The veil is an item of clothing dramatically overburdened with competing symbolism… For women who wear it and artists who represent it, the veil is a garment whose meaning cannot be contained. It is a garment fought over by adherents and opponents, many of whom claim that their understanding of the veil’s significance is the one and true meaning.
- Reina Lewis, Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art
A former professor asked me one time, “Do you think the veil is one of today’s last uncolonized territories?” What kind of absurd question is that? – at least that’s what I thought. Yet my instructor did have a point. You can’t even begin to address gender and female identity in Middle Eastern art without looking at the one object that encapsulates and defines the average Muslim woman to naked, unknowing Western eyes: the veil. Like the hat in English, it’s a piece of clothing that has no singular name in Arabic and no solitary motivation: job, class, ethnicity, law, religion, fashion–these are just a handful of reasons why a Middle Eastern woman may choose to wear a veil.
Hardly an Islamic innovation, it’s a head covering rooted in the historical context of Arab culture, yet its depiction is entirely in relation to its wearer and its viewer, in how we adopt or reject certain connotations we carry with our own individual perceptions of this piece of fabric. For Westerners, it’s a single-sided image of everything that’s wrong with Middle Eastern culture, a symbol of anything Arab that contradicts so-called “Western values.”
Veiling is legitimized by the element of choice, and it is the presence or lack of choice that creates the context of whether the hejab frees a woman or objectifies her. Yet history, in all its intersections between the Old and New World, shows that patriarchy repeatedly finds a way to sneak in and impose itself on women’s dress, all in the name of “liberation.”
Leila Ahmed, an eminent scholar on gender and feminism in Islam, has argued that the linking between women and the veil as oppression “was created by Western discourse.” A seemingly progressive male-driven resistance developed, which urged women to abandon the veil as a means of emancipation was therefore a mirror image of the colonial narrative; it “contested the colonial thesis by inverting it – thereby also, ironically, grounding itself in the premises of the colonial thesis.” Back home in Europe and America, these same “liberating” men fought against female suffrage for the right to vote. Feminism, in many ways, became a passive aggressive tool by which to continue to control women within a patriarchal framework.
Veiling, conversely, became a symbol for resistance against invading colonialism, only truly becoming an issue for women when they felt their cultures come under attack. Far from reconciling themselves as symbols of female submission, women, throughout the history of Western intervention in the Middle East, have persistently covered themselves to make their presence known, to be seen in opposition to whatever powers would rather paint them anonymous and invisible.
A recurring theme in how contemporary Middle Eastern art depicts veiling is the relationship between self and identity as a consequence of the relationship between discourse and power. By discourse, I mean debate, one that not only opposes one side against the other, but also does so in a way that, depending on a person’s position, creates a hierarchy where one side is valued as more constructive than the other.
There is an emphasis on the individual in these artworks because many are entirely about how one person, either the subject or the artist, has navigated these homilies of veiling as a political practice and veiling as a personal practice. It’s not so much about the artist’s role in these discourses about the veil, but about how their identities are affected by these varying contexts of veiling. Rather than just standing at the bylines and watching all these veiling debates take place, they use their art to represent the pattern of the conflicts that arise when the political and the personal are put up against each other.
If there is a unified self in artworks depicting the veil, it’s many times conflicted, fighting against a dichotomy that sensationalizes the veiled woman as exotic, passive, anonymous, rather than individual and assertive. “But the veil is never purely a physical code, delineated and present,” says Algerian artist Zineb Sadira, “it is also a transparent and subtle mental code.”
In her essay “Mapping the Illusive,” Zineb Sedira posed the question of “represent[ing] the unrepresentable – in this instance, the veil.” She goes on to describe that her “art practice refers to the veil as a visual motif. But the veil is never purely a physical code, delineated and present; it is also a transparent and subtle mental code.” In her work, she describes a motif she refers to as “‘veiling-the-mind,’ a concept which addresses the shifting worlds of external censorship and its internalized counterpart – self-censorship.”
“So transparent is this item of clothing to the Western gaze, that the veil has become an effective visual shorthand to signify an extreme state of being – either repression or resistance…. The construction of gender in the Islamic world has already been mapped by the Western mind… The physical veil has indeed become a spectacle. Not simply an item of clothing, it marks a cultural and emotional territory.”
It’s in these depictions of veiling, that by creating a non-performance, meaning becomes extremely revealing. It is not the veiled woman that becomes the artistic subject, but the act of veiling itself. The veiled woman, in a postcolonial context, can run the risk of being sensational, but it all depends on the intention. Veiling with the intention of covering up for modesty is very different in that it is about separating a woman from her surroundings. What has been sensationalized is the act of veiling with the intention of creating mystery and untouched eroticism. In looking at the act of veiling as the artistic subject rather than the veil itself, we see the element of intention facilitating meaning.