Questioning the Veil, Questioning the Questioner

Today we witness postcolonial Orientalism coming to grips with its obsession with the hijab. While the white French elite seem fixed on debating its symbols, the British media are asking why women choose to wear it. Once, the obsession was an obvious desire to unveil Muslim women (think postcards of semi-naked North African women during the colonial period of the turn of the 20th century).

Such pictorial colonial fantasies are now a thing of the past. Now, French men have now moved from openly desiring topless Moorish young women to getting angry at the concealed women who once incited the fantasies of their colonial forefathers. While the anger and frustrations are expressed by some in the forms of bans and Islamophobic language, others seek the object of their frustrations and ask them, “Why must you cover?”

In an item called Questioning the Veil on BBC 4′s Woman Hour yesterday, two guests, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed and Marnia Lazreg were asked that very question. The reasons why many women take up the hijab should be obvious, shouldn’t it? It’s a personal choice. But both agree that free will has little to do with it. And I absolutely agree with them that women’s sartorial choices must be respected but at the same time those choices are influenced by overarching political and social narratives.

But let’s meta-analyze why the two guests are on the program, almost pitted against each other, and talking about a subject that’s been discussed ad infinitum with more and less the same conclusions: most women make the choice to wear the headscarf, some women are coerced into wearing it. Most reasons are rooted in the spiritual, some are simply an act of resistance against the superficial definitions of femininity. Case should be closed, but…no.

By constantly focusing on the hijab, the real issues that are most important to us women are glossed over–issues regarding economic and social struggles that in reality are the factors of oppression, not the hijab. In Britain, Muslim women from South Asian backgrounds are the most disadvantaged in society, and the same can be said for women of Moroccan ancestry in France. It is all too easy to pounce on the weakest members of society (the women, the minorities, the Muslims) in an effort to reinforce the superiority of White European culture. To avoid appearing bigoted and xenophobic, this superiority is couched on enlightened values associated with the freedom of the individual. As Michelle Goldberg in her piece at the American Prospect puts it:

The debate about headscarves, veils and burqas is a synecdoche for larger, more fraught questions of cultural identity in the age of mass Muslim immigration. Islam is changing European life in a way that makes many Europeans unhappy, but it’s hard for Europeans to talk about without seeming racist or xenophobic. The one place where Europeans do feel confident about defending the superiority of their own culture is in sexual matters. Feminism and sexual liberation become tools of nationalism.

Asking Muslim women why we choose to wear the hijab shifts the attention away from the asker’s insecurity of their own ideas of freedom and sexuality (if you’re comfortable with how everybody expresses their freedom and sexuality, how Muslim women dress should be the least of your worries). In Orientalist discourse, the stereotypes of Muslim women produced from assumptions about the hijab reveals a lot more about Western attitudes about sexuality and social mores than it does about the “mysterious” Muslim women. And so, through the prism of an Orientalist, Muslim women are pretty much everything a so-called liberated Western woman is not. If the definition of a Muslim woman were to be defined using a yardstick alien to her culture, it will not only explain very little about the person in question, but she will always be something inferior, lacking in enlightened qualities. And so despite evidence that many women are happy to cover up, questions about the hijab continue to have forgone conclusions.

I’m fed up by the fact that positive views women make about the headscarf fall systematically on many deaf ears. It’s time that the tables are turned on the curious people who more often than not have misconceptions and pre-conceived views about Muslim women and what we wear, in which we study their motives and question their curiosity about our lives. Enough about us, we should be asking, “Why do you want to know?”

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  • Tim

    I am glad people do not ask me, “Why do you wear trousers?”

    On this, in Michelle Goldberg’s piece:

    Islam is changing European life in a way that makes many Europeans unhappy…

    I have to ask, “Is it?” And “In what way?”

    I really don’t see this at all. I don’t see work colleagues changing in any way because of Islam, I don’t see the workplace changing, I don’t see the highstreet changing. Sure, I read people like the BNP and EDL saying Islam is changing society, but I see no evidence on the ground.

  • Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

    This is an interesting analysis and I’m glad you’ve raised it. This particular interview was cut short rather abruptly which you may notice when you listen to it, so I didn’t get to make my final point. However, I was invited back onto the BBC yesterday to talk about the veil (again!) and I made a very simple point: can we please please stop talking about the veil, and start talking about the issues that Muslim women face in their lives.

  • Wafa

    I think what bothers them is they are unable to understand why anyone would choose it of her own accord, & so they assume it is always imposed by force.

    At the same time, we Muslims are being a little disingenuous if we assume it is _never_ imposed by force. In many places & in many families it still is. Neither extreme is justifiable.

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  • Sara

    Interesting read! It’s always been a question for me: should we discuss and talk about the veil, since it seems to be such an important issue in today’s world; or should we not, since talking about it makes it an even bigger issue, or perhaps even creates an issue out of something that isn’t or shouldn’t be.

  • Alicia


    I really thought that the interview ended rather abruptly as well, just when it was about to get a little heated(?). Because the programme was so short, I don’t think a lot was achieved (i.e. solving the mystery of the hijab. Because there’s no mystery to begin with) other than some really good points that were raised. I’m shocked that you were asked to talk about the hijab again. Crazy.

  • Rochelle

    I’m actually not one of those people who believe that the hijab doesn’t matter at all, especially in places where it is particularly politicized like Iran, Turkey, and France. It’s a salient issue in some contexts. But very often (like this coverage) its presented as a problem when it isn’t. Its really dangerous, because not only does it convey a racism and paternalistic view of Muslim women, but makes us so sick of hijab talk that we (or at least I) want to ignore the hijab when it actually is an issue.

    The hijab is so often presented as the be all end all, when in my opinion it should be framed within the broader issue of bodily autonomy: my body, my choice.

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  • Mariam

    I think hijab is brought up whenever there is a
    weak news cycle. It’s something that will always be a hot topic
    and will get a lot of reaction.
    Alicia you made great points in this piece I really
    enjoyed it.

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  • Gareth Hughes

    Great post!

    It is so important that we notice that the talk about what Muslim women wear is just as much about the anxiety of the Other in Western societies in the face of rapid change. The question ‘Why does French society react in this way to face covering?’ is much more meaningful than ‘Why do Muslim women cover their faces?’. After all, the latter has been talked cold: it’s a mixture of choice and pressure, no black/white answer. What needs to be highlighted and combated is the pressure put on Muslim women either to wear or not wear certain dress, but no seems to want to let women choose for themselves.