Skip Navigation
The West and Veiling
photograph by Ron Kelley

The West and Veiling

by Sondra Hale, Anthropology and Women Studies, UCLA

Gender and Middle Eastern Studies

Although this program "On Veiling and the Media" is not explicitly a program about women or gender, nonetheless, the association is unavoidable. Therefore, I would like to make a few comments about gender studies in the Middle East and why we find ourselves inextricably linked to some issues such as veiling or the hejab (modest Islamic dress).

Gender studies of the Middle East is at an exciting and dynamic juncture; it is a highly volatile and charged field of research, not to mention the volatility in its links to the media. Explicitly and implicitly, Middle Eastern women's studies calls into question concepts of "private" and "public," of autonomy, interpretations of power relationships within the family, the "function" of religion in women's everyday lives, definitions of political activism and "emancipation," and interpretations of the relationship of gender to the state, thus, the nature of politics itself. Ideas emanating from Middle Eastern women's studies have also deepened the challenge to "false consciousness" as a tool for explaining non-conformity to Euro-american concepts of oppression, equality and liberation.

Most academic literature and media coverage of the "Third World" are highly charged and politicized, but one can safely say that writing and other forms of representation of the Middle East are especially problematic. What is significant for us today is to recognize that women and gender arrangements are at the core of considerable Western ethnocentrism. Or, to put it another way, the concept of gender is highly charged and politicized precisely because Western-trained scholars and media practitioners of the Middle East have presented what has been called for some time an "Orientalist" (in reference to Edward Said, 1978) interpretation to data on Middle Eastern women.

The internal politics of the Middle East, the region's position in world politics, and the dynamics between American and Middle Eastern scholars make this a very difficult subject.

There are also problems in dealing with one "Middle Eastern" society within a "Middle East" framework when the area is strikingly diverse in mode of economy, culture, ethnicity, race, language, class, ideology, and even religion--not to mention modes of dress. It seems difficult for Western media (and a number of academics) to remember that not all Muslims are Arabs; not all Arabs are Muslim, etc. And not everyone is veiled and not everyone who is veiled is a Muslim or Arab.

Until very recently Middle Easternists only represented women as if they are encapsulated in defined and bounded groups or categories, e.g., households, lineages, tribes, ethnic or sectarian groups. Because of the ways in which we perceived the "seclusion" of women, male scholars were able to rationalize the exclusion of women in much of their analysis, which has led to a situation in which " no area of the world have Western gender biases more emphatically polarized male and female images than in Middle Eastern studies" (Suad Joseph 1983). This is just one aspect of binary thinking that has dominated Western writings. Because Western thinking is so dichotomous, Western studies of the Middle East often take the form of a series of binary oppositions: honor/shame, patron/client, and public/private, with the gender dichotomy being drawn the sharpest of all. It is an irony that it is the West, arguably, that is drawing the sharp gender distinctions for the Middle East and Muslims.

The Middle Eastern and Mediterranean themes of sexuality, subordination, and Islam interface with the dichotomous model of "honor and shame." Interpretations of gender relations were thereafter frequently framed in terms of the passive ideals of chastity, virginity, and femininity for women; whereas for men there were the more active concepts of valor, machismo, revenge, manliness, and brotherhood.

Overarching these dichotomous constructs has been the privileging of Islam as a cultural (superstructural) determinant. These various theoretical, ideological, and methodological elements have limited our views of Middle Eastern women to studies of veils and seclusion, honor or shame, kinship, polygamy, and Islam.

The privileging of Islam in women's behavior and status is a special problem in the literature, made further onerous by the historical writings that have linked Islam with sexuality representing Muslim women as secluded, mysterious, and erotic. Dramatic visual representations of this Euroamerican view of Middle Eastern women are reproduced in The Colonial Harem (by Malek Alloula), a collection of photographs (some of which were used as postcards), of over-eroticized/exoticised Algerian women. Fairly typical of Western media representation are photos of women who are both veiled and bare-breasted--i.e., having it both ways for the Western voyeur.

By the l990s we can still witness a significant body of literature which "assumes a priori the existence of a universal Islam which mysteriously moulds behaviour 'from above'" (David Waines 1982). One of the reasons for this monolithic approach to Muslim women may be that sharia (Islamic law), where it is applied, has promoted a great deal of superficial uniformity. Thus, since the Quran, the hadiths, and sharia strictly formalize gender relationships; since many Muslims see these religious and legal doctrines as universal; and since many segments of these doctrines often technically deem women unequal, most outsiders see women as enduring a universal subordinate status (paraphrasing Waines). It is difficult, therefore, to bear in mind that Islam is only one aspect of people's lives and veiling only one aspect of people's dress.

It is not too much of a stretch to move from Islam, to veiling, to oppression. A trend related to the over-privileging of Islam, in Middle Eastern Women's Studies and within "Third Worldism" in general, is the assumption of oppression. The starting point of analysis and observation is a problem of both the media and academia.

The "Veil"

Research on the veil reveals many problems. There are few, if any, regions of the world where one element in the culture still symbolizes so much to scholars and observers as does the veil in the Muslim Middle East (ranking perhaps with footbinding for China and widow-burning for India). This is especially striking when one realizes that only some 16% of women in the Middle East can be said to wear some form of "veiling." Just why is it that a cultural item, one of many modes of dress, can come to dominate the discourse? I would argue that it is an inevitable result of colonial discourse. Following Laura Nader (1989), I would posit that the emphasis on the veil tells us more about the West than about the Middle East. It is a handy tool that involves using the women of the "Other" to reinforce the process of "Othering."

The "veil" is a useful tool/weapon because it conjures up the exotic, the erotic, the process of seclusion, the harem, marginalization, modesty, honor and shame, social distance, gender segregation, and, of course, the subordination of women. Middle Eastern feminists themselves, especially those who were influenced by the West, often themselves treated the veil as a symbol of their oppression. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s the word "veil" appeared far more than any other word in the titles of works about Middle Eastern women (see Hale 1989). The veil has been privileged whether or not the authors differ greatly in their politics and whether or not they see the veil as salient or a weak variable. It has been pervasive regardless of the positionality of the author--Euroamerican or indigenous, male or female, religious or not.

Some recent examples are: Evelyne Accad, Veil of Shame; David Waines, "Through a Veil Darkly"; Amal Rassam, "Unveiling Arab Women"; Anne Betteridge, "To Veil or Not to Veil"; Carla Makhlouf, Changing Veils; Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil; Unni Wikan, Behind the Veil in Arabia; Mervat Hatem, "Lifting the Veil"; Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments; Sherifa Zuhur, Revealing Reveiling; the film by Elizabeth Fernea, "The Veiled Revolution," and many others. By suggestion, the title of one of the most famous pieces by a Middle Eastern woman, refers to veiling--Nawal El-Saadawi's, The Hidden Face of Eve.

The image of the veil is so pervasive that: The act of cultural observation and understanding is like drawing back a veil in order to grasp the meaning of cues and symbols of other cultures, rather than imposing meaning upon such symbols from behind the seclusion of one's own cultural veil. For too long the western observer, accustomed to gaze through a veil darkly, has accepted formless shadows as tangible objects of reality (Waines 1982).

Even if one were to accept the proposition that the veil yields important information about Middle Eastern women, there is a certain totalizing effect when the veil is treated as a salient variable. In other words, there is more to the question than veiling or not veiling: (1) The type of veil (2) the occasion when it is worn (3) the category of the person veiling (e.g. class, region, type of occupation, urban or rural), and (4) the politics of it (as in Iran). These are all exciting variables all too rarely analyzed. It goes without saying, then, that the reasons why a person veils or wears modest dress are significant: i.e., whether or not donning the veil is (1) for the purpose of enacting seclusion (social distance from men), (2) for making a statement about sexuality (social control), (3) for affirming Islam (modest dress for women and men), or (4) if it is for fashion or national dress (sometimes as an abrogation of Western style and values), or (5) simply because it is deemed more practical or economical than other modes of dress (e.g., encourages use of local material rather than the purchase of imported goods). These reasons for veiling are seldom explored.

Besides, the word "veil" is used indiscriminately to describe variations which extend from a "moderate" hejab (modest Islamic dress) which might be a longer skirt and sleeves with a head scarf, to more thorough cover-all gowns (covering from head to foot, including gloves, with only the eyes showing), to a wrap-around, to a simple filmy covering for the face. Color, too, can be significant (see Hale 1996, for a fuller analysis).

These are variable modes of dress internationally and intranationally, among classes, urban or rural, according to religion, sect, or ethnicity. Most significantly, the variable is often an individual one and may reflect women's everyday lives. In the documentary, "A Veiled Revolution," Egyptian women explain their voluntary adoption of modest Islamic dress (which varies appreciably in the film) in terms of their differing degrees of compliance to the faith, will power, determination, and other factors such as ease of movement in physical jobs, fashion, and economy.

"Veiling" in Sudan

It might be instructive to consider the example of one country, Sudan. For a century in Sudan, my research area, most northern Muslim women have worn a loose, wrap-around, filmy gown referred to as the tobe, which they wear in public or around male strangers in private. Although some women used to cover their faces with a piece of the tobe, the common Western reference to this dress as "veiling" is a misnomer. The reasons women gave me for wearing the tobe are as varied as the reasons I just mentioned, and in recent years many have stopped wearing it.

Now the tobe is often little more than the modest "national dress" of a large portion of the population, and, for some middle class women in the urban area, it is the outfit for ceremonial occasions. For an Islamist minority, the tobe has been replaced by the hejab, which varies in severity. Women gave me a multitude of reasons for the wearing the hejab, ranging from a vague "religious reasons" to "it's cheaper and more accessible than the tobe," which consists of eleven yards of expensive imported cotton. The tobe is now seen by many Sudanese as more "progressive" or "modern" than the hejab, with some Sudanese resenting the imported idea of the hejab. At any rate, I was seldom told either that the tobe or hejab is for the purpose of "hiding" or "secluding" women, nor that these modes of dress function to inhibit sexuality. Women mentioned "self-respect," "modesty," and "protection from leering men" (strangers). They nearly always stressed the voluntary nature of their dress decisions. Uses of and attitudes toward the tobe and hejab have changed historically and differ demographically. Moreover, individual choice both magnifies variation and compounds analysis. Marnia Lazreg's forwarding of silence as a form of eloquent cultural statement reminds one that the "veil" may also be seen as a form of eloquent silence (1994).

The New Scholarship: Subverting the Symbols of "Otherness"

By the 1980s we began to see two important changes in a field that first excluded representation of women altogether and then represented them only as encapsulated in social institutions such as tribes or kin groups. The first trend consisted of studies that emphasized the ways in which women are changing the face of the society (e.g., by their entrance into the work-force in larger numbers, through their influence on the national polity, and through their participation in social movements). In other words, partially in response to changes within international feminist discourse, women who had all along possessed agency, began to be seen as possessing agency.

A reaction to the veiling=submission equation has been to represent veiled women as active members of society, including public political activity. Although Zuhur (1992) and MacLeod (1991), for example, have written very different books, both of them have given us provocative works that try to break the mold. A more common new tendency, however, is to de-emphasize the importance of veiling or not mention it at all.

One of the most active schools of feminist thought to emerge from Middle Eastern women themselves is one that is examining the grounds for women's emancipation embedded in the Quran, the hadiths, and sharia. Fatima Mernissi, for example, has been investigating the original texts in an effort to turn traditional interpretations of these on their heads.

Nonetheless, it is very difficult to deal with subject matter related to Islam, sexuality, seclusion, veiling, and concepts of honor and shame without committing the sins of our fathers and mothers. Until the late 1980s Western writers were still representing Middle Eastern and Muslim women without consulting them. The voices were still ours.

One type of research that avoids some of the usual pitfalls is the reintroduction of oral tradition as not only a viable means of literary expression, but also an ethnographic method for exploring gender relations. In Lila Abu-Lughod's Veiled Sentiments (1986), based on two years that she lived with Awlad 'Ali Bedouin women of Egypt, she suggested ways to look at the veil and seclusion with a heightened sensitivity. Primarily through the women's love poems, she revealed that although the women are segregated from the men and oriented toward other women, they develop deep affective bonds with men. Abu-Lughod integrated men and women in the same society and presented views by women about men.

Shunning the usual simplistic binary construct of honor and shame, Abu-Lughod offered a complex explanation of hasham (propriety):

Those who are coerced into obeying [social rules] are scorned, but those who voluntarily defer are honorable. To understand the nature, meaning, and implications of voluntary deference we must explore the concept of hasham. Perhaps one of the most complex concepts in Bedouin culture, it lies at the heart of ideas of the individual in society...In its broadest sense it means propriety (Abu-Lughod 1985).

Such a complex concept allowed her to give us a more sophisticated explanation for veiling:

The best test of the validity of this interpretation of hasham--that denial of sexuality is equated with deference--is its power to explain the pattern of women's veiling. Bedouins consider veiling synonymous with hasham...Symbolizing sexual shame as it hides it, veiling constitutes the most visible act of modest deference (ibid.).

As I mentioned, veiling is usually interpreted as a symbol of women's subordination--a view which runs contrary to some recent and respected works, such as Abu-Lughod's. The veil can be seen simply as a statement about modest deference, which men may display as well. Or, it may be seen as a mode of communication, i.e., that the woman is beautiful, modest, and honorable. It is also a visible symbol of marital status in many areas, e.g., in Oman. Abu-Lughod's research in a gender segregated society allows us to reconsider ideas about seclusion (that there are positive aspects), the subordination of women (it may not be the woman's self-image), female associations and bonding (which give them strength and raise self-esteem), and gender relationships in a Middle Eastern context (that these can be expressed passionately).

Westerners "good works," with our anthropological language of power, have succeeded in essentializing, homogenizing, and fixing people in time, having the ultimate effect of exaggerating differences. "Others" are different from the self, and the self is privileged.

In her work, in general, Abu-Lughod's goal is to unsettle the "culture concept" and, thus, subvert "othering." Nowhere is this agenda more warranted than in Middle Eastern women's studies--the cradle of feminist and anthropological exotica.

In my own work, I attempt to move away from the assumption of oppression, presenting women as political actors, especially where our usual assumptions tell us we are least likely to find such actors, for example, in Sudan's National Islamic Front (NIF). I attempt to subvert "othering," by my refusal to privilege veiling, female circumcision, or Islam and by listening to what Middle Eastern women and men themselves have to say. Intervening in stereotyping, interrupting assumptions, and paying attention to what people are saying about their own lives is our difficult work ahead--for both the popular media and the academy. I cannot think of a better place to start than with the "veil."

UCLA Forum "On Veiling and the Media," Los Angeles, sponsored by UCLA G.S. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies and New York and Columbia Universities. May 20, 1998

To print this page, select "Print" from the File menu of your browser.