Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Veil: Modesty, Privacy, Resistance

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Veil: Modesty, Privacy, Resistance

Article excerpt

The Veil: Modesty, Privacy, Resistance, by Fadwa El Guindi. Oxford: Berg 1999. xx + 185 pages. Notes to p. 213. Bibl. To p. 234. Index to p. 242. $60 cloth; $19.50 paper.

Not since Elizabeth and Robert Fernea published their classic 1979 article "A Look Behind the Veil" has anyone attempted what El Guindi provides here: a sympathetic and comprehensive introduction to the cultural meanings of the veil in the Middle East and Muslim world, informed by an anthropological perspective.1 The book goes beyond their article in its engagement with intellectual trends only just emerging at the time the Ferneas wrote their piece: the critique of Orientalism, colonial and postcolonial studies, and the dramatic growth of Women's Studies. One of the kinds of veiling El Guindi analyzes was also just emerging as a widespread phenomenon at the time the Ferneas published, and she deals with it better than anyone. The audience addressed in this book is perhaps more complicated than theirs was. The dedication announces El Guindi's desire to reach "those who decided to veil, those who refused to unveil, those who refused to veil, those who traditionally always veiled, and those who never ever veiled." This suggests The Veil is a book for women, from both the Middle East and from the West. Given that one of the arguments El Guindi makes in the book is that veiling is not confined to women in a chapter called "The Veil of Masculinity", she may be addressing men as well. Yet, the main arguments to which she returns again and again indicate that her key audiences are that group of Westerners, including feminist scholars, who have stereotypes about Muslim and Middle Eastern women and the veil, and those misguided secular elites of the region who share some of their assumptions.

As an anthropologist and Middle East scholar, El Guindi hopes to offer a non-ethnocentric understanding of the complex issue of the veilhow it has been represented, misunderstood, used, and used differently in different historical moments and kinds of Muslim societies. Her book is ambitious, ranging widely over geographic territories (while concentrating on Egypt, the place where El Guindi has done original research), historical periods (with special emphasis both on the contemporary period of the new veiling and on the early Islamic period when the religious sources on dress and veiling, to which current interpreters turn, were laid down), kinds of texts (Qur'anic, missionary, and ethnographic), and issues (etymologies, religious interpretation, the cultural meanings of dress, the social organization and cultural codes of Arab societies, Islamic movements, and much more). The book is also, in a fundamental sense, interdisciplinary, even though the framework utilized for much of the book derives from the anthropological perspective of the editor of the book series (Dress, Body, Culture) in which it very appropriately appears. …

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