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Uncovering the Mystery: The Rhetoric of the Veil

March 1, 2011

“All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts or data are nonexistent, but that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation… for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.” ~ Edward W. Said

Perhaps what surprises the West most about the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and now Libya is that the images from the region — that of peaceful demonstrations and of people willing to fight for democracy — is not inline with what we in the West have “seen” and been told about the “others” from the Middle East. In his 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said suggests that our Western interpretations of the East are shaped and thereby prejudiced by the attitudes of and goals of European — primarily British and French — imperialism. (For more on Orientalism from Said, see the video below.)

Consider how this plays out in modern entertainment, from the relatively lighthearted 1992 Disney animation Aladdin to more violent and military-based, post-911 films such as JarHead. Despite their differences, both of these movies highlight an Arab world that is stuck in a primitive and mystical time, which is ripe with both treasure and danger. This distinction makes the region a perfect symbol of otherness — a stark contrast, at least through Western eyes, to the modern, technologically advanced world that is outside the East’s borders.

Nothing symbolizes this distinct otherness more than the veiled woman, as Myra MacDonald highlights in her article “Muslim Women and the Veil.” MacDonald notes that the veil has been a fascination with Western imperialists since their first footsteps on Eastern soil. The veil represented something mysterious, an image of a frail yet sexualized woman who was hidden from the gazes of outsiders (men) and yet, who could see without being seen. If we consider this juxtaposition through Laura Mulvey’s concept of the gaze, the veil restricted the agency of the imperialist powers by limiting their ability to gaze onto and thus control the covered women. Further, because access (visual and other) to Eastern women was off limits to European travelers, unveiling the covered woman became an obsession. MacDonald writes:

The desire to penetrate behind the veil was intensified by the “scopic regime of modernity” that privileged seeing as the primary route to knowledge. It was characterized by a desire to master, control and reshape the body of the subjects by making them visible (9).

As a result, MacDonald notes, Western imperialists took it as their imperative to “rescue” women from the domination of Arab men. Rhetorically speaking, this liberation could only come by uncovering the women themselves, giving them freedom through exposure like their Western sisters. Yet, it is important to note that during the height of imperialist activity in the Middle East, Western woman were similarly denied many political, economic, and social freedoms.

Today, in light of post-feminism, the veil takes on new meaning. Post-feminists argue that female agency is based on a woman’s ability to express herself individually and sexually — power, in effect, is gained through the act of being looked at and admired. The veil, according to this logic, blocks a woman’s freedom to choose her own destiny (and to be a prized consumer) and is therefore represented as a form of oppression. Consider how the United States highlighted its military “success” in Afghanistan in 2002 by showing images of women tearing off their burkas. Documentaries such as the Beauty Academy of Kabul highlight women achieving freedom and power by learning how to become beauticians. And more recently, the rhetoric of rescuing women from subjugation and violence has been used by the governments of France and Belgium to support banning the burka in public spaces.

It has been well documented that sexual inequality and domestic violence are major problems for women in the Middle East, as well as many other parts of the world. However, what is rarely mentioned, as MacDonald points out, are the risks that women take to fight for their own liberties. Many in the West assume that because they are “hidden” Muslim women lack a voice. This, MacDonald says is not accurate. She notes the infamous Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) video, in which a woman in a blue burka is being stoned to death as a stadium of onlookers gaze down upon her. The powerful video has been frequently played to Western audiences as a way to highlight violence against (burka-wearing) women in Afghanistan — a violence that must be abolished through military intervention. Yet, very few media outlets note that the video itself was captured by a women who hid a camera under her burka. The politically defiant and dangerous act of taking the video was made possible because the woman could see without being seen.

Orientalism on Display

Christian Lacroix demonstrates the concept of Orientalism, most likely unintentionally, in his exhibit L’Orient Des Femmes at the Muéee du Quai Branly in Paris. Lacroix opens the exhibit with a statement suggesting that the Orient is just as mysterious as women themselves, who conceal beauty and treasure yet to be discovered (I am paraphrasing). The exhibit highlights traditional clothing from the Near East, a region that stretches from the Sinai Peninsula up through Syria and Jordan and into parts of Iraq and Iran.

L'Orient des femmes vu par Christian Lacroix

Lacroix has chosen a selection of clothing, mostly ceremonial pieces, to represent the women of this region from a period that predates globalization and mass modernization (late 1800s to the 1960s, approximately). The pieces have been created using brilliantly colorful and highly textured fabrics that, as Lacroix notes, mark a lost time when women spent their days doing needle point and creating bright outfits. This, he says, is in contrast to the modern, mostly black outfits, that now dot a landscape which has lost its magic (again, I am paraphrasing).

Just like the imperialist travelers from a century or so before, Lacroix reduces the “women of the East” to attire that hides them from male gaze. The woman are prized for their adornments and their mystery.  The exhibit leaves everything beyond the exterior to the imagination, perhaps as a statement of how he prefers to see the Middle East (and women). A very random video installation at the beginning of the exhibit supports this position — the video contains shots from 1930-era movies in which unveiled Arab women dance and sing, seemingly to seduce (white) male audiences. It seems that for Lacroix, the East’s transition to global modernity has ruined its je ne sais quoi, and this is especially represented through the dress of women.

The Veil as a Symbol of the Future?

As the West watches the revolutions play out in the Middle East, what will become of its imperialist notions? Will the veil continue to represent a primitive “other,” a mysterious, unknown people who still need to be shown for who they really are? Or, as veiled women march alongside men in a fight for democracy and freedom, will they become a symbol of change?

Whatever the answer is, as long as the veil is considered a representation of “otherness,” East-West dialogue will be limited to cultural and religious difference and limited strides will be made to progress in human rights. As MacDonald concludes, what humans need now is an “unveiling of the mind,” an openness in dialogue in both fiction and non-fiction that will create new contexts for understanding (20).

For further consideration:

Orientalism: An Interview with Edward Said:

Rethink Afghanistan: Part 5

For further reading:

Macdonald, Myra. “Muslim Women and the Veil.” Feminist Media Studies 6.1 (2006): 7-23. Print.

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