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Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2008) 13, 24–34. doi:10.1057/palgrave.pcs.2100149

The Masquerade, The Veil, and The Phallic Mask:

 Commentary Marilyn Charlesa

A The Austen Riggs Center

Correspondence: Dr Marilyn Charles, 25 Main Street, PO Box 962, Stockbridge, MA 01262-0962, USA. E-mail:

Top of page Abstract The Veil is considered as a symbol designating otherness and inaccessibility that becomes further problematized when viewed from outside the culture in which it is signified. Considering the Veil from a Western eye makes more visible ways in which "the Veil" is nested in but also lies outside of cultural meanings, in this way highlighting universal aspects and cultural collisions. From this vantage point we can better discern culture as a variable rather than a fact, thereby affording greater transparency through which to inform our understanding of the work of culture.

Keywords: Islam, myth, culture, symbol, Bion

Ragland begins her paper with the questions "What is a woman?" and "What is a man?" In investigating these questions, she considers the veil as a symbol of the type of non-delivered meaning that Miller (2000) links to "the symptom". More particularly, for Ragland the veil locates both fear and desire, and thus can be seen as a symptom of both the danger and the mystery of sexuality. This danger is in some ways universal but also inevitably and elusively inscribed by culture, as the very meanings that are most entrenched within a culture tend to be least visible, resisting detection. We are inscribed by meanings we can never fully comprehend but rather might encounter if we can attain sufficient distance to afford some transparency through which to view what has become "given". Perspective, as Bion (1977) notes, is a function of the type of bi-nocular vision that enables us to see beyond the narrow frame and thus to contextualize our understanding. As one's values are challenged, cognitive capacities can diminish in proportion to the increased affective intensity, such that reflective distance becomes increasingly difficult to attain.

In our attempts to understand that which is other, there is always a danger in applying theories that have evolved in one context to another. Thus have women been misperceived for centuries (Van Buren, 2007). And so, as Ragland looks at the veil and its meanings through the lens of Lacanian theory, she both reveals and obscures, in parallel to her subject, the veil that both reveals and obscures. There is a tendency in the Western view of the veil to highlight the prohibition by the male, without necessarily considering that in taking this view we are, indeed, highlighting the male perspective. There is another perspective, however, through which young Islamic women offer an alternative view, one in which the prohibition is exercised by the female (Hilsdon and Rozario, 2006). One side sees the ways in which the veil might objectify and disenfranchise the woman, whereas from the other side it is the woman who, in prohibiting the gaze of the other, defies objectification and thus creates a space for her own subjectivity and autonomy.

For the Muslim woman, the veil may become a protective barrier demarcating a space within which to define herself in a complex world in which Islamic patriarchal structures and Western canons each misrecognize her in their own ways. From the Western view, the veil marks an unnecessary prohibition. Perhaps the Islamic view marks a necessary prohibition by signifying Limit itself and thus the need to define one's self in relation to the inevitability of limit. From this frame, the Lacanian struggle with limits is less relevant in a society in which limit is not questioned, in contrast to the Western notion of "no limits" that in some ways is foundering our own culture.

Psychoanalytic theory is grounded in notions of the hazards of myopic views. Freud anchors his theory in the importance of being aware of both conscious and unconscious registers of meaning, and of paying particular attention to the gaps that signal the presence of unconscious drives, wishes, or presumptions. The woman, as the embodiment of these types of primitive and primary meanings, speaks through whatever veils culture imposes on us all, thereby becoming the type of "indeterminate articulation" Kristeva terms the chora. For Kristeva, the chora is itself part of the discourse of representation that offers it as evidence, the chora, as rupture and articulations (rhythm), precedes evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality and temporality. Our discourse – all discourse – moves with and against the chora in the sense that it simultaneously depends upon and refuses it. (Kristeva, 1986, pp 93–94)

If we think of the veil through the lens of the chora that both announces and conceals, the woman becomes lost in but also comes to represent the gap – that which has been excluded and therefore becomes haunting and at times terrifying – in her guise as the persecutory return of that which has been projected outward (Klein, 1935; Kristeva, 1982).

In parallel to Freud, Lévi-Strauss (1984) notes the importance of attending to that which hides behind that which is seen. He anchors cultural understanding in the ability to be both inside and outside of culture, such that one might integrate meanings rather than rest on initial presumptions and foreclose prematurely without greater reflection. This need for perspective comes into the more recent psychoanalytic literature through attention to the "Third", that which pulls us out of the narrowness of idiosyncratic and dyadic meanings and insists on a confrontation with a wider universe of lawful standards of meaning.

Inevitably, we strain towards and against the complexity that invites our interest but also eludes our comprehension, developing models as ways of organizing and simplifying meanings within a conceptual frame. But then we risk losing sight of the whole (Matte-Blanco, 1975). In the continuing struggle between the comfort of whatever partial truths have become "home", vs the developmental need to encounter other "truths" and reflectively consider and attempt to integrate them, our models help us to hold in mind a greater whole while also examining the parts. Locating ourselves within a given conceptual frame provides us with a common language through which to share meanings and exchange complex ideas, but also poses the hazard of reifying the very system thus imposed.

Lévi-Strauss (1984) suggests that to be able to truly appreciate a culture, one must be able to look from multiple vantage points, in order to see "what is peculiar to each culture in the form of myth, ritual and language – that is, in domains where the oppositions are both identifiable and unconscious" (p 22). Likening the work of culture to the dream work, Ricoeur (1970), in line with Freud, suggests that desire can be located through the ways in which it is disguised within a given frame (see also Obeyesekere, 1990). Taking note of our reactivity to the designation of otherness signified by "the veil" provides an opportunity to wonder what this reactivity signals. As we come up against a barrier that signifies otherness, we come up against, as Ragland notes, our ideas about the unlimited jouissance and unlimited power of the other. It is this ostensible lack of limits and our desire for it that ultimately captures us in an intractable relation with an unachievable desire that we counter through attempts to limit the other's ability to limit ourselves. In this type of reciprocal demonization, the paranoid–schizoid realities articulated so evocatively by Klein (1935, 1946) come to life and easily overtake our ability to reason, to locate self or other in relation to a larger whole.

In our struggles to locate ourselves in a complex and changing world, symbols help us to mark meaning. Myth then offers a means for embedding these symbols in narrative form, such that the complexity can also be marked even if it is not "understood" by the rational mind (Charles, 2002a, 2004). Thus, it is in myth that we find the purest expression of symbolic form, in that "the world of mythical experience is grounded in experiences of pure expression rather than in representative or significative acts" (Cassirer, 1957, p 68). Myth helps us to maintain contact with affectively grounded, less conscious meanings and also to note the ways in which those meanings are configured in the external environment.

In line with our more recent understanding of the crucial organizing functions of affect in human memory, Cassirer anchors meaning in affect, suggesting that it is in the embodiment of affect that meanings can be perceived. In his words, "the expressive meaning attaches to the perception itself, in which it is apprehended and immediately experienced" (Cassirer, 1957, p 68). For Cassirer, condensed representations of spiritually and affectively loaded images – such as we can find in the veil – persist because of their connection to these deep underlying "truths". This anchoring of emotional immediacies in cultural symbols is precisely the realm of myth, in which universal truths are located in relation to an ethos framed by culture (Charles, 2004). In Cassirer's terms, the myth has something of the form of a hologram, in which the parts contain the whole rather than the whole being capable of division into substantive parts. We can see here a parallel to Freud's ideas of multi-determination, such that important elements of meaning become manifest in myriad ways.

The veil may invite reactivity to the Western sensibility precisely because of the barrier thus imposed. We are exiled from an encounter with a "truth" reserved for an other. This failed encounter invites an inquiry into culture itself, as an organic living structure that preserves and protects established truths and traditions while also needing to accommodate to changing circumstances in order to remain viable. At best, culture provides a frame within which the uncertainties of daily living can be borne and also enables development of its members and structures. With increasing globalization, emigration, and mixing of cultures, however, the individual can feel torn between the pulls of cultural heritage and whatever is not easily assimilable within those traditions (see, e.g., Bielefeldt, 2000; Hilsdon and Rozario, 2006).

To the extent that diversity can be tolerated between communities, we can keep our bearings without too much disequilibrium. When tensions become strained, however, the maintenance of in-group values can be achieved by demonizing the other. The demonized other is then pulled towards reciprocal deprecation in what can become a seemingly never-ending downward spiral. In these misunderstandings, dilemmas of difference are highlighted, and yet there can be a hazard in presuming sameness or difference in ways that obscure the particularities of an individual life. What is marked as "other" can be easier to inquire into than the apparent sameness that provides a slick surface that is difficult to penetrate.

These types of misunderstandings are rampant throughout history and are currently highlighted in tensions between Western and Islamic cultures. Reflecting on a cultural symbol that has different meanings from inside or outside helps us to note the tensions themselves and the meanings marked by them. For Westerners, the veil poses just such a dilemma, as we are denied not only access to that which lies behind a veil, but also to the meanings that are signified by, and as such lie behind, the Veil. This particular example is useful in that it offers an explicit anchoring point that we can keep in mind while we attempt to also see beyond the particular and so better discern ways in which a symbol such as the veil becomes imbued by meanings inherent to that culture.

Considering meaning as contextually defined helps us recognize the organizational structure of a particular culture and how a practice or tradition keeps that structure stabilized – both internally and also in relation to the larger social context in which that culture is embedded. In line with Bion's (1977) descriptions of the ways in which established tradition and the "new idea" are vital for ongoing growth, we can see how an outer view may be inherently destabilizing but also potentially useful, depending on one's aims or goals, the meanings of which are inevitably inscribed in culture. In our ability to move from inside to outside and back again, we can perhaps begin to grasp aspects of the larger whole that had previously been occluded from view.

The Veil is a useful symbol for our purposes in that it not only signifies a barrier, but also becomes a conceptual barrier that eludes understanding between those inside and those outside a given culture. It is in the nature of barriers to obstruct and to protect – to put up a wall or film, a separation between elements that might be combustible or dangerous were they to combine without such protection. Barriers that define otherness as alien – as abject – are inherently problematic, inviting disequilibrium and uneasy relationships. If I am other, am I elevated or debased in that relationship? Inevitably, I am excluded from one side or the other, evoking the oedipal dilemma in which, underneath questions of incest or authority, there lies the more basic question of inevitable exclusion (Bion, 1977). Exclusion invites a confrontation with the not-me that might be privileged in such a way as to usurp or countermand one's own attempts at self-definition. Faced with such a blockade, one can deny the barrier directly or attack the value of what lies beyond and insists from the other side.

Western presumptions about the veil may invite just this type of counterattack. A feminist view of the veil as imposed by patriarchy – and thereby demeaning – itself imposes an ethic that presumes solidarity with other women but fails to take into account the otherness of this distant cultural lens. Current anthropological inquiries into the use of the veil highlight the limited field of this vision and also note how increasing reliance on use of the veil by educated young Muslim women is in some ways reactive to the apparent threat imposed by Western views (Winter, 2006).

For example, in her study of the veil in Bangladesh, Rozario (2006) notes the increasing adoption of the veil by educated women in a culture where this practice had previously been almost nonexistent. In the comments of young women who have chosen to adopt veiling, we can see a strong pull to define oneself as a Muslim woman and to locate one's self within the conceptual space of Muslim tradition. Western values, in contrast, are seen as immoral and potentially damaging, not only to the individual but to the very fabric of society. The reciprocal lack of respect on the part of Western culture toward traditional Muslim practices exacerbates these conflicts. Veiling then represents a positive compromise for the young woman caught between two such disparate cultures, in that it provides a way to move out into the larger society without being exiled from the social system of culturally defined meanings in which her roots are embedded (Rozario, 2006).

The emigration associated with increasing globalization exacerbates the destabilization, as the individual becomes disembedded from the shared cultural identity that previously defined meanings. The more remote the current community is from the original culture, the greater the tension seems to be either to locate one's self in the adopted culture or, alternatively, to more fully embed one's identity within the culture of origin. Excessive destabilization invites a regressive pull toward old ways of coping, which, for Muslims, exacerbates reactivity against the "progress" extolled by the Western world and pulls toward a reestablishment of a shared imaginary grounded in notions of an idealized past (Göle, 2003).

In her study of immigrant Muslim women in Canada, Ruby (2006) found a large gap between the Western view of the veil as a symbol of oppression and the Muslim view of the veil as a positive symbol of self-expression. Many of the young women she interviewed felt that the veil liberated them from oppression, enabling them to move relatively freely in society by offering a protective distance from the male gaze. This positive valuation of freedom of movement is in line with Western values, whereas other values associated with the veil may be more remote, such as modesty. As an identity symbol, the veil can become a link with the culture that has been left behind geographically but not in terms of self-identity. In this regard, Western opposition to the veil merely provides a rallying point for Muslim women to celebrate their difference as a sign of greater – not lesser – value, in this way directly opposing the Western view. This opposition stands as a reminder that it is, indeed, a view rather than the absolute "truth" that becomes conflated with the Western perspective. Paradoxically, however, in fighting against this Western pretense of absolute truth, the Islamic view counters with its own absolutism, resulting in increased tension rather than arriving at the type of equilibrium that might be achieved if opposing culturally defined differences could be recognized more respectfully.

As Ragland notes, behind the representation of the veil as gendered lies a more universal dilemma, as the veil comes to deny loss by representing it in veiled form. Although the veil has become a symbol most often associated with women and women's rights, Chopra (2006) notes that veiling is not exclusively gendered, but rather represents a larger system of meanings framing speech and gesture for men as well as women. In Western culture the veil tends to signify passivity and oppression, whereas from another perspective veiling may be seen as an indication of agency and self-assertion, a sign of an active statement about one's alliance with a shared system of cultural values and meanings (Mahmood, 2001; Göle, 2003).

Although this symbol may be seen quite differently from varying perspectives, the veil has come to signify a gap, a demarcation between public and private, which, paradoxically, is both public and private. Because the veil provides a mark that references both public and private realms, Göle (2003) suggests that it is useful to think of the veil in terms of a stigma, defined as a sign or indicator of "social information the individual transmits about himself that disqualifies him and creates an obstacle to being fully accepted by society" (p 810). As such, the adoption of the veil by a woman living in an alien culture designates her lack of acceptance of, integration into, and – perhaps most importantly – disintegration into the culture thus defined as alien. This type of designation may be particularly enigmatic to the Western mind, as public and private have different meanings in Islamic culture (Kadivar, 2003; Vogel, 2003), and the same religious embeddedness that may be prized within a culture can become highly problematized as we look at another culture. Westerners, embedded in a culture predicated on the ostensible separation of church and state, may look critically at Islamic tradition – in which "the Qur'anic injunction of 'ordering the good and forbidding evil'" is not only a religious injunction, but also permeates the law (Vogel, 2003, p 749) – and fail to notice how surely our legal and civic codes are imbued with notions culled from our own religious traditions.

Western culture adheres to notions of progress grounded in technology, self-emancipation, and rationalism, and received knowledge comes to supersede more primary, experiential ways of knowing. We have become suspicious of these more primary ways of knowing and so easily look askance at Islamic religious practice, which seems to be grounded in direct experience such that the enactment of ritual is seen as a means toward piety (Mahmood, 2003). Tradition carries memory, and as we set ourselves adrift from our traditions, we risk not only losing our grounding in these traditions but also loosening the social bonds held by these traditions (Charles, 2000). Ironically, Islamic culture values direct spiritual experience but also imposes injunctions, ostensibly out of fear that the individual will not be sufficiently held by his or her own internal integrity. Western culture, in contrast, values received knowledge and yet also affirms an ideal of the individual over the social, which makes the Islamic tradition appear constricted and imposed. Both cultures experience inevitable tensions over the need for individuals to develop an individual and social conscience in line with the values espoused by the culture, sufficient for the culture to survive. Yet Western culture has been built upon an ideal of leaving behind the old culture which places the individual (and therefore the society) at risk.

We can see in these paradoxes how difficult it can be to peer beyond the veil of culture into a more universal dilemma. Survival of the individual cannot be entirely separated from culture without doing violence to the individual psyche and thus the social fabric. And yet, increasing globalization has exacerbated exactly the tensions that one might have hoped would diminish them. Psychoanalysis offers one means for helping us to inquire into these types of apparent paradoxes, as ostensible meanings become entrenched and preclude reflective functions – such that the veil becomes an invitation for attack rather than inquiry.

Bion (1977), for example, was aware of the somewhat precarious nature of "meaning" and the tendency to saturate meaning such that inquiry is precluded. In developing his model of psychoanalytic inquiry, he used Poincaré's idea of the "selected fact" as a cautionary means of noting the powerful effects of perspective on how we organize information. Coherence, therefore, is always in relation to whatever "selected facts" are organizing the frame, and this very coherence can obstruct our ability to notice the underlying factors at play. Bion's "grid" (1989; Charles, 2002b) was an attempt to abstract process, structure, and functional relationships from the obfuscating effects of content. If we see Freud's model of psychoanalysis as built on an inquiry into that which is explicitly not known but becomes revealed because it can be sufficiently displaced, disguised, or negated, then we can see that Bion's grid anchors this task by pointing us towards the relationships themselves that can remain obscured when we focus on content. Anchoring ourselves in such a way may help us keep our bearings as we attempt to consider meanings of the veil from one side and the other. Holding both sides in mind helps us see beyond the apparent barrier to consider the significance of barrier-as-barrier, beyond the veil or any other representation that tends to be too saturated with presumptions of "Meaning" to reflectively consider meanings.

Bion (1977, 1989) was aware of the compelling tendency to simplify and avoid complexity. Noting that any action could be used towards development or evasion, he used his grid as a model of the analytic process, attempting to locate a given statement or interaction in terms of the complexity of the thought, the sophistication of the thinking, and the function being served. In this schema, myth holds a privileged position as a model that helps to anchor and give form to subtleties of experience that are inevitably informed by the particular cultural and personal lenses through which they are viewed. By using the grid as a rubric through which to note constant conjunctions – repetitive patterns – he hoped to be able to separate himself sufficiently from his own prejudices that he might more freely discern meaning rather than obscure it in the very act of trying to find it.

Toward this end, following Freud's statement to Lou Andreas-Salomé, Bion quite usefully suggests that if we are to attempt to understand obscure subjects such as the most fundamental and primitive parts of the human mind, ... instead of trying to bring a brilliant, intelligent, knowledgeable light to bear on obscure problems, [we should instead] bring to bear a diminution of the "light" – a penetrating beam of darkness; a reciprocal of the searchlight. (Bion, 1990, p 20)

In this way, the object of our attention might absorb some of the light that surrounds it and thus reveal itself to us as we accustom ourselves to the darkness. Bion likens this process to the task of observing a game of tennis being played in the dark, suggesting that if we can tolerate watching in the darkness, we might be able to stop looking for the net and see, instead, the "holes, including the fact that they are knitted, or netted together" (Bion, 1990, p 21). Being able to see the sense in apparent non-sense helps us be more respectful of – and so perhaps learn from – a perspective different from our own.

Perhaps one of the most potent forces of psychoanalysis is that it advocates a way of meeting the other's dilemma as a unique and fascinating puzzle that can be better understood through engagement in a voyage of mutual learning. As meanings are made, they are pondered such that no meaning remains inviolable, no cornerstone unconsidered. These cornerstones are more likely to remain opaque to the extent that they are shared within a culture, so we can perhaps more easily encounter the transparency of meanings when cultures collide (Charles, 2007). These collisions help to dislodge opacity such that the frames and tenets underlying each culture and intertwining both can more easily be seen.

Bion (1977) stresses the importance of being able to see beyond the appearance, so as to view a process or a person from a different perspective or "vertex". Flexibility of mind helps us note different frames of reality or meaning that lend themselves to different conclusions. So, for example, the scientist might derive a different meaning from an event than the poet or the cleric. The better able we are to locate the temporality of meaning and the ways in which it is anchored in perspective, the better able we are to detect the patterns and thus locate the "constant conjunctions" of meanings, the ways in which things, events, or persons are linked to one another. It is in these patterns of relationship that meaning resides. Much as he was inclined to believe that some things are better seen in the dark, Bion also had the idea that if you pulled away from the content so that you could see the process, you would have a much clearer vantage point.

This vantage point is always precarious. Just at the point at which we feel we finally "know" something, we are at a choice point where learning more means losing that moment of respite. Categorization helps us grapple with complexity, but our designations of self and other inevitably obscure and deceive as surely as they refine and clarify. We inevitably come up against these types of difficulties around issues of culture, where self and other may be arbitrarily defined by race, religion, or the color of one's skin. Here, apparent sameness clouds our ability to detect difference, and ostensible difference obscures our ability to note similarities of meaning that define and circumscribe a worldview (Matte-Blanco, 1975, 1988).

We know that fear obscures both vision and the ability to learn. Yet it is easy to justify our fear by what it evokes in the other, rather than take responsibility for our own reactivity. Our inquiries into the knowledge and practice of other cultures offer the opportunity of not only perhaps understanding the other but also understanding ourselves better – if we can attain sufficient distance from what is "known" to be able to learn more. In this realm, our emotional reactivity both hides and reveals, as we attempt to see behind the veil of the other, while also needing to be able to inquire into that which lies behind our own. Perhaps in looking behind our own "veil" and recognizing the complexity of our own motives and desires, we can find – not only that which remains hidden and barred – but also that which remains human and common to us all.

Top of page References

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Top of page About the author Marilyn Charles, PhD, ABPP, is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in practice in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Currently on staff at the Austen Riggs Center, she maintains affiliations with Michigan State University and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council. She is the author of Patterns: Building Blocks of Experience; Constructing Realities: Transformations Through Myth and Metaphor; and Learning from Experience: A Guidebook for Clinicians.

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