Ex­plor­ing the po­lit­i­cal bound­aries of per­sonal and pub­lic space

‘Veil’ raises the qual­ity of de­bate over a sym­bol of Is­lam that has be­come mis­un­der­stood, writes M Lynx Qua­ley

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

What is this thing we call a veil? How does it change in­di­vid­u­als, groups and land­scapes?

Rafia Zakaria’s Veil, pub­lished as part of the Ob­ject Lessons se­ries, sets it­self the dif­fi­cult task of get­ting a reader to con­sider these ques­tions afresh. Most books in the se­ries, pub­lished in part­ner­ship by Blooms­bury and The At­lantic, are short per­sonal and philo­soph­i­cal re­flec­tions on the stuff of ev­ery­day life.

Past Ob­ject Lessons have been about the re­mote con­trol, the golf ball, the cig­a­rette lighter and the pass­word. Any of these might yield fas­ci­nat­ing il­lu­mi­na­tions and fun party facts.

Zakaria’s task is harder: not to ex­ca­vate the lit­tle-dis­cussed, but to ex­plore an ob­ject at the cen­tre of pub­lic at­ten­tion, de­bate and leg­is­la­tion. The book’s ori­gins can be found in 2011, Zakaria tells us, in a Karachi hos­pi­tal where her mother was stay­ing in a special care unit. Most women in the wait­ing room pro­tected their per­sonal space with bags and body lan­guage, by hunch­ing into them­selves and by avoid­ing the gazes of men.

One woman loudly dom­i­nated the space: meet­ing these gazes, speak­ing loudly on her phone. She was fully cov­ered.

The book’s in­ter­est in the veil is “not sim­ply as the moral or po­lit­i­cal in­di­ca­tor to which it is rel­e­gated but rather as a facet of life that trans­forms and re­forms dur­ing its course”.

One of the ini­tial ways Veil flips the dis­cus­sion is by il­lu­mi­nat­ing the in­creas­ing im­por­tance of vis­i­bil­ity. A half-cen­tury ago, only celebri­ties had a pub­lic pro­file in need of con­stant bur­nish­ing and groom­ing. Now, bil­lions of or­di­nary cit­i­zens are on so­cial me­dia and many judge suc­cess by likes and fol­lows.

Episodes of the Bri­tish sci-fi TV se­ries Black Mir­ror have taken our ex­treme vis­i­bil­ity to terrifying fu­tures. The full veil, Zakaria notes, is a re­jec­tion of the hy­per-vis­i­bil­ity of selfie cul­ture. More­over, it en­forces a sharp bound­ary be­tween in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal re­al­i­ties.

Yet while a veil gives in­di­vid­u­als con­trol over their pub­lic vis­i­bil­ity, the ob­ject it­self is very vis­i­ble. Zakaria makes a com­pelling ar­gu­ment that Euro­pean bans on burki­nis, full-face veils and some­times even head­scarves, have an aes­thetic-po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion.

Veil bans are, in part, about how some Euro­peans want their pub­lic spa­ces to look. These bans some­times dove­tail, she writes, with the ban­ning of minarets. Zakaria doesn’t limit this aes­thetic di­men­sion to Europe. The Tal­iban’s en­force­ment of full cov­er­age for women, “while lit­er­ally jus­ti­fied as Is­lamic, is more likely to be mo­ti­vated by the need for an in­stant trans­for­ma­tion of pub­lic space that also emerges from the ban”.

That is, one can in­stantly per­ceive they are un­der dif­fer­ent rulers if they step into an area where women have been elim­i­nated from the land­scape.

All women’s sar­to­rial choices stem, in part, from a de­sire to fit in. Zakaria de­scribes how, at the girls’ school she at­tended in Karachi, she was for a time so­cially ex­cluded. This was largely be­cause of a mi­nor role she played in help­ing a group of boys to crash a school beach trip. As an act of con­tri­tion, the au­thor started wear­ing a head­scarf. When she did, other girls started in­clud­ing her again.

This, she writes, gave her an “un­der­stand­ing of what it meant to be­long and how be­long­ing could be ac­com­plished, in this case via an ob­ject, a head­scarf and then a veil”. De­bates over the veil also force di­vi­sions among Mus­lim women, pit­ting them against each other over is­sues of moral­ity, fem­i­nism and re­alpoli­tik.

In 2001, the full-face veil was among the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions of the United States’ bomb­ing of Afghanistan, and US women were at the fore­front of de­mand­ing at­tacks. “The burka and the bomb­ing thus in­ter­mixed in the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion.” This marked a con­tin­u­ance of the nar­ra­tive of white women “bring­ing fem­i­nism and vis­i­bil­ity to the lesser women of con­quered lands”.

Zakaria’s ar­gu­ment here

echoes Ed­ward Said’s Ori­en­tal­ism, as she de­scribes a nar­ra­tive – Mus­lim women suf­fer­ing at the hands of Mus­lim men – as a nec­es­sary jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for colo­nial dom­i­nance. But as the War on Ter­ror con­tin­ued, Zakaria writes, the fully-veiled woman as “ex­otic and re­pressed” no longer helped to achieve so-called se­cu­rity goals. The re­sult “is a trans­for­ma­tion of the fully-veiled woman from the hap­less sub­ject re­quir­ing western res­cue to the sub­ver­sive ter­ror­ist re­quir­ing im­pris­on­ment”.

Veil is just over 100 pages, and moves deftly be­tween per­sonal mem­o­ries and so­cial crit­i­cism. It pro­vides an ef­fec­tive, brief rein­tro­duc­tion to ques­tions about the veil for any read­ers open to look­ing at this ob­ject anew.

Veil Rafia Zakaria, Blooms­bury Aca­demic


A protest last month against Aus­tria’s ban on full-face veils

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