The University of Montana is pleased to announce the publication of:
The Veil in all its States
Fazia Aitel (Claremont McKenna College) and Michel Valentin (University of Montana)---photographs, courte
Summary of the Book content
‘There are countless witnesses to this fantasy, countless accounts of the special fascination colonial cloth held for Western eyes and of the singular and sustained effort of imperialism to remove the veils that covered its colonial neighbor.’ Joan Copjec, Read my Desire.
Like abortion, gay marriage, or terrorism, everyone has an opinion about the veil—it is an issue today to which nobody is indifferent. Indeed, it is undeniable that the veil as a discursive matter brings together a number of issues which go way beyond its material reality—literally, the veil or scarf –and consequently its significance is blown out of proportion. Also, the veil debate is now a site of global argument, concern and malaise. Despite these far reaching concerns, we concede that the idea for a conference on the veil only came after the ban of the veil in French schools, a policy which has continued to stir emotions well beyond France, for though it is a simple piece of cloth the veil debate cuts to the very heart of the political discourse in France and the west.
Yet we cannot unduly focus on French and Western debates for the veil is a central aspect of important reforms and debates in many Muslim countries. To this end we include Muslim positions and response to the veil debate here, though we have also ensured that the veil is addressed in all its complex dimensions, including the psychological, political, religious, cultural and social dimensions. Simply put and reducing the debate to its fundamental terms, the veil must be addressed from both sides, that is, of the wearer and the observer though instead and far too often we find only one side represented in the West, that of the observer. This inequity is due to political tactics and mainstream media pandering, while the religious aspect of the veil is overemphasized and then directly linked to “hot button” words and phrases such as terrorism, ‘communautarisme’—which interestingly enough does not have an English equivalent unless one uses the extreme word ‘separationist’—and Islamic fundamentalism. While many European countries must now listen to the new voices of their respective Muslim minority populations, many governments and public figures often respond as British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair did when he recently declared that the wearing of the veil is “a mark of separation in society” and declared that this “wall” of fabric should be torn down. However, to this day, the adoption of the 2004 French law banning the veil in schools has only succeeded in concealing a social crisis with respect to a fringe of the French population, a crisis that the veil ironically revealed. In the end, the ban only helped to perpetuate a certain hypocrisy embedded in Molière’s famous line from Tartuffe, “Cachez ce sein que je ne saurais voir.” [“Hide this breast that I cannot see”]. Of course, today the injunction is not to veil but to unveil as with “Unveil this body that I want to see.”
Reaction to the veil debate was also local. This collection of essays originates from the international conference held at the University of Montana, (Missoula) in April 2005. Despite the apparently remote location of the conference, the announcement of the event brought out voices and responses from all quarters. Indeed many emails were sent to us, not as requests to participate but to share stories or offer remarks about the topic as, for example, one Muslim professor of history who contacted us to tell us that she wears the veil to work and cannot fathom why it is understood as a tool of oppression. Another person sent us an email about Fulla, a veiled doll which comes with a prayer mat and has replaced the Barbie doll on the shelves of Middle Eastern toy stores. Some Muslim students at the University of Montana boycotted the event because, for them, the veil is not a topic that should even be open to debate, while in another email, the president of a US chapter of the Alliance Française wrote “I do not think that any people should discuss the stand taken by the French government to protect its democratic institutions and its way of life.” Clearly resistance to the veil as well as enthusiasm for the topic marked the lead up to the conference and its duration.
The desire and the act of discovering, removing, unveiling, laying bare…, the unknown or the hidden has been characterizing Western civilization since medieval times. It also characterizes “Oriental” (Muslim) civilization. For instance the renowned Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali refers to spiritual “unveiling” (“revelation”) as a “science of unveiling,” that is, a method for overcoming the human disabilities or distractions that prevent people from seeing the truth. The same epistemological obsession is caught in the folds, pleats and creases of the ‘Occidental’ evolution of clothing. It has also affected the way the Orient dresses itself. Therefore the veil (symbolic scarf, chador or burkha, hijab…) is a cultural phenomenon of religious and social importance which affects all aspects of human interaction and signification. As such it occupies a key ideological position in the on-going struggle between tradition and modernity, garment (vestment as dress-code embodying the Law) and fashion (dis/vestment—seduction-- embodying the law of desire and exchange-value). According to Gilles Lipovetsky (The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy) what fashion “translates is not the continuity of human nature (the taste for innovation and ornament, the desire to stand out, group rivalry, and so on) but a historical discontinuity, a major break—however circumscribed—with the form of socialization that had prevailed from time immemorial: the immutable logic of tradition. On the scale of the human adventure, the sudden appearance of fashion signaled a departure from the form of collective cohesiveness that had ensured the durability of custom; it signified the deployment of a new social bond and of a new social temporality.” (New French Thought, Princeton University Press: 1991. 23)
As any other cultural artifact, as a collective form of social cohesiveness, the veil is a complex civilization phenomenon at the intersection of identity and religion, ethnicity and politics. As such, it is a difficult to understand, which partly explains the “pro and con” politics of the veil, the incomprehension it provokes and the passionate attachment it arouses. Only the application of the tools of modern and postmodern textual critical theory makes the veil shed/give out the miscellaneous richness of its meanings. Such is the goal of the present book which is a selection of the proceedings of The University of Montana international conference on The Veil. It gathered specialists and cultural analysts from all venues and scholarly traditions. The proceedings’ contents include articles by the world-renown social and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek and the US specialist of Lacanian critique, Ellie Ragland… They all analyze the veil dans tous ses états (“in all states and conditions”) and draw conclusions as to its signification in regards socio-politics, religion, ethnicity, ethics and gender. As a group of academics the objective of the conference was to encourage socio-political, historical, analytical, psychoanalytical and feminist interpretations of the veil in society, literature and history. We also sought to deconstruct the Western discourse on the veil and tackle the semiotic complexity of the veil as cultural, psychological, and religious phenomena. Of course, the veil has been the object of numerous studies, inquiries and reflections and its symbolism, meaning and associations have been explored by many scholars. Yet, we maintain then and now that another text on the subject was far from redundant, first, because the veil is a recurrent and seemingly omnipresent symbol in the world we live in today, and given the density of the topic we have not exhausted its richness nor unpacked the layers of meanings it contains. Second, this complex debate is over-determined and must be examined further and with care in a rigorous academic fashion. To that end, this collection of essays, while providing informative articles on the historical, sociological and religious aspects of the veil, also tackles its unconscious ramifications for the veil conveys much more than direct and objective meaning. Reactions to the veil (such as desire and fear) are linked to the human psyche and are symptoms we might best access and understand through psychoanalytic paradigms.
To most westerners wearing a beard has come to be associated with a fundamentalist view of Islam if not terrorism, while wearing the veil has come to represent the oppression of Muslim women. Indeed, whether the veil is adopted willingly or whether it is required of women, it remains a powerful symbol of oppression for most westerners who see in it the tool of religious fanaticism. Ironically, the veil has become an indirect way to use violence against the very women who must be “saved” for not only is the veil condemned but the woman wearing it is denounced as well. The violence of women living in the West (and from other parts of the world as well, especially from bourgeois backgrounds) against their veiled sisters is such that one cannot stop wondering about the source of such a disposition and what, finally, must provoke it.
Yet it is important to note, for example, that vehement opposition against veiled women in France also comes from men and (especially) women of North African origin who view veiled women as an obstacle in their difficult route towards integration into French society. As Giselle Donnard argues in her article “Mettre les voiles,” there is no definite demarcation between European women and women of Muslim origin since more than half of the latter is totally opposed to the wearing of the veil in school. The opposition to the veil is as urgent for these women—some of whom left their countries to escape Islamic fanaticism—as veiling is for the young women who want to mark their presence and their faith by wearing it. The veil detractors have completely reduced the veil—and the debate—to a tool and so a matter of Muslim patriarchal oppression. This is unfortunate when we know that, as Alison Donnell puts it, it often happens that the concentration on the veil in Western discussions of Islamic societies can legitimately be seen to divert attention from other issues such as legal rights, education and access to healthcare. Moreover one should not forget the connivance between racist and sexist agenda, a fact which is lost on many feminists. Historically, as Leila Ahmed argues in her groundbreaking article, “whatever the disagreements of feminism with white male domination within Western societies, outside their borders feminism turned from being the critic of the system of white male dominance to being its docile servant.” ‘Post-nationalist’ feminists look for a more cohesive way to answer to the stigmatization of women. Donnard suggests that we start with the refusal of all stigmatization and with the creation of a space where women (veiled, unveiled, pro-veil, against the veil, etc) could speak about what they experience, what they want and don’t want, speak about their bodies, love, pain, and happiness, a space where alliances and solidarities can emerge with the production of new subjectivities.
Returning to the veil as it is worn and understood by its users, it is important to emphasize that its meaning is multiple and unstable as it shifts from country to country, from period to period and from woman to woman. In her article on the topic, the well-known novelist Ahdaf Soueif recounts how after refusing to write about the veil, she finally decided to do so and immediately encountered conceptual problems. Muslim women, she writes, are not all Arab and the conditions of Iranian women are different from those of the women of Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and Afghanistan. And they are all different from Arabs. And not all Arab women are Muslim. Thus, while the veiled woman is, as Alison Donnells puts it, “used to engineer a representational equivalence between the Islamic woman and cloistered, apolitical, even a-historical victim,” (134) the reality is much more complex.
As several contributors highlight in this volume, the veil has often been a symbol of social class rather than religion, so that poor or middle class women who had to work went unveiled. As we see it, the veil is a cipher that is given meaning and significance according to the needs and strategies of the moment. However—and except for a couple of exceptions such as the Tuaregs—there is one constant feature, which is that the veil deals with a woman’s body and thus the latter is de facto the site of debate about women in Islam. In some Muslim countries, in recent history, politicians use the veil to consolidate their power or for strategic reasons, banning it or enforcing it according to the image they want to give of their administration or their country. For instance Turkish president Kemal Ataturk, aspiring to create a modern or western image for the country, condemned the wearing of the veil as backward and uncivilized. His contemporary Reza Shah of Iran decided to ban the veil, with the support of the upper classes. It was effectively banned in 1936 and women who wore it were forced to remove it. Yet when the Shah was ousted in 1979 and the current Islamic regime took control of the government, the veil became compulsory for women in Iran. Such positions and their opposites are not uncommon. Another familiar example is Frantz Fanon’s study on the adoption of the veil during the Algerian war of independence as a means of resistance against the French colonial rule. However, we often neglect if not ignore such important aspects of the issue as the discrepancy between the perspective of the observer and that of the wearer of the veil, and between the individual practice and the public domain where the veil is debated as a national phenomenon.
The articles selected for the book provide some insight into these blind spots. The first part is dedicated to political, social and historical criticism while the second part discusses the philosophical and psychoanalytical aspect of the veil. The volume opens with two dissections of the veil as a public issue in France today, with detailed accounts of the country’s political and public life which explain the development of the controversy and the complexity that surrounds the phenomenon of the veil.
Fazia Aitel (Assistant Professor of French--Claremont McKenna College) and Michel Valentin (Associate Professor of French—University of Montana)—editors of The Veil in All Its States.
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