Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance (Dress, Body, Culture)
Fadwa El Guindi
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Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award 2000.
In the 1970s, often to the consternation of parents and siblings, certain progressive young Arab women voluntarily donned the veil. The movement, which rapidly expanded and continues to gather momentum, has sparked controversy within Islamic culture, as well as reactions ranging from perplexity to outrage from those outside it. Western feminist commentators have been particularly vociferous in decrying the veil, which they glibly interpret as a concrete manifestation of patriarchal oppression.
However, most Western observers fail to realize that veiling, which has a long and complex history, has been embraced by many Arab women as both an affirmation of cultural identity and a strident feminist statement. Not only does the veil de-marginalize women in society, but it also represents an expression of liberation from colonial legacies. In short, contemporary veiling is more often than not about resistance. By voluntarily removing themselves from the male gaze, these women assert their allegiance to a rich and varied tradition, and at the same time preserve their sexual identity. Beyond this, however, the veil also communicates exclusivity of rank and nuances in social status and social relations that provide telling insights into how Arab culture is constituted. Further, as the author clearly demonstrates, veiling is intimately connected with notions of the self, the body and community, as well as with the cultural construction of identity, privacy and space.
This provocative book draws on extensive original fieldwork, anthropology, history and original Islamic sources to challenge the simplistic assumption that veiling is largely about modesty and seclusion, honor and shame.
practice have the same meaning when situated in contexts of different cultural ideologies, different societies, different times? The issue becomes, then, not whether it was a passing custom or whether we can consider veiling an institution or not, but rather what is the meaning of the veil in the various historical and cultural contexts and what does the phenomenon reveal about the culture within which it is embedded at any time in history. By shifting the focus it becomes meaningless to claim
male slaves) guarded women and children, accompanied them if and when they went outside, and controlled all entries into the household” (1995b: 5). This uni-dimensional ideological view about harims and the role of eunuchs is challenged by insights from anthropology that place the phenomenon in the larger sociocultural context. 26 Ideological Roots to Ethnocentrism In his anthropological analysis of the Ottoman court and harem, Alexander Moore (1992) situates the harem in the context of a
view of clothed versus naked bodies, the Nuba provide a case that challenges the evolutionary scheme as a way to describe clothings and the classification that distinguishes clothing from body ornament. Among the Southeastern Nuba studied by Faris, “body art” is a celebration of the strong and healthy body” (1972: 8). This ethos encourages exposure of the attractive body, a premise that pervades the entire society. It is only those, according to Faris, “who are sick or injured, or whose bodies
(Murphy 1964: 1263). The most distinguishing and visible feature of the Tuareg is the men’s veil. In the Air Tuareg dialect it is called tegelmoust. (See Figures18 and 19.) The 121 Dress, “Libas” and “Hijab” TO VIEW THIS FIGURE PLEASE REFER TO THE PRINTED EDITION Figure 18 Tegelmoust (Berber) and lithma (Arabic), here worn by a Tuareg nobleman to mark his status. © Victor Englebert 1970. 122 The Veil of Masculinity TO VIEW THIS FIGURE PLEASE REFER TO THE PRINTED EDITION Figure 19 A Yemeni
inferior “other,” implying and assuming a subordination and inferiority of the Muslim woman. Evidence from its usage in the Qur’an and from early Islamic feminist discourse, as well as anthropological analysis, supports the notion of hijab in Islam as referring to a sacred divide or separation between two worlds or two spaces: deity and mortals, good and evil, light and dark, believers and nonbelievers, or aristocracy and commoners. The phrase min wara’ al-hijab (from behind the hijab) emphasizes