Reading Marnia Lazreg’s new book Questioning the Veil (Princeton University Press, 2009) was at the same time a useful and annoying experience.
The book is useful because it compiles every single argument that has already been brought against women wearing the veil, from the stupidest arguments (i.e, it prevents women from “the coquettish desire” of wearing earrings) to the “scientific” ones (i.e, veiling has “potentially deleterious psychological effects”).
The book is also annoying because these same weak arguments rely on personal anecdotes, paraphrased quotes and preconceived judgments. The book is full of contradictions and rough guesses that contrast with Lazreg’s academic background. Lazreg’s book ultimately sounds like the expanded version of some article from the feminist hawk press—not exactly what you might expect from a professor of sociology.
The book is actually composed of five letters, through which Lazreg examines the reasons some Muslim women decide to wear the veil and why (according to her own prejudiced point of view that she never questions) they should not. All throughout her letters, she never makes a clear distinction between women who deliberately decide to wear it (sometimes against the wishes of their families and the societies they live in) and those for whom it is unfortunately not a personal choice. Mixing these situations as if they both were the expression of a masculine domination is problematic because it denies Muslim women the ability to exercise agency relating to the expression of their faith and convictions.
In the introduction, Lazreg says she “can no longer keep quiet about an issue, the veil”. She is thus presenting the veil as “an issue”—a problem that needs quick gut reactions. Before even starting the book, she has already reached strong conclusions: veiling is “detrimental to women’s advancement”. The rest of the book is only anecdotes and more anecdotes: the story of her veiled mother who was unable to defend her child when she was attacked in the street, or the story of an Algerian girl forced to wear the veil to please her fiancé. It is like a string of pearls with no other connection than Marnia Lazreg’s own deep intuition: veiling is bad.
Unfortunately, this is a one-way correspondence. Lazreg writes her letters without really caring about her readers. She addresses them to “Muslim women” as if Muslim women need to be directed in their own spiritual or political choices. She is very often presuming: a girl called Assia “has shaved her head because she did not like her curly hair, but I suspect that she wished to preserve her individuality, which has been erased by her long, wide veil.”
Instead of questioning and criticizing the implicit demand that requires women everywhere to comply to with very precise “beauty” canons, Lazreg puts all the blame on Islam. Why doesn’t Lazreg believe Assia? It is the first basic step in any dialogue: respecting the other’s story. If Assia says she has shaved her head because she did not like her curly hair, well, she might have shaved her head she did not like her curly hair. Lazreg prefers impose her own interpretation, probably because she considers herself more intelligent than all of these women she is interacting with.
In “Letter One”, she writes: “the veil puts an end to her life of youthful insouciance that knew no gender limitation”. Maybe Lazreg should read again Sigmund Freud and Judith Butler so she might clear up her illusions both on the so-called innocence of childhood and on the “no gender limitation” stage that actually exists nowhere, except in the Qur’an:
“O mankind! Indeed We created you from male and female and made you
peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed the most
noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. And
Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” [Qur’an 49:13]
What makes someone better than the other is only sincere devotion to God; not gender, race, or nationality.
But Lazreg mixes the Qur’an with traditions that actually have nothing to do with Islam: she gives an anecdote (again) when she speaks about the humiliation of an expensive surgery for hymen replacement, which assumes that hymenoplasty has a direct correlation to veiling. Instead of tackling this issue of hymen surgery seriously, Lazreg exploits it so she can reinforce her own prejudice against veiled women. I wonder if veiling also caused climate change, Marilyn Monroe’s death and the non-existence of Santa Claus!
In conclusion, Lazreg seems to forget one small physical detail: that veil only covers a woman’s hair, not her brain. Instead of dividing themselves, veiled and non-veiled Muslim women should unite in fighting Islamophobic and sexist prejudices. Unfortunately, questioning the veil is of no help.