Valorising the veil

In the wake of the terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, some non-Muslim women wore a veil as a public display of solidarity, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern having won particular praise in the media for this gesture. I would not for a moment doubt the good intentions behind such actions, and as a white man I am certainly writing from a position of privilege. But it’s worth reflecting on the long and complex history of the Muslim veil in the Western imagination - a history that has been laced with Orientalist racism and misogyny. From lurid depictions of decadent Turkish harems in the travel writing of the 18th century to the ubiquitous images of black-robed women in contemporary Hollywood films set in the ‘Middle East’, the figure of the veiled Muslim woman has lain at the heart of Western discourse around the ‘Orient’. Throughout the ‘War on Terror’, it has been a convenient cipher for the purported ‘otherness’ of Islamic culture. 

Photo: BBC

Former foreign secretary Jack Straw once wrote about refusing to speak to women wearing the face veil at his constituency surgery because it made him feel ‘uncomfortable’. And, in the latter half of 2018, against a backdrop of rising Islamophobic violence, Boris Johnson compared veiled women to ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. A month later saw the finale of the BBC’s smash hit ‘Bodyguard’, in which the criminal mastermind was revealed to be a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman. Western writers have a complicated history with the veil. The 18th century travel writer Lady Montagu claimed that it made Turkish women ‘freer than any ladies in the universe’, since there was ‘no distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ‘tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street’. Well, perhaps she was on to something. Ottoman women of the time had the right to refuse conjugal sex, to divorce, and to inherit property. More commonly, though, Western portrayals of veiled women have been laced with misogyny. There is the idea that the veiled woman must be hiding something, and is therefore more malign that she appears. The 19th century travel writer of Edmondo de Amicis wrote of the women of Constantinople: ‘the stranger wonders whether all those white veiled figures in bright coloured wrappers are masquerades, or nuns, or mad women’, while the poet Theophile Gauthier said of Algerian women: ‘One senses feline claws beneath their caresses’. In the veiled woman the Western observer finds a convenient repository for Freud’s madonna/whore trope.

Take the ‘Bodyguard’ finale. Nadia was not, as our hero presumed, a submissive woman coerced by her husband into committing a suicide attack (an Islamophobic trope in itself) but a Machiavellian master criminal, whose doe-eyed expression reverted instantly to a cruel sneer when her true identity was ‘unveiled’. Not a nun, then, but a mad woman. The desire to ‘unveil’ Muslim women goes back to the colonial era. In the 1840s, the French Governor-General of Algeria claimed that ‘the Arabs elude us because they conceal their women from our gaze’. This presented a unique problem, since veiled women embodied an exact reversal of the desired situation - they saw without being seen. Hence, French soldiers would tear off veils and replace them with an eyeless hood. History repeated itself in 2016 when images surfaced of a woman in Nice being forced by armed police officers to remove her ‘burkini’. In 2018 a Danish woman was fined a thousand kroner and told to either remove her veil or leave a public square. Of course, there was also the sexualised torture inflicted upon prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the iconic images of hooded detainees, humiliatingly exhibited for the amusement of their unseen captors. When the abuses came to light, these titillating images were then duly served up for consumption by Western news audiences. The argument that these veiled women need to be ‘saved’ from oppression by enlightened Westerners itself is just as old, and totally hypocritical. The British Consul-General of Egypt, Lord Cromer, famously led a drive to ‘liberate’ women from the veil. At the same time, he ensured women were denied access to education, while fiercely opposing women’s suffrage back in Britain. What’s more, caricaturing such a symbolically complex garment with one meaning is utterly misleading and dangerous. By equating purdah with rape and mutilation, we strip it of any other context. It contributes to a narrative that sees women of the global south as monolithic, inhabiting a less ‘developed’ culture, for whom discarding the veil would represent a step on the path towards becoming ‘developed’. Such caricatures make it easier to justify military action against Muslim countries, and to police minorities at home.

Look at the case of Afghanistan. Laura Bush was able to identify herself as a feminist in a 2006 interview with ABC, because of her work around ‘women’s rights’ in the country. Yet a cursory glance at US intervention in the region makes her claim seem laughable. In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion in 1979, the CIA immediately began funding armed religious extremist groups, much of which went to a group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a man notorious for throwing acid in the faces of women who did not wear the veil. After the US invasion of 2001, the Taliban were beaten back by the US-backed Northern Alliance - to ‘rejoicing’ from the country’s women, claimed Laura Bush. Yet the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan pointed out that ‘in terms of widespread raping of girls and women from seven to 70, the track record of the Taliban can no way stand up against that of these very same Northern Alliance associates’.Here in the UK, a similar pseudo-feminist rhetoric is used to police British Muslims. In 2016 the head of Ofsted backed a ban on the veil because ‘our liberal Western values’ must be protected and we ‘mustn’t go backwards’. Discrete communities have long been seen as a threat to the liberal state - premised upon ‘rational’ individualism - especially if they are also seen to extend beyond national borders. This fear was stoked about Judaism in the nineteenth century and communism in the twentieth. Today, it’s Islam. Saying veiled women undermine ‘our’ liberal values only fuels the far-right’s fantasies of creeping ‘Islamification’. The history of ‘the West’ itself is, in the end, inseparable from the lives and cultures of women who wear the veil. Cultures are not distinct, separate phenomena, but the products of interactions between peoples. We would well to spend less time obsessing over the veil, and more time interrogating that obsession.

Article by Oliver Stevens-Neck


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