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Concealment and Revealment: The Muslim Veil in Context

Author(s): Anjum Alvi

Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 54, No. 2 (April 2013), pp. 177-199
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for
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Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013 177
2013 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2013/5402-0004$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/669732
Concealment and Revealment
The Muslim Veil in Context
by Anjum Alvi
CA Online-Only Material: Supplementary Figures
Analyzing ethnographic data of the Pakistani Punjab, the essay argues that the meaning of the concept of veiling
is inseparable from its multiple and apparently unrelated expressions of shame and honor beyond the normally
identied contexts of dress and female concerns. Muslim veiling is described as a fundamental value, as concealment
counterpoised to the relative value of revealment, forming a permanent ontological statement of ones being in the
world, that is, an ethical relation of the self with the other, while recognizing its nonethical aspectsthe non-values.
Thus it cautions against interpretations of the veil as a symbol representing something else, entailing implicit dualities
like semioticpractice, subjectobject, category/ruleaction, instrumentalreligious. At the same time, the essay
questions the imposition of the self, posits the other, and rethinks differences between cultures, integrations of
minorities, ethics, freedom, tolerance, and recognition.
A religious symbol does not rest on any opinion. And error
belongs only with opinion. (Wittgenstein, Remarks on
Frazers Golden Bough [2002 (1931)])
Absurdity consists not in non-sense but in the isolation of
innumerable meanings, in the absence of a sense that ori-
ents them. (Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings [1996])
In recent years public debates in Europe have centered around
the covering of womens hair and face as a sign of Muslim
identity. The popular public discourse generally sees this as
a violation of womens rights and individual freedom and its
wearer as either suppressed by the male gender in the name
of religion or as engaged in fundamentalismand radical think-
ing, subverting Western values. The media associate the con-
comitants of economical poverty and corrupted institutions,
such as lack of education, dependence on men, control on
female sexuality, and violence, with Islamjust as many Mus-
lims associate Western values of individual freedom and self-
realization with moral decadence, the casting of women as
sexual objects, and the breaking of families. The professional
debate, as the following review shows, takes place on a dif-
ferent level, but this essay argues that it is for the most part
Anjum Alvi is Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore
University of Management Sciences (LUMS, Room 221, New Wing,
Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences, D.H.A,
Lahore Cantt, 54792, Lahore, Pakistan []).
This paper was submitted 14 VI 11, accepted 29 III 12, and
electronically published 15 III 13.
still embedded in certain key concepts that, for all their merits,
impede an access to the veils full meaning.
Nilofar Gole introduces her work with the observation that
no other symbol than the veil reconstructs with such force
the otherness of Islam to the West (1996:1). For authors
like Franks (2000:920), Hirschmann (1998:352, 362), Laborde
(2005:306), and Macleod (1991:121), the sartorial veil is a
symbol (sign, signal, marker, representation, instrument,
code) of an Islamic subjectivity as viewed from a range of
different perspectives: of personal choice and freedom, cul-
tural and personal identity, dignity and modesty, female sex-
uality, patriarchy, power and coercion, necessity and cultural
pressures, secularism, religion, resistance, and protest against
cultural and economic mores associated with the West, from
colonialism or imperialism to consumerism.
To see the veil as a symbol or sign suggests a duality between
signier and signied, as if, as Franks implies, the veil itself
had no meaning but acquires it through what it refers to
(2000:918). Against this, I argue for the inseparability of the
symbol from its reference, semiotics from practice, and
thought/rule from action.
Second, I propose that to locate
the meanings of the veil in institutionalized contexts like pol-
itics, economics, religion, culture, and sexuality, or in notions
of agency, self-formation, and identity, obscures the mutual
illumination of different contexts of meaning. Hoodfar, for
instance, sees no relation between voluntary and involuntary
wearing of the veil (2003:3839), while Lyon and Spini dis-
1. My approach draws on authors like de Coppet 1992, Dumont 1986,
Levinas 1996, Merleau-Ponty 1958, Strathern 1985, Wagner 1972, and
Wittgenstein 1958.
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178 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
connect its traditional and modern meanings (2004:343).
Against such views I draw on Levinass notion of the gathered
Being (1996:37) in order to locate meaning by relating ap-
parently discrete contexts. Even Moruzzis (1994) important
argument against the homogenization of Islam that stresses
the specicity of cultural understandings of the veil neglects
this relatedness.
My third point is that to see veiling primarily as a dress code
that secondarily symbolizes further issues, no matter how de-
tailed and complex, forecloses not only its location in nonsar-
torial contexts but also its meaning in relation to itself. El
Guindi, in her comprehensive work (1999), exposes different
meanings of the veil with regard to both genders: In sum, the
veil in social space is about privacy, identity, kinship status,
rank, and class (2003 [1999]:126). However, withthe exception
of privacy, all these meanings ultimately hinge on dress codes,
whereas I suggest that the concept of veiling is expressed in
many contexts, with dress, though important, being only one
among them. This wider quality of the concept of veiling was
already recognized by Antoun, whose term modesty code
refers to more than dress, including character traits and insti-
tutions (1968:672). Unfortunately, however, his work retains a
male perspective, linking the whole complexity of veiling to
female sexuality, a point underlying Abu-Zahras criticism
(1970). For Abu-Lughod the veil as a dress code is embedded
in ideas of sexual shame, a matter of concern primarily for
married Bedouin women in relation to hierarchically superior
males (1986:152167). This essay, by contrast, demonstrates
that the meaning of honor and shame and its link to the mean-
ing of veiling in both sartorial and nonsartorial contexts are all
constituted through the concept of concealment.
This brings me to my fourth point: the veil is often discussed
solely with regard to female concerns. For instance, Hoodfar
(1991) treats the veil as a dress code with reference to multiple
issues: voluntary participation in political movements; move-
ment in public without the danger of molestation, enabling
women to follow a profession or have access to higher edu-
cation, itself enabling economic independence; or a way of self-
differentiation from traditional rural women. Mahmoods work
goes beyond the concentration on the symbol by arguing for
the nonseparation of the veil from the interiorized modesty of
the self, yet she too relates the veil as a dress code exclusively
to womens concerns (Mahmood 2001). Many authors on
South Asia (Jacobson 1982; Jeffery 1979; Papanek 1973; Pastner
1972; Sharma 1978) enhance the understanding of the function
of sartorial veiling by relating it to multiple contexts like ar-
chitecture, economic and political powers, female behavior
norms (bashfulness, reservedness, low voice), control on mar-
riage and on in-marrying women, and womens submission to
the in-laws. Vatuk (1982) interprets all this as a concern with
womens protection. While I take regard of this, my emphasis
shifts from functional meaning to an understanding of con-
cealment as a value for both genders in order to identify mul-
tiple contexts, like architecture, home, work, death, marriage,
gifts, Su poetry, asceticism, mysticism, sacredness, shrines, and
their related myths. Veiling is central to the brother-sister,
mothers brother-sisters daughter, and father-daughter rela-
tion, to agnatic solidarity, and the daily activities of men,
women, and children.
My fth point: the meaning of the term sharam, so often
invoked in relation to the veil, is far richer than its usual English
translation shame, which is often associated with modesty,
morality, piety, and female sexuality and its control. I explore
additional meanings of sharam as aspects of concealment as a
value, like nakedness of humans and sacred items, virginity,
beauty in concealment, honor in responsibility andas embodied
self-control, afnity, self-respect, dignity, pride, reverence for
the other, self-sufciency, vulnerability, security and protection,
embarrassment, an obligation to be humble, humiliation, shy-
ness, reservedness, restraint, as well as women of the house, in
particular, daughter and sister. Many of these aspects, however,
will be demonstrated for both genders.
Sixth, while my intention is to gain an inside view into a
particular Muslim phenomenon and not to defend or criticize
veiling, I identify contexts that enhance as well as those that
limit social practice. Limiting contexts are, I contend, pri-
marily unintended consequences of veiling, like the concern
about honor killings or mutilation of women. Among these
is the French ban on the veil. These six points expose the
arbitrary fragmentation of the concept of veiling that I treat
as a whole.
Some anthropological theorizing of symbols presumes a
context-free, objectively reducible meaning, a view critiqued
by a range of philosophers.
The perception of religion as a
system of symbols fails, as de Coppet shows with regard to
the medieval meaning of (symbolic) repre sentation, to grasp
that an object may stand for something and, at the same time,
as an act of repeating and recreating, constitutes a thought
inseparable from the act (1992:6469). This inseparability is
often lost by the modern
perspective (de Coppet 1992:64
69). According to Dumont, the modern separation between
value and fact also separates the symbol from its reference,
which is assumed to be arbitrarily linked to or imposed on
the symbol, constituting a modern articialism (1986:56,
243, 249, 257). This dualism is arguably traceable to the sep-
2. See, in particular, Wittgenstein in his arguments against the pos-
sibility of a private language, about rule following (1958), and his remarks
about Frazer (2002 [1931]; see also Skorupski 1976:1317), Merleau-
Pontys localization of the self in the human world (1958), as well as
Levinass arguments against the possibility of a pure receptivity (1996:
36), that is, meaning without context.
3. The concept of modernity is here operationally dened as a value
system that locates a person primarily with reference to him- or herself
and only secondarily to the cultural narrative, thus creating a duality
pointed out by many authors (like de Coppet 1992; Dumont 1986; Lev-
inas 1996; MacIntyre 1984, and Merleau-Ponty 1958). In many other
value systems a person is primarily dened within his or her relations
(Strathern 1992). While many authors discard this distinction between
the modern and the nonmodern in order to avoid an orientalist per-
spective, this essay argues for a recognition of difference, and thus for
the other, rather than searching for the self everywhere.
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 179
aration of mind and body inscribed in the intellectual
traditions of both intellectualism and empiricism.
In an-
thropology this problem may be traced to the separation be-
tween rule and practice criticized by Bourdieu (1977:2230)
inuencing Jackson (1983), who argues against the separation
of bodily experience and conceptual formulation, and Csordas
(1990), who observes that the body is not an object but a
subject of culture.
Symbol, if seen from Bourdieus perspective, involves an
objective truth imposed by the observing scientist on the peo-
ple studied. This forecloses an access to the subjective view
that unfolds itself in time and lies in practices and the sense
people nd in pursuing their aims (1990:107). This sense and
rationality, however, he characterizes as illusio, as a subjective
illusion, because, he maintains, when seen objectively, free of
the social context, apart from the narrative, it is a misre-
cognition of power relations (Bourdieu 1990:68, 82, 107, 114,
135). For him veiling would thus constitute an objective struc-
ture of subservience to masculine dominance (Bourdieu
2001). Hence, his critique on objectivism, important as it is,
does not escape its own imposition of an objectivity reected
in the terms illusio and misrecognition and therefore re-
mains caught within the duality of the modern perspective,
leading him to concentrate solely on a fragmentary meaning
in individual acts unfolded in the habitus, while the entirety
of these acts eludes him. The division implicated in the notion
of symbol entails a separation between the authors view,
which is presented as an analytical fact, and the symbols
signicance as a religious act for the people themselves (for
the same reasoning, see Mahmood 2001:209). For Dumont
(1986:23368) however, values
are not separable from the
facts in which they are expressed, namely, ideas and actions.
He notes that to make scientic knowledge possible the def-
inition of being has been altered by excluding from it precisely
the value dimension (243). Thus, for him the access to other
cultures lies in understanding their system of related values,
which are not simply what is desirable or preferable (249).
What, then, is this concept of value? Values, in the acts and
ideas of the people who share them, express their aspirations,
worth, and sense, and relate them in a meaningful way to the
world by shaping their perceptions, intentions, and aims, and
provide orientation in every new context. This concept of
4. As pointed out by Merleau-Ponty and Levinas.
5. However, Csordas, though arguing against the duality of body and
mind, reduces culture to the self. Through this implicit denial of the
other he remains caught within the modern perspective (1990).
6. Unlike Webers ideal types, which attempt to access subjective con-
tent through the imposition of an objectivity, values are specic cultural
contents whose recognition as such makes the scientic inquiry and,
instead of falling into solipsism, for de Coppet (1992) and Dumont (1986:
207, 213) become relatable at a global level, most notably also, as I argue,
with regard to an ethical perspective.
7. Dumont refers to his concept of value in terms of the inseparability
of value from idea, idea from fact, or ought to be from what
is, and sometimes simply as value-system (1986:233, 238, 243, 249,
260, 261, 265).
value that denies its separation from fact and provides ori-
entation is the heart of my theoretical approach to the concept
of veiling. Concealment, sharam, I argue, is one such value
expressed in peoples practice, not just in individual acts but
contained in the entirety as a systemic orientation. Such a
fundamental value, the mother of all others, Dumont notes,
often remains unexpressed (1986:233). This concept of value
not only lifts the separation between objective and subjective,
semiotic and practice, category/rule and act, or symbol and
its meaning, but also prevents modernitys values from im-
posing themselves on nonmodern contexts, in the negative
sense of treating them as inferior as well as in the positive
sense of nding the self everywhere. To broach the issue of
the modern and nonmodern implies no opposition, as be-
tween Western and Islamic societies, but poses the other
without the imposition of the self. It is precisely such an ethics
that is proposed by Levinas (1996; Alvi, The Death of Pope
John Paul II: Some Reections on the Place of Ethics in Mo-
dernity, unpublished manuscript, n.d.).
Here we must note some further attributes of the concept
of value: Dumont observes that a value necessitates the ex-
istence of other values of different statuses that may be contrary
to each other, as well as of non-values that pervert them, re-
sulting in a hierarchy (1986:7, 124, 227, 265, 279); funda-
mental value encompasses the relative one, and both together
as a whole subordinate the non-value. Acommon characteristic
of value in nonmodern contexts is its segmentation (252
56): its multiple uid facets, exibility, appearances in numer-
ous overlapping and intersecting contexts, its continuity
that is, the immediate relatedness of all its appearances in
different contexts that may be at more or less encompassing
levels because of the different statuses of values. The uid
nature of the value of concealment lies, I argue, in multiple
contexts, united as a gathered Being (Levinas 1996:37), as
does the contrary value of revealment (wakhala, dekhawa),
what is shown to others.
I further discuss the non-values
(nonideological or unintended consequences of values)
that pervert the value system (Dumont 1986:265).
The value of concealment posits Islam as principally in-
separable from its specic expressions, like the Punjabi one
discussed here, which constitute its oneness, just as the notes
of a certain music may be played with different instruments
in different ways and are neither reducible to nor separable
from them. This analytical concept of value is thus not di-
vorced from its immediate subjective content. Seen in this
way, veiling is a form of being, or a permanent ontological
8. It should be noted that Western values of revealment are also ne-
gotiated issues, set against the conceptual notions of concealment. For
instance, transparency in politics and economics is set against discretion
and privacy. The revealment of female beauty and nudity is not simply
a matter of male manipulation but is set against sexual abstinence and
the deliberate covering of body parts. The uid nature of the value of
revealment may also be noted in modern architecture and art (an extreme
case is Gunther von Hagenss Body Worlds, a display of the human bodys
inner beauty against the general taboo on death and the burial).
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180 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
statement, in-built into every act. It shapes a practice that is
neither guided by rules nor by principles (Bourdieu 1977),
nor are rules or principles a result of practice, but the principle
in its enactment forms innumerable expressions in our in-
strumental individual actions, thereby rendering them as, as
Wagner notes, at the same time cultural and personal (1972:
6079; Alvi 2007). Thus also Mahmoods valuable critique of
interpretations of the veil in instrumental rather than religious
terms (2001:209) requires a qualication: individual acts re-
lating to economics, politics, status, cultural identity, the
struggle for self expression, and personal instrumental strat-
egies expose multifarious individual expressions of the same
values. To separate religion from other categories of existence
is a modern view whose history is traced by Dumont (1977).
He notes that in modern ideology the previous hierarchical
universe has fanned out into a collection of at views (1986:
249), or the multidimensional world is decomposed into a
heap of planes that are absolutely separate and independent
. . . homologous to each other, and each of them is homoge-
neous throughout its extension (263)an image presented by
many studies that limit the veil to a single institutional context.
This essay thus intends to establish the perspective that the
veil in Islam is not a mere symbol limited to a dress code,
referring to an absence waiting to be discovered and to be
constituted as its real meaning, but a value of concealment.
It is this that explains the importance of veiling in Islamic
contexts, its persistence, and how it permeates peoples very
being. This being is not a matter of mere existence but, as
Merleau-Ponty notes, a certain bent toward the world (be-
ing-in-the-world; 1958:424475). That is, a persons world-
view (foregrounds and horizons) is formed and rendered
meaningful by culture (the world), which itself is the result
of a persons engagement with other humans. Thus the world
in which a person is situated is also a space where he or she
unfolds his or her own creative potential. Here no aspect is
prior to the other: Inside and outside are inseparable. The
world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside myself (474).
This inseparability on which Bourdieus theory of practice too
is built lies at the heart of the value of concealment that takes
regard of the signicance the world has for people and how
their acts are unfolded in it, thereby contributing to shaping
it, and rendering arguments of absolute freedom or agency
(for instance, Hirschmann 1998) questionable. Thus, the self
forms itself wholly in relation to the world or the other,
an ethical quality that may get distorted in the unintended
consequences of an act, and thus rendering them unethical.
This thesis is exemplied by drawing on ethnographic ob-
servations in the Pakistani Punjab, in particular, the area
around the village of my eldwork, Malot (see g. A1 in the
CA online supplement
), in the Salt Range.
9. For all photographs, please consult the online supplementary ma-
terial. All photographs were taken by Lukas Werth.
10. The village of Malot where I worked between 1993 and 1995 is
mainly populated by Janjua Rajput, regarded as a high caste in the area.
Power, Responsibility, and Freedom
Kim, the eponymous hero of Rudyard Kiplings novel, wan-
dering with his teacher on the Great Trunk Road, meets an
elderly noblewoman traveling in a veiled palanquin accom-
panied by a group of servants. She speaks only from inside,
never showing herself. Yet she dominates the scene, thus pro-
viding an eloquent testimony of a womans self-assertion in
such a situation. She deals with everybody in a condent,
sovereign manner, including a passing policeman to whom
she demonstrates the limits of his authority. In the morning
she hurries her servants, who all rush to provide her with her
rst hookah. Kim is impressed by the richness of her ex-
pressions. Kiplings gure is no Muslima, but a Hindu, and
yet she perfectly illustrates the general relevance of the prin-
ciple of the veil in a cultural context crucially inuenced by
Islamic notions. The veiling is self-evident, obviously forms
the ranis personality; it is at the same time a criterion of
honor, status, and action, and an identity determining the
way in which the rani turns to the world. To regard it as a
limitation of her perspective would certainly amount to no
more than a description of one aspect among others and
neglect how the veil also enhances her possibilities.
During my eldwork I experienced a similarly self-assertive
manner among the women in Malot. Women usually drape
their head and body with a palla,
also called chunni, or
dupata, a cotton shawl, one meter broad and two meters long
without which they feel naked despite their long shirt and
baggy trousers (shalwar-qamiz): a palla covers a womans
sharm (nakedness). Even the presence of a close male relative
induces a woman to respectfully take extra care of her shawl.
She eschews eye contact with men; friendliness is less an issue
than the obvious effort to hamper any male access to herself,
and if she has to address a male stranger, she does so using a
term for a close relative. Men on their side gaze on the ground.
In the daytime women move freely in the village, young
ones preferably with female friends and cousins. When my
friends and I came across men in a lane, they respectfully
turned aside, avoiding any eye contact, whereas we walked
self-condently in the middle of the lane. However, in a town
bazar women cannot depend on this respect and are therefore
compelled to wear a chador, a shawl bigger than a palla, or
a burqa,
which is therefore not necessarily a symbol of
urbanization and modernity (El Hamel 2002:303) but ne-
cessitated by the unfamiliar, public context.
Already the architecture expresses the value of concealment:
11. Palla is also a Latin term for a rectangular cloth within which
women in Roman antiquity wrapped themselves when they left home
(see Tanno in Goto 2004:280).
12. A burqa is a thin coat with sleeves covering the body down to the
feet, usually black, along with a cape down to the waist, covering the
head and xed under the chin, sometimes with an attached piece of cloth
covering nose and mouth, and nally two transparent veils attached to
it, niqab, which cover the whole face down to the chest when they are
not folded back.
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 181
single-story buildings with windows only opening to the
courtyard surrounded by high walls and a gate prevent any
view inside from the narrow lanes (see g. A2, AD). Non-
related men of other villages, who usually visit without their
women, are whisked into guest rooms beside the entrance,
where they are served only by men: people take pride in the
fact that their women do not move unnecessarily between
villages. Village men usually meet each other outside their
homes at certain places or at lodges (dera) in the elds; only
on such occasions as sickness or death do they pay a formal
visit to a home, considered to be the womens realm, which
facilitates frequent and informal meetings between female
friends and relatives. Urban contexts reect similar separa-
tions: different places are reserved for women in public trans-
port and in restaurants, and there are separate hostels, schools,
and colleges for each gender. A family traveling in a public
transport pickup whose platform, covered with a canvas roof,
usually features two benches facing each other, never allows
its young women to sit at the rear toward the road, a place
occupied by elderly women or by men.
This segregation is inculcated from early childhood: boys
play cricket in a free plot where they are watched by passersby,
a display considered disrespectful for girls who never idle
around street corners and shops. The daughters of one woman
who had married in from elsewhere were criticized for being
seen too much on the village streets. I used to teach some
small girls, aged between 8 and 11 years, who always arrived
in the company of a mother or aunt. They felt awkward and
resistant when I, though being female, tried to take them into
my lap or to kiss them on the cheek: wrapped in their small
palla/chunni, they acted like small women with the female
consciousness of how to move with shyness and reservedness
(sharam; see g. A3). The fear that girls might lose this em-
bodied shame by moving outside discourages many parents
from sending them to high school in the nearby town. Some
of the girls who studied there were soon compelled to stop
their education and to marry when their parents were con-
fronted with rumors about their behavior. Shyness (sharam)
is also felt about female undergarments, as they imply na-
kedness: my washed underwear was secretly spread by my
hostess on the roof, and I was not allowed to hang it in the
courtyard like other clothes. The concept of tna
that Mus-
lim scholars would normally invoke to explain this and other
acts is not generally used by the people: what matters is a
general attitude of self-respect in reservedness as a way of
being. This attitude also informs urban practice: even female
university students whose dress includes sleeveless shirts and
who sometimes go without dupata are brought by a car inside
13. The term tna, meaning temptation, trial, torments, discord,
or civil strife, appears many times in the Qur an (Goto 2004:290).
the campus. This is not just a control of female sexuality
but an aspect of a wider discourse on sharam permeating
these contexts also, which is carried on internally among the
students: the same students told me unanimously that, even
if they would not make it public, they would distance them-
selves from anyone who lost her virginity (sharam).
This sharam is considered a womans real jewelry, ex-
pected at all stages of life, without which she is thought empty,
graceless, and naked (nangi, besharam). It expresses the Is-
lamic principle of beauty in concealment (sharam, hiya, laj),
a conceptual counterpart to honor, the ability to preserve
ones sharam (see g. A4). A young widow in my host family
in Malot particularly emphasized her reservedness by re-
straining herself from wearing new or colorful clothes, by
leaving her hair unkempt, and by avoiding talk with any man
outside the immediate family: a Rajput widow is expected not
to remarry, and hence acts of revealment render her partic-
ularly vulnerable. Sharam therefore also becomes an idea of
security, visible when young women always move in groups
of two to three for daily activities, like fetching water from
the distant spring, washing clothes in the streamlet, defecating
outside the village, going to the local shrine for Thursday
prayers, or visiting a town bazar.
Sharam also means to keep the image of ones self-suf-
ciency, to conceal a needy personal situation: even neighbors
sharing the same courtyard do not know what is cooked in
each others pot. My hostess once told me that in order to
conceal her poverty she at times placed the pot over the re
without really cooking anything; to expose ones own weak-
ness to others is like becoming naked (apna pet nanga karna).
One woman who sometimes openly asked for monetary help
was criticized for having no self-respect (sharam); people take
pride in managing their life without asking for help. My host-
ess also used to tell me before I visited other houses never to
stay for a meal, because, she maintained, it was a matter of
pride (izzat aur sharam) for her not to allow other people to
say that she was too poor to feed her guests.
In other contexts, this concealment of needs in Malot con-
stitutes a barrier between daughters and mothers. Many young
women told me that they had been entirely unprepared and
ignorant when they had their rst menstruation. Whenever
I asked a mother why she never had told her daughter, she
would say, this is a matter of concealment (sharam) which
should not be talked about. Daughtersand sons alsofeel
frequently unable to address issues concerning their marriages
to their mothers: the exchange marriage (watta-satta; Alvi
2007:66671), depending on the availability of a pair made
up of either brother and sister or cousins to wed to a cor-
responding pair, may lead either to marriage taking place at
14. As such simplifying interpretations reveal an observers prejudices,
so does a widespread Muslim discourse that identies sexuality as a
pivotal point on which a Western womans possibilities of life are hinged
and ignores cultural concepts of self-realization, transparency, aesthetics,
15. See Quran 24:31.
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182 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
an early age or being delayed for many years. This creates
personal tension: one girls frequent faints were blamed on
her mothers inability to marry her, and a neighboring girls
continuous bed-stricken sickness was seen by my hostess as
a depression (dukh) due to her ances sudden death, about
which she could not express her feelings without losing her
dignity. Young unmarried girls with such afictions, including
states of frenzy, are commonly considered to be possessed by
jin and often brought for help to holy men (pir) by whom
they are treated with amulets and holy breath (dam-darud).
Generally, an inverse relation exists between the vulnera-
bility that the veil is meant to protect and the successive
responsibilities that a woman shoulders in the course of her
life. Her sphere is the home, represented to the outside world
by men to protect her from its dangers: as Bourdieu observes
for Algerian Kabyles (1990:276), all healthy men of working
age are supposed to leave home in the morning. However,
women have gradated access to the outside world: young un-
married teenage girls with no social responsibilities are the most
restricted, elder girls get around more in order to look after
the livestock and for other such duties, while mothers move
freely within the village, and mothers-in-law not only enjoy
still more authority but also maintain relations between villages
through the visits they conduct alone on ritual occasions.
The rst step to this freedom of movement is marriage,
which enables a woman to start her own gift exchange with
other women, which is the beginning of a lifelong network
of complex and systematic interactions, continuously en-
hancing her social possibilities (Alvi 1999, 2001, 2007). It is
through the medium of gifts that she expresses her intentions
and xes the engagements and eventual marriages of her chil-
dren, to which her husband is then only required to give his
ofcial approval in the form of a nod at the formal engage-
ment ceremony: It is practical kin who make marriages; it
is ofcial kin who celebrate them (Bourdieu 1977:3338).
Thus, far from just dominating and controlling women, men
are in fact dependent for their own possibilities on the re-
lations managed for them by mother, wife, and sister. A man
gets the best morsels of food served rst; his wife works for
him and moves behind him carrying his items, obeys his
command in many contexts, and is left or disregarded much
more easily than she is herself able to leave or disregard. When
I once had agreed to give a man a lift to the town to get his
television repaired, I was surprised to see him arrive at my
Jeep without it, only to notice a short time later his wife
carrying the heavy set on her head down the hill. Yet, this
ofcial male seniority is linked to a clear dependence on a
practical female realm, as it is the women who arrange mar-
riages for their brothers and sons and shape and create male
social spaces and group integration through their gift giving
(Alvi 1999, 2001, 2007). This informal female authority side-
steps easy stereotypes such as patriarchy or male control
on female sexuality, which are better described as instances
of viri-representation, that is, male notions may encompass
female ones. An obvious example of viri-representation in
Malot is to designate both genders with the term rajput, lit-
erally son of a raja, which, however, does not necessarily
mean that all authority lies with the male gender.
It is inherent in the human condition to be confronted
with choices, and the effort to choose the right choice in a
responsible way, that is, in relation to the other, indeed con-
stitutes freedom (see de Rougemont 1944:97100; Levinas
1996). The present essay does not emphasize individual
ethics (Mahmood 2001:222) but a general ethical dimension
that not only gives sense to the self in relation to others but
also forms a notion of freedom that can only unfold itself in
a specic cultural narrative. Cultural particularities, value sys-
tems, and differences all depend on this ethical dimension that
thus relates them and makes them possible in the rst place
(see Levinas 1996:5759). A cultural narrative does not imply
a restriction against which a will would have to be formulated;
rather, it denes a person and his or her will as a bent toward
the world.
The interrelatedness of freedom, responsibility, and viri-
representation induced by the value of concealment is further
demonstrated among female members of noble families, par-
ticularly holy families associated with Su traditions in the
Punjab. Many never show themselves in the open, passing
only in cases of need, cloaked in a burqa through public
places, yet they play a crucial part in managing and sustaining
family power structures. A Su shrine is maintained by the
gifts of large numbers of guests whose donations form its
economic base; many of the guests are dedicated followers
(murid) over whom a holy person (pir) constructs a network
of power by his patronage. Guests and followers are directed
according to their gender into an open male realm (mardana,
bairun) or a concealed female one (zanana, andrun). The
majority of guests are served food from a free kitchen (langar),
but important ones are entertained within the household,
which is controlled and managed by the familys women.
Thus, the males of the family depend crucially upon the
womens organization. In a recorded case the deliberate mis-
management of his guests by his sisters forced the destined
successor of a shrine to withdraw in favor of his younger
In another shrine in Rawalpindi, the overlordship
was contested when a middle-aged, unmarried woman, un-
related to the saint, occupied a separate room in the com-
pound that was forbidden to adult males, with the sole excep-
tion of her father, who directed female followers (murid) to
her. In return for her treatments and blessings, they gave her
gifts: through strict concealment she built a center of honor
and power from which she could not be removed. When
Hirschmann (1998) insists on womens participation in for-
mal power structures, she does so without reference to cases
where power is not exclusively contained by such structures
in the male sphere but may take different shapes (see Nelson
1974; Rogers 1975). In many social contexts complex female
16. I speak of a recorded case when I am unable to reveal its par-
ticulars for ethical reasons.
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 183
practical strategies interact with male ofcial ones (Bour-
dieu 1977:3338), an aspect that escapes, as noted by Yegen-
oglu (1998), those female authors who impose their own
perspective when scrutinizing the other. Thus, regarding Mus-
lims in South Asia, the work, for instance, of Jeffery (1979),
Papanek (1973, 1988), Pastner (1974), and Vreede-de Stuers
(1968), contains an undertone of protest against the veil in-
spired by inducing their own perspective onto the women
they worked with.
The self-understood expression of the value of concealment
as a way of being in rural contexts may be modulated through
personal interpretation in some urban contexts. When women
work in ofces, businesses, or the media, they frequently go
to work cloaked, much as rural women visit a bazar, and once
in the ofce, they take off the chador, thus converting public
space into a familiar one but often also compromising their
status. Some women of the urban middle classes, however,
carry their formal segregation with a chador, hijab,
or abaya
into the public space, deliberately reinterpreting the veil as a
religious principle and along with it their own position in
relation to the male realm, thus dening a personal identity.
Such an identity may also get reinforced when women join
a religious movement like Al Huda.
Many women I met at
its gatherings in the Punjab studied there against the will of
their husbands or fathers who also resisted their veiling. Con-
temporary expressions of veiling like these are the result of
personal efforts of womenfrequently working, often with
academic training, students, or ofce employeesto con-
struct a submitted self, to live Islam in a way they consider
ideal, and to protect themselves from their male-dominated
environment, thus achieving a certain control on it. Here the
wearers status is newly dened in the act that claims religious
values for another context in order to support her aims and
make a social space for her in the public arena. While the
traditional idea of the veil (parda) consists in a concentration
on the domestic realm separated from unrelated men, and
status built through the demonstration of an ability to afford
the luxury of seclusion, here seclusion is detached from the
domestic context and carried into the contemporary profes-
sional world, the very context from which women were meant
to stay away. The prestige of the burqa is thus related to, but
different from that won through the hijab or abaya. While a
womans traditional veiling denes her honor and status in
relation to her family, in which she locates her identity, a
woman taking the hijab or abaya, though remaining com-
mitted to the familys reputation, relates it to another realm
in which she rst of all localizes herself and thus questions
17. A mostly white or gray garment worn over the clothes, covering
loosely the upper part of the body, leaving, in difference to the burqa,
the eyes visible.
18. An abaya is a long, loosely sewn thin gown with head scarf.
19. Al Huda (guidance), an organization for teaching Islam to
women, was founded by the Pakistani scholar Farhat Hashmi in 1994.
Nowadays her recorded lessons on Quran and Hadith are taught in many
habitual objective structures. Such manners of redenition
are frequently identied as fundamentalist. However, this
personal identication in relation to religion is not separable
from pragmatic aspects like gaining respect, reputation (which
is helpful for receiving marriage proposals), status, power, and
mobility, which enable a woman to deal with public matters
without being brushed aside easily. For instance, a girl of
sixteen, growing up in an urban lower-middle-class neigh-
borhood, donned the head scarf as the rst female person in
her family, when she started driving. She told me she did this
to keep mischievous male motorists at bay. A similar attitude
may be noted in the opinions about the veil of many university
students and teachers who point out that abaya is Gods
command to maintain sharam in order to keep the tna
away; that is, men should not get sexually attracted to other
women. Thus, the veil may predominantly emphasize in cer-
tain contexts pragmatic or sexual aspects but is neither re-
ducible to them nor separable from the religious value of
concealment as such.
Marriage as Concealing Sharam
The value of concealment in Islam, however, forms a basic
disposition of perception, structuring the self in relation to
social reality. Male dress is also designed to conceal the body,
and the male head covering, too, though subject to personal
and regional variation, embodies shame and honor, the source
par excellence of which are the women whose care is a prime
responsibility of every man, rendering him vulnerable: terms
for women of the house (like mother, sister, daughter, wife)
may in some contexts be equated with terms for honor (izzat,
ghairat, sharam).
This theme is elaborated in a Punjabi mar-
riage song addressing the brides father: Father never bowed
down before, his daughters [by being born] have made him
to bow, he stands with his turban hanging around his neck;
he came from far with a bowed head, in the morning he had
set his [bridal] daughter into the palanquin (Alvi 1999:256).
The fact that a mans status is lowered after his daughters
marriage in relation to the wife-takers reects the South Asian
theme of afnity (see Dumont 1983), which also is expressed
as a concealment: when cousins, who do not normally veil
from each other, are married with each other, they veil them-
selves in the marriage ceremony, that is, bridegroom as well
as bride are veiled (sera, ghungat, the latter is for both; see
g. A5). This concealment addresses their being others to each
other (see Alvi 2007:674) as well as their elevated and sensitive
situation. Thus, veiling itself expresses in the context of mar-
riage the value of afnity.
For the Hindu context, both Sharma (1978:225) and Ja-
20. The basic link between honor and care for family women was what
Kressels informant tried to communicate through a story (1986:177) and
is reected in his disappointment about the authors inability to under-
stand the issue.
21. Age te babal kadi na niva / dhiya an nivaya / gal wic palra pa
khalota / duro nevonda aya / vade vele uth ke dhi dole wic payi.
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184 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
cobson (1982:99100) note, on the one hand, that among the
reasons for a married womans veiling in her in-laws village
is to prevent sexual relations with other men of the husbands
village, but, on the other hand, they observe that such liaisons
are common. I argue that if veiling is seen in functional terms,
such contradictions remain, but they dissolve once it is re-
alized that a married woman chooses her lovers among such
men who fall into a category of potential husbands and not
of brothers. In other words, veiling in this context expresses
primarily the value of afnity, which is inseparable from its
instrumental aspects. This perspective also allows one to un-
derstand Jacobsons observance that a married woman does
not veil herself either in her natal village or in the villages of
her jethani and devrani (her husbands elder and young broth-
ers wives): the men of these villages are categorical brothers
to her (1982:91).
When in the Punjab a mans daughter leaves the home
upon marriage, his responsibility is not completely transferred
to the husband but falls on her brother, making him vulner-
able. This South Asian aspect of vulnerability is a womans
pride and honor, which lies in her ability to conceal herself
as a beauty from the category of the other (the world, duniya),
the exposure to whom renders her and her own ones vul-
nerable to insult. Marriage also binds brother and sister in a
relation of lifelong mutual dependence expressed in gift ex-
changes, which endow each other with honor (Alvi 1999,
2007). A woman without a brother, even though she may
have many sisters, is pitied for being alone. There are subtle
elements in this relationship: a sister confronts her in-laws
and the world (duniya) with pride (man) in her brother: she
has him; his and his sons house remains her natal home
(peka/picha) on which she and her daughter can lean, and
this love is expressed in her songs. A married sister has a
particularly auspicious status in relation to her natal family,
and this allows her to receive gifts from her brother, and in
return she bestows her blessings on his family by performing
auspicious rites of passage. A brother who fullls his duties
of protection and gifts toward his sister moves with an upright
head, boldly facing the world. Thus both are sources of honor
and shame for each other.
The brother-sister relationship, on the one hand, joins the
Muslim Punjab with the Middle East (Granqvist 1950:175
179) and, on the other hand, is expressed in South Asian
categories that systematically juxtapose wife-takers and wife-
givers in an asymmetrical relationship (Alvi 2007). It intro-
duces the Middle Eastern idea of marrying in as close as
possible, thus not revealing daughters and sisters (sharam) to
strangers (duniya). For instance, a father of four sons told
me that he feels morally responsible toward his brother and
sister to take their daughters in marriage for his sons instead
of searching for brides from elsewhere in order to keep the
daughters (sharam) in the trusted family and to face the world
with honor. A Punjabi saying illustrates the triumph of fa-
milial dependence and love despite any disputes: Even when
a relative kills you he will place your body in the shade, just
as in Algeria the saying is, I hate my brother, but I hate the
man who hates him (Bourdieu 1977:65). In families of very
high status, like Su saints, some daughters may never marry
because within their own category no suitable man is left,
and it is considered dangerous to expose the familys vul-
nerability (sharam) to strangers. In such cases they are married
to the Quran.
Thus, there is no better concealment (parda
dalna) for the honor (sharam) of a woman than a bridegroom
who is a cousin, addressed as a sibling, and therefore double-
bound in his responsibility (see also Alvi 2007:668). This re-
sponsibility, implied here by the value of concealment, nds
justication for its expression in politics, property preservation,
group status, solidarity, respect for the forefathers, loyalty, and
the safety of women, as is evident in Antouns discussion of
several authors (1968:693): each individual marriage expresses
this value through its own intentions and pragmatic strategies.
The value of a consanguineous wife may be traced back to the
Song of Solomon in the Old Testament when the bridegroom
sings my sister, my bride (4:910; 5:12) to his beloved who
is near and yet far: she is veiled. In the Punjabi exchange
marriage (watta-satta; Alvi 2007) too, in the concept of the
concealment of each others women (in this context also re-
ferred to as sharam) through which honor is maintained and
potential disgrace is avoided, Middle Eastern and South Asian
values of marrying in and dening kin and afnes meet each
A Punjabi Rajput man extends his duty to conceal his
sisters vulnerability (sharam) to her daughter by giving to
her at her marriage as a special gift a large and elaborately
embroidered shawl (subar; see g. A6), and thus cloaked, she
leaves her natal home. She cherishes the subar all her life and
wears it on ceremonial occasions. If a woman dies before her
marriage, she is buried wrapped in this shawl after the usual
covering with the white shroud (kafan) and her long loose
hair, which constitute a nal concealment of vulnerability and
beauty in concealment (sharam): the naked body, male or
female, should not even be exposed to the person responsible
for the nal ablution who puries it under a bed sheet
(chador) with the hand covered in a cloth, thus avoiding any
direct view or touch. The nal shroud also conceals a persons
faults, a source of embarrassment (sharam) that should be
mentioned no more, as the person can no more defend his
or her honor.
Saints, Mysticism, and the Dangerous Sacred
The value of concealment is, in Wittgensteins terms, a part
of the language game, that is, its meaning evolves with ref-
erence to the contexts of its use. One such context is the
shrine of Pir Ghaib (the vanished saint) just outside the
22. Marriages to the Quran (see Frembgen 2008) are sometimes also
motivated by economic considerations as when families fear that their
property may get divided if a daughters husband asks for his wifes share.
However, the concept of honor cannot be reduced to such pragmatic
aspects from which values are often inseparable.
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 185
village of Malot; a small, open, walled ground of gravelike
structures inside a little grove from which nobody collects
even the scarce rewood that is needed on a daily basis (see
Werth 1998). It is told about the saints origins that once,
when a marriage procession (barat) passed by this spot, by-
standers laughed at the bald bridegroom with his one-eyed
bride. The couple felt such embarrassment (sharam) that the
whole procession instantly vanished, and in its stead the graves
found there today emerged: the bridegroom had become a
saint (pir) through veiling himself in this miraculous death
a holy persons death is regularly referred to in the Punjab
as veiling from the world (duniya se parda lena), an ex-
pression implying that he, though concealed, in fact lives on.
The respect for this afterlife, particularly in the urs (Arabic
marriage; a saints death anniversary celebrating his mar-
riage with God), is expressed in the offerings of chador, cloth
sheets of mostly green color covering the grave and concealing
it from a naked exposure to the world (duniya) in order to
maintain the honor (sharam) of a holy person (as honor is
maintained by a womans concealment; see g. A7, A). His
power is enhanced by this simultaneous concealment and
revealment, which he shares with the divine itself: the black
veil of the Kaaba conceals the divine and at the same time
indicates its presence (Winter 2004:146). In Susm the world
(duniya) is a veil concealing the divine; ascetic practices aim
to remove the veil from the heart in order that the divine
light might be perceived. In one such practice, chilla, the Su
prays and meditates for a prolonged period in an undisturbed
seclusion, thus preempting his veiling from the world. Some
holy men in Pakistan remain throughout their lives in the
room in which they will be buried, leaving it only once a year
at the urs. In Nurpur, near Islamabad, an ascetic withdrew
himself to a walled enclosure into which only male followers
were allowed and thus enhanced his status by concealing him-
self from the female gender and the world (duniya).
In Muslim mysticism, Winter notes, God is referred to as
female, as mirrored in the classical Arabic love epic Layla
and Majnun (2004:146; see de Rougemont 1983:102107).
Majnuns love for Layla is likened to a search for God. In this
search, though Majnun has crossed the veil of the world, he
has not yet reached Layla, or the Divine, which from the
worlds perspective renders him insane. This theme is in-
versely reiterated in the Punjabi epic of Hir and Ranjha, a
leading topos of Punjabi mysticism: the Punjabi Su poet
Shah Hussein uses the metaphor of this epic to identify him-
self in his search for God with Hir in her search for Ranjha.
The following verse shows Shah Husseins longing for and
identication with the other side of the veil:
23. In this story, the Islamic value is clearly formulated on a Hindu
topos of the Indian goddess: all over India, myths about Devi gures
contain a structure of marriage or sexuality terminated by deathpar-
ticularly of the male consortresulting in the emergence of the goddess.
For the shrine of Pir Ghaib and other such sites in the Punjab, this
pattern has been demonstrated by Werth 1998.
mahi mahi kukdi, mai ape Ranjhan hui
Ranjhan Ranjhan mainu sabh koi akho, Hir na akho koi.
[calling my beloved again and again,
I have become Ranjha myself
everyone should call me Ranjha, and no one call me Hir.]
This verse reproduces the moment when Hirs pain in her
search reaches its zenith, a mystical moment that may best
be characterized with the words of Levinas as one of most
passive passivity, the Self is freed from every Other and from
itself, and, at the height of its pain for the other, the self is
substituted for the other (1996:9091, 121), the self is ab-
solved of itself, and only the one searched for is left, God.
This is the existential meaning that elevates the I to the
climax of its existence (18): the cardinal experience of the
ascetic. This experience of awe beyond the veil, the relation
with the other through the negation of the self, was experi-
enced a thousand years before by Al Hallaj when he main-
tained anal -Haqq (I am the Truth, that is, God in his
transcendence and omnipotence), a statement he paid for
with his life. This topos of self-sacrice appears already in the
Song of Solomon of the Old Testament when the bride in
search for the beloved sacrices her honor: the keepers of
the walls took away my veil from me (5:7).
The sacredness formulated by Pir Ghaibs veiling cannot
be characterized as perfectly good, but Otto draws our at-
tention to the irreducible, distinctly frightening anddangerous
aspect of the mysterium tremendum (1947:1321), immedi-
ately connected with the pirs power: he affects with illness
or madness anyone who tries to pierce his aloofness from the
world by using the sacred wilderness of his grove for worldly
matters, like collecting rewood, urinating, or living nearby.
The grove may be entered, however, with a feeling of reverence
(sharam) and is visited every Thursday evening by the village
women who, with their heads covered, burn oil lights on the
saints (pirs) grave to obtain his blessing (see g. A7, B). Its
rewood may be used only to prepare offerings to the saint,
as was once done when the village elds needed rain (g. A7,
C). During every marriage procession (barat), the bridal cou-
ple leaves the village and enters the grove to obtain Pir Ghaibs
blessing (see g. A8).
Winter notes that this bifacial quality even in the veiling
of God, expressed in the black veil of the Kaaba, parallels
darkness and dangers of the night, a meaning entailed also
in the name of Layla (Arabic night) who is likened to God:
that which one is not able to bear to look on must remain
concealed, only accessible to those who are friends of God.
After his revelation the Prophet wrapped his face in order to
spare common man this sight illuminated by God himself
(Winter 2004:146; Quran 74:1). A Punjabi womans veil shares
this quality of a membrane, rendering her accessible only
to those who can bear her sight (Winter 2004:157).
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186 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
This bifacial quality of blessing and danger,
analogue to
the ambiguities in the religious forces of good and evil, death
and life, illness and health, sin and virtue, falsity and truth,
which was noted much earlier by Hubert and Mauss (1964
[1898]:60), also characterizes the veiling of women in the
home: Punjabi rituals contain at central moments rites of
auspiciousness for a man conducted by related women who
are concealed and thus honored and protected, and at the
same time a source of blessing as well as of danger. Thus, at
his marriage a sister ties a bracelet of owers (gana) on his
wrist and ties the veil (sera) to his head just before he mounts
the horse he rides during the marriage procession (barat; see
g. A5, A). All through a mans life his sister, by accepting
his unilateral gifts called dhian, keeps dangers at bay (Alvi
1999:310), and to neglect this duty makes his prosperity
wither (ghata). On the other hand, women constitute the
forbidden zone
and are inherently exposed to sacrilegious
outrage (Bourdieu 1977:61); the duty to protect them is a
mans source of honor, and failing to do so brings humiliation
(sharam) whose public announcement is unbearable, as it was
for Pir Ghaib. The meaning of this looming danger is com-
parable to Wittgensteins characterization of the life of the
Priest-King of the Wood at Nemi, protecting the GoldenBough:
as his life is not separable from and gives expression to the
phrase the majesty of death (2002 [1931]:87), a mans life in
the Punjab gives meaning to the notions of honor and shame.
Such a principle is not based on an opinion, and therefore
is not subject to error, but is a way of expressing signicance
(88). Thus, efforts to localize any real or original meaning
in the veil as a sartorial symbol (of Islam, for example) all
narrow down and fail to grasp the value of concealment as a
principle of signicance permeating diverse contexts.
The Value of Revealment: Ostentation and
The Islamic value of concealment necessitates revealment as
its counterpart (Dumont 1986:227, 279). This may form a
shadow threatening what is to be concealed but also a value
in itself, subordinated to and dependent on concealment but
entering into a dialectical relationship illuminating an entirety
of contexts.
A person deliberately reveals his or her identity not only
in relation to his or her own social position, wealth, or ed-
ucation but also to that of kin (Alvi 2001), thereby concealing
sources of potential embarrassment (sharam): Rajput men
told me with enthusiasm about their forefathers but concealed
the status of a few in-married women fromanother, somewhat
lower caste, as people often conceal their caste background
if they nd this appropriate. This attitude is expressed also
24. Figures of Indian goddesses also prominently show this double
nature of blessing and danger (see Werth 1998).
25. The terms for sacred zone (harimharem) and for sin and
sinful (haram) both refer to a forbidden zone (see Ahmed 1982:524;
Antoun 1968: 679; El Guindi 2003 [1999]:84; Gole 1996:7, 20, 52).
in contexts such as contemporary architecture when private
urban estates exhibit elaborately decorated fronts and drawing
rooms at the expense of other sides (see g. A9). Ironically
the terraces of such fronts, often copied from Western ar-
chitecture, tend to remain empty both of plants and humans:
the value of concealment has not changed with the fashion
of architecture (see g. A10). The necessary revealment is also
connected with dangers overcome by nazar bhatu, a black
spot that counters the evil eye that looks enviously at what
is revealed: old black cooking pots shield newly constructed
houses in the villages from the envious, tatters of black cloth
protect newly bought taxis and trucks, and a black spot on
a childs cheek protects his or her health and beauty.
The respectability attained through the responsibility for
women (Bourdieu 1977:61) is maintained through an agnatic
solidarity reproduced and demonstrated by internal mar-
riages, through concealing internal disputes, the readiness to
confront enemies, and through common relations withothers,
forming elaborate networks relating different groups and vil-
lages that nd their prime expression in an emphasis on large
numbers of visitors at marriages and funerals. A common
Punjabi saying, mati pao (conceal with soil), aptly char-
acterizes the attitude on such occasions when quarrels and
conicts must be overcome to demonstrate solidarity. The
value of revealment thus implicates the prior intactness of
concealment. Families of particularly high or holy status, how-
ever, may choose to form a new marriage bond in order to
extend relations, often in an exchange of women that serves
as a mutual concealment of each others vulnerability (sharam
par parda dalna) and to mutually bind each other in the
responsibility for the daughters (sharam). In a recorded case,
a wealthy and powerful holy man (pir) exchanged his own
daughter and son in marriage with those of an unrelated but
also highly reputed and powerful landlord and politician.
Marriage entails extreme aspects of both revealment and
concealment: a bride is at once the focal point of beauty in
concealment, even referred to as a bundle (ghatri) that can-
not move and talk on its own, but her lavish decoration
appears simultaneously to cry for revealment (see g. A11,
A). The lascivious dance of the transvestites (khusre; see g.
A11, B) who are invited to bless the couple with fertility forms
the conceptual opposite to the brides nonmovement and
silence, waiting to be disclosed to her husband and in-laws.
One day is reserved for the display of the dowry and all the
gifts received. Women take turns in announcing the names
of the gift givers to each arriving guest, a sweeping public
statement of unity concealing all individual intentions, strat-
egies, and embarrassments that inform the complex grammar
of gifting. One category of gifts is called wakhala (ostentation):
this is not meant to be kept but is returned after its display,
serving only to reveal the size of the network of social relations
beyond immediate relatives (Alvi 1999:80; see g. A12).
Western notions of modesty seem to nd no equivalent in
common Punjabi demonstrations of status, and yet frequently
enclosed in this display is a bent to the world that may be
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 187
called ascetic, as it renounces its own limitations or needs in
an outspoken hospitality. During my eldwork, the elderly
head of my host family was proud to provide a place for me
without asking for favors. Any open contribution to the main-
tenance on my part was refused, and I had to sneak in pro-
visions in the night as small gifts. A Punjabi saying aptly
describes my situation: mu khanda, ankh sharmandi (the
mouth eats, but the eye feels embarrassed). This metaphor
describes honor as embodied control for preserving egoity
or unicity through compelling the self in an obligation to
the other, the source of meaning for the self according to
Levinas (1996:94, 120). I had to respect my hosts pure hos-
pitality, a source of honor (izzat, sharam) but also to preserve
my own dignity (sharam), and I was thus compelled to give in
return, just like the eyes are bound in obligation for what the
mouth eats. The term sharamala/i refers to a person who is
obliged to be humble (sharam), a quality of humans as opposed
to animals, who are considered to be without regard for the
other (besharam).
Living with his elder son, my host secretly saved his small
army pension over 2 decades without telling anybody, and
one day revealed his intention of giving the whole amount
to his younger sons widow, for whom he felt morally re-
sponsible. The reason for his long concealment was not only
that he wanted to give toward the end of his life a substantial
amount to the most needy person in the family, betting to
his Rajput identity, but also to renounce any favors from the
family retrospectively to his savings, thus saving the eyes from
feeling embarrassed for the mouth. This ascetic attitude in
concealment informs other daily contexts as when, on a jour-
ney, a watchman allowed me to use the bathroom of a closed
restaurant, refusing the money I offered him and thus re-
nouncing the opportunity to mend some of his needs. Bour-
dieu refers to such conditions when he notes that poverty
. . . makes doubly meritorious the man who, though partic-
ularly exposed to outrage, nonetheless manages to win re-
spectthough far from being a transgured expression of
. . . economic and political facts (1977:61).
A similar attitude of reservedness and restraint lies behind
a way of revealing ones personal grief by concealing ones
prosperity: a woman whose son-in-law had been murdered
never again wore new and colorful clothes, though her other
daughters were happily married. She was regarded as shara-
mali, a woman with dignity. Another well-to-do woman had,
30 years after the death of her saint (pir), never again thor-
oughly washed her clothes in order to express her permanent
bereavement. Still another very afuent woman of a holy
family never again ate mangoes or grapes, because 38 years
before her father on his deathbed had wished for these fruits
that had not been available. The social expectation for ex-
pressing bereavement after a death is limited to avoid aus-
picious celebrations for 1 year, but these three examples show
how the value of concealment in relation to revealment serves
to express an intensely felt personal pain and to allow the
persons to continue to live with personal dignity (sharam).
Such instances reveal a quality of ascetic modesty, highly
respected and yet not uncommon in the Punjab, entailed in
various forms of honorable politeness that deconstitute the
self, placing it in relation to the other through concealing and
renouncing self-serving wishes (nafs). Asceticism as it emerges
here is ever a movement toward the other; a perspective of
regarding an ascetic as primarily concerned with the isolation
of the self, as entailed in Webers interpretation (1976:365
366), is misleading.
Thus, we note the meaning of the value of concealment in
the gathered Being of diverse contexts that build a hierarchy
of segmented, uid, and related values of different status, in
which the fundamental value of concealment subordinates
the relative value of revealment: the latter is conditioned on
the prior intactness of the value of concealment, but when
revealing becomes wishful and concealing is shifted into the
background, it subordinates its superior value (see Dumont
1986:46, 173, 227, 279). Both values cast their shadows, the
non-values. They are normally subordinated, but in certain
circumstances people may get carried away by them.
The Shadow of Concealment: Unintended
The humanity of religion means that its practices are fal-
lible, and need continual scrutiny in the light of the im-
portant human interests. . . . Religion is itself among the
important human interests, both in itself and because it
represents a central exercise of human choice. (Nussbaum,
Religion and Sex Equality, 1999)
A few of the women moving on the streets of Pakistans cities
in a burqa are prostitutes. For them, concealment means free-
dom of movement without embarrassment, sexual harass-
ment, and the possibility to escape a social stigma, and in
this way the burqa bestows them too with honor and dignity.
Such unintended contexts of the value of concealment, indeed
of any value, are unavoidable, but nevertheless their meaning
is only accessible to us because of the prior understanding of
veiling in other contexts: the meaning precedes the data and
illuminates them. Meanings are not the privilege of any
context; they arise precisely in the reference of one to an-
other . . . in the entire gathering of Being (Levinas 1996:37).
Hence, even the context of the beginning of Islam is illu-
minated with reference to earlier contexts of veiling, and each
new context forms a part of the gathered Being, amounting
to an overow of meanings.
Levinas also notes that even our simplest movement toward
an intended aim carries with it an inevitable awkwardness
for which we remain responsible. In putting out my hand
to approach a chair, I have . . . scratched the oor . . . dropped
the ash from my cigarette: the traces picked up by Sherlock
Holmes when he follows a lead (1996:4). Thus, our being in
the world (habitation) is more than our consciousness and
meaningful actions. Similarly, Dumont notes that just as an
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188 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
individual action has unforeseen consequences or perverse
effects so is a value system (ideology) accompanied by
nonconscious aspects, its shadow (the nonideological) re-
ecting the very limits of a value system; that is, a value has
no control on its unintended meanings in unlimited contexts
(1986:265). For instance, the appearance of the veil in an
adult magazine (Shirazi 2001:4957), or, as Gole notes, a
womans participation in Islamism may lead to unintended
consequences of her individuation and to a critique of Is-
lamist ideology (1996:22, 139). Both Levinas and Dumont
see the unintended or unconscious aspect authenticating
the human condition as such (Dumont 1986:265; Levinas
1996:4). Merleau-Ponty notes that the principle of indeter-
minacy belongs to human existence (1958:196), a thought
very much compatible with Dumonts notion of the shadow
or what is noted by de Rougemont as the devils share in
our being (1944). This share, in which the other is denied,
forms the nonethical aspect of being.
To fully explore the concept of the shadow is beyond the
scope of this essay, but I gather briey some scattered mean-
ings: the term shadow indicates a secondariness to some-
thing of primary importance.
It expresses itself in multiple
ways, such as (i) unintended consequences (for instance, the
hierarchy of classes in avowedly egalitarian societies; Dumont
1980:234, 1986:266); (ii) diversions (when racismexists along-
side other forms of social equality; Dumont 1980:262, 1986:
256); (iii) perversions (when the individual value is usurped
by an absolutist regime; Dumont 1986:149179, 245); (iv)
fears of imagined dangers legitimizing denunciation (like as-
similation or exclusion of the other; Werbner 2005:7); (v)
reactions, when the self is decontextualized and humanity is
addressed without positing the other (like Calvinist ideology,
which reduces the other to the self: outworldliness is now
concentrated in the individuals will [Dumont 1986:5557],
and when such ideologies impose their own specic interpre-
tation on others); (vi) certain reversals of a fundamental value
(when divine power in its own context is encompassed by a
temporal one; Dumont 1986:4652, 252253); or (vii) sanc-
tions as intended precalculations, I argue, are not as such part
of a value system but form its shadow, meant to cope with
other unintended consequences that pervert values. However,
no precalculated sanction can ever exhaust the full potential of
unintended consequences (as the right to live implicates that
murder is punished but legal killing or life imprisonment can
neither themselves become part of a value system nor can their
own unintended consequences be contained).
Thus, the value of concealment has its own shadows that
may be elucidated by exemplifying the seven points just listed:
even though begging in Pakistan is not a wholly disreputable
female beggars in chador or burqa, often with a
child at their waist belong, like prostitutes, to unintended
26. Just as a shirt may have a stain, but a stain cannot have a shirt.
27. A beggar is politely referred to in Urdu or Punjabi as faqir, a term
also used for ascetics.
contexts of honor and protection. We may regard as diversions
of the value of concealment instances where in the guise of
concealment revealment is alluded to: pictures on taxicabs
and trucks of large female eyes glancing out of a half-covered
face spell erotic promise and spark male fantasies. The veils
intention is also diverted when a womans tight-tting burqa
renders her body contours prominent, or by the use of heavy
makeup to emphasize the eyes behind the veil (niqab, a full
face cover) for a seductive effect, or by wearing a colorful
head scarf with beads and embroidery, or when university
students wear brightly colored shoes or handbag together with
a dully colored veiling gown (abaya), or tight jeans and short
shirt with a head scarf, or when in a diaspora context a head
scarf is worn with a long but very tight skirt that reveals even
the contours of the undergarments.
An example of perversion is the banning of the head scarf
from public spheres. Brems explains the formation of such
court decisions as an attempt to avoid civil unrest (2006), but
here something other than simple regulation may be involved:
a law against theft, for instance, preempts the possibility that
some people may wish to steal but cannot reasonably be de-
scribed as punishing those who would like to steal. Here,
however, the identity of a certain category of people is ques-
tioned, their very freedom to move through society within
an unviolated personal space is curtailed by imposing a col-
lective identity on them they did not ask for and which takes
away the autonomy of their personal identities (see Appiah
1994). The same is true when the veil is enforced by the state.
When the decision to demonstrate or not demonstrate faith
by an external expression is removed from an individual and
vested in the hands of the state, it is an imposition of one
will over another, a discriminatory deprivation of personal
liberty. In the same way that forcing non-Muslims in Af-
ghanistan or people of Jewish background to wear identifying
patches profanes their individual dignity and freedom, so too
does depriving Muslim women of the right to wear the veil
or forcing them to do so. Sanctions brought into play to
protect peoples individual rights while depriving them of a
religious right effectively punishes them in anticipation of the
act. Thus, manipulating the law by violating the rights of the
individual in the name of protecting individual rights in a
judicial move explained as anticipating violence conates the
impersonal criterion, the law, with the person of the judge,
leading him or her to become a perpetrator, just as a merchant
manipulating the very truth by using an adulterated scale
becomes a thief (de Rougemont 1944:3940). Such judgments
are marked by a nonrecognition of the other. As Jones notes:
The majoritys dislike or disapproval is not an acceptable
reason for a liberal states withholding recognition from mi-
norities (2006:130), as it may be grounded in a bundle of
baseless fears. Werbner, echoing Asad (1993:286), sees the
real fear of fundamentalism to be grounded not so much
in its differences with Islam but in the fear of return to the
Wests own earlier history: the spectre of puritanical Chris-
tianity, a moral crusade, European sectarian wars, the Cru-
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 189
saders, the Inquisition, the attack on the permissive society
(Werbner 2005:7, 8).
A shadow as a reaction may be detected in a new con-
sciousness of religion in urban contexts in the Punjab, as
among university students, which is prominently visible in
their attire and concentrates on forming a new self. The words
of one female student reect the thoughts of many: I realized
for the rst time how sinful my life had been, and that I have
to face God one day. So I must purify (pak) myself of my
sins, and I must live up to the demand of God in my person.
. . . So my veil (abaya) is not for men, but for God. In such
a context God is invoked to construct the self, and the human
other is ignored. Further, such personal decisions tend to
condemn those acting differently as ignoramuses (ghalat
raste par) who must be told the truth. Similarly the organi-
zation of Al-Huda, otherwise aspiring moral interpretations
of Quran and Hadith pertaining to everyday matters, forms
a shadow when, in search for a new Islamic self not embedded
in a local cultural context, it strips religion from its cultural
expressions by denouncing them as biddat, that is, cultural and
not Islamic, thus decontextualizing the self in its imposition
on the other (see also Ahmad 2009).
The value of honor, associated with the protection of the
family, may be reversed when a woman is mutilated or killed
to restore honor. It happens in the Punjab that a man who
accuses his wife of adultery or wants to punish her for leaving
him throws acid into her face or cuts her nose (see Frembgen
2006:248), or he may kill his sister or daughter for marrying
against her parents will (see Werbner 2007:167). Frembgen
concludes from press reports about cases of mutilation that
nose-cutting is rmly integrated within the moral matrix and
(terrible) logic of honour and shame (2006:252). However,
if the number of such incidents is evaluated against the size
of the population, the frequency of extramarital affairs and
women marrying against the wishes of their families, the con-
clusion suggests itself that such incidents are not embedded
in the logic of honor but form its shadow, that they are
pathological aberrations, just as there are aberrations in other
societies related to cultural predispositions, like shooting
sprees in schools or outbreaks of racism. Honor killings,
whether of men or women, may be explained by understand-
ing their nature as precalculated sanctions, rather than
through a dissociation of religion from patriarchy (Sever and
Yurdakul 2001), rendering them as a shadow. Islam is not
implicated in the historical fact of honor killings or executions
of women for adultery any more than an increase in capital
punishment is a prerequisite of democratic values. It rather
points to an instability of the value of concealment in path-
ological circumstances.
A persons freedom to live with honor is necessarily linked
to responsibility for others. Honor is a moral success allowing
a Punjabi person to turn a bold face toward the world, and
when challenged it must be defended, as, for instance, when
a woman is unjustly accused of unfairness in the gift exchange,
or when, in the extreme case of a murder, honor is defended
by insisting that the case must be brought to law rather than
settled by the acceptance of monetary compensation. Many
offenses to honor in the Punjab, however, are not defended
unless they become a public topic, and cases of a man being
challenged with respect to the honor of women in his family
are extremely rare. In such cases the option of killing the
woman is only one of many and not always the one to be
chosen. For instance, the man who stained the womans honor
is likely to be the one put to death. In a recorded case, a man
killed his rst cousin for having a sexual relationship with his
wife, and this did not prevent the marriage of the victims
sister with the killers brother (just this motive lies at the heart
of Rajinder Singh Bedis grand little novel that depicts a Sikh
context, I Take This Woman
). In another village, a man of
a service caste (kammi) had to ee for his life from the village
when his relationship with a woman of a high landholding
was discovered, and his extended family was made to
leave the village in disgrace. The woman continued to live in
the village without any punishment. After some months, how-
ever, her husband died, it was said, out of embarrassment
(sharam). Women in rural Punjab are not commonly killed
for eloping, but they remain a source of embarrassment
(sharam) for having done so. Women frequently discuss love
affairs and pregnancies without marriage that rarely result in
killings (see also Antoun 1968:685). Before an extreme step
is taken, there are many ways to get along with the brokenness
of being. When social acceptance becomes impossible, women
may rather turn to prostitution and men exile themselves. To
take another persons life is the result of an unforeseen loss of
Some authors tend to associate veiling with those aspects of
Muslim womanhood that they consider unacceptable, factors
like polygamy, control on womens sexuality, the inferior right
of a woman to bear witness, her right to inherit only half of
what comes to her brother, forced marriages, and mens right
of custody and to divorce (see Vatuk 2008). While these issues
certainly constitute real problems, such interpretations fall as
short of understanding veiling, as do biologically inspired
reservations against cousin marriage, which, in their search
for objective meaning, fail to go beyond genetic problems,
ignoring the complexity of cultural meanings. Even the con-
scious decision in favor of wearing the veil taken by educated
Muslims is traced to male, cultural, or religious manipula-
tions, which some feminist authors are inclined to demystify.
Such views may be called orientalist because they assume the
universality of the observers perspective: they point out what
the other lacks, and, instead of accepting the independent
reality of the other, they interpret it either as a transguration
28. The original Urdu title is Ek chador maili-si.
29. The term caste is preferred here to qaum because it adequately
reects the situation in the Muslim Punjab.
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190 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
of exploitation (Bourdieu 1977) or a symbol of a collective
identity, thus translating it into terms accessible to the ob-
servers rationality (see Wittgenstein 2002 [1931]; Yegenoglu
1998). Here they unite with those epigones of Said (1978)
who, criticizing any kind of difference between the self and
the other as orientalist, forget that Said criticized that per-
ception of the other that is left for its formulation at the
mercy of the modern perspective that they universalize by
nding everywhere the self.
The value of concealment forms a meaning that is neither
isolable to one context nor a privilege of a particular time or
place but nds ever new expressions in uncountable contexts.
It is a center of signicance ordering practices (Wittgenstein
2002 [1931]:88), and precisely in this use its meaning is found,
which is not separable from the practices in which it is ex-
pressed; that is, meaning and act are inseparable (86; see also
Alvi 2007; de Coppet 1992; Skorupski 1976:1517; Wagner
1972:607609). There is no exterior reference to which this
meaning might be reduced. Wittgenstein emphasizes that
what this signicance consists in is not important in itself,
but it is precisely the characteristic feature of the awakening
human spirit that a phenomenon has a meaning for it (Witt-
genstein 2002 [1931]:89). Thus, a principle of signicance
cannot be explained in rational terms but has to be taken as
an expression of a reality of its own (8589), that is, it cannot
be isolated from its social context. The attempt to treat the
veil as a mere symbol of an external reference presupposes
an absolute meaning free from the contexts in which the value
of concealment appears and which the interpreter is tempted
to locate in the modern perspective, thereby denying the other.
Such values, however, are permanent ontological statements,
forming the very perception of ones being as related to the
world, providing the body with a meaning related to specic
contexts, that is, a subjectivity, a specic consciousness in
relation to the world, a sense and orientation, thereby denying
modernitys dualities like semioticpractice, subjectobject,
categoryaction, and yet they result in contexts that are be-
yond ones conscious intentions, that is, shadows, authenti-
cating the human condition as such by forming the nonethical
aspect of being in the world.
The ethical dimension also lies in the relation of respon-
sibility of the self for the shadow, the shadow of ones own
cultural narrative (MacIntyre 1984), of ones own existence
what Levinas calls mans inevitable awkwardness (1996:4)
of ones value system (Dumont 1986:265), of ones history
as a moral identity (MacIntyre 1984:220). However, the
problems concomitant with the shadows of veiling should not
mask what is of signicance for both genders: Punjabis in the
village of my eldwork are materially poor but value their
honor and shame in the same way as any Western person,
whatever his or her personal situation, values equality, free-
dom, and individuality.
To have access to any cultures fundamental values means
to relate oneself to the other, not in a mutual recognition that
would constitute a solipsism but in a mutual amendment, a
deconstitution of the self enabling both sides to perceive the
role of the other in their own constitution (Alvi, The Death
of Pope John Paul II: Some Reections on the Place of Ethics
in Modernity, unpublished manuscript, n.d.). Such a relation
I call ethical freedom. Whether we confer, to use the distinction
of Jones (2006), positivity by recognition or just tolerate what
we cannot like, we have, because this is the recognition of
our condition of being, to give space to differences, exempting
those that themselves question the existence of the other.
Thus, Punjabis abroad should not only ask for their own right
to difference but must also recognize the same right for the
majority or for minorities in their homelands: any attempt
to eradicate, expel, subordinate, denigrate, or assimilate the
other is nonethical.
Of course, discussions to enhance each
others understanding are necessary steps (Jones 2006:141
143), but the basic point is about understanding the ontology
of human difference in terms of values not necessarily sep-
arated from facts. Integration in terms of one-sided inuence
is neither possible, nor desirable, nor ethical.
The history of
the relation between the West and Islam shows a continuing
shaping of each other; in fact, the very use of the term Eu-
rope is due to the inuence of expanding Islam (Pirenne
Werbner, comparing Bauman (1993) and Wieviorka
(1995), notes that a subtle Western racism consists in the
denial of the other through either expelling differences or a
demand to assimilate, which Bauman refers to as anthro-
pophagy (see Werbner 2005:7). This fear of eliding the ethical
dimension consisting in the selfs relatedness to the other is
best expressed by Levinas:
In a homogenous . . . society, the central concern is how
to confer on the Other (Autrui) the status of the I and how
to liberate the I itself from the alienation that comes to it
from the injustice that it commits. . . . Universality and
egalitarian law result from the conicts in which one prim-
itive egoism opposes another. . . . It is simply to contest
that the humanity of man resides in the positing of an I.
Man par excellencethe source of humanityis perhaps
the Other. (1996:14)
I dedicate this essay to my late mother Shahzadi Akhtar Sul-
tana, who gave me the insight to grasp the depth of veiling.
I am grateful to my husband Lukas Werth for never-ending
fruitful discussions that gave clarity to my argument and sub-
stantially contributed to the nal formulation, and my special
thanks go to Pnina Werbner for her encouraging words and
30. At issue here is, for instance, the suppression of Christian, Ahmadi,
or Shia minorities in Pakistan.
31. Just this one-sidedness is implied by the slogan Leitkultur
(guiding culture) in Germanys political discourse.
32. Gole discusses the mutual inuence of Islam and Europe in mod-
ern times (2006).
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 191
constructive critique. I am also grateful to unknown referees
for their critical appreciation.
Sarah Bracke
Faculty of Social Sciences, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Park-
straat 45, 3000 Leuven, Belgium ( 2
X 12
Reading an argument about the veil framed in terms other
than womens rights, individual freedom. or the radicali-
zation of Islam is refreshing in many ways, particular when
one is reading in a West-European context where discussions
about the veil are overdetermined. In Concealment and Re-
vealment: The Muslim Veil in Context, Anjum Alvi departs
from such discussions and reframes the conversation in terms
of value. Veiling, she argues, is part of a value system, in
which its meaning is related to the meaning of honor and
shame, and all of these are constituted through the value of
concealment (sharam). Along these lines Alvi considers the
question of veiling from an ontological (positing veiling as
part of a way of being) as well as from an ethical (calling for
a recognition of different value systems) perspective. She of-
fers a very convincing critique to the persistent argument that
takes the veil to stand in for something else.
There are many points worthy of comment and question,
so what follows is necessarily selective and is concerned with
the notion of value, which gures as a central concept in
Alvis argument. Here Alvi relies on the work of Dumont:
values are to be considered as Durkheimian collective rep-
resentations, that is, as social facts, and provide a crucial
means to map out culture, which, in a mentalist understand-
ing, consists of beliefs, norms, and values. A consistent prob-
lem with this theoretical approach, however, is its tendency
to reify culture and its difculty to account for cultural
Such problems become tangible in Alvis essay when she
discusses and illustrates the unintended consequences and
non-values of the value of concealment. Take, for instance,
her account of women moving from a rural to an urban
context. Initially Alvi concedes that the expression of the value
of concealment may be modulated in urban contexts
Dumonts understanding of value indeed allows for much
exibility. She then proceeds, however, to problematize the
emergence of urban pious female subjectivities as the shad-
ows of concealment, suggesting that this development reects
both an ontological loss of value, as well as an ethical im-
position of a worldview on others. Ironically, in the light of
Alvis stated concerns about processes of othering, this leaves
contemporary urban forms of Islama current gure of
threat par excellenceonce more framed in negative terms.
Also the staging of the prostitute who uses a burqa to
conceal in order to move free without embarrassment as an
example of the unintended consequences of a value, and
hence a non-value, raises questions. Here Alvi takes for
granted an instrumental account of veiling, a mode of rea-
soning she rst criticizes in her literature review. Surely other
readings than mere instrumental ones are possible here: one
might nd that the prostitute who dons the burqa seeks to
appropriate the honor and dignity, indeed the value, that the
burqa could offer her in that moment. Entertaining this pos-
sibility, however, requires an approach that not only takes
values as social facts into account but also attends to the
multilayered character of practices as well as processes of the
construction and interpretation of meaning.
These examples, I argue, are indicative for the limits of a
mentalist approach to culture. When a mental structure such
as a value is understood as the central mode of transguring
social reality (and it seems that Alvis thick account of em-
bodiment occurs in the wake of this centrality of value, and
remains framed by it), all too easily a reifying and relatively
static account of what culture is and does emerges. More
specically, a mentalist approach runs the risk of framing
cultural change in terms of loss (of value) at the expense of
other possible accounts of change. Alvis argument is explicitly
driven by an ethical motive: she argues for the recognition
of difference, or the acceptance of the independent reality
of the other, in the light of the material and symbolic violence
of modernity and colonization. Indeed, the centrality of the
concept of value is justied along these lines: an approach
centered in value enables one to pose the question of the
other without the imposition of the self, Alvi contends. Yet
here another risk emerges, as an insistence on the dignity of
the other might well become entangled in problematic ways
with processes of othering, especially when reied under-
standings of culture are in play. Alvis theoretical framework,
I fear, offers little resistance to that risk. And so the question
remains whether Alvis theoretical approach is able to live up
to the ethical aspirations of her project.
Fadwa El Guindi
Qatar National Research Fund, Qatar Foundation for Education,
Science and Community, Doha, Qatar ( 9 IX
Cross-cultural explorations of veiling revealed a wide diversity
of sartorial forms of head and face covers, experienced dif-
ferently by peoples and groups in diverse sociocultural con-
texts. In 1999 an empirically based analytic framework was
formulated for the study of veiling whereby El Guindi re-
considered the veil from a conceptual perspective rather than
simply in material terms, broadened the context for the study
of the veil such that it becomes part of the notion of dress
rather than as an isolated sartorial item, and uncovered pri-
mary and original evidence demonstrating the occurrence of
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192 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
mens veiling in the region (see El Guindi 2003 [1999], chap.
7, The Veil of Masculinity), hence rendering inapplicable
the commonly accepted explanation for womens veiling
the asserted universal or the regional pattern of patriarchy.
Most prior publications on veiling suffered from a weak em-
pirical base and a lack of conceptual precision, two corner-
stones of systematic disciplines. Conning the study of the
veil to observations on womens veiling was based on the
erroneous assumption that only women (particularly Mus-
lims) veil. There was also unbalanced focus on the veils ma-
terial and tangible qualities.
Signicantly, El Guindis analytical framework uncovered
a core conceptual complex identied as sanctity-reserve-respect
(encompassing many Arabic concepts: hurma, hishma, ta-
hasshum, haya, satr, etc.; El Guindi 2008, specically 1315,
for discussion of the methodological technique involved).
This complex constitutes a code that underlies specic cultural
expressions, including veiling.
Thirteen years later, Alvi studies veiling and locates the
Pakistani Punjab notion of sharam (translated as conceal-
ment), arguing it is expressed in peoples practice and indi-
vidual acts as honor, shame, dignity, humbleness, embarrass-
ment, reservedness, reverence, self-sufciency, self-respect,
pride, vulnerability, humiliation, and more. The similarity to
El Guindis code is striking and even some constituent terms,
such as satr and haya, literally overlap. One question raised
regarding Alvis analysis concerns the translation of concepts
across cultural traditions, which, as studies have shown, risks
oversimplication, distortion, and inaccuracy. There is dif-
culty locating a single local equivalent referent when exploring
conceptual phenomena such as veil, privacy, and time. Fol-
lowing Edmund Leach in his study of time (1961), one can
productively proceed by rst asking, how do we come to have
such categories at all? Toward such exploration and seeking
answers in ethnography, not polemics, a query can begin using
a Western verbal category such as veil or privacy (El Guindi
2003 [1999]) or time (El Guindi 2008), then seek linguistic
or conceptual equivalents in cultural traditions. In this regard,
one asks: is it possible in such a process to simply translate
a term such as veil or concealment found in one culture,
let us say a Western culture, then search for the translated
term in another, as among the Punjab? Some of the terms
translated as concealment might be questionable.
There are several ways in which Alvis analysis could have
been more productive. First, remove contradictory claims:
Muslim veiling is proposed as a fundamental value through
which concealment [is] counterpoised to the relative value
of revealment, yet Alvi explicitly rejects duality. Second, her
rejection of symbol is not justied: To see the veil as a symbol
or sign suggests a duality between signier and signied, as
if . . . the veil itself had no meaning but acquires it through
what it refers to. Third, her use of value is granted an
exaggerated theoretical status which denies . . . separation
from fact and provides orientation [and] is the heart of [the]
theoretical approach to the concept of veiling. Fourth, re-
jection of the notion of code along with embedded key
concepts, which for the most part . . . [and] for all their
merits, impede an access to the veils full meaning (emphasis
added) is disingenuous at best.
Alvi is proposing that symbol be inseparable from its ref-
erence, semiotics from practice, and thought/rule fromaction,
which is a moot point. Sharam is presented as a value ex-
pressed in peoples practice . . . [and] . . . contained in the
entirety as a systemic orientation (emphasis added), so the
difference between it and the code underlying the conceptual
complex discussed by El Guindi is supercial and polemical.
The relabeling of code as value does not entail serious
Furthermore, value is presented as [a] permanent onto-
logical statement ... of ones being in the world. How is this
being in the world empirically studied or culturally expe-
rienced? These are questions of ethnographic and anthro-
pological import. If, as Alvi states, meaning of the concept
of veiling is inseparable from its multiple . . . expressions
. . . beyond the normally identied contexts of dress and
female concerns, then we may ask what has Alvi revealed in
her study of the veil in 2012 beyond what is already known?
If anything new has been revealed, it must be well concealed.
Fatma Muge Gocek
Sociology Department, University of Michigan, 500 South State
Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, U.S.A. ( 9
X 12
Is there a signicant difference in the emergence of social
meaning between non-Western, Islamic contexts on the one
side and Western, Christian ones on the other? This article
takes a provocative, dual stand: placing Western theoretical
formulations in tension with Punjabi Pakistani practices, it
argues that the practice of veiling in the Punjab is one in-
dication of a larger ontological difference of Islam, one pred-
icated on the concept of concealment. Drawing on practices
observed during an ethnographic study of a Punjabi village,
Alvi states that the meanings she encountered in the practice
of veiling were so multidimensional and multivariable that
she was forced to argue for an ontological explanation rather
than an epistemological one. Veiling, Alvi contends, is one
component of a Muslim womans concealment of the self, an
ontological practice that very much differs from the way Mus-
lim women are portrayed in the Western popular media.
As a comparative historical sociologist working on issues
on gender and sexuality in the Middle East, I identify three
problems with this argument. First, epistemologically, I think
that Alvi naturalizes her underlying assumption that Western
popular culture does not get what Islam is all about. I do
concur there is a problem there, but when one focuses on
Western scholarly literature rather than popular representa-
tions, I would contend that, at least in the past decade, the
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 193
Muslim existence has generally been portrayed not solely in
terms of the difference of the other but rather through a
critical interpretation of similarity as well as difference, all the
while respecting the context within which these emerge.
Second, ontologically, Alvi draws on Levinas to argue that
humans create meaning through their social relations. When
veiling is interpreted within this paradigm, the boundaries of
meaning expand beyond the epistemological to the ontolog-
ical, with veiling appearing as a separate social reality pred-
icated on concealment. Yet, is the Western (read European or
American), non-Islamic (read Christian) ontology regarding
women any different from the Muslim one in terms of, for
instance, shame? That is, is the latter predicated on revealment
rather than concealment? I think not. Womens public pres-
ence in the West has certainly increased with modernity. Yet
an ontological analysis takes into consideration both the pub-
lic and private domains. When one analyzes both, I think
many societies highlight the principle of concealment over
revealment, and they probably do so based on the common
principle of human preservation.
Third, ethically, Alvi contends that Muslim and non-Mus-
lim societies fundamentally differ regarding what is judged to
be right and wrong. Once again, I think not. With modernity
and secularization, what is epistemologically employed to sep-
arate right from wrong may have transformed, say frombeliefs
to empirical proof. But does that mean that the entire ethical
system has shifted as well? After all, Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam are all Abrahamic religions that share the fundamental
ethics of monotheism as expressed, for instance, in the Ten
Commandments. That these have been interpreted differently
across time and space does not necessarily imply that such
disparate interpretations naturally transform into ethical dif-
ferences. I would instead argue that the boundaries around
good and evil on the one side and social reality on the other
certainly vary across the three religions, but such boundaries
also diverge dramatically within a single religion as well. For
instance, Islam as it is conceived, interpreted, and practiced
in contemporary Turkey, within an urban setting or a rural
village, by an orthodox or a Su or a secular woman, diverges
just as much if not more than a woman living in the Punjab,
Pakistan, or, I would argue, a Christian woman living in De-
troit, Michigan, or at an Indian reservation in Oregon or rural
countryside in Tennessee.
If there is so much similarity and difference across epis-
temological, ontological, and ethical aspects of human exis-
tence, how can we as social scientists approach societies, com-
munities, and individuals? This brings forth the issue of the
researchers subjectivity and critical self-reexivity articulated
in critical gender, race, and queer theories. Since the observer/
researcher/author is omnipotent in interpreting social mean-
ing, she needs to articulate and challenge the naturalized
power embedded in her standpoints. She needs to ask some
critical questions: is the argued ontological difference out
there or embedded in the mind of the observer/researcher/
author? More specically, in this instance, what topic was Alvi
doing her ethnographic research on, for how long, based on
which premises, and how did her particular scholarly stand-
point impact what she observed? It is interesting that Alvi
conceals her own subjectivity the same way she claims her
subjects do; is this coincidental or does it reect a larger
unacknowledged reexivity on the part of the author? Put
another way, why does Alvi not critically address how and
where she gets her own structures of meaning, that is, those
other than the Western social science sources she formally
quotes, on the one side, and the mother she informally ac-
knowledges, on the other? In addition, who is Alvis audience
and why? Unless Alvi addresses these issues in her analysis,
her arguments will probably fall short of convincing her au-
Emi Goto
Department of Area Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sci-
ences, University of Tokyo, 3-8-1, Komaba, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
153-8902, Japan ( 15 IX 12
Over the past 3 decades, many efforts have been made to
challenge peoples narrow understanding of the meaning of the
Muslim veil: it is usually seen as a symbol of the oppression
of women in the name of religion or as a mark of a sympathizer
with radical Islam. It is surprising that, in spite of these efforts,
they have continued to spread widely to the present day. How-
ever, Alvis ambitious work has now offered a clear challenge
to these prevailing understandings, describing so many mean-
ings of veiling that one cannot help but take a broader view.
I had a similar ambition myself and have searched for
different meanings of the Muslim veil. While I was staying
in Cairo, Egypt, where the veiled population had increased
dramatically during the early 2000s, it was the words of ur-
ban Egyptians that drew my attention. They were mostly
educated young women who had chosen to wear the veil
recently not for men, but for God. In order to comprehend
the meanings and the context of their statements, I collected
and analyzed the public messages that were circulating around
Egyptian society: this proved to be an accumulation of his-
torical and modern discourses that connected the texts of the
Quran and Hadith to the practice of veiling. In conclusion,
I argue that there has been a gradual dissemination of certain
discourses, particularly those that see the veil as the marker
of womens pious subjectivity and intimate relationship with
My approach to the subject of the veil has been, as sum-
marized above, one of Islamic studies. Evaluating Alvis the-
oretical arguments and thoughtful consideration is beyond
the scope of this article. Here, I will make only one point,
asking, what makes a veil Islamic?
The term Islamic is tricky. In different social contexts,
either covering head to toe with a black cloth or wearing
international-style dresses revealing neck, hair, and limbs,
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194 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
could be described as Islamic (cf. Williams 1980). Fur-
thermore, acts such as polygamy, honor killings, and female
circumcision are termed as Islamic by some, while being
negated by others.
However, as Talal Asad wrote, it is (not) adequate to say
that anything Muslims believe or do can be regarded by the
anthropologist as part of Islam (Asad 1986:14). This may be
an anthropology of individual Muslims but not of Islam itself.
If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam, Asad sug-
gested, one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept
of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the
founding texts of the Quran and the Hadith (14). In other
words, if one wants to write about the Islamic veil or veil
in Islam, the existing discursive tradition should also be con-
In this respect, Alvis work presents several valuable ex-
amples that most previous studies have failed to describe,
including the idea of sacred veils and of a new consciousness
of religion in urban contexts. However, there still seems to
be a disparity. In her discussions about the Malot villagers,
there is scarce mention of this tradition of discourse.
Alvi has shown us various meanings of the term sharam,
describing ethnographic observations: shyness and reserved-
ness; womans real jewelry; the ideas of self-sufciency, self-
respect, honor, and dignity; a feeling of reverence and em-
barrassment, and so on. According to Alvi, these are the
aspects of concealment as a value that have brought forth the
practice of veiling, and the value itself is not reserved for the
female gender. This argument reminded me of a popular
Egyptian preachers lecture on the concept of haya (Khalid
2000). He argued that the most important thing for a Muslim
is morality, and the most valuable of the morals is hayaa
feeling of shame or shyness that arises from ones self-esteem.
As he maintained, one who has always obeyed Gods will,
lived a noble life, and done good deeds, would feel ashamed
to disobey Gods orders, for he or she knows that God has
done so much for him or her, is always watching over him
or her, and that all his or her deeds will be weighed on the
Day of Judgment. Because of this haya, believing men and
women feel shyness and reservedness toward any sins, and
the latter observe the practice of veiling, since that is, in their
understanding, a part of the will of God.
I wonder whether, in the village of Malot, the term sharam
means more than concealment in relation to human others.
When do veils become Islamic for them? This may be a
question that only an anthropologist will be able to answer.
Sana Haroon
Departments of History and Asian Studies, University of Massa-
chusetts at Boston, 100 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston, Massachu-
setts 02125, U.S.A. ( 22 IX 12
Until recent years, it has been the rule rather than the ex-
ception for anthropologists to treat religion in South Asia as
a set of cultural practices. Since the rise of intentionally re-
vivalist Islamic movements and womens piety movements,
such scholarship has had to contend with anthropological and
historical examinations of ideological conviction in the ac-
tions of Muslims. The most inuential of such studies is Saba
Mahmoods Politics of Piety (2004), in which the author seeks
to understand womens participation in the mosque move-
ment in Egypt as an exercise of agency through interrogation
and appropriation of scriptural injunction. In the particularly
South Asian context, historians have argued that the impor-
tance of Islamic scriptures was communicated to a wider pub-
lic through teachers, writers, transnational political move-
ments, inuencing ideas about gentility, community, law,
authority and womens roles.
Recent scholarship has ex-
tended the implications of such writing, seeking to explain
the rise of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the success of the
religious right in Pakistan.
Important though this scholar-
ship is, it is a valuable exercise indeed to question whether
the meaning of religious practices can be understood through
theories of agency and authority derived through study of
self-consciously political or proselytizing movements.
Anjum Alvis is one a several recent voices that do not
privilege intentionally Islamic contexts in interrogating the
meaning of Muslim actions. Magnus Marsdens study of re-
ligious experience in Pakistans northwest (2005), and Na-
veeda Khans recent book on Muslim Becoming (2012), are
two excellent examples of other such work. In addition to
such anthropological work, Farina Mirs study of vernacular
literary cultures in the Punjab suggests that the Punjabi lan-
guage is a site for sustained political engagement that dees
the narrow connes of ethnonationalism (2010). Alvis work,
which emphasizes her choice of Punjabi rural location and
apolitical contexts to examine the value of veiling, is a forceful
addition to this important body of scholarly work. Rather
than looking for the meaning and communication of Islamic
ideology in Punjabi villages, she uses Su lore and customary
practices to draw parallels between veiling and other non-
gendered acts of concealment, which make sacred that which
is hidden.
Alvis rendering of Su lore is reminiscent of recent schol-
arship on Susm, particularly that of Shahzad Bashir (2011),
who argues that the miracle tales must not be jettisoned in
scholarly work but rather be understood to affect social un-
derstandings of time, divinity, and personal agency. Alvis use
of Su miracle stories allows us to measure social meaning
through concepts of the sacred and mysterious rather than
33. See particularly Barbara Metcalfs inuential translation of Maul-
ana Ashraf Ali Thanvis text, Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf Ali Than-
awis Bihishti Zewar (1990). No less important are works such as Die-
trich Reetzs Islam in the Public Sphere: Religious Groups in India, 1900
1947 (2006), and Francis Robinsons important essay, Technology and
Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print in South Asia (1993).
34. See the work of Faisal Devji (2005) and Mariam Abou Zahab and
Olivier Roy (2004).
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 195
relying on problematic formulations of the authority of theo-
logians and texts and the agency of ethics and piety. In Alvis
formulation, the aesthetics of concealment that are the reason
for the concealment of the saint, and the self-censoring of
womens words, form the edice that gives the veil its mean-
ing. Certainly this argument allows us to explore popular
representations of womens beauty and desirability as being
enhanced not only by the wearing of the veil but by avoiding
being seen outside her own home, or by any men outside of
her immediate family.
Locating the cultural meaning of concealment in a dynamic
three-way relationship, between individual, family, and so-
ciety, Alvi contrasts the notions of pride and respect to em-
barrassment and disrepute. Veiling is constituted as a part of
a much broader negotiation of social position and community
relationships. While recognizing the relative freedom and
power of men, and the gendered nature of community re-
lations, Alvi argues that we see kinsmen and women as to-
gether negotiating a complex and dangerous world.
It is uncomfortable though, to be faced with the question
of what is the real intent of veiling, or the true context
of concealment. Alvi argues that the choice to veil in the
diaspora, the convictions produced in the pious forums of
upper-class women, and the use of the veil by beggars and
prostitutes are mere shadows of the true intent of the veil. In
truth, she argues, the cultural history of the veil is rooted in
the rural Pakistani setting, and contemporary veiling practices
are most meaningfully constituted in that same setting. We
are left to ask, are there many veils? Or is there just one,
birthed in a mystical spiritual world appropriated by the ra-
tional and purposeful intent of Islamic revivalists? Neither
seems an appropriate answer. It is possible, however, that
exploring the aesthetics of individual and family practices of
concealment outside of the cultural context of the Pakistani
Punjab may allow us to extend Alvis compelling argument.
Pnina Werbner
School of Sociology and Criminology, Keele University, Keele,
Staffs ST5 5BG, U.K. ( 22 IX 12
The Veil and the Public Sphere
With all that has been written about the Islamic veil, it would
seem almost impossible to say anything new. This makes Alvis
nuanced analysis all the more remarkable: she succeeds in
illuminating the veil not as a symbol standing for something
else (Islam, the subordination of women in Muslim society,
etc.) but as it is, embedded within a wider semiotic of con-
cealment and revealment, practiced in many different contexts
among Punjabi South Asian Muslims. Alvis ethnography is
woven into a tapestry of subtle modes of ethical relatedness
showing how the veilfor men as well as womenaffects
architecture, gifting, marriage, and kinship, shaping Muslim
Punjabi interpersonal relations.
If, in its naturalized setting,
honor killings are deviations, the shadow of an ethic of
concealment, this makes the politicization of the veil in con-
temporary Europe, she suggests, an aberration that denies its
location within an indigenous system of values. Nevertheless,
I propose to argue here that under certain circumstances the
veil can also be grasped as a symbol, albeit with a range of
associations and polysemic signications.
Like objects, concepts too may be reied once they are
inserted into debates in the public sphere. Armando Salvatore
has argued that the rise of a Muslim public sphere at the end
of the nineteenth century in Egypt was associated with in-
creasingly open debate beyond the connes of the ulama
within an emergent eld of discourse marked by the rei-
cation of key words such as Sharia, umma, or Islam, as they
came to be standardized and subordinated to the rules of
public communication (1997:45, 4647). In a parallel move,
Michel Foucault (1980) documents the way personal intimacy
and sexuality came to be subjected to normalizing discourses
and discursive practices by a range of modern professionals,
even as these experts extolled an end to sexual repression.
Foucault associates this publicity of intimacy with the ad-
vent of modernity.
Like concepts, sartorial objects such as the veil can also
become subjects of modern reicatory discourses controlling
intimacy (Werbner 2007). In such contexts, the veil ceases to
be a naturalized, taken-for-granted performance within a per-
vasive, ethical semiotic of concealment and comes to be
when worn by young Muslim girls in the Westa discrete
symbol standing for whatever its wearer and audience de-
termine. During the public discourse that developed in Eu-
rope around the French head scarf affair, veiling practices
came to be symbolically loaded with new connotations and
to stand diacritically for a wide range of religious and national
symbols within the context of migration and industrialization.
The meaning of veiling and, indeed, of sexual modesty, are
arguably now so loaded with higher-order symbolic elabo-
rations as to emit ambiguously a range of contradictory mes-
sages. These endow or deny agency to young South Asian
and Muslim women living in the West in highly ambivalent
ways. Such processes of higher-order symbolization raise crit-
ical questions of authority: who has the authority to interpret
the scriptures, in this case the Koran, and ideas about indi-
vidual liberty? Who has the right to determine the limits of
modesty or whom a young person should marry?
The current contestation involves a range of actors claiming
authoritative sacred knowledge: ulama of different tenden-
cies, lay autodidact Islamists of various ilkamong them,
young womenas well as modernists, reformists, and secu-
larists. The debates are international: Al Azhar in Egypt pro-
nounces on veiling in France; Pakistan negotiates with the
35. A similar argument about multiple modes of closure can be
found in Janice Boddys analysis of Hofriati Muslimsociety (Boddy 1989).
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196 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
British state over forced marriages. Each of these hallowed
public bodies invokes variously the authority of a text (the
Koran), culture, religion, tradition, human rights, the com-
munity, the nation, or state law. Feminists argue that all fun-
damentalist religious movements use the control of womens
bodies symbolically to assert a wider agenda of authoritarian
political and cultural social control (cf. Yuval-Davis 1992) in
which women become guardians of Islam (Kandiyoti 1991:
7). In this debate what was once highly localizeda code of
honor, concealment, and revealment, in Alvis termshas
been deterritorialized, and the once self-evident reference
to personal modesty obscured.
Once this has occurred, the hijab comes to express a new
identity as part of a deterritorialized global movement. That
identity is not necessarily, however, fundamentalist, Islamist,
or radical; it can also be part of a new search for authentic
Islamic knowledge (Ahmad 2009; Mahmood 2005) or a strat-
egy for young women (or men who grow beards) to make
autonomous decisions about marriage. Being observant Mus-
lims empowers them with the right to choose their own mar-
riage partners, even against the will of their parents. They
accuse their parents of being ignorant, locked into false or
mistaken parochial customs and traditions of the old country,
which, according to the girls, distort true Islam.
To interpret this reicatory movement within modernity,
however, we need to start from an understanding of everyday
veiling in a Muslim society. Alvis brilliant contribution to
the debate on veiling is thus likely to be foundational in any
future discussion.
I am grateful to my commentators for their valuable com-
ments, which allow me to revisit certain points of moot. I
see different clusters of criticism: the possibility of using al-
ternative terms for sharam and its translation into conceal-
ment (Goto, El Guindi), the conceptual use of value, which
creates certain confusions (Bracke, Haroon, Gocek, El
Guindi), my skepticism about the conceptual use of the sym-
bol (El Guindi, Werbner), concerns about my research meth-
odology (Gocek), whether the contexts of the prostitute and
urban religious movements constitute limitations of the value
of concealment (Bracke, Haroon), whether there is any true
meaning of the veil (Goto, Haroon), and nally, the quality
of cultural differences and the related issue of creating an
orientalist other (Gocek, Bracke).
I am indeed much indebted to El Guindis pioneering work,
which broadened the context for the study of the veil such
that it becomes part of the notion of dress rather than as an
isolated sartorial item. However, I explore with regard to
veiling contexts that do not refer to dress, like the ablution
of a dead body in a double covering, holy men who limit
themselves to one room, the covering of saints graves, mys-
tical poetry, the concealment of ones needs, ascetic relations,
women who conceal their wealth to express their grief, mar-
riage as a covering, as well as contrary contexts of revealment
and those expressing the limitations of the concept. El Guindi
and Goto both point out problems with the translation and
meaning of the term sharam: I demonstrate, however, that
numerous meanings of sharam are linked to the concept of
concealment, constituting, one might say, its meta meaning.
I do mention alternatives for sharam, but I concentrate on
this term because it most commonly reverberates with the
value of concealment.
Brackes understanding of my theoretical framework as
mentalist requires an elucidation: as Mauss, without ever
criticizing Durkheim, emphasized individual strategies in the
understanding of a collective phenomenon, the gift, so does
Dumont, whose contribution has far outpaced Durkheims
concept of collective representations. Dumont argues against
two separations: of idea (thought) from fact (action) and
the idea-fact from its value (1986:233). In other words, idea-
fact has a valorized nature that is unequal and contrary to
other idea-facts, resulting in different cultural positions of
values in a system (248). Talking of a value system does not
mean that its boundaries are xed and drawn (254); rather,
it refers to a collectivity as well as individual acts: people do
not exist in isolation; they share their values with each other
and act them out in their being. For instance, Dumont (228)
explains at length the example of the cultural understanding
of the right and the left hand, which are thoughts in terms
of practices. When seen in relation to the body (whole), hands
are differently valorized in relation to each other, forming a
hierarchy of contrary values. It is not a question whether a
value of the right or the left hand is more desirable or
preferable (249) because both, being values, refer to their
different positions in a system of values. This concept of value
is crucially different from the commonsense understanding
of values as simple norms, beliefs, and ideas. As I explained
in the essay, such a value has, instead, a static, a dynamic
nature: it is uid, exible, segmented, allowing us to recognize
its multiple appearances in numerous overlapping, intersect-
ing, and ever-changing contexts (252256), which may be
related to Levinass concept of gathered Being, and therefore
I also speak of an overow of meanings, that is, every value
has limitations as well as unlimited possibilities of expression.
I do not criticize, as Bracke assumes, an instrumentalist mode
of reasoning; I rather insist that a value is neither divorced
from any kind of expression, be it instrumental, pragmatic,
religious, political, or economic, nor can the meaning of veil-
ing be reduced to it, because every person in his or her specic
understanding expresses a value according to his or her sit-
uational priorities. The value concentrates on the principles
of habitus or collectivity, which are not separable from per-
sonal expressions (see Wagner 1972). Thus, value is more
comprehensive an analytical concept than code, relating hu-
man diversity, its brokenness and personal and cultural ex-
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Alvi The Muslim Veil in Context 197
pressions, while, instead of imposed on a context, remaining
indigenous. Hence my structures of meaning that Gocek
wants to be identied are not mere Western analytical con-
cepts (like emic, etic) imposed on others but inseparable
from their indigenous understandings. I thus criticize that
ontological duality (El Guindi) that separates action from
thought, or action-thought from its value, and not just any
notion that refers to two contrary aspects (as revealment and
My work distances itself from seeing the veil as a symbol
and older work exploring its functions. El Guindi and Werb-
ner question this rejection of symbol, and I certainly regard
it analytically possible to see the veil as a symbol in some
instances, but I do not think it is necessary, as the instrumental
use of the value already covers this ground. The notion of
value is able to capture variations and contradictions of mean-
ings in diasporas, as I showed for Punjabi contexts. The ar-
gument for the symbol alone cannot explain its adoption and
persistence. Besides, there remains a temptation to limit its
meaning to explicit formulations of informants (thereby ren-
dering them as either enlightened or ignorant) or to the an-
alytical perspective of the scientist. Bourdieu makes us con-
scious of all what informants do not explicitly formulate, what
is not caught in interviews, the lacunae of the language of
familiarity (1977:18). Let me add here as an answer to Gocek
that I regard eldwork as an intersubjective, open-ended pro-
cess aimed at learning about native experiences and relating
them to ones own, and I am adverse to wearing the corset
of an elaborate research design with structured interviews that
rather hamper a fruitful engagement with a situation bound
to be more complex than can be foreseen. Bourdieu warns
that anthropologists . . . so often forget the distance between
learned reconstruction of the native world and the native
experience of that world (1977:18).
Contrary to Brackes assumption, I write that a prostitutes
burqa bestows them too with honor and dignity. However,
and answering also to a problem identied by Haroon, I
include the prostitute in the values unintended consequences
because her dignity is momentary and embedded in the larger
frame of her being deprived of the honor inseparable from
the value of concealment. Similarly my reference to urban
conscious religious thinking (nowadays emerging also in some
rural contexts) as forming a non-value is not due to any
consideration of rural contexts as the only pure ones, as I do
mention many urban contexts as well. Pious urban thinking
forms a shadow only when it denies the other. My approach
of criticizing the denial of the other would remain incomplete
if it would not question that other that itself denies the other.
One cannot saw away the branch on which one sits. The
shadow, where I combine Dumont and Levinas, is that uneth-
ical moment when the other is denied or when concealment
explicitly uses revealment. The essay notes seven variations
of the shadow, from a subtle diversion of the value, to its
perversion. Thus, mere diversions appear in TV shows when
women wear shining, colorful head scarves adorned with jew-
elry. However, a recent video circulated on mobiles about a
woman in a burqa having sex in a car constitutes a perversion.
Haroons remark about an inferred true context of the
veil, or whether I identify one or many veils, is hinged on
the concept of the value and of the shadow depending on it.
Thus, a meaning of the concept of veiling arises not from
one source but out of the gathered Being of different con-
texts juxtaposed to each other. Note that I do not use Witt-
gensteins concept of family resemblance to argue for the
shifting meaning of veiling because the ethical value of con-
cealment that relates the self to the other keeps all the vari-
ances intact, and two contexts do not just resemble each other
because both share a similarity with a third one. Gotos com-
ment makes me recall Antouns narration about the honor
killing of a girl by her father in an Arab village where the
villages Islamic court was not consulted for justice, but the
preacher emphasized in a Friday sermon after this incident
those aspects of the scriptures that supported local ways of
living (1968:685687): religion thus is for people what they
believe in. The sacred scriptures of any religion are subject
to different interpretations and are fragmentarily internalized
by persons in their interactions with others, forming a whole
that is inseparable from its individual expressions. This is why
I argue that a separation of religion from culture is mean-
ingless, and the notion of a pure religion a chimera. Haroon
hints at the same issue when she emphasizes the importance
of local concepts of understanding religion.
Implicitly drawing on Clifford and Marcus (1986) and on
Said (1978), Gocek and Bracke both point to the danger that
an emphasis on differences between cultural concepts may
lead to a reication of culture or to the construction of an
orientalist other. This point, I must admit, has acquired for
me a ring of policing the norms of the anthropological dis-
course. I am perhaps particularly sensitive because I draw
inspiration from Dumont, the great otherer, the denier of
individualisms universality! But can acknowledging differ-
ences not mean respecting the other, accepting, in Levinass
terms, its priority over the self, and does not the denial of
otherness imply an appropriation of the other by the self?
Foucault, Saids inspiration, after all emphasized such differ-
ences in the discourses of different periods. After Said, how-
ever, social scientists (my audience) have become afraid to
articulate differences that, I insist, must be respected and
should not be ironed out in the hope of proving ones concern
for humanity. Thus, concealment certainly also constitutes a
value in cultural contexts inuenced by Christianity but is
negotiated in other ways, and its constancy, its pervading and
determining effectsthat is, its position and signicance
are all different. This does not imply absolute oppositions:
historically, the argument can be made that both Islamic and
Christian contexts emerged from the same circum-Mediter-
ranean origins (witness the Song of Solomon to which I refer),
and, as Queen Victoria reminds us, concealment matters also
in Christian contexts. Islamic sensitivities againstrevealing,
one might saygurative art may well have been crucially
This content downloaded from on Wed, 13 Aug 2014 10:31:03 AM
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198 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013
inuenced by eighth-century Byzantine iconoclasm, but they
came to shape Islamic expressions in a way Christian icon-
oclasms never did.
I nowhere argue that Muslim societies fundamentally dif-
fer from others in their understanding of right and wrong.
Here Gocek apparently misunderstood my remark on the
ontology of human difference in terms of values in the last
paragraph of the conclusion. This may have happened because
of her understanding of the concept of value in terms of
common sense and not as it is understood in the essay. Rather
than morals, I emphasize the ethical dimension that is a re-
lation between the self and the other, whether within one or
between cultural contexts. Second, while admittedly the cur-
rent academic discourse particularly about piety movements
focuses on the construction of subjectivities, this constitutes
a move toward the self, thus making it ever more necessary
to redeem the ethical self which is oriented to the other, and
which I attempt to identify in the different contexts of the
value of concealment.
Anjum Alvi
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