May issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

In January 2009, Newsline ran an article on fashion. The story went as follows: a young editor tried to commission a top Pakistani fashion model for a shoot showcasing designer abayas. Not one known name in the modelling world was willing to do it. Not because the magazine was not willing to pay top dollar. And not because the models had other commitments. All refused because “covering up” in an abaya of all things, was simply “professional suicide.”

“You want me to wear what!” they all exclaimed.

Another report, from another side of the bridge screamed about the Talibanisation of Pakistan’s universities. It claimed that the ratio of veiled female students at Quaid-e-Azam University and Karachi University to students who don’t wear a veil has completely reversed in two decades. Whereas 90 per cent were unveiled in 1980, their numbers had now dwindled down to a mere 10 per cent of the female student population.

The biggest problem today seems not to be the war against terrorism. It’s the battle of the burqa and the bikini.

Exasperated? Who wouldn’t be?

As a woman who does not veil, I am annoyed at those who question my faith. And as a woman who does, I squirm under the gaze of those who label me oppressed, a victim, a minion of my man.

A veil is an identity, a symbol of protection, a status of privilege, a sacred trust. Simultaneously, it is also dark, confusing, confining and labelling.

Above all, it is merely a scrap of cloth.

With The Veil, a compilation of essays by women from different faiths and ideologies, Jennifer Heath tries to throw some light on the oft forgotten facets of what is today an intensely alarming, religious symbol of political Islam.

How does it make me feel? What does it mean to me? Why do I wear it? Is it liberating — a means to protect myself from the male gaze? Or does it make me stick out like a sore thumb in the eyes of those who view me with suspicion?

Am I a target if I wear one? Or eye candy if I don’t? How do I feel as a Christian who veils (Christian women in 1860s Egypt were more fastidious than Muslim women in veiling)? Is it a part of Jewish heritage? Should I be allowed to wear one? Should it be torn off my head? Or wrapped all around me like in Saudi and Afghanistan ?

Am I a devil seductress if I take it off?

Or a devil in disguise if I keep it on?

Can you keep me out of school for wearing it? Is it an integral part of my dress — like my underwear?

These are all questions which various writers of Christian, Jewish and Islamic origin attempt to address. All of them do so eloquently, forcefully, poignantly — and some, even painfully.

All essays drive home these basic points: the veil has cultural origins that predate Islamic communities. It is not just employed by women, it has sacred connotations that tie together most religious faiths and, furthermore, that it is a personal choice and one that is not necessarily political. Above all, it is not a symbol of fear or repression.

Not all writers stick to prose to make their point. One of the finest pieces in the book is a visual text cartoon, Nubo, by Sara C. Bell. In a superb satire, she points out the inherent contradiction in the western perception of the veil. A frame shows how permissive women in western societies, who scoff at shrouded Muslim women, insist on wearing a veil when they are brides.

Some of the essays are downright sensual. An innovative entry follows the literary progression of the story of Shalome from the Bible, in which the evil temptress unveils seven times until she stands completely naked, and dances in a king’s court, in order to ask for the head of a lover who scorned her.
Another essay showcases how artists have used the metaphor and imagery of unveiling as their muse. Yet another unveils the sacred divinity behind the veiling of created things, such as the unveiling of a butterfly from the veil of the larvae.

Although written for a western reader, these essays are a must-read for the Pakistani man and woman who wish to learn about the true feelings of the women who choose to wear a veil and those who don’t. It also will provide those with little knowledge of its cultural and historical perspective with a world of insight into the origins of the practice.

The book has its limitations as well. For one — and this is conceded to by the compiler herself – there is little mention of the veiling practices of Muslims and non-Muslim cultures of the Far East or sub-Saharan Africa. Some could also argue that the book tries to do too much by focusing not only on a historical/political perspective, but also on the veil’s sensual and sacred aspects.

While writers such as Pamela Taylor argue the personal merits of wearing the veil beautifully or not, exposing the internal battles a woman has to deal with everyday, her essay also takes the opportunity to debate the other battles a Muslim -American woman has to fight when she accepts Islam: the problem of the Quran’s “troubling verses” vis-a-viz gender equality. In the same vein, another entry, “After Eden,” details the spiritual battle a Jewish woman, Eve Grubin, fights in her search for divine truth, modesty and union, and a husband, but as with the story of Shalome, all this has very little to do with the subject at hand. Where relevance is a problem, so is that of overlap — many writers seem just to echo each others’ point of view. And finally there is also a problem of consensus, where one essay argues the merits of the veil, another showcases its limitations. Funnily, there is also some exasperation evident in the essays of the women writers themselves, on why they have, once again, been forced to clarify their position on the veil, in a world in which other issues — war, hunger, violence — should dominate.

But behind this complex jungle of emotions — history, politics and artistic license — there lies a certain spiritual sweetness. Just like in real life, the answer to what lies behind the veil is not clear-cut, or black and white. Ultimately, the veil is just what it is — a veil. What you see or sense behind it is very much completely up to you and your perceptions.

After all, in the words of Taylor herself, the veil, abaya, chador, burqa, niqaab, whatever you want to call it, is, at the end of the day, “simply a scrap of cloth.”