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The Veil

The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics

Edited by Jennifer Heath
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    The Veil
    Book Description:

    This groundbreaking volume, written entirely by women, examines the vastly misunderstood and multilayered world of the veil. Veiling— of women, of men, and of sacred places and objects—has existed in countless cultures and religions from time immemorial. Today, veiling is a globally polarizing issue, a locus for the struggle between Islam and the West and between contemporary and traditional interpretations of Islam. But veiling was a practice long before Islam and still extends far beyond the Middle East. This book explores and examines the cultures, politics, and histories of veiling. Twenty-one gifted writers and scholars, representing a wide range of societies, religions, ages, locations, races, and accomplishments, here elucidate, challenge, and/or praise the practice. Expertly organized and introduced by Jennifer Heath, who also writes on male veiling, the essays are arranged in three parts: the veil as an expression of the sacred; the veil as it relates to the emotional and the sensual; and the veil in its sociopolitical aspects. This unique, dynamic, and insightful volume is illustrated throughout. It brings together a multiplicity of thought and experience, much of it personal, to make readily accessible a difficult and controversial subject. Contributors: Kecia Ali, Michelle Auerbach, Sarah C. Bell, Barbara Goldman Carrel, Eve Grubin, Roxanne Kamayani Gupta, Jana M. Hawley, Jasbir Jain, Mohja Kahf, Laurene Lafontaine, Shireen Malik, Maliha Masood, Marjane Satrapi, Aisha Shaheed, Rita Stephan, Pamela K. Taylor, Ashraf Zahedi, Dinah Zeiger, Sherifa Zuhur

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94160-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction Invisible and Visible Spaces
    (pp. 1-24)

    Veiling—of women, men, and sacred places and objects—has existed among people of countless cultures and religions from time immemorial. Yet the veil is vastly misunderstood. Once upon a time, the veil in all its multiplicity was more or less taken for granted everywhere as, at the very least, an essential expression of the divine mysteries. Today, veiling has become globally polarizing, a locus for the struggle between Islam and the West and between contemporary and traditional interpretations of Islam.

    But veiling spans time long before Islam and space far beyond the Middle East. This book attempts to provide...


    • 1 From Her Royal Body the Robe Was Removed: The Blessings of the Veil and the Trauma of Forced Unveilings in the Middle East
      (pp. 27-43)

      Veiling—covering the head with a piece of fabric, and sometimes the face as well—predates Islam. Christian women in the Near East veiled long before the advent of Islam and continued to veil in Europe until the twelfth century (they did not unveil because of an increase in gender equality; in fact, medieval scholars regard the Gregorian reforms of that era as a nadir for European women′s rights). Before them, Jewish women veiled, as did Roman, Greek, Zoroastrian, Assyrian, and Indian women, among many of whom veiling was a privilege belonging to women of the upper classes and aspired...

    • 2 Shattered Vessels That Contain Divine Sparks: Unveiling Hasidic Women′s Dress Code
      (pp. 44-59)

      As a graduate student in anthropology at New York University, I enrolled in a class that explored the rich cultural life of New York City. On one class excursion, we visited Hasidic Borough Park to witness the celebration of Purim. I was quite surprised by the overt displays of ″fashion″ in the clothing of the women who gathered at the Bobover Beis Medrash (house of study and prayer).¹ There seemed to be a striking incongruity between the dress of the men and women, echoed in and further pronounced by the partitioned seating from which they viewed the Purim play. The...

    • 3 Going the Whole Nine Yards: Vignettes of the Veil in India
      (pp. 60-74)

      Until I spotted them, during that very first ride from the airport back in 1973, I couldn′t really believe I′d arrived. But there they were: women draped in bright orange, yellow, and chartreuse walking barefoot under a clear blue sky. I was only nineteen and had traveled alone to India to study classical dance. The sari had long conjured the India of my fantasies—a land of exotic and graceful femininity, temple dancers, and goddesses (figure 3.1).

      But here was the reality I was to spend my life exploring: millions of women in millions of saris, from workers in the...

    • 4 Out of the Cloister: Unveiling to Better Serve the Gospel
      (pp. 75-89)

      ″We are so much more than the habit!″ exclaimed Sister Vicky as she described her interaction with a hospital patient′s family. ″They asked me if I was a real nun because apparently only real nuns wear a habit. Why don′t they get it? It′s been twenty years since Vatican II.″ (Figure 4.1)

      Sister Vicky, a Benedictine nun for twenty-five years, was training to be a hospital chaplain. She was burned out from teaching middle school and frustrated with the current state of the Roman Catholic Church. It was she who introduced me to the deep personal concerns facing feminist nuns....

    • 5 The Amish Veil: Symbol of Separation and Community
      (pp. 90-98)

      In June 1991, I packed a U-Haul truck with my personal belongings and my ten- and eleven-year-old boys and moved to Jamesport, Missouri, to do a year of participant observation research living among the Old Order Amish. It was perhaps the most peaceful, reflective, and revealing year of our lives and resulted in lifelong friendships with several Amish friends with whom I remain in contact to this day.

      When we live with a group of people outside our own culture for an extended period of time, we learn all kinds of things about that group. Although my research question had...

    • 6 ″What is subordinated, dominates″: Mourning, Magic, Masks, and Male Veiling
      (pp. 99-118)

      My mother had a vast mask collection. They were shaped from every imaginable material and bore every imaginable facial expression. They ranged from debonair types with twiddly mustaches—like Uncle Luis—to Japanese Noh drama characters. There were tigers, jaguars, frogs, and monkeys. Some masks were funny, some teasing, some sinister. Some were frightening with streaming, matted goat hair or mocking tongues and bulbous bloodshot eyes. There were cloth masks too, and folded into a carved Chinese trunk with an assortment of ethnic clothing and headgear were a variety of veils: among them an Afghanchadri, a Saudiabaya, an...

    • 7 I Just Want to Be Me: Issues in Identity for One American Muslim Woman
      (pp. 119-136)

      I will never forget the time I was hissed by an audience simply for being who I am. I was giving a lecture about women in Islam at Harvard University. The moderator had introduced me as a graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School and an active member of the Harvard Islamic Society. When I took the podium, I smiled at the people who had come to hear me speak and told them I was also a full-time mom to a delightful one-year-old. At that point, a hiss sprang from the crowd like a snake striking its prey.

      I was...


    • 8 ″She freed and floated on the air″: Salome and Her Dance of the Seven Veils
      (pp. 139-159)

      Was she the chaste young daughter of a manipulative mother? An evil temptress responsible for a holy man′s death? A Judean princess living a traditional royal life?

      She endures in popular imagination as a seductive oriental dancer, spinning wildly as layers of transparent veils slip from her body, until the seventh and final one is removed, revealing her brazen nakedness.¹ Through the ages, Salome has been created and recreated by countless male scribes, translators, authors, and artists, and by the women who portray her (figure 8.1).

      Salome′s story began almost two thousand years ago in the first century c.e. She...

    • 9 ″He hath couerd my soule inwarde″: Veiling in Medieval Europe and the Early Church
      (pp. 160-170)

      The Western custom of covering married women′s hair was firmly established in the medieval and early modern period. Its origins go back, at least, to Syro-Mesopotamian, archaic Mediterranean, and late antique contexts. In Greek black-figure vase painting of the sixth century b.c.e., Attic brides, goddesses of the hearth, as well as Helen—abducted and returned—are shown with thehimation, an outer wrap, drawn over their heads. In the Babylonian Talmud, it was a serious transgression for a married woman to venture outside with uncovered head.¹ Women as potential objects of family shame through predatory male sexuality needed actual or...

    • 10 Nubo: The Wedding Veil
      (pp. 171-173)
    • 11 After Eden: The Veil as a Conduit to the Internal
      (pp. 174-190)

      During Eve′s short life before eating from the tree, she recognized the body′s purpose with a swift transparency.

      When the soul wanted to pray, the body would rise.

      In Eden, no chasm gaped between wishing to serve the soul and serving it; no delay between wanting and the thing wanted. Eve saw that matter and spirit were aligned, that all was part of a whole, that the body was meant to articulate the spiritual reality. Like all of nature′s elements, the body was not an entity separate from holiness.

      God created man in his image; in the image of God...

    • 12 Virtue and Sin: An Arab Christian Woman′s Perspective
      (pp. 191-201)

      Is the veil a covering on a woman′s head or is it the shield that guards and controls her? Growing up in Syria as a conservative Christian, I lived behind a veil without ever wearing a scarf. Yet, although I never wore thehijab, I was subject to the social veil that determined the lives of the virtuous and wicked, regardless of whether they were Christian or Muslim.

      Most Christian women in Syria do not wear head scarves, but they live with various social restrictions that can function more or less like a veil. Growing up in Syria′s capital, Damascus,...

    • 13 Drawing the Line at Modesty: My Place in the Order of Things
      (pp. 202-212)

      Other people′s religious practices, even whole cultures, are quaint. Think of the scene in the reality TV showAmish in the City, in which one of the Amish kids looks at a parking meter in Los Angeles and asks, ″What is that? What does it do?″ The Angelinos are amused beyond words. It′s refreshing to be so quaintly out of it. The Amish make nice quilts, have nice horses and buggies, get written up in theNew Yorkerevery decade or so, but are completely outside the experience of the LA kids on the show and also outside the experience...

    • 14 On the Road: Travels with My Hijab
      (pp. 213-228)

      At first, it felt like a bandage wrapped around my skull. I had trouble hearing people speak unless I faced them head-on and watched their lips move (figure 14.1).

      But what a difference it made. Two plus meters of snow-white georgette embossed with little stars. It was a present from my landlady in Cairo.

      ″You must wear thehijab,″ she admonished in a high-pitched shrill. ″It is right thing for Muslim girl. You will feel more comfortable here.″

      Maybe she had a point. From the minute I arrived in my new neighborhood of al-Demerdash, I was conscious of the staring...


    • 15 Purdah, Patriarchy, and the Tropical Sun: Womanhood in India
      (pp. 231-247)

      There is a mystique attached to the wordpurdahand its multiple aspects, meanings, and practices. Attitudes toward it fluctuate, not only in accordance with the rise and fall of fundamentalisms and ethnicities, but also through the different purposes it fulfills in language. It is part of many idioms and indicates emotions ranging from belonging to privacy to coyness. There are a whole range of synonyms and metaphors attached to it:ghunghat(a veil pulled over the face) (figure 15.1),odhni(a head scarf that is used for the ghunghat),chunri, andchadri(sheet, mantle, cloak) are only some of...

    • 16 The Veil: From Persepolis
      (pp. 248-249)
    • 17 Concealing and Revealing Female Hair: Veiling Dynamics in Contemporary Iran
      (pp. 250-265)

      Female hair, revealed or concealed, has always been an intriguing aspect of woman′s image and identity, world wide.¹ In contemporary Iran, female image and identity are highly politicized. Iranian political regimes, past and present, have constructed ideal images of Iranian women congruent with their ideology and presented women as symbolic of the country—modern or Islamic. In constructing new icons, each regime has used encouragement, legal measures, and physical force to impose its political will on Iranian women. The compulsory nature of unveiling and reveiling has deprived women of the right to choose individual identities and violated their human rights....

    • 18 That (Afghan) Girl! Ideology Unveiled in National Geographic
      (pp. 266-280)

      What is it about a veil that poses such a threat to Western women? Once symbolizing reverence or mystery in Western culture, veiled women today signify tyranny, and lifting the veil has become a metaphor for freedom and democracy. As liberated women, we identify covered faces and bodies as constrained, but we fail to question how or why we see them that way. An issue ofNational Geographicpromptedme to consider the implications of the rhetoric of the veil and how it plays in the ideological war being waged between Western and Muslim values.

      Shortly after the United States–led...

    • 19 Burqas and Bikinis: Islamic Dress in Newspaper Cartoons
      (pp. 281-289)

      As a Muslim woman and academic who specializes in the study of gender issues in Islam, I have a well-developed response at the ready whenever I′m asked about the veil: I plead battle fatigue. I′m just really,reallytired of talking about it. Since the day a fellow Muslim panelist pounded the table and started yelling at me about apostasy at a conference session, I am no longer astonished by the intensity of the sentiments the topic provokes. I try to avoid becoming embroiled in the endless debates about whether or not thehijabis obligatory and what it ″means″...

    • 20 Dress Codes and Modes: How Islamic Is the Veil?
      (pp. 290-306)

      ″Do they make you veil?″

      It′s a question I′m frequently asked when people hear I′m traveling to visit family in Pakistan. It has always caught me off guard. No individual, religion, or state has ever dictated that I—as a secular person of mixed heritage—must veil. Nonetheless, when the subject of Muslim women′s clothing arises, the discussion inevitably veers toward the veil.

      Given the profound differences between styles of dress and conceptions of female modesty across Muslim communities—from northern Nigeria to Uzbekistan, the suburbs of Paris to Indonesia—I find the terms ″Islamic dress″ or ″Muslim clothing″ ironic,...

    • 21 From Veil to Veil: ″What′s in a woman′s head is a lot more important than what′s on it″
      (pp. 307-318)

      I have just wriggled out of myabayain my airplane seat. This long robe was made in Kuwait and has a slightly ethnic look with gold trim on the hems and borders. The synthetic material of myshayla, or head scarf, has been choking me since I left my hotel room in Riyadh early in the morning, and I happily fold it and place it in my briefcase.

      An American contractor who began talking with me in the business office of the hotel suggested that I was wearing the abaya only to please a Saudi boyfriend or husband. Irritated,...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 319-322)
    Jennifer Heath

    The purpose of this book is to locate the veil in broader contexts than the stereotypes into which it has been boxed. To that end, these writers have pursued its history and import from diverse points of view, cultures, politics, and religions. We have explored the veil′s layered meanings and poetics.

    An overriding concern expressed in these chapters is the exploitation of the veil for political agendas. Veiling has been abused in many places, societies, and circumstances across time, but its misuse is especially virulent today with respect to the Muslim veil, which is seen by the West as a...

  10. About the Contributors
    (pp. 323-330)
  11. Index
    (pp. 331-346)