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.
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
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
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
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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