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To veil or not to veil




An excellent collection that looks at the purdah as an object of mystery, oppression and power. 



The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics, edited by Jennifer Heath, University of California Press, 2008, p. 346, $ 55.



The veil remains an intriguing and often abused aspect of Eastern culture and politics. It is the single most complex symbol that stands between empowerment and oppression, between the Western woman and her Eastern counterpart.


The veil makes an ambivalent statement: even as it is a sign of women’s enslavement, it is also a custom firmly entrenched in the female psyche. Laj or sharm, intrinsic to the practice, persist because of connotations of “honour” in their observance. Many women go further and choose to veil themselves as a sign of Islamic defiance to the rapid embrace of globalisation and Westernisation, thereby pushing aside Edward Said’s theories of Orientalism to the wilderness. Haleh Afshar has famously written about the way in which the veil gives deliverance from the beauty myth, in a celebration of invisibility.


Socio-political aspects


By far, the most interesting section of The Veil is the one focusing on its socio-political aspects. Here this item of clothing is exposed in all its regressive aspects. The “now-on-now-off” quality of the veil in West Asia has been done to death by the politics of power and subordination controlled by the West. If the imposition of the veil has elicited protest, then the ban on veiling has sent girls in France and Spain to courts demanding the right to go to school with their heads covered. The clarion call for the “liberation” of West Asian women has, in fact, pushed Muslim women in the direction of cover and clothing. It is in this mood that women of Turkey, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia insist that war, poverty, illiteracy, starvation and globalisation are the greatest adversaries of women’s rights, not the veil: “women who veil are by no means mute ghosts. Many are educated, feminist elite, putting the lie to those who wish to equate veiling with complete lack of self-determination”. But the dominant world view about hijab, says Mohja Kahf, is: “poor oppressed Muslim woman, forced to veil. Here come Americans to free her from this tragic victimhood”.


There are chapters concerned with the equation of the veil with devotion. Veiling is part of religions other than Islam such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and even Christianity where surrender to God is thus inculcated. Here goddesses and priestesses are veiled as much as sacred objects and icons: the tabernacle at Mt. Sinai, the Ka’aba which is the holiest shrine at Mecca, statues of the Virgin Mary are supreme instances. The veil becomes a symbol of wisdom and, as shown by Desiree Koslin in her analysis of the veiling of Christian nuns, also a means of distinction between the sacred and the profane.


A third category is the esoteric qualities of the veil. As a positive connotation, no doubt, the veil is seen here through an Orientalist gaze, as possessing an old-world charm, exotic and mystical. Michelle Auerbach finds the veil in the Judaic tradition to be a symbol of religion, not gender, and even as she rebels against an all-women gathering at the synagogue, she comes to terms with the significance of covering the body. Rita Stephan, an Arab Christian, discovers the pleasures of veiling in Syria, which controls the fitnah — both beauty and chaos — of women, a kind of mystique lost in the U.S.


Interestingly, whatever the name of this garment, it has a different meaning when men wear it. For men, it becomes the mask of Zorro, that ultimate romantic masculine symbol of the outlaw; it is also a means of hiding identity and protection from authority. But the question remains: why is the veil considered to be oppressive for women but macho when men wear it?


There is also a related question: is the banning of veiling or unveiling a reflection of the way the West perceives Islam and its male practitioners? This tug-of-war raises a deeper philosophical issue of the use of women’s bodies as signs of male triumphalism. The ideology of liberalism or orthodoxy, at any given period of history, is mapped, in the words of Maliha Masood, by “the dialectics of a Muslim woman’s head”.


A symbol of power too


But at times, though rarely, the veil can also be a symbol of power. It allows women to beat the masculine gaze and, by default, turn themselves into the ones who inspect.


Jennifer Heath’s excellent collection of essays introduces purdah as a three-dimensional symbol of mystery, power and oppression. As Maliha Masood puts it: “My Hijab gave me refuge from prying stares and possibly averted more serious dangers. It adopted me at subway stations and rejected me in trendy cafés. It has kept me warm on cold winter nights, it has wowed, titillated, and amazed, and it has also made me laugh, dance, sulk, and complain. As with most relationships, my Hijab and I have had our spats and dramas. These days, we’re in a mellow groove, content to leave each other alone, but always on the lookout for a rousing debate”. The veil, in sum, can be whatever one wants it to be.

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