Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 121 in December, 2009.
Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women
by Marnia Lazreg
(Princeton University Press. 2009)
Review by Hester Eisenstein
This is a thoughtful and elegantly written book. Marnia Lazreg is the author, inter alia, of a classic study on Algerian women (Lazreg, 1994) and most recently a powerful book on torture and empire in Algeria and Iraq (Lazreg, 2008). Now she has published a series of letters to young Muslim girls who are considering whether or not to take up wearing the hijab or head covering, popularly referred to as “the veil.” (Following Lazreg, I use the term hijab here as shorthand for the range of head and body coverings that are customary in various parts of the Islamic world.) Lazreg, the noted sociologist and social theorist, who is a faculty member at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, grew up in Algeria under the colonial rule of the French. This new book draws on conversations she has held over a number of years with several generations of women in the United States and in Muslim countries, who decide either to adopt the veil or to abandon it.
Interspersed with these conversations are the accounts of several incidents which frame her approach to the issue. The first recalls a painful event when Lazreg, then around seven years old, was playing with friends in front of her house, when a neighbor’s son began pulling on her braids “while making lewd movements with his body.” Her mother saw her difficulty, but hesitated to run to the young Marnia without her hijab, which she had taken off while indoors. Instead, she “pulled one of her clogs off her foot and threw it at the boy, missing him. The clog landed on my forehead, making a bloody gash. I had a half-inch scar for many years to remember the incident by.” Her mother, “thoroughly socialized in the culture of the veil,” could not immediately come to her rescue. But thirty years later, her mother discarded the veil, and Lazreg speculates as to whether the unconscious memory of this incident might have been a factor in her decision. (3)
The second is Lazreg’s recollection of the day when, discerning the growth of breasts under her clothing, her grandmother pointedly told her that it was time for her to wear the veil (in Algeria at that time a white piece of cotton or silk). “‘A woman should hide her ugliness or her beauty. That’s the way it should be. You must protect yourself!’, she said, to my dismay.” (15) Lazreg recalls feeling sick at hearing this, and looking back, identifies it as a moment when she was being taught to be ashamed of her body.
A third recounts her experience when, having become a professor and a consultant, she was giving a seminar in Islamabad. For the occasion she wore a conservative grey suit with the skirt well below the knees. Nonetheless this was evidently an insufficient indicator of modesty for at least one participant. As Lazreg was bidding farewell to the seminar members, one man graciously invited her back. But another participant, a woman wearing Pakistani dress, added a caveat: ‘‘Indeed, but only if she changes the manner in which she dresses!’’ (quoted 36) Lazreg and the men were wearing professional attire – suits – while the Pakistani woman was dressed in a way that “accentuated her difference from both her male colleagues and me.” (37) Lazreg notes that this behavior – drawing attention to her own dress and attacking Lazreg’s – was anything but modest!
Yet a fourth anecdote concerns her attempt, while in Damascus, to visit the mosque of Sayyida Ruqayya, a great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Lazreg had carefully dressed in loose slacks and shirt and a white scarf. But at the entrance to the mosque, she was stopped “by a small man who advanced toward me with arms outstretched, holding a large piece of cloth, grayish from dirt and use. He intended to cover me with it. I instinctively stepped back, surprised by the man’s brashness, and pointed out that I was properly dressed and would not wear such a dirty piece of cloth. He shot back: ‘It is cleaner than you!’ This put an end to my ability to visit a mosque built in honor of a woman.” (57)
All of these incidents (and there are others) are examples of cultural policing (although Lazreg does not use this term), by relatives, colleagues, or perfect strangers, seeking to control the dress code of women for the sake of presumed Islamic values. The context for her book is the increasing pressure on Islamic women, coming from conservative preachers representing a version of fundamentalist Islam that has grown in influence in recent decades, to go back to wearing the veil as an expression of their Islamic faith. Taking on one by one the various justifications that have been offered for women to adopt the hijab, Lazreg painstakingly dismantles these arguments.
In chapter one, she tackles the argument that wearing the veil is a sign of modesty, as mandated by the Quran. She deconstructs one of the relevant passages and retranslates it to say: “women should dress in a way that does not expose their breasts or genitals or flaunt their natural beauty.” (23) Lazreg questions why it is intrinsically more modest to cover the face and/or the hair, rather than to wear clothing that does not reveal cleavage, for example. In Middle Eastern countries, Lazreg writes, anthropologists note that modesty covers a range of ideals, from modes of covering the body to character traits such as downplaying one’s personal achievements. In short, “modesty is not reducible to the veil. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the nineteenth-century Muslim reformer, defined modesty as an individual’s restraint from evil deeds that is more effective than laws. In this sense, modesty is not a virtue that can be legislated.” (23)
Chapter two takes up the argument that the veil will protect women from the predations of men, specifically, from sexual harassment, or rape. Lazreg shows that that this does not work in practice. But more profoundly, she highlights the importance of the veil for men and men’s identities. One of her more striking points is that the veil, while supposedly a requirement for pious women, is really an expression of men’s feelings and identities. She argues that the veil, in fact, protects a man’s own sexual identity “by signaling to other men that his wife, sister, or sometimes daughter is off limits to them. … In this sense, the veil becomes a formal and culturally sanctioned step to take … to ward off a possible besmirching of a man’s own identity. This formalism works only if its male advocates conceal from themselves that sexual harassment escapes their control. Desire can pierce through the veil….” (51)
Chapter three tackles the issue of cultural identity. Several of Lazreg’s interviewees report having chosen to wear a headscarf as a way of expressing pride in their Islamic heritage. One young woman, Qama, decided to wear the hijab after the events of 9-11, when her own parents were being investigated by the FBI. In response, her father stopped wearing his Islamic clothes, her mother took off her long dress and wore only a headscarf, and two of her friends were being pressured by the police to change their mode of dress.
“These incidents were the triggers of Qama’s decision to wear a headscarf atop her regular clothes, typical of those of other young New York women her age. She felt that her parents as well as her friends had too easily (albeit understandably) given up what they believed in. She was also angered by the anti-Muslim sentiment and climate that contributed to her parents’ and friends’ action. By taking up the hijab, she wished to ‘make a statement, to say that you don’t have a hold on me and tell me what to do [sic]. Given the circumstances, I’m going to do what you don’t like me to do. What are you going to do about it?’” (55)
But Lazreg questions whether wearing the hijab is the most effective or most useful way to defend Islam. “Muslim identity when reduced to the veil represents a political statement made by women in response to the excesses of fear and prejudice against Islam. But should women bow to these pressures by asserting an identity that rests on a piece of clothing? Is the reduction of Muslim culture to a garment the only way to force respect from Western nations?” (63)
Chapter four addresses the issue of religious conviction and piety, speaking to those women who have chosen to adopt the hijab as a marker of their devotion to Islam. This is the longest and most complex of the chapters, in which Lazreg queries the authenticity of the faith that is imputed to wearing the hijab. She argues that the hijab “is emerging as a tool for engaging women in a conception of religiosity that serves the political aims of various groups scattered throughout the Muslim world, who are eager to demonstrate the success and reach of their views.” (84) The network of experts, lecturers, and “cultural brokers” linking immigrant communities in the United States with their countries of origin is creating an atmosphere that heavily influences the individual’s “choice” to don the hijab. While arguing that no one has the right to discriminate against women who wear the veil, Lazreg criticizes the attempts of religious leaders to “define women as special carriers of religious morality.” (94)
The final chapter seeks to dissuade women from wearing the hijab. Lazreg points out that the practice is physically uncomfortable and inconvenient. It has deleterious psychological effects, since in repressing her body, a woman also represses her self. “The self in Arabic is nafs, which means the mind as well as the soul. The person is one, body and mind, and when the body is defined as in need of concealment and repression, the self is affected as well.” (106) In the workplace, the veil “perpetuates the culture of gender inequality through symbolic interaction…. Since the world of work is organized on the principles of merit and competence, not gender, the hijab has the symbolic effect of diminishing the importance of formal equality in the workplace.” (109)
More broadly, the return to the veil as a way of resisting Western incursions into the Muslim world is, to Lazreg, an archaic gesture, harking back to the time when 19th and early 20th century theorists of colonialism defended Islam against Western critics, but also asked honest questions about the political and cultural issues that kept the Muslim world from catching up with the West. But in the 21st century context of intensified Muslim fundamentalism, such honest soul-searching has given way to an unreflective anti-Western dogmatism.
Those forcing women to wear the veil show little or no respect for women as individuals. “In Algeria, groups that coerced women into wearing veils in the 1990s also engaged in acts of violence against them for working as hairdressers or practicing divination arts. Some women were also forced into ‘temporary marriage’…, a Shi’i Islam custom that is alien to Algeria and essentially meant raping women with impunity.” (122) Women’s rights are similarly under attack in Iraq. Thus “… the groups and institutions that preside over veiling are also the ones that have little respect for women’s dignity and right to be.” (123)
Lazreg argues that, because of the complex religious and political history of “veiling,” no individual woman can in reality control the meaning of her action in taking up the hijab. Several of the young women she interviewed spoke of a decision to wear a head cover as an expression of pride in their Islamic faith, in the face of violent Western prejudices against the Muslim religion. Others spoke of intending to project their own religious convictions. But while these young women might seek to convey a personal message about their own beliefs, Lazreg feels that it is impossible for them as individuals to shed the multiple meanings that accompany the cultural wars over Islam that have raged since the events of 9-11 and indeed throughout the history of Western colonialism. In other words, an individual cannot control the symbolism of her own actions, when the symbol itself carries so much cultural and political weight.
Lazreg’s absorbing account assumes that the reader is conversant with the history of the politics of the veil in the context of 20th century modernization. Countries seeking to compete with the West in economic development decreed an end to the veil for women, along with other practices seen as keeping women, and therefore the larger culture, backward. Thus Kemal Ataturk, the modernizing ruler of Turkey, abolished the veil as part of a new civil code in 1926; influenced by the Turkish example, Reza Shah Pahlavi banned the veil in Iran in 1936. In a less discussed set of events, Amanullah, the ruler of Afghanistan from 1919-1929, abolished the veil, and the Soviet Union banned the veil during the 1920s in the central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Meanwhile French colonial rulers used coercion to try to end veiling among Algerian women, and the struggle over the right to wear the veil became an intrinsic part of the Algerian revolution, as Lazreg has chronicled in detail (see Lazreg, 1994).
In effect there has been a process of “veiling, unveiling, and reveiling” (Sedghi, 2007). Everyone is familiar with the severe dress requirements imposed on women by the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini when the Islamic Republic came to power in 1979. In 2004 the French National Assembly banned the wearing of the hijab, along with other conspicuous religious symbols like the Jewish yamulkah (skullcap) and large Christian crosses, ostensibly in accordance with the fiercely guarded concept of laicity or secularism. Moving in the opposite direction, the Erdogan government in Turkey, with the electoral victory of a majority Islamic party, decided in 2008 to lift the ban on veiling.
In the context of such competing state actions, Lazreg disputes the view that an individual woman who takes up the veil in response to such propaganda can effectively express a personal religious conviction or identity. “… [B]anning the veil is as much a political act as is mandating it. Turkey (like France or Germany) is thus on a par with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Each sees the veil as standing for religious identity. Women are held hostage equally by radical secularists and Wahabists, Islamists and Shi’i Muslims. None of them trusts women with the capacity to decide for themselves how to manage their bodies and whether to wear a veil …. Thus, whether she is in a shrine in Damascus or lives in Europe, a woman bears the brunt of the politics of cultural identity as crystallized by the veil.” (61)
Lazreg is highly critical of Western feminist academics (like myself; see Eisenstein, 2009) who profess to understand the hijab as an expression of women’s self-determination and autonomy: she challenges us to try wearing the costume ourselves. The bottom line, for Lazreg, is that the hijab (and its variants) is fundamentally a marker of female difference. For a feminist committed to women’s autonomy and self-development, one cannot, in her view, defend a practice that essentially designates women as men’s Other. In this analysis Lazreg joins herself to a long tradition of feminist argument, starting (in the modern era) with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953).
Inevitably Lazreg’s book will be used by Western interests as a way to attack global Islam. Thus it was immediately hailed by The Economist as a sensible expression of Western rationality. (“Out from under,” 2009) Lazreg can by no means be construed as naïve about the uses of Western feminism as a weapon in the assault on Islamic culture that underlies the so-called War on Terror. I would have liked to hear more from her about this aspect of the debate. The politics of the veil, like the politics of abortion in the United States, are enacted as part of a global struggle among leaders and ruling elites. Representing a range of economic and strategic interests, these powerful actors use women as symbolic pieces in a larger chess game.
Individual women are caught up in this, and Lazreg is urging them to step outside of history, in a way, to make a personal statement of individual autonomy. I think she is right to point out that women as individuals cannot control the symbolism of the veil. But this is the case whether they wear the hijab or take it off. It would have been interesting to read a more detailed discussion from Lazreg about the complex layers of reality that are at play here, from the state and the international arena to the workplace to the family to the individual. But this would entail her writing a much longer text. In any case, the desire she stimulates in the reader for greater elaboration is a tribute to the richness of this very honest and readable book.
De Beauvoir, Simone. 1953  The Second Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Eisenstein, Hester. 2009. Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
Lazreg, Marnia. 1994. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York: Routledge.
2008. Torture and the Twilight of an Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
“Out from under.” 2009. The Economist, September 3, www.economist.com.
Sedghi, Hamideh. 2007. Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling, and Reveiling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.