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‘Veils’ and ‘veiling’

Activity 2

Now read an extract from Fadwa El Guindi’s book Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance (1999). This is Reading 1. As you read this text, consider what kind of pre-conceived ideas you yourself might have regarding the meaning of the terms ‘veil’ and ‘veiling’, and what the limitations of the use of these terms might be.

Reading 1

Source: El Guindi, F. (1999) Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance, Oxford/New York, Berg, pp. xi–xii, 6–7; footnotes omitted.

Veil was not my original choice for this book’s title. For a number of reasons my original intent was to write a book about Hijab, the word in the Arabic calligraphic art on the cover. ‘Veil’ has no single Arabic linguistic referent, whereas Hijab has cultural and linguistic roots that are integral to Islamic (and Arab) culture as a whole. But the publisher preferred Veil to Hijab for reader accessibility and familiarity. From a marketing angle, the publisher rightly finds Veil more marketable, even sexy. I was not persuaded by the marketing argument.

As I reflected further on the matter I realized that my own resistance to using the word ‘veil’ stems from the same bias that entraps many scholars. The veil is avoided as a subject of study because of what it stands for ideologically or for its association with Orientalist imagery. And while the word ‘veil’ is found in many – too many – titles, scholarly discussion of it occupies a few pages, even paragraphs, in most works. In most, the veil is attacked, ignored, dismissed, transcended, trivialized or defended. This reaches hysterical proportions in the media, where a hostility has developed against the veil (often under the guise of humanism, feminism or human rights) from Saudi Arabia (after the Gulf War contact) to Iran (after the Islamic Revolution), and is now concentrated on the Taliban as they consolidate their power over Afghanistan. Much of what is said is ethnocentric (often a personalistic vision reflecting the fears of the authors) and shows no understanding of how such movements are contextualized in global politics – the rise of the Taliban, for instance, being a product of the CIA’s activities during its struggle against the Soviet Union in the Cold War period. This bias, and misinformation, also prevented a full anthropological analysis, thus further hindering an adequate understanding of the veil, its roots, and its meaning in its sociocultural context.

I came to realize during the course of my research on the subject that veiling is a rich and nuanced phenomenon, a language that communicates social and cultural messages, a practice that has been present in tangible form since ancient times, a symbol ideologically fundamental to the Christian, and particularly the Catholic, vision of womanhood and piety, and a vehicle for resistance in Islamic societies, and is currently the center of scholarly debate on gender and women in the Islamic East. In movements of Islamic activism, the veil occupies center stage as symbol of both identity and resistance.


Etymology of Veiling

The English term ‘veil’ (like its European variants, such as voile in French) is commonly used to refer to Middle Eastern and South Asian women’s traditional head, face (eyes, nose, or mouth), or body cover. As a noun veil derives, through Middle English and Old North French, from the Latin vēla, pl. of vēlum. The dictionary meaning assigned to it is ‘a covering,’ in the sense of ‘to cover with’ or ‘to conceal or disguise.’ As a noun, it has four usages: (1) a length of cloth worn by women over the head, shoulders, and often the face; (2) a length of netting attached to a woman’s hat or headdress, worn for decoration or to protect the head and face; (3) a. The part of a nun’s headdress that frames the face and falls over the shoulders, b. The life or vows of a nun; and (4) a piece of light fabric hung to separate or conceal or screen what is behind it; a curtain.

In another reference source the range of meanings under ‘veil and veiling’ is organized under several broad headings: A. Interpersonal Emotion: (1) celibacy; (2) covering in the sense of cover; (3) covering in the sense of shade; B. Modes of Communication; (1) hiding in the sense of disguise; (2) concealment, conceal, or concealed; (3) deception, sham; C. Organic Matter: (1) screen; (2) invisibility; (3) dimness; (4) darkness; (5) dim sight. The final category is D. Dressing in ‘Space and Dimensions.’ It is interesting that ‘veil as dress’ is last on the list of significations. There is a separate grouping called Religion: Canonicals that includes vestures; covering; seclusion; monastic; occult. (On ‘Veil of Veronica’ see Apostolos-Cappadona 1996).

In sum, the meanings assigned in general reference works to the Western term veil comprise four dimensions: the material, the spatial, the communicative, and the religious. The material dimension consists of clothing and ornament, i.e. veil in the sense of clothing article covering head, shoulders, and face or in the sense of ornamentation over a hat drawn over the eyes. In this usage ‘veil’ is not confined to face covering, but extends to the head and shoulders. The spatial sense specifies veil as a screen dividing physical space, while the communication sense emphasizes the notion of concealing and invisibility.

‘Veil’ in the religious sense means seclusion from worldly life and sex (celibacy), as in the case of the life and vows of nuns. This Christian definition of the Western term ‘veil’ is not commonly recognized. Although evidence shows that the veil has existed for a longer period outside Arab culture, in popular perception the veil is associated more with Arab women and Islam.

In Arabic (the spoken and written language of two hundred and fifty million people and the religious language of one and a half billion people today) ‘veil’ has no single equivalent. Numerous Arabic terms are used to refer to diverse articles of women’s clothing that vary by body part, region, local dialect, and historical era (Fernea and Fernea 1979: 68–77). The Encyclopedia of Islam identifies over a hundred terms for dress parts, many of which are used for ‘veiling’ (Encyclopedia of lslam 1986: 745–6)

Some of these and related Arabic terms are burqu’, ‘abayah, tarhah, burnus, jilbab, jellabah, hayik, milayah, gallabiyyah, dishdasha, gargush, gina’, mungub, lithma, yashmik, habarah, izar. A few terms refer to items used as face covers only. These are qina’, burqu’, niqab, lithma. Others refer to headcovers that are situationally held by the individual to cover part of the face. These are khimar, sitara, ‘abayah or ‘immah. To add to this complexity, some garments are worn identically or similarly in form by men and women, and the same term is used in both cases. Some are dual-gendered while others are neutral-gendered. For example, both women and men wear outer garments such as cloaks and face covers (L. Ahmed 1992: 118; El Guindi 1995b). As an example, lithma is the term for a dual-gendered face cover used in Yemen by women and associated with femaleness, yet it is also worn by some Bedouin and Berber men and associated with virility and maleness. Other examples include the neutral-gendered terms ‘abayah or ‘aba of Arabia and burnus of the Maghrib – overgarments for both sexes.

All this complexity reflected and expressed in the language is referred to by the single convenient Western term ‘veil,’ which is indiscriminate, monolithic, and ambiguous. The absence of a single, monolithic term in the language(s) of the people who at present most visibly practice ‘veiling’ suggests a significance to this diversity that cannot be captured in one term. By subsuming and transcending such multivocality and complexity we lose the nuanced differences in meaning and associated cultural behaviors.


The terms ‘veil’ and ‘veiling’ might have different associations for you, or you might prefer different terms based on your own background or experiences. El Guindi’s text reflects my own reservations against using the terms ‘veil’ and ‘veiling’, as they do not do justice to the many different styles and materials used and to the complexity, diversity and fluidity of ‘veiling’ practices. El Guindi highlights the ‘indiscriminate, monolithic, and ambiguous’ nature of these terms (1999, p. 7). Nevertheless, I decided to use ‘veiling’ as the title of this course as it forms a familiar point of reference for many people in European and North American contexts. I also find it useful precisely because it is so unspecific and can be applied to so many different practices within different historical, cultural and geographical contexts. Equally, the term ‘veil’ can be used to describe a wide range of materials and styles. However, when using the terms ‘veil’ or ‘veiling’, we need to bear in mind their limitations and ambiguity.

Notions of ‘Islamic dress’ or ‘Muslim clothing’ are no less complex and ambiguous. As the writer, researcher and activist Aisha Lee Fox Shaheed points out in the next reading, the use of these terms also needs to be carefully considered.