Though Rich in Subject Matter, 'Veil' Has Trouble Finding a Narrative

There's so much to say about the challenges, frustrations, and offenses facing women who veil, that Veil has difficulty sorting it all out in a meaningful way.


Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Price: $14.95
Author: Rafia Zakaria
Length: 120 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-09

Halfway through Veil, Rafia Zakaria writes, "These complications of context prove one of the most crucial, and most ignored, truths about the veil: independent of context, it does not have much meaning." The Western infatuation with the veil is well-documented; it remains one of the most loaded symbols of Islam. From European bans on full-faced veiling, to the fatuous articles every time an American First Lady or female head of state travels to Saudi Arabia asking "Will they or won't they?", the West is undeniably fascinated (and fearful) of this simple piece of clothing.

Zakaria fleshes out this brief tract on the veil-as-object with numerous personal stories, anecdotes, and at times clumsily delivered theory. By the end, Veil fails to truly coalesce in any meaningful or consistent manner. Zakaria has plenty of thoughts on the meaning of the veil. Some are deeply personal (such as the times when she has been confronted about not wearing one); others are familiar (as when the West held up the veil as justification for its "liberation" of Afghani women). One thing that certainly becomes clear throughout Veil is that Muslim women can never win. At various times, either in her own experience or culturally at large, Zakaria demonstrates how Muslim women are told that the veil is mandatory in Islam; the veil is unnecessary in Islam; the veil represents patriarchal oppression; the veil empowers Muslim women; the veil allows women to behave subversively; the veil protects women from male-dominated spaces; the veil reshapes the public aesthetic for the good (Saudi Arabia), or for the bad (France).

Zakaria revisits familiar ground throughout the book. For example, describing the build-up to the war in Afghanistan. Her own personal experiences also illuminate the challenge Muslim women face: being told both by a fellow American student and Egyptian colleagues that Muslim women have to veil. The veil has undoubtedly become an object through which the viewer reaffirms his or her preexisting beliefs about Islam.

Evenly divided between chapters that consider the veil as an object of "Submission", "Purity, Necessity, Unity", "Rebellion", "Feminism", or subversiveness, Veil tries to find a structure somewhere amid its personal memoirs and handful of anecdotes, but Zakaria fails to find her footing. The chapter on the veil and "Feminism" begins with the role women's liberation played in justifying the war in Afghanistan -- shamelessly backed by prominent American feminists like Eleanor Smeal, Gloria Steinem, and others. Rather than discuss the considerable and noteworthy role Islamic feminist scholarship is currently playing in the veil "debate", Zakaria inexplicably spends the next ten pages discussing the veil as a symbol of the exotic. Soon all this time spent constructing the veil as a Western symbol of Muslim women's oppression is cast aside in the next chapter when we're told that the West sees veiled women as security threats.

Despite being part of Bloomsbury Academic's Object Lessons series, Veil is at its weakest when Zakaria clumsily tries to write in a more academic voice. "Colonialism thrived because it rested on its own epistemology..." Zakaria tells us, although the sentiment's absurd pointlessness becomes apparent when "colonialism" is replaced with nearly any other word: communism, terrorism, Protestanism. But in case things weren't clear enough, Zakaria offers further, "This epistemological shift is particularly relevant in relation to the veil. The physical act of wearing a full-face veil ... is now converted into an epistemological metaphor".

In the last chapter, Zakaria explains that wearing the veil can be subversive both in Western nations and Muslim ones. In a time when an American President so outrageously maligns Muslims worldwide, veiling itself can be a bold, unapologetic act of resistance. Yet, she warns, demonization of Muslims transforms "the kindly Muslim mom, the shy Muslim wife, probably any Muslim woman" into a caricature wherein Muslim women are "all in possession of cruel intentions, each of them secretly marching toward jihad, guilty or not but never innocent". The woman-as-femme-fatale archetype and the harm the mysterious and dangerous label has brought to women worldwide throughout history is hardly new or hardly unique to "Western culture and its 'historic' distortions".

There's no doubt that Muslim women face considerable challenges over what should be ultimately viewed as a personal choice. But Veil is too comfortable casting Muslim women as perpetual victims in a much more complicated world wherein empowered Muslim women like Amina Wadud, Asma Lamrabet, and other veiled women leaders go ignored here. For example, what can readers really learn about the veil debate from the story of Aafia Siddiqui that merits completely ignoring perhaps the most famous hijabi Muslim woman in the West today: recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai? There's so much to say about the challenges, frustrations, and offenses facing women who veil, Veil has difficulty sorting it all out in a meaningful way.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.