A Counter-Veiling Manifesto

Marnia Lazreg begins her new book Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women, which appeared last month from Princeton University Press, with an anecdote from her Algerian childhood. When she was about 7 a roughhousing neighbor boy began pulling her hair and writhing lewdly. Seeing this from her front door, Lazreg's mother, lacking the time to go in and don her veil, pulled off one of her clogs and hurled it at the boy. It missed him but hit Marnia, leaving a bloody gash on her forehead.

Thirty years after the event, Lazreg's mother discarded the veil for good, and the daughter now wonders whether this event had somehow "prepared her psychologically for the removal of her veil." Clearly, the anecdote has long continued to resonate for Lazreg herself. The reader might well say it captures perfectly the spirit of Questioning the Veil, a vigorous interrogation of what she calls a "complex and internally contradictory custom." Elsewhere she calls it "the least elevating and most politicized" Muslim custom - even a "dysfunctional" one.

The subject of the veil, Lazreg makes clear, is important - not least because the veil is "the most visible common denominator of Muslim societies." She might even have said that the veil is the face of Islam, for she is eager to lay bare the ironies that come with the custom. She points to Algeria's first Olympic gold medalist, criticized by pro-veilists for her grossly immodest training togs, then speaks of how the new veil-wearer in Paris "revels in her new visibility."

Lazreg is professor of sociology at the Graduate Center and Hunter College and an old Middle East hand, the author of The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question (Routledge, 1994) and Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Princeton, 2008). The unminced passion of her arguments against the veil doubtless derives from her having observed for about two decades a growing world-wide trend in favor of reveiling. Her compact credo of a book - the text runs 124 pages - is intended to urge her female Islamic CUNY students to stop and think carefully about such a decision: "It is important that a woman knows in her heart of hearts why she has decided to take up a veil."

Veiling comes in several styles, with countless local variations. As explained in her introduction, Lazreg focuses mainly on the hijab, "the standardized form of veiling across the Muslim world," which includes an intricately wrapped headscarf covering the neck, hair and ears but revealing the face, then a long skirt or baggy pants (or both). More concealing is the jilbab, which involves a scarf, a long head-to-feet body garment, gloves and thick socks. Definitive concealment comes with the niqab, a black face-cover with slits for the eyes, or the Afghan burqa, which leaves the face hidden behind a woven pane.

The first four of Lazreg's open letters are devoted to examining the main rationales for (re)veiling: modesty, the avoidance of sexual harassment, the assertion of cultural identity, and the assertion of one's religious conviction or piety.

The subject of modesty brings Lazreg to a discussion of the Quran, which, she believes, does not explicitly exhort the wearing of a veil, but only says that women should "preserve or protect your pudenda," which has often been translated politely as "be modest." The Quran, Lazreg also notes, "does not enjoin a woman to cover her face," but what angers her most is that the veil "implies that a woman should humble, belittle, and feel sorry for her body." She also adduces some telling etymology, noting that an "Arabic word for shame or modesty, haya', is close to hayah, meaning 'life.' Is a woman to be ashamed of life, the life of the body?" But the Quran also exhorts men to be modest. The fact that they aren't, Lazreg argues, is the real reason for the existence of the veil: "Men's desire is the root cause of veils." The custom, she adds, is not a personal act but a "social convention."

That the veil is a shield against sexual harassment is dismissed as an "illusion." "Desire can pierce through the veil," says Lazreg, "as it can lurk unacknowledged in the man who advocates the veil."

Veiling as an act of ethno-religious self-assertion, of course, became more pronounced after 9/11. But Lazreg resents that women must suffer because the male Islamic leadership depends so heavily on the custom as a marker of Muslim identity: "Feeling comfortable in one's culture and asserting its worth is one thing. However, reducing the essence of that culture to the veil is another."

Lazreg is highly skeptical of those who don the veil out of so-called conviction, calling the term "elastic" and suggesting the veil may be used "for strategic reasons." She is at a loss to see what is gained from wearing "a symbol of gender inequality." As for piety, Lazreg is adamant: "Nowhere in the Quran is there an indication that the veil is a condition of a woman's acceptance of her faith."

The fifth and final open letter, titled simply "Why Women Should Not Wear the Veil," reiterates Lazreg's multi-pronged attack in the preceding four. Discarding the veil is not a heresy like committing usury or drinking alcohol (veil laws are "made by men, not God," she tartly notes). It is merely a historical phenomenon that has waxed and waned over the centuries and is subject to change in the future. Lazreg also notes that modern technology - cell phones and the Web - has made circumventing veil laws child's play.

More philosophically, "the hajib makes a woman feel removed from her environment." In the workplace, it has "the symbolic effect of diminishing the importance of formal [gender] equality." More mundanely, the veil is a terrible physical inconvenience in hot climates and an impairment to hearing - a sartorial "monastery." It is "neither comfortable nor convenient."

The last pages of Questioning the Veil are devoted to debunking the neo-fundamentalist mantra that any decline in veiling is a sign of Islamic decadence or of base mimicry of that Mother of All Others, the "West." She is frustrated that a highly personal decision (whether women's "bodies are a source of shame or simple joy") has been taken out of their hands - by Islamic men, of course. The veil, Lazreg finally ventures, "is the last refuge of men's (sexual) identity."

Lazreg speaks like the ardent Islamic feminist she is when she alludes at the end to the Algerian fight for independence from France: "I do not think the women who veil themselves today in Algiers, Paris, or New York are engaged in the same struggle as Algerian women were in the 1950s, when they freed themselves of the veil in order to make history." The veil, Lazreg believes, will prevent Islamic women from making liberating history in the future: "The veil is not action, it is reaction; it is repetition of the past."


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