Can the veil be cool?

Author:Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten


Literature on the veiling of women in Muslim contexts is abundant. It reaches from Leila Ahmed's critique of ethnocentric views of the veil (1982) to Fatima Mernissi's attempts to trace the veil back to the "almost phobic attitude towards women," which she believes to be characteristic of Islam because of its constant highlighting of the conflict between the divine and the feminine (Mernissi 1991, 83). The veil has been interpreted as a symbol of both oppression and resistance, as a means to bring about equality between the sexes as well as the exact contrary; it has been said to confine women to a more ethical social space but has also been accused of facilitating flirtation and adultery. The veil has been seen as a symbol enhancing Islamic values and as the reduction of these same values, and decisions to veil have been supported by feminist justifications as well as by explicitly anti-feminist rationales. Add to this that the veil has been interpreted as a desexualizing device and at the same time as a means to raise women's sexual appeal. In 1983, ayatollah Morteza Mottahari pointed out that Eastern women were no longer alluring precisely because they had abandoned the veil: "With their attempt to emulate Western women they unveiled themselves and decreased their sexual appeal" (Naficy 2003, 184).

The semantics and functions of the veil are extremely diverse within different geographical locations and historical periods. For an Egyptian woman living in Cairo, the veil has a different meaning from an Afghan woman who grew up in a war zone. The veil has had a very distinct meaning for Arabs in colonial Algeria, where French soldiers forcibly unveiled women and thus "raped" the country (or for Uzbek women who were suffering from similar Russian strategies). And it has still another meaning for a Pakistani English woman living in Britain who chooses to turn the veil into an intercultural issue of identity politics. In Canada, "some mothers felt powerless to deny their daughters' decision to veil" and "two fathers, after failing to convince their daughters not to veil, refused to talk to them for several months" (Hoodfar 2003, 15). It does not help that the veil has been charged with even more extended metaphorical meanings urging us, for example, to take note of colonial perceptions of Muslim states as "veiled, obliterated, nonexistent" (Mernissi 1991,23) or to link, as did the US administration (as well as the French government in the famous national veil debate), the unveiling of women to the fight against terrorism.

No thinkable scenario is missing: men put veils on women; women take off their veils against men's will; men take off women's veils against women's will; women put on veils against men's will; men take veils off women with their ostensible agreement (as did Americans in Afghanistan).

The veil has become so highly charged with religious, historical, and ideological symbolisms that its socio-functional aspects can easily disappear behind debates on related matters. If it is discussed, this often happens in terms of either cultural essentialism or relativism or, as Fatwa El Guindi has criticized, the explanation will be limited to either the "origin type" or the "utilitarian type" (El Guindi 1999, 124). Often these approaches fail to explain the reality of the veil as it is experienced in contemporary societies. To avoid symbolical as well as historical or deterministic shortcuts, I attempt in the present article to grasp the function of the veil inside a social game: how can the veil function as an instrument of coolness in modern Islamic or non- Islamic societies?

"Why Do You Veil?"

The question "Why do you wear the veil?" has often been posed, but, today more than ever, the answers "I have been forced to wear it" and "It was my free decision to wear it" should not be perceived as dichotomous. As Lazreg points out, though the subject believes to have "freely" chosen the veil, her act was perhaps not "based on decisions in full knowledge of one's motivations and the consequences of one's acts, after weighing the pros and cons and considering alternatives" (Lazreg 2009, 86). This is true for the wearing of the veil as well as for not wearing it. "Adaptive preference" (cf. Laborde 2006, 358) is a euphemism concealing unjust background conditions. Rigid historical materialism does not recognize that any "false consciousness" (which was for Marx the proletariat's internalization of certain patterns of thinking under heavy ideological control) can have been submitted to diverse influences that are, in a postmodern context, manifold without following coherent schemes. Those powers are "cultural influences" which can emanate from the Islamic tradition and from capitalist consumer culture alike. Even in the context of "religious" practices such as veiling, the subject is, as pointed out by Abu Lughod, submitted to "forms of power that are rooted in practices of capitalist consumerism and urban bourgeois values and aesthetics" (1990b, 50, from Mahmood 2005, 6). And those practices normally include more "freedom" than religious practices. Antonio Gramsci came thus closer to our present scenario than Marx when insisting on the active role of consciousness in history, explaining that the proletariat is not merely a passive receiver but at any moment has the ability to influence the existing social reality.

The other side of the coin is that within this constellation of elements, absolute liberty is inexistent. Correspondingly, much research on the veil has shown that the enlightened, autonomous, rational, and freely choosing subject is an illusion. The French idea of an unencumbered, autonomous--and necessarily unveiled--individual that arose during the famous "veiling debate" in the 1990s is a similar kind of illusion. In the end, the question "Why do you wear the veil?" turns out to be entirely redundant because the whys are multiple, partly conscious, partly unconscious, never allowing the crystallization of a clear cause.

This probably explains the contradictory results of much empirical research on the veil. Ahmed finds that "from El Guindi through Williams to Macleod and Zuhur ... the decision to veil was the result of women's own choices, [while] the findings of researcher studying the Islamist movement more broadly suggest rather that veiling spread because Islamist male leaders conceived of veiling as strategically important to their movement" (Ahmed 2011, 131). It is true that many--often opposing--meanings that the veil has accumulated through its use in different locations and historical periods remain attached to this piece of cloth. It is also true that, within an increasingly globalized world, a renewed search for cultural, ethnic, religious, or national identity has become necessary for many people and that many revert to the veil because of its traditional and conservative input. However, at the same time, young peoples' everyday life experience is constituted by religion, the customs of traditional society as well as by an aggressive consumer culture displaying international fashion, Western lifestyles, or music. Many women who veil consider themselves Western because they grew up in Western countries. Those as well as other young Muslim women all over the world negotiate the hijab between niqab and Lady Gaga. Since few of them seem to be willing to recede to an idealized Islamic past, do they perhaps want to create a sort of alternative modernity propelled through youth culture in the way it has been done by African American young people before them?

When it comes to the veil, religious, political, aesthetic, and personal values are constantly mixed and any attempt to disentangle them can too easily be foiled by the bias of the observer. The question "Can the veil be cool?" encourages debate on the kind of values "cool" is supposed to incorporate. Condemnations of the veil because it "limits women's capacity for self-determination in their bodies as part of their human development" and are thus "detrimental to women's advancement" (Lazreg 2009, 10) are as unhelpful as the lauding of the veil as a catalyzer of emancipation. The point is that women might simply have chosen to veil because they find it "cool," subsequently attributing more or less specific meanings to their personal concept of coolness. In principle, the veil is (represents, signifies) nothing that can be spelled out in terms of fixed symbolisms, but it will only function in a certain way.

These are the reasons why the question "Why do you wear the veil?" should shift toward "Do you find the veil cool?" Fashion designers have long developed the veil into something trendy, as displayed by Maliha Masood in her accounts of travels through Cairo, Damascus, Amman, and Beirut (Masood 2008). This is surprising if one considers that, in general, fashion is an ultimate symbol of materialism and secularism. Already in Afghanistan of the 1970s, designer Hamida Sekander transformed the burka into an exquisite, carefree, pleated dress, "its square bodice tailored from the veil's crocheted eyepiece and cap" (Heath 2008, 11). Attempts to redefine the veil at least partly as a fashion item have more often been made in the context of studies of overseas Muslim communities. Here Williams and Vashi find that "wearing hijab has a fashion dynamic that cannot be fully accounted for by religious motivations or social, ethnic, or class backgrounds" (2007, 284). In general, hijab fashion follows certain trends and might even represent fashion cycles on its own. American Muslim "girls and young women talk about hijab with each other as if they were talking about their clothes from the mall" (Williams and Vashi 2007, 285).

Attempts to understand veiling "from the inside"--that is, as a phenomenon developing its own dynamics without reducing it to a restrictive practice imposed upon women by "outside" authorities--have most...

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