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.

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.

RATING 5 / 10