Questioning Marnia Lazreg’s One-Way Correspondence with Muslim Women

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.

  • SakuraPassion

    I picked up this book while I was browsing through Barnes & Nobel. I didn’t really read it, I just skimmed through it. But I understand what you’re saying. I remember reading a part where it commented on how the veil (or was it modesty?) creates shame about one’s own body. But overall the vibe I got was the typical “the veil is only a form of a oppression.”

    She didn’t seem to talk to any Muslim women who wore the hijab or the “veil” as she calls it. And she seemed to ignore the Muslim women who choose not to wear it.

  • Sobia

    I have to admit that reading this review leaves me with many questions.

    “same weak arguments rely on personal anecdotes, paraphrased quotes and preconceived judgments” and “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.”

    See, this would depend on what the purpose of the book was. If it is to provide women’s lived experiences then anecdotes are fine. They serve the purpose adequately. If the purpose was to provide hard statistics then, well, yes, anecdotes don’t cut it.

    “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””

    Well, unfortunately it still can be an issue for many Muslim women.

    “probably because she considers herself more intelligent than all of these women she is interacting with.”

    Aren’t you making the same assumptions about her that you say she makes about Assia? Not saying that this is an assumption. Perhaps she says in her book that she feels more intelligent.

    “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….”

    I’m really not clear on what you are trying to say here. Could you clarify please? As a psychologist I can tell you Freud is not taken as seriously in the academic world as he is in the pop psychology world so I’m not sure reading Freud would be a good idea actually. His work is very sexist. And are you implying that children are not innocent? And also are you saying that we are always aware of gender limitations?

    “What makes someone better than the other is only sincere devotion to God; not gender, race, or nationality.”

    In theory, but not in practice. That is not the way our realities are socially constructed.

    “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.”

    How is this confusing tradition with the Qur’an? I’m not clear on this. So she assumes (or states) that hymenoplasty has a correlation with veiling?

    “I wonder if veiling also caused climate change, Marilyn Monroe’s death and the non-existence of Santa Claus!”

    I’m not sure equating hymenoplasty to these things is appropriate. Hymenoplasty has to do with a woman’s sexuality as veiling very often does. There is a common factor between those two. MM’s death, climate change, and Santa Claus have nothing to do with a woman’s sexuality.

  • Sobia

    I hope I didn’t sound too mean in my comment. I just feel I need more information before I get a clearer sense of this book and so was just asking questions to try to understand the problems with this book.

  • Seffi

    The overall message of the book is just wrong. Her conclusion is that because the Hijab has come to be so politicised and signifies oppression, we should end all the hoopla and stop wearing it.
    I am sick to death of being told what to wear….it is beyond ridiculous. It is not her place to judge that the hijab limits me…and if it does it is because of other people’s issues, not mine.
    If a child was in danger, I wouldn’t worry about my hijab, If it was a choice between life and ‘veiling’ Islam dictates I protect my life.
    There is no ‘can’t feel the wind in my hair’ longing…there might be for someone else but like anything it is an individual issue and not something that all Muslim women need to be in consensus over….she is essentially asking us to homogenise and so pressure other women NOT to wear it, like she claims women are pressured to wear it now.
    Is it not ridiculous that an intelligent woman would think to tell other women what to wear without ever asking them why they wear it? Without ever taking into account what is means or doesn’t mean to them?
    Quit writing letters and articles speaking to us like we have no clue what we want and need to be guided back. Its not different to those annoying sisters who so sweetly used to insist I wear hijab. I didn’t listen to them, I won’t listen to Lazreg. I made a choice that was for me and wearing the hijab one of the best things I ever did….and part of that is based on when I did it…any sooner and I don’t think it would mean what it does to me now.

  • http://islamogauchiste.blogspot.com/ Princesse de Clèves, islamogauchiste

    @ SakuraPassion:

    I agree with you, she did not seem to have talked to any Muslim women actually – with or without hijab.

    @ Seffi:

    Thank you.

    @ Sobia:

    You don’t sound too mean at all! Please don’t feel sorry. I am happy to reply.

    1-ANECDOTES: Anecdotes in themselves are not a bad thing. But if a writer solely rely on them to make strong and conclusive statements, it’s basically intellectual dishonesty. Any judgement against hijab needs more than light anecdotes I’m afraid – be it only out of concern for the women wearing these hijabs.

    2- VEIL AS AN ISSUE: I disagree with you on that point. Veil is more an issue for non Muslim experts (whose expertise is still unclear) than for Muslim women. Just have a quick look on the amount of books and articles published by people who portray themselves as the rescuers of “poor veiled Muslim women” and actually know nothing about Islam – and even less about feminism.

    3- ASSUMPTIONS: oh la la, easy one Sobia ; )
    I’m definitely not making against Lazreg what she makes against Assia. My judgement of her book is solely based on what is written inside. That’s why I actually find it so disgraceful. If Marnia Lazreg needed to rephrase a veiled woman sentence in her own words and ideas, you’re true: it doesn’t mean at all that she thinks herself more intelligent. It only means this veiled woman was less intelligent – which is even worse.

    4- AS A PSYCHOLOGIST: mm… I confess I’m not myself a psychologist – but hopefully it didn’t prevent anybody from reading and understanding Freud ; ) It’s true he’s definitely not a feminist. I quoted him only to refute Marnia Lazreg’s amazingly naive (or pseudo-naive) sentence about the “children’s innocence”. I mentioned Judith Butler to refute another sentence in which Marnia Lazreg defines the moment when a woman doesn’t wear a veil as some stage of “no gender limitation”. This stage actually does NOT exist, whether you are wearing a hijab or not.
    I should have been more precise and avoid mentioning Freud and Butler in the same sentence.

    5-THEORY AND PRACTICE (about devotion to God being more important than race, gender, nationality, etc.) You say: “this is not the way our realities are socially constructed.” Our realities?
    Well, mine is socially, spiritually and politically constructed that way.

    6-HYMENOPLASTY: The author unfortunately does assume that hymenoplasty is related to veiling because she is developing this topic very abruptly and with no clear transition, as if one was the consequence of the other.

    7- SANTA CLAUS, CLIMATE CHANGE, etc. : I am not equating them with women’s sexuality at all. Please! It’s just that I like “surreal metaphors and random processes” ; )

  • Sobia

    Thanks for responding Princesse. I still need a little more clarification. And I’m not asking to be irritating. I really would like a little more information.

    “But if a writer solely rely on them to make strong and conclusive statements, it’s basically intellectual dishonesty. ”

    How so? Could you expand on the intellectual dishonesty bit? I haven’t read the book so am not sure how she presents the anecdotes therefore it would be clarifying for me to hear how this would be engaging in intellectual dishonesty. I only wonder because in qualitative research we often use interviews and people’s lived experiences. Of course the assumptions we make based on this are relevant to the methodology so I can understand how anecdotes could be misused. They are not meant to generalize to entire populations, rather to provide insight into the lived experiences of those particular people. So I can see that if the author makes assumptions about a whole population of people based on the experiences of a few it could be very problematic.

    “Just have a quick look on the amount of books and articles published by people who portray themselves as the rescuers of “poor veiled Muslim women””

    Good point. But I’ve seen numerous Islamic books, in Islamic bookstores, on women’s clothing/hijab. Numerous. Which could imply an obsession with the hijab among Muslims as well.

    “I quoted him only to refute Marnia Lazreg’s amazingly naive (or pseudo-naive) sentence about the “children’s innocence”.”

    Which quote? The only reason I question this is that Freud is not someone to take very seriously. There are only a couple of things he contributed to understanding human psychology one of them being that what happens in our childhoods is important to consider. But most of his theories have no scientific backing whatsoever nor any way to test them. So I guess I’m wondering what work of Freud you are referring to. There may be something I’m missing.

    Thanks again for the clarification!

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    “2- VEIL AS AN ISSUE: I disagree with you on that point. Veil is more an issue for non Muslim experts (whose expertise is still unclear) than for Muslim women. Just have a quick look on the amount of books and articles published by people who portray themselves as the rescuers of “poor veiled Muslim women” and actually know nothing about Islam – and even less about feminism.”

    This is not really the case. Have a look at the books in ENGLISH and maybe. Have a look at the books in English AND since 9/11 and yes this will definitely be the case. But the veil as you know is not a new topic, and it is not one confined to western authors. It has been problematized by muslim women feminists since the early modern women’s movements in the 30′s. I seem to remember this book being a good one about it in english: “The Other “Awakening”:
    The Emergence of Women’s Movements in the Modern Middle East, 1900-1940″ by Ellen L. Fleischmann

    And its not like the issue has gone away. How could it with france wanting to ban it, Iran forcibly imposing it, and the Sudan flogging people for not wearing it? Whether you like it or not (and I don’t, but I have to face facts) the veil is a politicized issue.

  • Seffi

    Another thing that ticks me off about her conclusion is that because it is too politicised we should stop wearing it (like i bear the blame for women being flogged in Sudan or Afghanistan!), like it would end many things that oppress women But what she fails to recognise is that taking off the veil in the the modern women’s movements that Rochelle mentioned actually politicised the veil even more.
    Women’s dress will always be a political issue because gender is how culture and society are constructed, along with race and class etc.- they are constitutive of one another.
    The point is that Muslim women should decide, not be pressured into wearing something because our bodies are important to furthering one type of system or another. We need to address all imbalances in in a united way and that is why books like Lazreg’s don’t help- they pit Muslim women against one another with the veil as the imaginary wall in between….

  • Laila

    2- VEIL AS AN ISSUE: I disagree with you on that point. Veil is more an issue for non Muslim experts (whose expertise is still unclear) than for Muslim women. Just have a quick look on the amount of books and articles published by people who portray themselves as the rescuers of “poor veiled Muslim women” and actually know nothing about Islam – and even less about feminism.

    If it is more an issue for non-Muslims than why do so many Muslim countries restrict Muslim women to wear it, like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, parts of Sudan. Somalia, Indonesian and many other places? Why are their so many books and articles published by Muslims on it? Why is it in some Muslim circles the sole topic discussed concerning women (my mosque is so obsessed with veiling). If it’s not an issue than why I am like many others stilled pressured to wear it ?

    I disagree, It’s not only an issue for Muslims its an obsession.

  • aynur

    One a whole after reading the book my opinion of it was a bit disappointed, I was expecting more of a theological debate. But, you can find that in other books like ‘Speaking in God’s Name’ by Khaled Abou el Fadl.

    One point the author brings up is sensory perception … I’ve noticed when I wear hijab out to the masjid my hearing isn’t as crisp as it is normally with my ears uncovered. While I don’t think the argument is exceptionally a good one (and it won’t matter at all to those that are wearing hijab to to religious conviction), it is something that made me wonder.
    She also argues that’s it’s hot and not comfortable. It would make your head more sweaty if it’s covered, that’s a given.

    “Perhaps a more compelling reason for not wearing a veil is its unrecognized psychological effect on its wearer. In the long run, a hijab makes a woman feel removed from her environment. There is a simple explanation to this drawback: a piece of cloth that covers the ears several hours a day blunts sensory perception. As it is worn throughout the day, the hijab is more physically constraining than the old-style veil, which in the past was worn only outside the house and for relatively brief periods of time since women did not work outside the homes. The hijab may leave a woman’s face uncovered, but it tightens itself on her head and ears. That some women have tried to fasten their headscarves in such a way as to leave their ears free is an acknowledgment of the hijab’s effect on the sharpness of their sensory perception…” (105-6).

    I agree with the author when she says this:
    “A woman’s piety can no more be ensured by the hijab than her looks determine her character. To argue otherwise is to reduce faith, a personal matter of conscience, to a formal display of evidentiary signs designed to reassure others, men and the community, that a woman is indeed a convinced and pious Muslim. This clearly opens wide the door to deception and simulation of piety that make it more difficult to distinguish authenticity from acting. That mail advocates of the veil are not bothered by this but are satisfied by the outer signs of piety is an indication that their goals are not to promote women’s spiritual needs, but to increase the material visibility of Islam through the hijab at the expense of both women and their religion” (95).

  • http://islamogauchiste.blogspot.com/ Princesse de Clèves, islamogauchiste

    @ Sobia:

    hi Sobia!
    I’d really like to reply to you about the anecdotes and stuff but I think our discussion is unfortunately a bit useless, because we have no common basis. It would be more fruitful to take it up once you read the essay first by yourself. If you live in France, I’d be happy to send you my copy of the book by post.

    @ Rochelle:

    Thanks for the reference. Though I’m personally more interested to hear what muslim feminists have to say about themselves – instead of always referring to some experts. In this respect, Zainab al Ghazali’s books are very interesting.
    http://www.islamicbookstore.com/b2627.html

    @ Laila:
    I’m sorry to hear that you feel pressured to wear the veil. I don’t know if this would reassure you, but I feel myself pressured not to wear it. I think both of these situations are disgraceful.
    About your criticism of the topics discussed in Muslim circles, I would suggest to be a part of it and to bring the topics you judge more relevant to be discussed in a mosque. It’s a bit like Indymedia’s motto: “don’t hate the media, be the media”. Don’t hate the circle, be the circle!

  • Laila

    @ Princesse de Cleves,

    Thanks for your suggestion but I am a part of the Muslim circles in my community and I make sure like others that I my voice is heard, AND I definitely don’t hate my community if that is what you are implying. Like many others, I’m just tired of the focus on a Muslim woman’s body when there are more pressing issues to discuss like domestic violence or sexual abuse. As a women I don’t want to be the sum or absence of a headscarf.

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    “Though I’m personally more interested to hear what muslim feminists have to say about themselves – instead of always referring to some experts.”

    But you’re against using anecdotes or personal stories? I don’t get it.

  • http://islamogauchiste.blogspot.com/ Princesse de Clèves, islamogauchiste

    @ Laila

    I’m not implying anything.

    @ Rochelle

    I’m not against the use of anecdotes and personal stories.
    I am against their misuse and reinterpretations by so-called experts of Islam who are hiding their – very often islamophobic – agenda.
    Hope it’s clear enough that time!

  • http://rawi.wordpress.com/ rawi

    The real question is, can the subaltern speak? Perhaps the answer is No! Because Lazreg is too loud :-)

    Having come across some of Marnia Lazreg’s previous work on Algerian women’s history etc, I was actually somewhat surprised to see her take on the veil in this book. I’ve only skimmed through it a bit and haven’t actually read it, so I should postpone my judgment. But I have to admit, the central anecdote in her preface, about her getting injured in that incident with the boy and her mom made me feel weird about the premise of her whole project. That said, I’m increasingly convinced that personal experience can’t be dismissed easily and should be taken more seriously in any discussion (There’s of course feminism’s legacy in “the personal,” which is political). The question I guess is how exactly to translate the personal to generalizable interpretations, but I’m queasy about any generalizations.

    Re. veil as an issue: It’s older than early 20th c. Muslim feminism (as a comment above suggests). It’s probably true that it’s not just an issue but an obsession for both non-Muslims and Muslims, but the non-Muslim Western obsession has a particularly long history (See for e.g. Mohja Kahf’s excellent book Western Representations of the Muslim Woman)

    @Sobia: Re. “As a psychologist I can tell you Freud is not taken as seriously in the academic world as he is in the pop psychology world”

    Actually, it’s kinda funny that Freud is taken far more seriously in the academic theory world i.e. humanities, than either popularly or in psychology.


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