Despite the appeal to freedom and progress, veiling is an archaic, cumbersome and misogynist practice. This essay aims not only to untangle contemporary faux-feminist discourse but also put forward a new way to conceptualise the headscarf, understanding its role within a culture of male violence.
(First written: February 2019; Revision: Autumn 2020)
After four years spent in London raging at the view of so many veils I came to the conclusion that the only topic worthy of my time for my undergraduate dissertation was veiling. That decision proved to be therapeutic as writing often is. Untangling my feelings and laying them out in thoughts allowed me to put a useful distance without indifference between that practice and myself.
Reading back this text I realised it was difficult to follow, there is an element of wobbliness to it. Written over three days (or nights) it can come across as a patchwork of months of reflexions put together in a hurry. Before publishing it online, I modified it a little, adding here, removing there. Pictures and most footnotes were all added later. The core remains intact.
Iran. January 2018: a wave of protests sweeps the country. A woman stands above the crowd: a stick on her hand, a white scarf at the end of it, her head bare.
BBC studios, England, 2017. A woman interviewed about her veil asserts: ‘If feminism is about a woman making her own choices then this is one of it’.
BBC studios again. March 2017. Emma Watson: ‘Feminism is about giving women choice’.
In recent years, ‘feminism’ has made a comeback in media discourse: just like teenagers revel in their parents’ old sweaters ever since they became valuable vintage items, much to the amazement of said parents, feminism has been found in the corner of a dusty closet and is now selling like hot cakes.
Simultaneous to the mushrooming of the word feminism, ‘hijabi-ism’ is turning into a lasting feature of the media landscape. Charismatic activists like Linda Sarsour and politicians like Ilhan Omar have been vocal in support of veiling. Beyond that, the question of veiling is still causing political turmoil not just in Iran, but also in the United Nations where the French law prohibiting face veiling is being challenged.
Inevitably the discourses on veiling and on feminism overlap and it is that point of encounter that I aim to explore in this dissertation. In what ways is the defence of veiling in the name of feminism in the British media postfeminist and from there, how to conceptualise veiling?Underlying this compare-and-contrast approach is the inevitable assessment of whether the feminist defence of veiling is satisfactory.
I define feminism as the ideology and movement striving for the liberation of women, as a sex-based class, from the system of male dominance that is patriarchy.
Postfeminism is a ‘sensibility’ where ‘a selectively defined feminism is both taken into account and repudiated’. What is meant here is that postfeminism is not a simple backlash to Second Wave feminism, rather it has a complicated relationship with it: the achievements of it are acknowledged, but precisely because of this any further collective action is deemed unnecessary. Women are then turned into the neoliberal subject par excellence: free of any structural ties and free to choose.
Veiling will be defined step by step in the course of the dissertation. As this dissertation aims to be both a discourse analysis and a practice analysis, I will follow the same scheme for each part. I compare an excerpt of a discourse on veiling to the postfeminist theory and highlight what that discourse can tell us about veiling. I will argue that despite an attempt to place itself as an alternative to dominant postfeminist discourse, the reclaiming of feminism to defend veiling is not entirely convincing. Indeed, the discourse sympathetic to the veil analysed here reinforces unequal power structures by placing all the burden of them on women. If the discourse supporting veiling is due to fail it is not just because of the inherently flawed postfeminist rhetoric but also because of the nature of veiling. I will sediment my thoughts and try to explain why I define veiling as an ostentatious (III) practice (I) positing women as the possession of men (II) and thus objectifying us in the process (IV).
For this dissertation, I will use discourse analysis defined as the ‘qualitative methodology that focuses attention on the role that language and communication have in shaping the social world’. It stems from the understanding that social practices and discourses reinforce each other. It aims to deconstruct the discourse to have better grip of reality.
As the accumulation of material – articles, advertisements, images – got dizzying by the day, I made a drastic clean up. Since I was interested in contemporary discourse, I set a timeframe of five years maximum. I decided to localise the material to Britain, to avoid drowning in English-speaking content. After an overwhelming research on Nexis, I decided to turn my attention to videos I already came across. Three of them burst with so many meanings that they would deserve their own complete analysis: instead I will extract the most significant material to answer my question.
The first video I chose is the one by Hannah Yusuf. She is a journalist filming her opinion for a major national newspapers’ – The Guardian – online site. We can assume she has carefully constructed her discourse to be as effective as possible in three minutes. The video has been shared both on YouTube, where it has more than 80 000 views, and on The Guardian website, with thousands of comments.
The second video is from the public broadcaster BBC. ‘Things not to say to someone wearing a burqa’ gathers women who face veil. They are asked which questions about their veiling irritate them the most. We can assume that the interviewees are spontaneous but since they are probably the ones who submitted the questions, they had the time to mull them over, so they are not caught by surprise. The video has received more than 500 000 views and 8000 comments on YouTube.
The third video ‘Muslim women discuss wearing the veil’ is the less structured of all. It is an excerpt from a talk show reacting to Boris Johnson’s comparison of women who face veil to letter boxes. It reunites four women who veil at different intensities and frequencies (one does not veil at all). Two of the speakers (Sahar Al-Faifi and Huda Jawad) are activists in support of veiling so we could assume they are used to express themselves strategically. The other woman talking in the video (Mabruka Beik) is not: the difference will be felt in the content.
Many others before me have been fascinated by veiling and that makes for an abundant literature. Perhaps the start of the political debate on the desirability of veiling can be traced back to Qasim Amin’s The Liberation of Women in 1899. Unravelling all the way up to our decade, a more positive light has been shed on veiling with authors like Katherine Bullock, Lila Abu-Lughod, Irene Zempi and Neil Chakraborti who are enthusiastic about it.
What I have noticed in this Amazonian literature, is that veiling is always studied in light of other processes such as national identity, modernisation and multiculturalism. Often, the political debate on veiling turned into one on the relationship of women with Islam. Marnia Lazreg, on which I rely extensively, is one of the few that gets close to discussing the intrinsic meaning of veiling, but even she tends to limit it geographically and religiously.
My contention is that since veiling was prior to Islam, and has been recuperated by different religions, there must be something intrinsic to veiling that renders it appealing to patriarchal institutions. Only in 1985 does the Vatican remove the obligation for women to veil in churches, that is a few years after the Khomeinist revolution that is perceived to be the marking year of the return of Islamic veiling: it is as if one patriarchal religion passed the torch to another to perpetuate a practice that is more than 3000 years old. By trying to decipher veiling, I will not pretend the religious and cultural affiliations or rather appropriations do not exist, mentioning them where necessary, but I aim not to bring them to the forefront since the focus remains on veiling per se since it is an intrinsically harmful practice.
The literature on postfeminism has coincided with the fading away of the Second Wave feminist movement. Susan Faludi’s Backlash is an embryo of what will become a cherished ‘object of critical analysis’ in feminist media studies.
The blind spot of the literature is precisely veiling. I have only come across one paper dedicated to the veil and the postfeminist nature of the discourse supporting it is not even the focus of it. Furthermore, postfeminist scholars do not take the time to critically analyse the practices they study: by staying on the superficial level of the text, they overlook the structural nature of the reality discussed.
This could be attributed to the nature of the fields since most postfeminist scholars are from cultural and media studies, and it might not constitute a problem, if it did not result in major inconsistencies. Angela McRobbie uncritically uses the expression ‘sex work’ when really the transformation of ‘prostitution’ into harmless ‘sex’ and rewarding ‘work’ are typically postfeminist. Similarly, Kristin Anderson is surprisingly benevolent towards the Slut Walk”(again very postfeminist since the debasement is ‘chosen’) and transsexualism (where the postfeminist illusion that something that is imposed on women to keep us subordinated can be empowering for single individuals prevails). Rosalinda Gill, the second scholar on which I rely heavily, is not exempt from such shortcomings.
For these reasons, I intend on updating the fascinating work on postfeminism by adding veiling and by pushing critical analysis further. I do not wish for this work to be yet another meta-discourse: the discourse is here a gateway into understanding veiling, which remains the most important task of this dissertation.
- Féminisme-à-porter, veiling as a practice
‘My hijab (…) is a feminist statement’ Hanna Yusuf boldly posits, the ‘hijab’ being to her ‘just a scarf that some women wear to cover part of their bodies’. Elsewhere, to the argument ‘You can’t be a feminist and wear that’, an interviewee retorts: ‘I think some women are actually having to fight to be able to wear it’.
‘This is what a feminist looks like’ proudly proclaimed the t-shirt that celebrities and politicians wore for ELLE UK’s 2009 ‘feminism issue’. ‘We should all be feminists’ affirmed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Dior agreed by printing the slogan on 700$ t-shirts.
At first sight, little seems to connect those two discourses: the feminism of catwalks and glossy magazines and veiling. Yet, both have reduced feminism to a sole matter of appearance.
One of the most popular contemporary writers on feminism uses a verb of state — to be or not to be a feminist — not action, to describe feminist commitment. The ELLE t-shirt goes one step further: it is apparently enough to appear feminist to be feminist; it incites us to judge a book by its cover. This kind of reasoning is confirmed in the BBC3 statement since it posits a mutual exclusion between one’s attire and one’s feminism. In the response, the rhetoric of activism is used, but the ‘fight’ (as in ‘fight for your rights’) is limited to control one’s appearance. Underlying all statements is the idea that feminism is a ‘being’ rather than a ‘doing’. And if women are defined by their looks, then appearing feminist is sufficient to be feminist. Such appearance is guaranteed by ‘feminist’ apparel: if the t-shirt is feminist, then the woman is feminist; if the veil is a feminist piece of clothing then veiling is feminist. Feminism is thus ‘selectively defined’, or better, reduced, to the looks of a woman. Saudi Arabia would thus be heaven on earth for women, who knew?
An activism based on looks is the ultimate irony for the feminist movement. Implicit here is the postfeminist idea that self-transformation naturally brings about collective transformation. Anderson draws this observation from numerous TV shows that promise women that relooking will help them turn their lives around. In those popular shows, there is the ‘before’ wherein the woman’s supposed lack of style is correlated to the dullness of her life. ‘If only she changed her wardrobe’, the viewer and the candidate is told, ‘she could turn her life upside down’. These shows often feature bursts of cry and joy, in a happy ever after of stylishness. The story of Dawnn Karen, fashion psychologist, is a case in point. Having survived a rape during her masters, she resorted to fashion to heal and invites others to make dressing a form of therapy. Clothes not feminist consciousness would help us navigate in a world of male violence. The discourse on veiling is aligned on the one of makeover. No political lens is offered to women to make sense of our existing condition ‘pre-makeover’. As John Berger puts it in his analysis of advertisements, a happier life is in reach – if only women truly put the effort in it. One could almost hear Helena Rubinstein sternly comment ‘there are no ugly women only lazy ones’. We will see in the next section that being a feminist is presented as a sufficient condition to set oneself free from patriarchal constraints. For the moment let us just think of the female suffrage as a reminder, if any was needed, that deeds are more important than labels and accessories.
Veiling as a practice
Beyond being the ultimate feminist accessory, the veil is presented as something that a woman wears. Presenting the veil as mere item in a closet allows hasty and quite incongruous comparison. Martha Nussbaum for instance, sees no difference between people (of both sexes if it needed precision) who cover up with scarves and hats in the cold Canadian winter and women whose faces are veiled. Furthermore, Hannah Yusuf says that the scarf covers some parts of the bodies as if which parts made no difference.
However, the veil is not any type of clothing. Within a wardrobe, it falls under the category of headgears. Someone’s head is one of the first things we look at to communicate and it is also metaphoric, often seen as embodying intellect. As such, headgears convey meanings and are highly codified: suffice to think of crowns or turbans to see how. Headgears can be functional, like beanies in winter, but the veil is certainly not, since the thermometer or else, has little effect on it. Moreover, a headscarf goes beyond a simple object placed on a head: it entirely covers the hair of women, another deeply symbolic body part (Heath, 2008): the shorn women (and not men), the longer hair associated to women, the market for female hairdressing are some proofs of this. Sometimes they even cover the face. Lorella Zanardi, talking of plastic surgery explains that most facial muscles solely serve the purpose of communication by conveying emotions: if that part is erased for one sex only, the symbolism is at its pinnacle.
When the veil is turned into a simple matter of dress, any restriction on veiling becomes an infringement of individual freedoms. This is for example how Cécile Laborde approaches veiling: she defends ‘the liberty to wear headscarves’ against French limitations in schools (emphasis added). This type of reasoning is aligned to a postfeminist culture wherein constraining practices are presented as freeing. For example, stilettos can be marketed as power gear for the modern woman, yet it is impossible to walk with them, reiterating a long-standing control of women’s mobility. Similarly, veiling can obstruct sight, hearing, and movement. It can lead to health issues. Veiling can be accounted for the incidence of illnesses like the MS disease that surged among women in Iran after the implementation of compulsory veiling laws. Beyond the actual physical constraint veiling represents, with its lot of physical health issues, the contradiction of defending veiling to defend freedom to dress as one pleases should be obvious for veiling precisely impedes that. Contrary to cumbersome clothing like tight dresses or high heels, ‘wearing’ the veil is absolute: a woman can no longer resort to short sleeves in warm weather, nor can she remove layers during the day. She must cover up every single day.
The absolute nature of veiling means that it increases ‘self-surveillance’. Studying beauty injunctions, Gill observes how any body feature, even the arch of the arm, is scrutinised, problematized and presented as requiring disciplined monitoring in women’s magazines and similar media. Naomi Wolf for instance recounts how cellulite only became ‘a thing’ in 1973 when Vogue presented it as a feature women should fight against. Rosalinda Gill devises three patterns in the monitoring: the intensity, extensiveness and psychological nature of it. The same holds true for veiling. Once veiled, a woman must make sure she is covered every time she goes out (intensity), that she is not showing more skin, hair, etc. than necessary (extensiveness), to the point where she interiorises such monitoring (psychology). Marnia Lazreg’s childhood anecdote is revealing. While playing outside, she cries for help against a bully, running back home to hide. Determined to help, but not managing to veil quickly enough, Lazreg’s mother freezes on the edge the insurmountable doorstep and throws a bibelot that lands on her daughter’s head instead of the boy’s, leaving her still scarred today. Her mother had integrated veiling so much, she put boundaries to herself, even when helping her daughter was more urgent than her appearance. The request to veil in high-level sportive competitions is further evidence to this: the appearance is more important than the performance. If sportswomen insisted on having their best manicure before say, playing Olympic volleyball, it would be deemed superficial, if not altogether vain. Yet, when the same surveillance is transferred to veiling, we are to understand that a new milestone was reached. Despite appealing descriptions of veiling as a ‘practical’ outfit – ‘I just put up my face veil and go’ — what is kept implicit is that the veil, if ever an outfit, is a rigorous one requiring permanent attention to self-appearance.
What really is problematic with the conceptualisation of the veil as an outfit is that it eschews the fact that the veil is not something a woman wears. The veil does not exist on its own: a hat is still a hat even if thrown on a coat hanger, it need not be worn to come alive. A veil only becomes a veil on a woman’s head. We can already appraise the relational nature that characterises veiling. I draw this first essential feature of veiling from relational sociology that studies how individual and social subjects’ identities are constructed by relating with each other. Here, the relation between the object meeting the person gives birth to the veil.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘to clothe’ as ‘To cover with a garment or with clothing’. In comparison, practice is ‘The habitual doing or carrying on of something’. One can see that due to its repetitive nature, veiling can be defined as the practice of covering oneself up. The whole body must be covered with only leniency at extremities (hands, wrist, feet, ankles, neck) and the face (when covered it is a further step in veiling). This vision of veiling is informed by the work of Fatiha Boudjahlat. She suggests it to bypass fruitless debates on the texture of the ‘veiling object’ and the focus on religion (as ‘hijab’ is more likely to do). I would add that it is a more accurate description of reality. In her fascinating study of veiling in the region that is currently Emily-Romany in Italy, Maria Muzzarelli demonstrates that in the Middle Ages and in Modern times, virtually all women were veiled, from engagement to widowhood — a lifetime. A situation mirrored in today’s Iran, among other countries. The longevity of veiling however is not limited to places where veiling is compulsory. Marnia Lazreg’s mum has veiled for thirty years. For Mona Eltahawy it was nine years. Similar figures, from one year to ten, are found in the testimonies of the Turkish women part of the unveiling movement Yalniz Yürümeyeceksin (‘You will not walk alone’, from the eponymous website). In short, conceiving the veil as a dress fails to capture the reality of the repetitiveness, length and thus impact of what really is a practice that involves dressing but not only.
A final note on the ‘veiling object’. It has a highly ambivalent nature, ambivalence being a second key feature of veiling. It is both the instrument of the practice and the manifestation, the outward signal, that the practice is taking place. Consequently, the veil (the covering object meeting the woman) can also be understood as the visible marker of an ongoing practice rather than an item of clothing that a woman wears. This is akin to speech acts where the saying is simultaneously the doing as exemplified in the saying/acting of promise.
Claiming veiling is feminist demonstrates a deep reductionism of feminist principles. No longer a political struggle, feminism is reduced to a being or worse an appearing. By labelling certain items or practices as feminist, we would thus become feminist. Notice how this appears to be the current paradigm: ‘I say therefore I am’. But both feminism and veiling should be conceptualised as a doing. The veil is only the visible manifestation of an ongoing practice, which requires from the women who partake in it, a deep monitoring of the self with consequences on body and mind. Adopting this new framework could prove useful in any future public policy on veiling. If this section focused on the makeover paradigm as a false promise of female liberation, in the next I will dwell on another mirage, the one of re-appropriation of patriarchal practices.
- Re-appropriating a millennial practice through choice: the veil as a property tag
The women who face veil ‘choose to wear different forms of clothing.’ ‘We have choice, we have agency’. ‘The liberation lies in the choice’. ‘If feminism is about letting a woman make her own choices then this is one of them.’ An avalanche of choice sweeps the speeches in favour of veiling. Choice is the ultimate postfeminist buzzword and as such it deserves its own section.
Claiming that one’s actions are chosen is crucial in a neoliberal context. Any invocation to social pressure, or even norms, would erode the myth of the empowered individual who is in total control of her life. A faux pas by Mabruka Beik is quite revealing: right after she mentions being encouraged by her family to veil, she states that, really, ‘if I want to take it off, I could take it off, but I don’t want to’. Never mind if a practice has been bequeathed from one generation to the next, it is still turned into a choice made in a vacuum. By focusing on an individual at time t, the notion of choice obscures structural inequalities. Feminism was already presented as an appearance, now it is further reduced to the choice of that appearance. If feminism is reduced to the choices made by women, it means that, reversely, any female choice is feminist. To make it clearer:
If, feminism = choices made by women
Then, choices made by women = feminism.
Moreover, the choice itself is meant to deliver more than choice: Huda Jawad associates choice with ‘agency’ and Hanna Yusuf with ‘liberation’. Those three notions however are not the same. In that order, they imply an increase in the scale of freedom one can exercise. The potential that choice offers is overrated.
What choice cannot account for is why sexual stereotypes are maintained. Why do men never choose to veil? Choice means ‘preferential determination between things proposed; selection’ (OED). Why then in a now supposedly wide range of options feminism has conquered, women still choose what we were doing not even two generations ago, but in Antiquity – veiling? Furthermore, if it is an individual choice, why are there other women partaking in numbers in the same activity at the same time? Anne Sugier emphasises that veiling comes in waves: there is a gulf between the 1950-1970s veiling in Egypt and the one today, for instance. Finally, how can we possibly distinguish the women who chose it from the ones who did not? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown demands evidence. Most importantly, how do we explain that when women are not required to veil in female-only spaces, as soon as a man comes in, they must cover up?
In general, when it comes to choice, we must be more inquisitive instead of deflating from judgement. How does one come about to make a choice? What is prior to it, in terms of personal and social history? In which environment is this individual placed? Also, not all choices are good, see smoking for example. Finally, ‘there is such thing as society’: individual choices can have impacts beyond the self.
The indication that there is a society even in a postfeminist world, is given inadvertently by the women in the videos themselves. ‘Maybe in other countries, people have been forced’ (emphasis my own). ‘Now my concern with the hijab being unfairly portrayed as a symbol of oppression, is in no way a denial of the fact that some women are forced to wear it in some parts of the world, sometimes through appalling violence’ (emphasis my own). The choice is constructed by dissociating with the women who suffer repressive veiling laws. Their situation is acknowledged but immediately brushed aside: ‘people’ instead of women are forced, only ‘some’ of them, in ‘some’ vague part of the world, ‘sometimes’ with violence. This sort of dissociation is reminiscent of the postfeminist distance from victimhood: women are somehow never victims of anything, especially not patriarchy according to postfeminism (Anderson, 2014). Women’s agency is called at every turn and it is opposed directly to victimhood, when really the opposite of agent is passive and the one of victim, aggressor.
Although, not openly calling it postfeminist, Kajsa Ekis Ekman dissects that distancing. Since victimhood is about power hierarchies, acknowledging to be in the same situation as a victim would amount to recognising that one is embedded within an existing unequal societal structure. Yusuf is concerned only with the negative depiction of the veil, not the women who suffer from veiling, because if veiling is oppressive and she is perceived like these women, it would mean she is a victim too.
The dissociation operates as a selective solidarity. The viewer is requested not to feel empathy with the women struggling against veiling, but the ones who ‘fight to be able to wear it’. ‘You’re telling me (…) ‘you’re oppressed’ but you’re not letting me do what I want, you’re not letting me be free’ (emphasis mine). Allowing this interviewee to do what she wants is giving her her freedom: desires are turned into rights, the ‘I’ supersedes the ‘we’. Individualism is at its pinnacle, since the two meanings of the word are combined: putting the individual at the centre and her or him not caring about others. Selective solidarity thus results in defending the ones that already feel advantaged by the status quo – the conservative undertones should be evident to all.
Looking at the numbers, the situation might be worse than depicted. An estimate of the women who are forced to veil by law in Iran and Saudi Arabia, drawing data from the female population from the age of 24 is 30 million women. I have limited the number to those two countries, because the legal enforcement in others are not as clear-cut, making the calculation more difficult. Even if it can be contended that without compulsory laws ‘some’ women would ‘choose’ to veil, this number that does not include women that are forced to veil elsewhere compensates for said omissions. By any account, it is not ‘some’ women who veil. And the price to pay for not obeying has ranged and still ranges from imprisonment to torture and murder.
The relational nature of veiling
Insisting on setting oneself apart from women under compulsory veiling laws (the most discernible form of enforcement on veiling) mirrors the dichotomies that veiling creates and feeds from. As soon as one woman veils, she sets the terrain for all others. A division veiled-unveiled women appears: all women are defined with respect to veiling even if they do not practice it; veiling sets the standard. We can understand this with another dichotomy observed by the Italian feminist Liliana Ricci. Since men are presented as the standard, distinction between women and men is often made in the form of penile versus a-penile, men as the standard and women as the minus-men. She suggests the menstruating vs. spermatic to establish the independence of women while keeping commensurability. It is not possible to do so with veiling. Marnia Lazreg finds flaws even in the open vs. covered distinction, because it still requires opening or covering with respect to someone. This suggests that veiling can only take place in an environment where there are also unveiled people (relational nature): otherwise there is no way to single out veils, signals of the practice, from the ‘bare’ heads. The question is whom the veil distinguishes from.
The distinctions on veiling are based on existing hierarchies. As a practice reserved to women, the most obvious distinction is the one based on sex. Sheila Jeffreys purports that ‘in an egalitarian system’, there is no need to distinguish who occupies the dominant position and whom the subordinated because it would not affect the social interactions. The veil establishes power relations from the start and marks the subordinate status of women. The subordination is made explicit in the Christian re-appropriation of veiling wherein women are required to veil ‘for man is the head of woman’: the cloth strategically placed on a woman’s head is a reminder of the superior male power. The Algerian activist Khalida Messaouidi goes as far as qualifying the veil as the ‘yellow star’ of women.
Now, some will pinpoint that men have veiled and sometimes still do. The main examples of this are in the early Islamic period and today among the Tuaregs. First, even then, women veil/ed too, so it does not mean that women are/were exempted from the practice. Second, that male veiling has been confined to a territory and an era, when female veiling has spread across time and space hints that male veiling is an exception that confirms the rule. In any case, the thesis that veiling can only exist in hierarchical societies is not disproved. Indeed, social class comes to replace the sexual hierarchy. Another example of this is under Sassanid ruling where male and female elite veiled alike to distinguish themselves from the populace.
Indicating male property
As Shulamith Firestone suggests, unravelling the historical root of a practice is also a good way to expose its logic. The first record of legislation on veiling can be traced back to an Assyrian law from 1050 BC. It creates categories of women by defining who can and cannot veil. All married and all Assyrian women must veil, while women in prostitution and slaves are strictly forbidden to: if caught veiled, anyone is allowed to remove the cloth from their head. The exact same laws are then reinforced in Medieval Italy, and the idea of the unveiled woman being the prostituted one is still present in Iran, where women quickly open and close their covering to attract male prostituters.
What this division denotes is that veiling is about marking the male territory. The woman in prostitution is essentially the ‘public woman’: she has no male relative or husband, any man can be with her. The married woman belongs to her husband, the virgin daughter to the father and the devout religious to ‘God’ (see how nuns are the spouses of Jesus in Muzzarelli (2016)). The veil indicates male possession. We can realise this in the rite of marriage that lasted to this day: the woman is veiled before being promised, the husband unveils her during the ceremony and re-veils her once brought in the husband’s house. It is the indication that the transaction has taken place: the ‘merchandise’ has been exchanged in the male contract that is marriage. By forcefully removing the covering of a woman in prostitution the intent is to ensure that she does not claim a male guardianship she does not have. Marriage and prostitution are intimately linked to veiling. Without them, there would be no need for markers of hierarchies between women. If we take Andrea Dworkin’s analysis of marriage as purchase, rape as theft (Dworkin, 1976), and add the vision by Joël Martine that prostitution is rent (Martine, 2013), we can see how the veil is the ‘belongs to’ tag: a label to indicate to which male the female property belongs to.
In a postfeminist culture, power structures are re-appropriated as an individual’s own choices: practices and stereotypes that existed before us are presented as personal preferences independent of sex. This is clearly a fallacy since only women veil and en masse in different epochs. Choice is a flawed criterion to assess liberty. Defending women who choose to veil can only be done at the expense of the ones who are forced — selective solidarity.
Veiling is a sexual and thus collective practice. It sets a standard which all women are set up against. Veiling permits the distinction of women from men, subordinate from dominant. Following the adage that if all X then none X, if all women veiled none would be. Thus, it is imperative that not all women are veiled. Veiling distinguishes the ‘public’ woman (in prostitution) from the ‘private’ one (wife, devout or daughter). Veiling is the fruit of patriarchal institutions (due to lack of space, here they are assumed to be so) and hierarchies. It therefore depends on them for survival and its maintenance only upholds their existence.
- The ultimate postfeminist innovation? Veiling as an ostentatious sexualising practice
Veiling and the beauty industry
For Hannah Yusuf, the ‘hijab’ allows a woman to ‘reject (…) the notion’ that her ‘value is (…) reduced to her sexual allure’. By ‘going against consumer culture’, ‘hijabi women do not fit into (the) mould’ of capitalist construction of ‘women as both merchandised and consumers’. ‘Their presumed modesty’ is presented as ‘a direct contrast to more commercially available images of women as clothes holders, shopaholics and sex symbols’.
I will start with these claims, mainly the one on sexualisation because it encompasses issues touched upon in the literature: modesty (Scott pretends it is a positive value upheld by the veil, Lazreg rejects it); sexual harassment (the veil is deemed to be an acceptable protection for Abu-Lughod, without any empirical evidence to back her claim nor holding men responsible for their actions at any point); beauty standards (for Mernissi veiling offers a safe retreat, claim which Boudjahlat swiflty rejects.
Yusuf expresses great awareness of postfeminist culture. She understands that displaying naked women to sell goods is business as usual, not female emancipation. By calling it out, she aims to distance herself from the contradictions of postfeminist content, giving herself credibility and presenting veiling as a viable alternative to it: feminist veiling vs. postfeminist capitalism and sexualisation. The logic is on the surface impeccable, but not only is it not substantiated in reality, the rhetoric itself falls heads-on in a postfeminist trap.
On the rhetoric: each woman can remediate to that situation (sexualisation and commodification of women) by veiling individually. The solution would lie in the hands of the individual, there is not even a hint of collective action. We’re back to the situation to the Helena Rubinstein situation described in part I.
In addition, other parts of Yusuf’s discourse are reminiscent of the holy ‘beauty myth’. Naomi Wolf notices how creams are often accompanied with Christian-like appeals with texts focusing on light (Wolf, 1991). In that vein, the veil is yet another miraculous product to try. That aspect is exacerbated by the use of the foreign word ‘hijab’ that has virtually replaced ‘veil’ and ‘headscarf’. ‘Hijab’ serves multiple purposes: re-packaging an archaic practice as if it was new on the market, distancing the practice as if it was ‘exotic’ to Europe, when it is not the case since that practice already existed, and giving it a religious affiliation to provide an aura of miracle while rendering criticism more difficult unless one is willing to be labelled ‘Islamophobic’.
In reality, to start with consumer culture, scarves for veiling purposes are now forming their own segment in the female fashion market. Only in 2015, the spending on ‘modest fashion’ was estimated at 45 billion dollars. High-street and haute couture brands have made their own lines for veiled women, while new ones, like Haute Hijab have arisen. Veiling has not stopped the pressure on women to be ‘shopaholics’
In terms of beauty more generally, in the BBC 3 video, an interviewee proudly enumerates the makeup palettes she owns. Another overbids: ‘We get dressed up, we curl our hair… I am into the 50s vintage dresses…’. One can almost sense a flavour of ‘retrosexism’, specifically with the reference to the 50s: by capitulating to the ‘sexual corvée’ the interviewee comforts the viewers that she is not a threat to the men, her femininity is still intact.
With regards to ‘sex symbols’, the latter have successfully incorporated the veil. In the first Vogue cover flaunting a veiled woman, Halima Aden is lasciviously posing. Male hands literally manipulate her as they make her up, ‘all eyes on her’ titles the magazine, and in this passive position, she offers the viewer an active sexuality with deep troubling, what Gail Dines crudely calls, fuck me look.
Finally, in terms of sexualisation, online pornography of veiled women abounds. The top countries consuming ‘hijab porn’ in the past five years are countries where veiling is not uncommon: Ethiopia, Malaysia, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon. Terms like ‘jilboobs’ –contraction of ‘jilbab’, a loose garment women use to veil, and ‘boobs’ – are among the favourite search items. Londoners are the first in the UK to research ‘hijab’ on PornHub.
Women as fashion consumers, pervasive beauty standards, and women’s consumption as sex objects are all rampant, entirely contradicting the vision of veiling as a rampart from consumer culture and sexualisation.
Two observations. The first is that it is not just veiling that is used as a shield, it is also feminism. Indeed, the title of Yusuf’s presentation is ‘My hijab has nothing to do with oppression, it is a feminist statement’. If the veil is both feminist and the opposite of oppression, then feminism is the opposite of oppression. Instead of becoming a tool to analyse oppression, feminism is presented as a protective shield. As soon as you become feminist — and in this case that means just appearing feminist — you will no longer face oppression based on your female sex.
Second, the approach adopted to sexualisation is troublingly postfeminist. We have seen as structural inequalities are replaced by individualism. Therefore, any failure to overcome them is relegated to a matter of personal responsibility. In this light, sexualisation is not ‘something men do to women’ but a woman-made reality: accepting it, rejecting it, playing with it would just be a matter of individual choice. In other words, the power of controlling sexualisation lies in our hands. We are thus at the heart of the ‘victim-blaming’ culture.
If we push this mentality further, we can see how unsustainable it is: the more a woman is covered the less she is sexualised, in which case only an overbidding process of excessive self-surveillance could save women from sexualisation. An approach of this type shifts the responsibility of sexualisation from men to women, the former being let scots free. Under patriarchy though, all women are oppressed by the sole virtue of being women.
The sexualising gaze
It is not just because the inward solution proposed in postfeminism is deeply inadequate to tackle patriarchal issues that the reality decried by Yusuf is still rife, it is also because veiling cannot be a solution to any of those issues (consumption, beauty stereotypes) and sexualisation in particular. First, veiling is a sex-based practice, therefore inevitably sexual.
Second, the veil requires external gaze to exist. I have explained the relational nature of the veil (object-woman) and that the veil is a signal. If no one can see the signal, the signal is wasted. A testimony from a formerly veiled Turkish woman, is enlightening: when there were restrictions on veiling in universities, she would wear a wig placed loosely on her head. Her real hair was showing in the extremities and the wig was obvious to all. If veiling was solely about covering, the hair would have been hidden more rigorously: the woman could have pretended the wig was her real hair. If veiling was about modesty, she would have made sure to blend in: she would thus have adopted the typical attire of her female peers, probably jeans and t-shirts in the early 2000s Mind you, her practice does not contradict what I said earlier about self-surveillance since she still had to carefully balance the wig on her head throughout the day. What was essential to her however, in her own words, was that people knew, saw, that she was veiled. We can see how the ambivalent nature of veiling kicks in: by hiding, the veil displays. Veiling must necessarily be practiced in a social setting, visible to others to make sense. ‘All eyes on her’ said the Vogue cover, ‘Look at me’ says the veil.
Third, the veil talks to men. I credit Chadortt Djavann for her compelling analysis. To her the veil functions like a label: ‘not up for fornication’ – the mirrored opposite of the ‘up for it’ t-shirts Rosalinda Gill studies. I have suggested, drawing from the feminist literature, that the veil is about signalling the male owner of the female. As such this message is directed first and foremost to other men. Even the man in front of the veiled woman was not thinking about female sex and/or intercourse, it makes him think about it. The veil provides him with sexual information: he can only look at the veiled woman to know that he cannot look at her or make her his own. Another ambivalence: under this veil is a female sex, but it is not for you stranger man. This message is not sent out of respect for the woman, but to the male guardian. The veil is a portable device of communication between men through women. The woman is effaced under the veil as the veil becomes ostentatious.
The word ‘sexual’ refers to both the organs involved in sexual intercourse and ‘relating to (…) sexual intercourse’ (OED). To sexualise is ‘to make sexual’. Consequently, veiling is sexualising: it is about the female sexual organs and sexual intercourse. How then it is possible to fight sexualisation with a sexualising practice is to be proved by partisans of veiling. So far, there are reasons to be suspicious.
The contemporary discourse on veiling pretends that a millennia-old archaic practice is a previously unheard of revolutionary product that will shield you from male oppressing. What it denotes however is a vision of feminism as a safe haven from oppression, not a challenge to it, and of sexualisation as women’s personal responsibility, not men’s. In reality, veiling has posed no tangible threat to consumer culture and femininity. That is because veiling is a practice reserved to women reinforcing stereotypes about how a woman should look and dress like. Less evident is the fact that veiling and modesty do not necessarily go hand in hand. Indeed, veiling is a conspicuous sexualising practice: it must be visible and convey information about the sex and sexuality of women to men. In that sense, the relational and ambivalent nature of veiling is confirmed.
- From part to whole: the objectifying veil
‘I have been encouraged by my family to do so, but as I grow older, I felt it’s part of my identity and I feel it’s part of my freedom.’ ‘I feel it’s made me, it’s part of me’. ‘It is who I am. This is part of my identity’.
Postfeminism is not a plain backlash to patriarchy calling for a return to the good old days: it is about making something new with the old. Rosalinda Gills insists on that point when she underlines a shift ‘from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification’. She describes how partaking in objectifying practices instead of fighting against them is an attempt to become the subject of those practices. This objectification-to-subjectification analysis is particularly useful for veiling since an object is turned into a subject.
The use of veiling as a marker of ‘identity’ is nothing new. Beyond the heterosexual affiliation to a male figure the veil represents, there are also broader community-based affiliations. Indeed, veiling was used a blatant symbol of Christianity to publicise it at its beginnings. Nuns of different congregations veil differently. What is new is that the veil is no longer an external signifier of a pre-existing identity, it becomes an identity of its own right: no longer the signal of a religious congregation or an origin but the ‘hijabi’ or ‘niqabi’.
When the women cited claim that the veil has become part of them, what comes to mind is the idea of a transplant: an external limb is incorporated into the patient and with time (‘as I grow older’) the new limb and the patient are one, the limb grows into her. ‘It’ is ‘me’, ‘I’ am ‘it’: the human pronoun for the self is equated to the pronoun for an object – the object and I have become one.
Janice Raymond suggests that objectification is made possible through fragmentation. Women are parcelled in numerous body parts. Some acquire more importance and become fetishized such as breast and buttocks. As objects of fetish, they gain predominance over women ourselves: they come to define us entirely. We are reduced to them: breasts are women and thus women are breasts. Implicit in her reflection is the idea of the synecdoche: a rhetoric figure that uses the part to qualify the whole. For example, if you say ‘I need a good pair of hands’ what you mean is that you need qualified people.
In these discourses on veiling, it is not even an existing limb that is turned into a woman, it is an external physical object. This is where veiling is objectifying to women. The process being the reverse of the one described by Raymond. In her case, typical of the prostitution industry, the human is turned into an object:
1. Whole person: body and mind are one.
2. Parcellation: the legs, the breasts, the buttocks or other parts gain salience respect to others and the person as a whole.
3. The part comes whole: the breasts for example are considered so important that we come to think that having breast implants can be enough to be a woman. Deprived of its human attachment, the body without a mind becomes an object.
With veiling the object is turned into a human:
1. External object: a piece of cloth.
2. Incorporation: the cloth becomes so embedded in the construction of the personal self that the woman cannot envision herself without it.
3. New whole: a woman is not defined as an object but an object defines a woman so the result is still objectification. The ‘hijabi’ is born.
In this process of objectification, the veil swaps places with the woman to her detriment: the veil gains its own subjectivity. I mentioned how the veil speaks on its own without the woman having to utter anything: ‘let me do the talk hun’. The cases of male terrorists successfully running away by face veiling are telling. Their tactic was not just about the concealment of identity: after all, they could have simply worn a balaclava or disguised. The face veil did not simply hide them: it provided them with a new identity. ‘Under this is a respectable woman’ says the (face) veil.
As the veil becomes part of a woman, the two engage in a frenetic diabolic dance, where the two are confused. The veil leads the dance.
Feminists have been accused of essentialising women by referring to our empirical biological sex. Defining women by genitalia was and is still considered by some as reductive. But what about defining women through an object and practice?
In the BBC3 video the expression ‘hijabi’ and ‘niqabi’ is often used, not as an adjective but as a substantive. The word ‘women’ has disappeared. This is reminiscent of other expressions like ‘prostitute’ or ‘stripper’ or ‘poler’ for women in the industry of prostitution. In this choreography, the veil has engulfed the woman: she can no longer exist independent of it; unveiling would equate to mutilating oneself. Crucially, what this means is that a patriarchal practice is incorporated into women: just like the veiled woman cannot have an independent existence from the veil. She becomes dependent of men for her self-definition.
When the veil is feminist, feminism is reduced to feminism-à-porter: a superficial individual appearance. This idea is fostered by the prior reduction of feminism to a being and by the idea that the veil is a cloth. It is important to distinguish between the veiling object and the veil, since veiling is not dressing but practicing.
When feminism is reduced to a choice, the rest of society is forgotten and a selective solidarity is instituted. Choices are not made on thin-air though and they can have impacts for others. Veiling, if ever a choice, is one of them. Veiling is made to distinguish between the higher sex and the lower sex. Born in patriarchal hierarchies, it needs them to stay alive, and by repeating the existing divisions, it reinforces hierarchies. In effect, the veil is about designating which woman belongs to which man: it is men possessing women, as Andrea Dworkin would say.
When feminism is posited as a safe haven from oppression, instead of a formidable tool to confront the dreaded oppressions, the structure will remain unabated. When veiling is posited as a safe haven from sexualisation, further disappointment is bound to arise, for veiling is a sexualising practice. It is also a communicative practice and it addresses the man the veiled woman sees.
When feminism is turned into a vintage item to create a new style with the old, the initial archaic element will survive. Veiling objectifies women by pretending a physical object can be her.
Is either postfeminism or veiling convincing? Are we happy with the re-definition of feminism? Are we happy with the tale of the veil? I am not. Perhaps those who are may want ask the women who have sacrificed their lives to unveil minds what they think about it.
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 About the footnotes: I turned the original author/date system into an unorthodox footnote author/date + references. I thought that for blog reading it might be more convenient.
 BBC 3 Interview
 Reuters, 2017
 Gill, Sharff, 2011: 4
 Burnham et al., 2008: 251.
 (Yusuf, 2015; references will be made with her full name). It might be of interest to the readers to know that she later in her life unveiled. The journalist sadly passed at 27 years of age since February 2019 when this paper was initially written.
 BBC3, 2017; from now the speakers are referred by ‘BBC3 interviewee’.
 BBC News, 2018; references will be made with the names of the speakers.
 Amin, 1992).
 2002. Katherine Bullock is a Canadian academic converted to Islam who highly praises veiling.
 2013. Lila Abu-Lughod goes as far as depicting the Afghani veiling as a positive evolution.
 2014 To caricature the view of the authoresses, criticising veiling is colonial.
 (Scott, 2007; Laborde, 2006).
 (Santanché, 2006; Djitli, 2004).
 Lazreg, 2011
 Djavann, 2016; Muzzarelli, 2016
 (Faludi, 1993)
 (Gamble, 1999; McRobbie, 2009; Gill, Scharff, 2011: 3; Anderson, 2015).
 Pedwell, 2011
 McRobbie, 2009: 26
 Anderson, 2015).
 Gill, 2016
 (Cobb, 2015).
 (Lubitz, 2017).
 (Harvey, 2017).
 (Gill, Scharff, 2011: 4).
 (Anderson, 2015).
 Berger, Ways of Seeing
 (Nussbaum, 2010).
 (Muzzarelli, 2016).
 (Beevor, 2009).
 (Zanardi, 2010).
 Laborde, 2006: 361
 (Gill, 2007).
 (Lazreg, 2011).
 (Washington University, 2014).
 (Gill, 2007: 155)
 Naomi Wolf
 (Gill, 2007).
 (Lazreg, 2011: 3).
 (Donati, 2012).
 (Boudjahlat, 2017).
 All translations from foreign texts are mine.
 (Boudjahlat, 2017: 88).
 (Muzzarelli, 2016).
 (Djavann, 2003).
 (Lazreg, 2011).
 (Eltahawy, 2015).
 For more on the expectations of self-effacing behaviour accompanying veiling see Muzzarelli (2016), Lazreg (2011).
 (Heath (a), 2008; Muzzarelli, 2016).
 (Huda Jawad).
 (Hanna Yusuf).
 (BBC3 interviewee).
 (Gill, 2007).
 A parenthesis on choice. Not having to choose isn’t that the real freedom? The Turkish singer Nil Karaibrahimgil proudly proclaims ‘I’ll have a career and kids’! Having to decide between limited options: how is that freedom? William Philips was an economist, an engineer, a soldier, a crocodile hunter and a cinema manager. Being able to pursue all this, instead of choosing one path, isn’t it more appealing than choice?
 (Anderson, 2015).
 (McRobbie, 2009),
 (Sugier in Editions Tatamis, 2010).
 Ailbhai-Brown, 2014).
 (Anderson, 2015)
 (Alibhai Brown, 2014: 98).
 (BBC3 interviewee)
 (Hannah Yusuf).
 (Ekman, 2013).
 (BBC3 interviewee).
 (retrieved from The World Factbook, CIA)
 (Pew Research Centre, 2016).
 (Bullbeck, 1999).
 (Boudjahlat, 2017).
 (Ricci, 2015).
 (Lazreg, 2011).
 (Jeffreys, 2012).
 (Muzzarelli, 2016: 29).
 (Messaouidi, 1995: 49).
 (El Guindi, 1999)
 (El Guindi, 1999).
 (Heath (b), 2008).
 (Firestone, 1970).
 (BBC Bitesize).
 (Muzzarelli, 2016),
 (Djavann, 2016).
 (Muzzarelli, 2016).
 I am not including prebuscent girls, but focusing only on women, even though they too walk unveiled independent of their affiliation to a man.
 Scott, 2007
 Lazreg, 2011
 Abu Lughod 2013
 in Boudjahlat, 2017.
 Anderson, 2015.
 see Aboudrar, 2014
 Notice also how Arabic has taken over: the Farsi ‘chador’ or the Turkish ‘charshaf’ are no longer used in daily language. Arabic is to Islam what Latin is to the Catholic Church: Arabisation of an already colonial religion is a way to reinforce religious stronghold. How can one object to something one does not understand? The Islamic religious leaders around the world reinforce their position since they become the main point of reference to believers who do not speak Arabic. The other option being learning Arabic. I only have anecdotal evidence of this (a friend teaching Arabic to Albanian children in Bologna, Italy as part of their religious education) but it might be worth investigating further.
 Weinswig, 2017
 (in Gill, 2007)
 corvée’ (Jeffreys, 2012)
 (Dines, 2011).
 (Google Analytics).
 (Porn Hub Insights).
 (Anderson, 2015).
 (Gill, 2007).
 (Boudjahlat, 2017).
 (Lazreg, 2011).
 (Lazreg, 2011; Boudjahalt, 2017).
 Gill, 2007
 Image and article from ‘Rebelles de Jour’ in the magazine Arles, Vers les suds, #2 ‘Say Cheese’, 2019, page 18-19.
 (Mabruka Beik)
 (BBC3 interviewee).
 (Gill, 2009, title).
 (Aboudrar, 2014).
 I am grateful to Dr Maki Kimura for her personal comments that have sparked this analysis.
 (Raymond, 1994).
 (in Zempi, Chakraborti, 2014)
 (Boudjahlat, 2017).
 (Gamble, 1999).