Book Review: Faïza Zerouala’s Voices Behind the Veil

Book Review: Faïza Zerouala’s Voices Behind the Veil October 15, 2015


I am apparently on a book review kick for MMW, with my last post being about the interfaith anthology Faithfully Feminist, and next week’s post on Michel Houllebecq’s Submission (stay tuned). This week’s book review is for a lovely little book in French, Des voix derrière le voile (Voices behind the Veil) by the French journalist Faïza Zerouala. It tells the story of ten women who have chosen to wear headscarves (one of whom also wears niqab) in France.

France is a weird place to wear a headscarf, I did so for several years almost a decade ago. And what strikes me in this book is how much more difficult it is in recent years to choose something as simple as covering your hair. At the same time, each has a different story. We aren’t dealing with what some people would like to believe about veiled women, that kittens and Nutella made us fundies who didn’t want to “integrate” or something- every one of the women in this book is on her own spiritual path for her own personal reasons.

This book also shows that it is just too easy to spout reductive arguments like “well just take it off then,” which are neither constructive nor appropriate because “just taking it off” makes it sound like it was an easy choice to put it on. Muslim women are not a monolith and have a million complex, different and individual reasons for either not wearing or wearing a headscarf. And in this book we are lucky to hear the complex, different and individual reasons of ten of these ladies.

Also, ordinary islamophobia is a thing, y’all. Microaggressions are a thing too, and these topics are two sad undercurrents in this book. Only one of the women, Asma, chose to appear under her real name. She mentions that while she does not get insulted just going about her day, she does feel the contempt of certain people, for example, when going into expensive stores. Another time, a woman at her daughter’s school pulled her away, saying she was blocking the view (and probably thinking she didn’t speak French anyway). That was one thing I noticed when I lived in France as well- just going about my day in a headscarf I was fine, but god forbid I go into one of the nice stores on rue Saint-Honoré in my simple polyester headscarf. Or trying to get anywhere with any kind of government official- it was automatically assumed from the outset my French was bad.

Another thing she mentions which I also went through, is how sometimes criticism comes from other veiled women. Either we have too much makeup on, our clothes aren’t long or baggy enough. It is hard out there in a headscarf, fam.

Going to school and/or getting a job in with any type of headcovering is hard in France, which is another point spelled out in very personal ways in this book, notably by Djamila, a teacher, who has reason to worry about her job but has managed so far to barely fly under the radar, but not without some nastiness on the part of higher-ups. It blows my mind how crazy it all is- that people either lose or can’t get jobs, and for what? Nadia, a student, has a side job watching kids. She mentions she probably got it because she doesn’t wear a jilbab or a niqab. Nadia also makes the point that the ongoing debate on whether university students should be disallowed from wearing the veil (as in the case in high schools, junior highs and elementary schools in France) would be repressive and tantamount to telling women “don’t practice your religion or you can’t go to school.” As she plans on doing many years of study, figuring out what she is going to do if she is forced to stop school is a very real fear for her. I didn’t have that fear. But my French sisters-in-law did, even before the laws of 2004 and 2010.

There is something for everyone in this book- I especially appreciated Naïma’s story, as I also put the scarf on and took it off again. Again, these are not light or easy or simple decisions for any of us. What was refreshing about Naïma’s story, is that, in the words of the writer, she “didn’t put herself in a whistleblower position” in terms of the how and why she took off her veil.

So many times, as a dejabi myself, I find people expect us to be anti-hijab, when we aren’t, and our realities are much more complex. She makes an interesting parallel when it comes to body politics. Naïma says,

“When you’re pregnant, people touch your stomach without asking, and tell you what to do. When you wear a headscarf, it’s the same. Your corporeal existence is front and center. People tell you how to wear it, for example.”

For those of you for whom French is your second language and you are worried your reading skills might be rusty, the prose in Ms. Zerouala’s book is very accessible- it isn’t a hard read in French. Like another book I reviewed for MMW, Shabana Mir’s Muslim American Women on Campus, the accessibility of the language does not take away from the methodology- you can read this book casually just as well as you can assign it for a class reading. Zerouala’s background in journalism has helped her strike a fine line between maintaining flow and coherence to the project, and letting the women and their stories speak for themselves.

Ms. Zerouala’s book is an important work in creating context around the collective freak out over headscarves in France and in Europe in general. Having been frustrated with local media coverage here in Switzerland giving a lot of attention to an anti-veil white feminist, Mireille Vallette (whom I have written about in the past), I am so happy to read and review a book like Des voix derrière le voile which is so important in both giving all women a voice and in telling sides of a story so often lost in political and media noise.

With the French media landscape so sharply divided on the subject of headscarves, Ms. Zerouala’s book is a welcome addition to the available literature on the subject due to the fact that someone is actually asking women in headscarves what they think (shocking, I know).  I can’t recommend this book highly enough and hope an English version will come out at some point.



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