consideration of prevailing attitudes on the contemporary ‘culture’ of the hijab through some short interviews.
On a final note, as a part of the introduction to this paper, I would like to comment briefly on my terms. Thus far I have used the words ‘veiling’ and ‘hijab’ almost interchangeably. There are obvious differences between these two words that are of an etymological as well as functional nature. The word ‘veil’ comes from the Latin v
ēlum meaning “a sail” as well as “a head covering”. The verb form veler means “to cover” or “to conceal”. There is nothing in the etymology of the word from the Latin that refers to a religious practice or connotation associated with the word, although its contemporary usage generally insinuates a religious association with veiling.
Conversely, the word hijab comes from the Arabic trilateral root ‘h’, ‘j’, and ‘b’ meaning, “to separate” or “to screen”. In popular vernacular the hijab usually refers to the article of clothing fashioned from some type of cloth that is used to cover the hair, neck and shoulders of women. In scholarship on the Qur’an and Hadith, tafsir and shar‘ia, hijab refers to the idea of modesty, and ritual purity. The word hijab may sustain a variety of shifting meanings including as previously mentioned, a garment, but may also indicate a screen or curtain of some kind and thus more abstractly connotes ‘separation’. The latter meaning can be employed tangibly as a way to grasp the separation of the divine effulgence from the temporal world, and by extension the separation of what is halal (good) from what is haram (forbidden); noticing that what is haram suggests something that forbidden because it is sacred not because it is profane. I have endeavored to be specific when using the terms ‘veil’ and ‘hijab’ in the case of this paper; however, at times the distinction between the words makes little difference to the subject matter at hand. In these cases, one is to interpret my interchange as a stylistic matter rather than a definitional one.

"The veil takes its meaning from situation, time and place, and therefore has no single fixed importance."

What is the veil? This question evokes a multitude of answers that can vary widely. The very nature of the veil is fluid, its contours silhouette the body, covering and concealing the ‘reality’ of what is underneath. It is precisely the ambiguity of the veil that assures its power. The contradictory roles that the veil sustains as ‘religious’ image, emblem give it practical as well as symbolic meaning. Some claim the veil is an artifact of cultural expression, while others assert it is the epitome of ideological control over women in authoritarian communities. Some claim the veil is the highest form of religious piety, and the symbol of a woman’s virtue. As others argue the veil is just a means to provide women the anonymity of their private lives in the sphere of public space. Still others see the veil as the very image within a society that provokes conversations about sexuality, as its presence elicits the kind of behaviors it presumably negates. Inquiry concerning what the veil is intuitively includes explanations that extend beyond the veil’s function as clothe meant to cover some parts of the hair and body. Therefore, the Muslim veil, the hijab, “as [a] religious/spiritual emblem is still assigned contradictory values” and “thus remains a matter of political and cultural urgency to reconceptualize the economy of multiple gazes that filter through, slide off and remake the veil.” It may help to understand the stimulus for this “economy of gazes” by describing the way the veil is conceptualized dialectically. The veil, mostly outside of Muslim communities, is generally identified as an emblem of Islam and its meaning is specific. Within Muslim communities, the veil may be broadly, if not somewhat loosely, associated with Islam, but the veil’s meaning is non-specific.
The hijab in contemporary history has generated many forms from the symbol of the principles of post-Revolutionary Iran, to the ornate artifact of social mobility, to the signifier of sexual modesty and religious piety. Genealogies of the veil hold cultural and stylistic variegation that denote the particular veil’s performative and traditional specificity. For example, in Iran, following the implementation of the “Islamic Republic’s” new legal authority, black, ankle-length chadors were graduated into society following laws passed in 1979 and 1980. The chador later became an emblematic image of Iran for ‘outsiders’, and for many Iranians an ardent symbol of the consequences legal and cultural consequences of the Revolution. In Egypt the ‘designer veil’ has served as a cultural marker for Egypt’s move towards globalization and nationalism, as a new aristocracy emerged following the collapse of Nasser-style socialism. In Philadelphia, full hijab clad women of mainly descent African American invoke the ‘hypericon’ (Mitchell, pg. 6) of religio-political organization of the Nation of Islam.
The hijab holds tightly to ambiguity whether as a cultural object of wonder in 19th century orientalist travel literature, or as a ritualistic practice of piety for a believing Muslim. The veil as a religious emblem, a signifier of Islam or as a “representation of Otherness,” continues to hold particular fascination in and outside the Muslim community. Reina Lewis says in her Preface to Veil, “Veiled women often have to counter patriarchal and Western, denigrating attitudes.” Thus as Faegheh Shirazi claims in her work The Veil Unveiled
"In the aftermath of 11 September, the veil has become synonymous with cultural and religious differences that have been presented to us repeatedly as unbridgeable, alien and terrifying. The fact that the veil and veiling have been a part of both Western and Eastern cultures for millennia, from the aristocratic women of ancient Greece to contemporary brides worldwide, has not diminished from their overwhelming association with Islam and an abstract, exoticized notion of the East.”

In reference to the specificity or non-specificity of veiling, contemporary theory and practice on the hijab and veiling present interesting questions for further thought. The veil outside of Muslim communities is recognized as a symbol of Islam imbued with religious iconicity, and sustaining specific markers of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ associated predominately along the lines of race and economic privileges. Inside contemporary Muslim communities, the hijab holds the status of a religious emblem imbued with abstract cultural iconicity that sustains a multiplicity of markers associated with ‘feminine otherness’ but also with ‘conservative values’ or ‘traditional significance’. None of these associations are static or true in all circumstances; rather they may identify qualitative differences in the way the hijab and veiling are perceived. Even more generally, the hijab is identified within and outside of Muslim communities dialectically in its practical and symbolic dimensions as something that is constraining, and at the same time, something that is liberating. Each categorical meaning I ascribed to veiling above embraces this dialectic. For example, the veil may be understood as indicative of male patriarchy and women’s oppression, and therefore constraining. However, for many women who wear the veil it is perceived as a choice of freedom from the constraints of being ‘fetishized’ or recognized only through physical beauty, thus the veil is a form of liberation. The ambiguity inherent in the dialectical role the veil embodies in practical and symbolic ways ensures its primacy as a symbol. What the veil symbolizes, and whether the veil’s symbolic significance can be described as iconic and for whom, remains to be seen.

Veiling predates Islam. Thanks to Otto Schroeder’s translation of the Assyrian Legal Codes from the 13th century BCE in Wissenschaftliche Veroffentlichung der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft there is evidence of the codified social practices of ancient Mesopotamia. The Assyrian Legal Codes specify how and why who practices veiling, under what circumstance and. The Codes do not indicate any overt religious motivations for veiling, rather they specify who is to veil, generally along the lines of economic class. The codes outline that veiling is usually intended to designate the marital condition of a woman as an indication of her status of “ownership” by a male relative. Thus, prostitutes (or simply ‘unclean’ women) and slaves were forbidden from donning the veil while married women and elite members of society secured their social standing by it. Veiling is not particular to the geographical space of ancient Mesopotamia or the culmination of countries that make up the ancient Near East, it has historical precedents and proto-types that have shaped it cultural and religious meaning. There is not room in this study to do a comparative survey of the veil as used by different empires over various geographical spaces, thus it must suffice to at least mention that documentation on the function of the veil and its legal status may be found over centuries, and over vast geographical spaces including Persia, India, and Greece, as well as Byzantium Christian Europe.
In the Qur’an the word referring specifically to an article of cloth that can cover the head is called the khimar. The word khimar more specifically references an article of clothing rather than a religious ideology for which the word hijab connotes. However, the specific meanings and implications of khimar are contested. Some interpretations of the word khimar specify that it refers only to the covering of the breasts of a woman for the “sake of modesty.” Other interpretations claim that the though the text only refers to the covering of the breasts, the implication of the term is clearly indicates that women using a cloth to cover their breasts should also their hair and shoulders. Imam Abu'l-Fida ibn Kathir (d.1373), the Medieval scholar of tafsir (exegesis) explained, “Khumur is the plural of khimar which means something that covers, and is what is used to cover the head.” The hijab is often described as an ideology related to religious notions of morality and modesty or a synchronic structure of a cultural norm.  

The practice of veiling in the Mediterranean region in antiquity meant covering the body from head to foot for a variety of reasons. Yedida Stillman’s work Arab Dress explains the “total envelopment or being screened off, which in Jahili poetry is referred to by such terms as sitr, siif, and nasif, seems to have been mainly the prerogative of royal and noble women.” Hadith stories indicate that Muhammad’s wives wore hijab from marriage, however the use and prevalence of the hijab in early Islam remains largely undocumented, and its practice appears to have been an adoption of Byzantine Christian practices. Stillman claims that there are no records indicating when the hijab became a universal practice in Islam, but she asserts it likely developed over the first two centuries. Stillman also points out that in canonical hadith literature, veiling is not referred to solely as a practice of women, nor does veiling have a universal application practically in terms of what on the body is veiled. Stillman indicates, as mentioned above, that veiling in the Qur’an and hadith only specifically indicates the covering of the breasts. Stillman explains, “The evidence, therefore, from the traditional literature is not overwhelming one way or the other as to how ubiquitous, how hermetic in nature, or even how important a social and moral issues was veiling the early Islamic centuries.”
As the Islamic empire grows through the periods of the Ummayyads and Abbasids veiling never appears to take on a particularly universal practice. Stillman refers to Ummayad courtly art as representing women with veils of various styles and levels of covering. Stillman explains that most courtly paintings of women and illuminated manuscripts form the first several centuries neither mention nor depict the ‘average’ urban or village women veiled. However, during the Abbasid period veiling became the norm for urban and rural women, and certain cities, for examples Jurjan and Sarakhs, were renowned for their exquisite hijabs of a variety of styles. The veil does not appear to have any particular religious or even cultural meaning until the dawn of confessional religious practices, which associated veiling with ritualistic practices of shielding sacred objects from the (“sinful”) gaze human beings.

In the October 1928 issue of The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, one of the foremost English orientalists, Thomas Arnold, ‘teacher’ of famous Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, composed an article exploring the possibility of religious symbolism in Islam. Arnold’s article commences by reinforcing the view that Islam as “never encouraging the use of any kind of religious symbol.” Arnold claims that the lack of the phenomena of religious symbolism in Islam distinguishes it from other confessional faiths, and Muslim theologians have been averse to developing an iconography and thus an Islamic symbolism is unlikely to develop. Arnold then discursively writes, “Throughout the whole of Muhammadan art there is no other representation for which even such a superficial claim to be a religious symbol can be made out as has been put forth for the crescent.” Arnold is referring to the crescent symbol displayed as dynastic emblem of the Ottoman empire, which Arnold asserts was ‘stolen’ from the Byzantines before the dawn of Islam in the 7th century CE. Although Arnold may be correct in his offering of the historical roots of the symbol of the crescent, he provides no evidence of Muslim scholars of theology that assert the crescent as a icon or even a signifier of Islam, and thus the claim he is making as to its religious significance is only speculative. More importantly, however, Arnold represents a common ideology concerning Islam, symbolism and representational art, which has been and continues to be pervasive in writing about Islamic iconophilia and conversely iconoclasm.
In relation to the symbol of the veil there are numerous examples 19th century American and European literature that presume the ideological and behavior function of the veil. Though not all the literature refers directly the Muslim practice of veiling, it is useful to understand how the veil works as a linguistic symbolism, and how these notions might later influence different ideologies on the veil and the Muslim practice of veiling. For example, in Kate Flint’s article Blood, Bodies and ‘The Lifted Veil’ on George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (c.1859) Flint describes Eliot’s objective in titling her novel as such is to mean that "to lift the veil is to peep at the forbidden, to access taboo knowledge; to occupy, by connotation, a masculine position." Flint describes Eliot’s terminology about “lifting the veil” as metaphor for “dramatization of the folly of pursuing [women] on the grounds that she represents a mysterious Other.”
In Gabeba Baderoon’s article, What Does Islam want? The New Geography of News she writes about how contemporary media has discursively characterized Islam to the detriment of some of the larger issues presented by the events of September 11th. Baderoon describes the way in which U.S. media used the status of women in Afghanistan to justify the U.S. invasion and war with Afghanistan in 2003. Baderoon touches briefly on the “image of the veil” historically in relationship to women’s agency, including the ways in which those outside Muslim communities have condemned portrayed the hijab and condemned it to being associated with a meaning that it doesn’t necessarily have within Islam. Baderoon writes,
“Since the 16th century Eastern women have been represented in colonial literature and art as mysterious and knowing, yet importantly, also convertible and assimilable…The project availability of Easter women drove a strong Orientalist fantasy: the desire of the European colonizer to enlighten the Islamic world, and to deliver its women from oppression.”

Within the realm of orientalist travel literature on Islam, literature on the veil, and media aggrandizing of the U.S. government’s plight to save the women of the 3rd world, there are is also literature that include taxonomies of ‘indigenous dress’ and what the dress symbolizes about the larger culture of its inception. One particularly fascinating article by published by the MIT Press in 1982 is by Chems Nadir is called Masks and Non-Masks in Islam. Nadir writes,
“"In contrast to masks which flaunt only a disguised reality, the veil offers its smooth mirror-like surface where, in human form, images of the holy face are reflected. The veil is an inner contemplation, which closes out the world's viewpoint. Its intention is neither to undermine nor to misrepresent reality but refused the vanity and the obtrusiveness of the phenomenological presence. The symbolic gesture of Oedipus left him sightless but liberated form horror; similarly, the veil allows for a tranquil inner blindness, a most felicitous state for the mystic to await the voice of light."

In succession with a study of 19th and 20th European and American literature on veiling, and especially in relation to travel literature concerning Muslim communities, one should also contend with the work of anthropologists in relation to ethnographic studies on the same sort of topics. In Nadia Wassef’s article On Selective Consumerism she outlines recent limitations in anthropological studies explaining,
“"Returning to my second question: why the obsession with the veil? Taken as a symbol of women's oppression in Muslim societies, the veil has also been conceptualized as a strategy of resistance and liberation, rather than an emblem of submission...The veil becomes a strategic trade-off, one that is not reducible to Muslim ideology alone.”

Wassef’s work is interesting because she takes a look at ethnographic studies that border on travel literature, about Islamic feminism and women in Egypt. These brief examples from a survey of literature, ethnography and media articles relate prevailing attitudes about the hijab and veiling as representations of otherness. It is difficult to put into tension orientalists like Arnold who claim there is no Islamic symbolism, with examples from Nadir and Baderoon whose diametrically different points of view in Islam do nothing if not point out the almost voracious interest of those outside the Muslim community to uphold the multiple and varied meanings and symbolism of the hijab.
Contemporary writers on Islamic art, iconography and architecture have endeavored to revive what could be described as an ahistorical, kitsch and essentialized rut of discourses on ‘Islamic iconoclasm’ by revisiting the history of religious polemics, and by recasting archaic definitions of art. For example Gulru Necipoglu in her work, Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture, conducts a survey of 19th and 20th century European literature on geometric Arabesque. In her study Necipoglu contends that much of European literature ascribed the meaning of geometric ornament as the ‘decorative’ arts determined by the climate and ‘racial character’ of particular ethnicities in the ‘Near East’. Necipoglu asserts that it is precisely this 19th century literature that is responsible for establishing the ‘Western’ idea that the spiritual essence of Arab art was embodied in the arabesque, with its three types of interlaced variants: vegetal, calligraphic and geometric. Finally, she concludes that the representations of ‘Islamic art’ and ‘arabesque’ in Europe turned paintings of documented buildings depicted with ‘natives’ into objects for the ethno-graphic ‘gaze.’ The contemporary scholars interested in a new narrative about Islamic symbolism and iconography have had to contend with a large corpus of literature content with this gaze. However, Lewis contention that there exists “an economy of gazes” broadens the possible lenses through which contemporary individuals may observe the vast world of Islamic art, symbolism, representation and visual culture.

Over a quarter century ago, University of Chicago professor Peter Mitchell composed Iconology a new “field of study without a name—a hybrid, combining art history, art criticism, psychology of perception, aesthetics, and philosophy of art,” as a way to “further generalize the interpretive ambitions of iconology by asking it to consider the idea of the image as such.”
Mitchell explores the relationships between text and images, and what he describes as the polemical attitudes towards images in relationship to the domination of words as the higher form of ‘knowledge’. Mitchell wants to develop his ‘new’ theory on images by reviewing the works of modern theorists including Nelson Goodman, Erwin Panofsky and Karl Marx and building upon their insights. Mitchell uses Panofsky’s work, mainly from Studies in Iconology, where Panofsky notices ‘levels’ (what he calls strata) of human perception of images and the ‘struggle’ to find meaning and sometimes, in the case of Renaissance art, a notion of the divine. Panofsky demarcates the corpus of art-historical thought by ascribing words and descriptions to the process of seeing and finding meaning in what ones sees. Panofsky distinguishes these levels n the following ways: first, one must notice the immediate reality of what an image presents. Panofsky uses Leonard da Vinci’s The Last Supper as way to illustrate, by probing da Vinci’s viewers to notice that the picture is at first a table with people sitting around three sides. Then, Panofsky asks one to notice the cultural, religious and ultimately iconographic knowledge that contextualizes the piece of art in the mind of the viewer, being careful to observe that this sort of knowledge is particular to both the intention of the artist and the understanding of the viewer. In David Morgan’s The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice he uses the example of Harry Anderson’s 1968 painting God’s Two Books to underscore how images can “fit into [a] paradigm…as a form of text” so that images work as referents to cultural contexts. In the painting a women sits beside a copy of the Christian bible and looks out into a garden where, presumably the face of Jesus is reflected in the trees. The context of the painting appeals to a specific cultural and religious context, and works to illustrate Panofsky’s point in so far as one must be familiar with the ideology of Christian Protestantism in order to intuit the intention of the painting for its author and his audience. Lastly, Panofsky invites a viewer to notice the historical moment intrinsic to the artist’s intuitive choices on depiction. Panofsky intends to have his readers notice the sorts of pertinent questions that the art historian inquires when seeking ‘the meaning’ inherent in all works of art.
Panofsky’s study intends to generalize about the interaction of image and perception, contours the dialectical relationship Mitchell sets up in his study. Panofsky aspires to notice the difference between iconography as a historical study of symbols contrasted with an iconology, which Mitchell correlates with his aim to invent an interdisciplinary field of study on the image in relationship to other forms of interpreting ‘reality’. Mitchell’s insight, and thus his inclusion of the other writers mentioned above, aspires to go beyond merely the appreciation of art objects, but to put questions about their efficacy into the context of “systems of power and cannons of value.” Mitchell contends, “the history of [Western] culture is in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs, each claiming for itself certain proprietary rights on a nature to that only it has access." Like Necipoglu, Mitchell intends to reexamine the protracted assumptions that have created an ‘idol of ideology’ in the ‘West’ which have contributed to writing Islamic symbolism out of the canon of religious iconography. Morgan’s work becomes instructive in relationship to Mitchell’s in terms of popular interactions with images in so much as Morgan’s work sheds light on the relationship of gender to images. Morgan’s asserts that orientalists reappropriated images to reinforce essentialized notions of the ‘Orient’ and ‘Orientals’.

Approaching the possibility of understanding the veil as an emblem of Islam means taking an intimate look at this “economy of gazes” that Lewis addresses. In David Morgan’s introduction to The Sacred Gaze he sketches the ways in which the contemporary world approaches the practice of seeing. To recognize the ways in which human beings see, may assist in comprehending how images, especially such religiously and politically charged images as the hijab, shape human interaction with the landscape of images presented in a visual culture. Morgan describes seeing as “more than its product,” rather he writes it is an “apparatus of assumptions and inclinations, habits, and routines, historical associations and cultural practices.” Morgan points out that there is a specificity to the ways humans interact with and respond to images that informs the potential supremacy of these images within a visual culture and world. Lewis’ “economy of gazes” recognizes the diversity and interplay of a “system of human activities related to production, distribution, exchange and consumption.” The etymology of the word economy from the Greek word
οικονομία meant “one who manages a household.” Thus, the “economy of gazes” refers to the practice of visual exchange between the one who is doing the seeing and the thing that is being seen.  

The “economy of gazes” represented by an idea of economy that is as local and intimate as the economy of the household, initiates a question about the aesthetic consciousness of the viewer. How does the union between the viewer and what is viewed describe and influence the consciousness of the viewer? This inquiry goes to the heart of human evolutionary "growing" that develops a sophisticated cognitive linguistic consciousness while maintaining a relatively "primitive" cognitive aesthetic language. German philosopher Friedrich von Schiller in his work On the Aesthetic Education of Man offered a way to understand the poverty of a human cognitive aesthetic language. Schiller explains that humans "rational faculty had to cast off, so to speak, the chains of imagination, its childlike limitations, and consequently the wholeness of man's being in order to progress cognitively." Furthermore, in Leonard Wessel’s The Aesthetics of Living Form in Schiller and Marx explains, "by reason Schiller understands . . .[human] ability to transform [the] environment technologically by means of the known laws of nations into organs of human subjectivity."
In grasping what is meant by an “economy of gazes” it is important one recognize both the reality of the human condition of the poverty of aesthetic consciousness as well as the ways in which the human beings understand themselves in relation to an economy in order to grasp how one gazes. Mitchell endeavors to elaborate on Marxian metaphors about aesthetics. Marx’s work on the interplay of human beings and production, further builds on not only Schiller’s historiography, but also further explores the how aesthetics plays a role in the human conception of self, which is inextricably related to this “economy of gazes.” Marx was not convinced, like Schiller, that the human “perfected self” originated with an acceptance of the “infinitude of phenomena” related to a human relationship with the super natural. Marx wanted to consider the creative power of the “perfected self” through the means of human interaction with the natural world, and the highest strata of self-consciousness was a critical engagement with the temporal world. Marx wanted to impart the collectivity of human life by means of illustrating how humans interact through economic cooperation. Marx imparts that human beings (individuals) collectively produce under “the conditions of division of labor and economic cooperation. Not only is the productive power of the individual increased by means of cooperation, but the creation of a new power, namely, the collective power of masses." He goes on, "When the laborer cooperates systematically with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species." Thus individuals through their labor are responsible for creating a "social essence" which in turn creates a "common life" which is the essential nature of the individual. Marx says, "The essence of [the human being] is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its actuality is the ensemble of social relationships." Marx called this the “species-life” where “subjectivism and objectivism, spiritualism and materialism, activity and passivity lose their opposition and thus their existence as anti-theses only in the social situation . . .communism is the genuine resolution of the conflict between existence and essence, objectification and self-affirmation, freedom and necessity, individual and species.”
The economy of gazes thus comprises two distinct objectives that may or may not have been intended by Lewis, but that I would like to help re-define by my exploration into Marxism. The first is to notice that a gaze is a way to notice how a visual culture interacts not only with an object, but also with itself in relation to that culture. Marx is able to complicate the idea of the individual in relation to her work (production) but also in relation to how she gazes upon herself as a cultural product. Marx opens up a discussion of the ways of seeing as an aesthetic consciousness. Yet Jonathon Schroeder notes, “to gaze implies more than to look at - it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze.” This “economy of gazes” then notices the “relationship of power” that the gazer has in relation to the “means of production” of the cultural invention, religious artifact, or aesthetic consciousness being engaged. To understand this “economy of gazes” means to look critically at the relationships of power implicit in the economy of gazes. Thus far, I have considered the literature on the hijab as a way to not only understand what has shaped the cultural and religious gazes, but also how these exchanges have influenced what is being gazed upon, e.g. the veil. Though, the veil itself also has a gaze, which is transitive both over time and space, cultural contexts, and embodied realities. Thus, the veil incepts a sort of typology of gazes. Examples can include: the religious gaze, the feminist’s gaze, the Muslim gaze, the modern gaze, the gaze of globalization, the sacred gaze, the gaze of protest, the gaze of religious ideology, the gaze of devotion, the “matrixial” gaze, the normative gaze, etc. The gaze of the veiling participates in the economy of gazes that reflects the dynamic interplay of personal with the social.

What also grows from a cursory study of ‘the gaze’ is its cultural product, if you will, the symbol. In Marshal Hodgson’s work on Islam and Images he writes, “The use of symbols springs from the human condition--from the perception of vital and cosmic correspondences, which was perhaps at its most seminal in archaic mankind.” Hodgson, like many of his contemporaries, describes the spectrum of examples of Islamic symbolism as sparse. Hodgson, in relation to a possible symbolism in Islam refers to three examples from Medieval Islamic societies: the classical Persian garden, Arabic poetry and the Qur’an. Hodgson describes the lack of symbolism in Islamic societies as a “displacement” of imagery, and explicates upon what he calls a different “emphasis” in Islamicate communities that channels the need for symbolism in a corollary yet alternative way in comparison to Christianity and Judaism.
If an icon can be described as an “image, picture, or representation; it is a sign or likeness that stands for an object by signifying or representing it, or by analogy, as in semiotics; by extension, icon is also used, particularly in modern culture, in the general sense of symbol.” Mitchell argues that “images ‘proper’ are not stable, static, or permanent in any metaphysical sense; they are not perceived in the same way by viewers any more than are dream images; and they are not exclusively visual in any important way, but involve multisensory apprehension and interpretation.” Building upon Mitchell’s (re)definition of the image one can attempt to fashion a contemporary relationship of the hijab as icon as in the sense that it fulfils this definition of icon, and also because it is representative of an interpretive ideology. The ideology itself may be transitive, however so is the nature of visual culture and of icons across time. Furthermore, if Islam does have a culture of imagery that “channels the need for symbolism” in a “distinct” yet corollary way from other confessional religions, then the image of the hijab fulfils the performative, ritual and utilitarian and symbolic functions of its ‘ulterior emphasis’. In Suzanne Brenner’s Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women and ‘the Veil’ she relates the new meanings behind the veil in contemporary society when she describes that “in Java the growing trend among women towards wearing Islamic clothing challenges local traditions as well as Western models of modernity. . . Veiling represents a historical consciousness and a process of subjective transformation that is tied to a larger processes of social change in Indonesia." The hijab has been used as a source to resist colonialism, exoticizing the East, and as a way to rail against the forces of imperialism. The veil as an icon serves also a means of resistance. Frantz Fanon writes that women in Algeria wore the veil as a means to resist an occupier that was working to ‘unveil’ Algeria. Perhaps these are not the traditional associations one makes when relating to an icon, but the veil has certainly been used to symbolize discourses over a wide variety of issues pertaining to art, literature, visual culture, religious reformism, protest and media. If there were a modern iconic image for Islam the hijab certainly could be a contender!
Throughout my study of the possible iconicity of the hijab I have sought to impart possible explanations as to the symbolism of the hijab, its historical roots, its social and political meaning including criticism. If it is fair to conclude that the hijab is symbol of Islam, and that symbols are representations of ideas, concepts, or other abstractions, then an investigation of the cultural, religious and political mark of the hijab as it is practiced in a community may also give insights to human interaction with icons, art and images. The insights the following interviews are indicative of prevailing attitudes of the hijab in both within and outside of ‘Muslim’ communities. However, they also point to a spectrum of issues that are “represented” in the symbol of the hijab, which include issues related to economic disparities, human and political rights, education, sexism and the varied legacies of colonialist expansion. The interviewees come from the Middle East and United States, are between the ages of 19 and 35, and have varying levels of interaction with and understanding of the hijab in Islam or its historical roots. All of my interviewees assured me they had much “more” knowledge of the hijab’s political rather than religious meaning. For the reasons related to mostly to space I decided to include only two of the interviews.
Arman Rezaei Khouzani is a 23-year-old graduate student in electrical engineering at Penn. He is from Khouzani, a small village outside Esfahan in Iran. Khouzani describes himself as “left” of the reformist movement in Iran, a “non-sectarian” socialist, and an atheist. He is quick to point out that his Iranian identity card describes him as a Muslim by virtue of the fact that his parent’s identity cards say Muslims, though only his Mother would describe herself as such. The following is from my interview with him:
Farah: What is an icon?
Arman: A symbol. For example the American flag is an icon in the United States.

Farah: What is the hijab?
Arman: A covering for some parts of the body. It is a severe thing for women. It’s a part of a sort of religious up bringing, but I also think its an ideological almost habitual behavior. It’s an obvious way of expressing ones ideology, but most of the time it’s just an inherited ideology. The hijab is also a veil, and a harness.

Farah: A harness?
Arman: Yes. The harness of imposed male power on women, on the feminine. The hijab harnesses the feminine source of innovation and imagination in society. The veil is meant to cover beauty, and beauty is something very important in society.

Farah: Why is beauty important in society?
Arman: Beauty is a softening factor in the society, and I feel that softness is a danger to patriarchy. So they, like the Mullahs and other religious leaders who are also the political leaders in Iran, feel they need to harness and cover that softness and beauty. They replace it with harshness and toughness, which are the “symbols” of the male personality. Females embody softness and are more tender and fragile.

Farah: Do think that women are “softer”, or is this just a stereotype?
Arman: I don’t think that, that is a stereotype, it’s a fact. A women’s body is a symbol of her presences in society. What is intended by the veil is to cover and overshadow [women’s] presence – it’s about disembodying the feminine presence because beauty is dangerous.

Farah: What is dangerous about beauty?
Arman: The system of male dominance is based on factors that don’t fall under thing that could be described as beautiful. For example, peace is more beautiful than war, but peace is feminine, war is masculine. Societies often can benefit from war. So the veil is also a way to masculinize women, to take away the things in society that remind us of peace, softness, beauty – the things that would represent everything that is opposite of hostility and competitiveness. Also, one of the pillars in a male dominated society is possession. Ownership. Beauty is something people want to posses, and have ownership over. And like all things we posses we want to keep them secret and are able to share them when it is convenient to our status in society. The hijab works to cover the beauty of women, and as a sign that this woman has been ‘owned’ or is waiting to be ‘owned’ by a man, and the hijab helps men to feel that their possessions are not in danger. I think it’s also a sign of men conquering women, and thus conquering beauty something that is intangible, that’s why veils are encouraged.

Farah: What does the hijab mean in the U.S.?
Arman: In the U.S. the hijab is a way to segregate yourself, and it’s a way others segregate themselves from the rest of society. I think the hijab is a way to show the internal feeling of being segregated. There are many different communities of people in the U.S. and just as many forms of segregation like race, economic class. I think the hijab in the U.S. is a symptom of segregation.

Farah: What are images of the Hijab in the media?
Arman: In the U.S. or in Iran? Actually it doesn’t really matter. The public media in Iran, which never strays from what the government says, well at least the supreme leaders, they say we should respect women a lot and not fall into the selfishness and idolatry of glamorizing physical beauty because physical beauty is actually mundane and unworldly and will keep us blinded from [women’s] actual personality and “real” beauty. The hijab helps us men to act unselfishly, keeps women in their place not to fill their heads too much with their own beauty. Its confusing because they say the veil helps us to have the utmost respect for women while not respecting them enough to make their own choices.

Farah: How has that worked in Iran?
Arman: It’s what do they say in English? A self-fulfilling prophecy. People in Iran don’t rebel against the veil. Women in Iran timidly use any small rebellions with the veil as a way to express their other discontents with many things in society. Most people aren’t really “radical” because their way of expressing discontent and rebellion is to wear excessive make-up for example. The make-up isn’t meant as a feminist rebellion, it’s just about fashion and then the government and ruling classes uses that against real forms of protest. The government will say that relaxed veil laws lead to excessive make-up, which leads to an increase in sex workers. That might sound crazy but it is very prevalent in the ideology. It just gives the leaders fodder for furthering establishing that the veil is a symbol of virtue and all those things that lead to a virtuous society. But many wealthy families will continue to wear make-up and push veil laws because the more make-up you were and the looser you can wear your veil gives you status in the community, so the government and the supposed ‘progressives’ just reinforce each other.  

Farah: Is the veil a form of iconoclasm?
Arman: Well, I’m not sure because I am not so sure I know what iconoclasm is exactly in a religious sense. But, what I think I am trying to say is that people, especially from the West, put the veil together with being religious, very religious. The veil is not very religious, it’s very conservative. Sure religious practices and conservatism may be correlated, but there are multitudes of interpretations about how to practice religion. Iconoclasm is about not worshipping an idol right? So, I think the veil actually reinforces idol worship even if its intention is the opposite.

Farah: Can you give me an example of what you mean, if not from a religious point of view, from a political point of view?
Arman: Sure. Well, I think I already covered this when I talked about how the veil has created rebellion, but the rebellion was with women wearing more make-up and paying more attention to how they look, what the new fashion is. The veil has reinforced external beauty in Iran, has made looking nice a way to rebel against the establishment. If I wasn’t to be so cynical about it I could say that women is iconoclastic a two, sort of opposite ways. The first is that the veil is meant to, in a very backwards sort of way, “help” men to see women as people and not objects of desire, as the “idols” of beauty. So in this way I think it is iconoclastic. The second way is that as long as women in Iran must wear the veil they will invent ways and interpretations of it that protest the mandatory nature of the law. It can be iconoclastic because men and women can, sort of reinvent the hijab, as a way to break the icons of patriarchy and male dominance that are pervasive. But this is only iconoclasm, I don’t know, linguistically speaking – its not an iconoclastic practice.


“Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power. Since all power from the seventh century on, was only legitimated by religion, political forces and economic interests push for the fabrication of false traditions...Delving into memory, slipping into the past, is an activity that these days is closely supervised…The sleeping past can animate the present. That is the virtue of memory...This book is not a work of history. History is always the group's language, the official narrative that is pressed between covers of gold and trotted out for ritual ceremonies of self congratulation."

What is the veil? I cannot say that I have any clearer understanding of what the veil is in the wee moments of this study. I think that the endeavor to try and find new narratives about art and culture is a process that pierces some of the very centers of power. The questions this journey elicits drive new notions of what the self is, and how the self interacts with its impressions of the world around it. Looking at the past, as Mersisi points out, is a way to “animate the present” but bodes very little about the landscapes of the future. What will become our understand of art, of culture, of symbolism, of religion, of each other—I can’t say; it’s a practice of the imagination in cruel relationship with the limitations of the present. Morgan concludes The Sacred Gaze by asking, “Can we understand such practices as devotion, pilgrimage, and prayer without considering the practice of seeing?” However, all of the scholars I have noted in this study may say, “We only see but through a veil.”

Posted by Farah Marie Mokhtareizadeh at 11:39 PM 

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