Jennifer Heath is the author of eight books, an activist, curator and editor of The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics (UC Press, May 2008). In her book and the blog below, Jennifer explores the meaning and mystery of veils worn by women and men across the globe. You can also check out the book’s website here.
Please Note: Embedded at the end of the blog is a silent, loop video called AmbiVEILant by Tania Kamal-Eldin
By Jennifer Heath
In Turkey and France, it is outlawed. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is mandated.
The veil is deeply polarizing, a locus for the struggle between Islam and the West and between contemporary and traditional interpretations of Islam.
Yet veiling – of women, of men, and of sacred places and objects – has existed in countless cultures and religions for centuries. Perhaps it began when humans watched eclipses and observed the periodic shedding of animals’ outer bodily layer (feathers, skin, fur or horn, even pupas). Veils and veiling are found in the oldest myths, in folklore and fairytale and in the arts. The veil itself is mystery, even as it is the shroud that guards the mystery. As much as the veil is fabric or a garment, it is also a concept. Veils are the ethers beyond consciousness, the hidden hundredth name of god, the final passage into death, even the biblical apocalypse – the lifting of god’s veil to signal the “end times.”
I grew up in heavily Roman Catholic and later in Muslim countries, where veiling was common. In those days – as Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi observed in an earlier decade – a rural Italian or Greek woman looked not much different from, say, a rural Egyptian woman. How and why have we politicized customs so ancient their origins and meanings cannot necessarily be traced and certainly can’t be “blamed” on any group or event? When I say “we,” I do indeed mean all of us, East and West. We all collude in turning women’s bodies into battlegrounds – nowadays signified by the veil.
For The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics, I assembled twenty writers and scholars – Kecia Ali, Michelle Auerbach, Sarah C. Bell, Barbara Goldman Carrel, Eve Grubin, Roxanne Kamayani Gupta, Jana M. Hawley, Jasbir Jain, Mohja Kahf, Desiree Koslin, Laurene Lafontain, Shireen Malik, Maliha Masood, Marjane Satrapi, Aisha Shaheed, Rita Stephan, Pamela K. Taylor, Ashraf Zahedi, Dinah Zeiger and Sherifa Zuhur – to engage received wisdom about the veil, to explore its multiple histories and layered sacred, sensual, and socio-political truths in memory- and research-based chapters that speak to the veil throughout human imagination. These marvelous contributors, who represent a wide range of societies, religions, ages, location, races, and accomplishments, examine the veil in its myriad guises; they elucidate, criticize, and/or praise the practice.
The overriding concern expressed in these chapters is the exploitation of the veil for political agendas. Across time, veiling and unveiling have been forced upon women. Demonization seems especially virulent today with respect to the Muslim veil, perceived by the West as a challenge to modernity and secular enlightenment and even as a terrorist threat, while among some Muslims, it has become a symbol of solidarity and resistance.
But today’s ideological battles are merely subterfuge, distraction hindering feminist progress and blinding us to the increasing feminization of poverty. Conflicts over covering actually veil the realities we must face — and fix — of women’s disadvantages, which feed a destructive spiral of impoverishment, population growth, and environmental degradation worldwide.
Meanwhile, veiling is a woman’s – or a man’s – right to choose.
AmbiVEILant by Tania Kamal-Eldin