Contemporary Debates And Representations Of The Veil Cultural Studies Essay

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Despite the fact that the veil in its most basic sense is just a piece of cloth, but what we have to come to understand is that something that is so basic to the eye could come to be loaded with so much meaning and symbolism. That is exactly what the veil has become, something not only core religiously, traditionally and culturally but over the past decades also something political. The veil has become the core principal that came to stand for and that differentiates the "West" and the "Other". 

Over the past decades and in particular in the last couple of years Muslim women have been consistently depicted as subjugated, dangerous or mysterious, sexualised creatures. This leads to Edwards Said's theory of Orientalism (Said, 1978), which argues that the Islamic world and its people are deemed outsiders to Western society because of their barbaric outlooks and backwardness. In consequence it also has become notable that the Muslims became the "Others" in the media regarding the case in point on their reporting of Muslim women.             

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This is noted by Macmaster and Lewis who identify the shift in the European media's portrayal of veiled women from exotic to a danger to society (Macmaster & Lewis, 1998, p. 121). They point out the juxtaposition of representations of Muslim women as concurrently oppressed and threatening. The identification of Muslim women in the media via traditional Islamic dress has also been noted by Begum, who argues that "images of Islamic dress are increasingly used in the media as visual shorthand for dangerous extremism, and … Muslims all over Europe are suffering from the consequences of such associations"(Begum, 2005).

In this context, Muslim women are either portrayed by the Western media as veiled victims in need of liberation in foreign lands because of a lack of free choice, or a threat to the Western societies in which they reside because of their choice to adopt a traditional Islamic dress. Helen Watson comments on this issue that 'the image of the veiled Muslim woman seems to be one of the most popular Western ways of representing the "problem of Islam".' (1994, p. 153).

A dynamic way of considering the important role of the Muslim woman in society was through Frantz Fanon (1952) who recognized the historical significance of the veil as open to the subtlest shifts and subversions. He argued that from the outset and first perception you would assume that the colonials tried to rescue the veiled woman from their oppressive male counter parts, but Fanon observed that by unveiling the woman they (the French) came to the conclusion that they will achieve to have "real power over the man", in this case the native Algerian, whose authority is not only being challenged by the opposition, but also by their own women through them disregarding the veil. Fanon vision is in line with Leila Ahmed who also observes that Patriarchal Western colonialists keenly set out the rationalization of liberating Muslim women from their authoritarian regime to assert their imposition of their own cultural values on the 'natives' (1992, p. 151)

In Black Skin, White Mask, Fanon says that the Algerian woman was not only seen as a erotic subject where her unveiling was seen as the symbolic conquest of the female body by the colonials, but there was this crucial understanding that to destroy the Algerian structural society one has to conquer the women, as they are the upholder of the country's tradition and the bearer of everything that is fundamentally Algerian. In consequence the need to infiltrate behind the veil was strengthened by the extending system of modernity that privileged saw as the primary route to knowledge. It was "characterized by a desire to master, control, and reshape the body of the subjects by making them visible". Furthermore in the movie the unveiled Algerian women are twice as subjected to a inspecting gaze, from both the audience and the filmmaker whose presence testifies to the unmistakable identity of the women. In fact, it is only after the removal of their veils (which one may well regard as a part of their cultural identity) that the women are handed over a Westernized form of recognition.

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You could argue that in this present day and age that same desire is being exhibited by the Western nations who for them the veil has been an important discussion not only about the politics of dress, but a critical debates on what the rights for women and minority groups. The veil then connects to the sensitive and highly-charged debates about a politics of identity and the privileges of individuals and groups whose identification is often notably illustrated by the taking up of the headscarf by minority communities within Europe.

So in the end the garment is being construed as a intimidating symbol of visible difference, and the wearer seen as an cause of disturbance who marks the limits of the tolerance of difference in these Western societies..

So the veil has become the exemplary signifier of women's oppression in Islam, and, by extension, symbolic of Islam's perceived hostility to Western secular liberalism and of Islam's own regressive and repressive practices. This is where Western nations like France have used this as a vital political discourse regarding their long standing battle against the veil and what it signifies. To them to become an assimilated fully fledged citizen of the state one has to disregard the culture of their ancestry and take on the culture of their adopted country or the country of their birth.

Yet, as numerous commentators have observed, the veil was not an invention of Islam; nor is there any exhortation in the Qur'an that women should veil. Leila Ahmed has pointed out that not all Muslim women across the globe have adopted veiling and that others practice it differently as there are diverse cultural practices & interpretations of religion and 'tradition'. So even though the veil pre-dates Islam and can be found in the other world religions, negative connotations of 'the veil' have become primarily associated with Muslim women. These have been enabled by Western binary discursive constructions that see freedom of the body (and especially the female body) as symbolic of liberalism and recognition of human rights, and its restriction or constraint as indicative of oppression and barbarism. (Ahmed, 1992)

Like mentioned before, In its grouping with Islam the veil connotes constraint, a Foucauldian establishment of the body made obligatory by patriarchal and oppressive cultures to write down Muslim femininity within rituals of control that turn off selfhood and identity and create a 'docile body'. In process this divided the feminist movement with contradictory argues that it is a representation of both oppression and freedom of expression. It's was also observed as an act of marginalisation and insolence by Western conservative political opponents like the case in France and even depicted as a terrorist threat in itself because of its possible use by suicide bombers to cloak their intentions. The veiled woman at the same time portrays Islam as a religion of oppression; it also considerably amplifies Western conviction in the progressiveness of Western cultures' by 'their' backwardness.

This has been foremost been leading to the disturbing revival of Orientalists tropes that have been classifying Islam and Muslims groups as barbaric and uncivilized terrorists which has increased global importance since the 9/11 attacks, and which the Muslim women have been predominantly marked, as media images of burqah-clad women have become the trademark of Islam's authoritarianism. Under the trope of "liberation" these images have served to validate all form of military action as was the earlier procedures for colonial interference and control in the Muslim world.

Therefore, once more Muslim women's bodies are being situated upon the geopolitical stage not as actors in their own right, but as thwart for modernity, civilization, and freedom. To what extent the continuing discourse of abject victimhood essentializes the representation of Muslim women and limits their agency is rarely questioned. Samir Amin (1989) observes that "the progressive Westernization of the world is nothing more than the expression of the triumph of the humanist universalism invented by Europe." He indicates that the governing principles of Eurocentrism are not only a world vision, "but a political project on a global scale: a project of homogenization through imitation and catching up.

The Muslim woman prototype has undergone quite a few transmutations. Her textual occurrences has personified and represented the political, economic, cultural, and ideological relations between Europe and the Muslim. Consequently, the western/Orientalists assembly of Muslim women has preserved currency even though the fact that it presents images that aren't presented fairly and accurately. Then again, the actual social category of "Muslim woman" under takes many meanings and assimilates a mixture of individual, cultural, and sectarian understandings of Islam. As such, there is a separation between the different loose perspectives that attempt to contain Muslim women's realities (including those equally limiting structures from fundamentalist perspectives) and their varied related experiences. As such, no singular creation can harness the social degrees and dimensions that constitute the Muslim woman as a subject and actor.

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However when you look at this issue from a Orientalists point of view, you could say that the white subject stipulates that the "Other" consents to the universality of Whiteness by recognizing it, whiteness here could be substituted instead for Western values. Chow (1998) commented that the "idealized Other" is essential to maintaining the hegemonic primary status of Whiteness, during a self-important mode of racial authority and power reliant upon a knowable and controllable "Other". The constant challenging of the veil has become such an issue that for the Muslim community to assimilate completely according to the Western nations, like Holland, Australia and France the requirements have become a constant political debate and sensationalist media frenzies, where the demand of putting down the veil has become a constant fixture amongst national debates.

Over the duration of the veil debates and the constant social fear, what has come to be clear is that the modern challenge of alterity and subaltern prejudice to Whiteness pressurizes to undo this make-believe construction of recognition. The self-absorption slips without difficulty into fear and paranoia for the white subject, when the "Other" is not in its right place (no longer "Other"). The right place in his context could be seen as the invasion of their schools, like with the schoolgirls in France, who wanted to wear their headscarves and were seen to disrupt the set in places rules and regulations.

The real issue here is control and as Hardt and Negri advocate, the body is critical in the sense that it allows for the exercise of new structure of control (bio-power) in the current globalized nations. "The tracking and control of Oriental bodies has become the universal technological white gaze of a global Islam phobia" Sharma (2003). When the "war on terror" started there was an undetectable, but it was felt nonetheless global shift in the way that Muslims were perceived, there was an increasing cultural paranoia on anything that wasn't Western.

Perhaps one of the crucial points of this new social phobia is that through the course of 9/11 there were raised concerns about the presence of Islamic terrorists within the Western nations. No longer were they the actual outsiders, but now there was a real threat that the enemies lived amongst them, and were perceived as normal, but in fact are very anti-western. This is how the increasing heat on the veil in the media gets so much press time, because it is a marked difference of "otherness" that is like a defying attitude against the Western way of life. The Orientalists' predisposition, Edward Said declares is to analyse the Orient in conditions that were "static, frozen and fixed eternally." The Muslim woman is the prime example as she is seen as the core reason that non whites don't assimilate in the country, by holding on to a culture and a different way of life that is very alien to the majority. Her only redemption lies within her readiness to immerse herself to modernity and western cultural norms.

Liberation for Muslim women is considered by the measure to which their dress codes is the conventional standards accepted in the West, this is seen as the Eurocentric theory. The idea is that it is the opposite of the Fundamentalists and extremists like the Taliban who under their oppressive regimes are being seen as oppressing and rigid towards dress codes of females. On the other hand, to imagine compliance to a set of cultural codes defined by the West means that Muslim women will be subjected to yet another hegemonic worldview and this will only lead to another restriction regarding her choice in what to wear, they are left without the prospect to come to terms with themselves what liberation and empowerment stands for, and whether in the end the veil becomes a choice of individuality.

The anger directed at its wearers has left them feeling saddened and misunderstood. They are being defined, they feel, by a piece of clothing they proudly wear but whose meaning to others they cannot control -- whose meaning, in fact, they don't even agree on among themselves. Eli Sanders (Interpreting Veils, Seattle Times, 5 October 2001)

"Can the subaltern speak?" argues Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) who takes issue with Western researchers who profess to speak for those who have been already assembled in discussion, but who have had no chance thus far to come to terms with their own identities. Muslim women's conscious embracing of the veil in countries where this is not a statutory obligation is often defended on the basis that it is a personal choice away from mainstream culture and the basic exercise of their personal faith for higher spirituality rather than male domination. This seems to be overlooked by high public profile speakers who are against the veil, be it a Feminist or a politician, as they rather speak on behalf of the Muslim woman from an Orientalists point of view.

This makes it a problematic issue as it not only portrays the whole of Muslim women under one brush, it also forges the perception that the veiled woman voice is one of docility and victimhood which is what the Western representations through the lack of more veiled women having their say on these issues that seems to have been forged around the veil. In the end it leads to a lost chance to understand the Muslim women's diverse subjectivities, experiences and circumstances.

So in conclusion, unless one presumes that there is an "essential woman, the control of the women is being exercised regardless of whether they are compelled to veil or unveil. In other words, control is a matter of maintaining and producing the subjects. If fundamentalism is to be characterised by the desire to exercise control over women, there should no difference to be made between modern France who prohibits the veiling of Muslim schoolgirls and Saudi Arabia who prevents women from unveiling in public.

So what I have come to understand is that even though the way Orientalists perceive and seem to prefer to look at the issue of the veil from a one sighted point of view where the Muslim woman's veil is being an absolute form of cultural difference, whose veil they won't allow themselves to be seen as anything but innocent. In the end a simple cloth called by various names whether one prefers hijab or the veil has throughout history not only shifted and changed meaning, but it has come symbolize everything from Islamic fundamentalism, religious expression, women's subordination to women's empowerment and equality. That is the power we can attribute to something as simple as a veil.