Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance

Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance

Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance

Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance

Synopsis

Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award 2000. In the 1970s, often to the consternation of parents and siblings, certain progressive young Arab women voluntarily donned the veil. The movement, which rapidly expanded and continues to gather momentum, has sparked controversy within Islamic culture, as well as reactions ranging from perplexity to outrage from those outside it. Western feminist commentators have been particularly vociferous in decrying the veil, which they glibly interpret as a concrete manifestation of patriarchal oppression. However, most Western observers fail to realize that veiling, which has a long and complex history, has been embraced by many Arab women as both an affirmation of cultural identity and a strident feminist statement. Not only does the veil de-marginalize women in society, but it also represents an expression of liberation from colonial legacies. In short, contemporary veiling is more often than not about resistance. By voluntarily removing themselves from the male gaze, these women assert their allegiance to a rich and varied tradition, and at the same time preserve their sexual identity. Beyond this, however, the veil also communicates exclusivity of rank and nuances in social status and social relations that provide telling insights into how Arab culture is constituted. Further, as the author clearly demonstrates, veiling is intimately connected with notions of the self, the body and community, as well as with the cultural construction of identity, privacy and space. This provocative book draws on extensive original fieldwork, anthropology, history and original Islamic sources to challenge the simplistic assumption that veiling is largely about modesty and seclusion, honor and shame.

Excerpt

This study was bom out of f ieldwork on the contemporary Islamic movement. It is an analysis, and re-analysis, of data embedded in an original synthesis of ethnography, history, Qur'anic text, Hadith, and Tafsir. It is not simply a descriptive ethnography of veiling, or a “community study” of a community in which veiling is practiced, with a focus on women. I have been engaged in fieldwork and research on this subject since I began a field project on the Islamic Movement in Egypt in the 1970s. This was before the formation of Women's Studies, when little background research was conveniently available to researchers on issues related to gender. I worked progressively and published on the subject, placing gender and veiling in a larger cultural context.

Veil was not my original choice for this book's title. For a number of reasons my original intent was to write a book about Hi jab, the word in the Arabic calligraphic art on the cover. “Veil” has no single Arabic linguistic referent, whereas Hi jab has cultural and linguistic roots that are integral to Islamic (and Arab) culture as a whole. But the publisher preferred Veil to Hi jab for reader accessibility and familiarity. From a marketing angle, the publisher rightly finds Veil more marketable, even sexy. I was not persuaded by the marketing argument.

As I reflected further on the matter I realized that my own resistance to using the word “veil” stems from the same bias that entraps many scholars. The veil is avoided as a subject of study because of what it stands for ideologically or for its association with Orientalist imagery. And while the word “veil” is found in many - too many - titles, scholarly discussion of it occupies a few pages, even paragraphs, in most works. In most, the veil is attacked, ignored, dismissed, transcended, trivialized or defended. This reaches hysterical proportions in the madia, where a hostility has developed against the veil (often under the guise of humanism, feminism or human rights) from Saudi Arabia (after the Gulf War contact) to Iran (after the Islamic Revolution), and is now concentrated on the Taliban as they consolidate their power over Afghanistan. Much of what is said is ethnocentric (often a personalistic vision reflecting the fears of the authors) and shows no . . .

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