What is this thing we call a veil? How does it change individuals, groups and landscapes?
Rafia Zakaria's Veil, published as part of the Object Lessons series, sets itself the difficult task of getting a reader to consider these questions afresh. Most books in the series, published in partnership by Bloomsbury and The Atlantic, are short personal and philosophical reflections on the stuff of everyday life.
Past Object Lessons have been about the remote control, the golf ball, the cigarette lighter and the password. Any of these might yield fascinating illuminations and fun party facts.
Zakaria’s task is harder: not to excavate the little-discussed, but to explore an object at the centre of public attention, debate and legislation.
The book’s origins can be found in 2011, Zakaria tells us, in a Karachi hospital where her mother was staying in a special care unit. Most women in the waiting room protected their personal space with bags and body language, by hunching into themselves and by avoiding the gazes of men.
One woman loudly dominated the space: meeting these gazes, speaking loudly on her phone. She was fully covered.
The book’s interest in the veil is “not simply as the moral or political indicator to which it is relegated but rather as a facet of life that transforms and reforms during its course”.
One of the initial ways Veil flips the discussion is by illuminating the increasing importance of visibility. A half-century ago, only celebrities had a public profile in need of constant burnishing and grooming. Now, billions of ordinary citizens are on social media and many judge success by likes and follows.
Episodes of the British sci-fi TV series Black Mirror have taken our extreme visibility to terrifying futures. The full veil, Zakaria notes, is a rejection of the hyper-visibility of selfie culture. Moreover, it enforces a sharp boundary between internal and external realities.
Yet while a veil gives individuals control over their public visibility, the object itself is very visible. Zakaria makes a compelling argument that European bans on burkinis, full-face veils and sometimes even headscarves, have an aesthetic-political dimension.
Veil bans are, in part, about how some Europeans want their public spaces to look. These bans sometimes dovetail, she writes, with the banning of minarets. Zakaria doesn’t limit this aesthetic dimension to Europe. The Taliban’s enforcement of full coverage for women, “while literally justified as Islamic, is more likely to be motivated by the need for an instant transformation of public space that also emerges from the ban”.
That is, one can instantly perceive they are under different rulers if they step into an area where women have been eliminated from the landscape.
All women's sartorial choices stem, in part, from a desire to fit in. Zakaria describes how, at the girls' school she attended in Karachi, she was for a time socially excluded. This was largely because of a minor role she played in helping a group of boys to crash a school beach trip. As an act of contrition, the author started wearing a headscarf. When she did, other girls started including her again.
This, she writes, gave her an “understanding of what it meant to belong and how belonging could be accomplished, in this case via an object, a headscarf and then a veil”.
Debates over the veil also force divisions among Muslim women, pitting them against each other over issues of morality, feminism and realpolitik.
In 2001, the full-face veil was among the justifications of the United States’ bombing of Afghanistan, and US women were at the forefront of demanding attacks. “The burka and the bombing thus intermixed in the American imagination.” This marked a continuance of the narrative of white women “bringing feminism and visibility to the lesser women of conquered lands”.
Zakaria's argument here echoes Edward Said's Orientalism, as she describes a narrative – Muslim women suffering at the hands of Muslim men – as a necessary justification for colonial dominance. But as the War on Terror continued, Zakaria writes, the fully-veiled woman as "exotic and repressed" no longer helped to achieve so-called security goals. The result "is a transformation of the fully-veiled woman from the hapless subject requiring western rescue to the subversive terrorist requiring imprisonment".
Veil is just over 100 pages, and moves deftly between personal memories and social criticism.
It provides an effective, brief reintroduction to questions about the veil for any readers open to looking at this object anew.