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Singidunum University in Belgrade

Faculty of Media and Communications


Summer School 2015 in Comparative Conflict Studies

GENDERING ORIENTALISM: THE VEIL CONTROVERSY


(essay/learning log)

Course:

ORIENTALISM, BALKANISM, OCCIDENTALISM:


Thinking through Discourses of Othering and Conflict

Teacher:

Prof. JELENA TOI, PhD

Student:

TANJA TALIA

Department:

Communications and Public Relations

Student's Dossier:

#407/14

Date:

July 9th, 2015

Place:

Belgrade, SERBIA

The etymology of the word VEIL /veil/ is as revealing as its meaning is obscuring.
One of the renowned dictionaries 1) says it is either:
a) a countable noun pertaining to a piece of thin material worn by women to cover the face or
head; or:
b) a regular (often transitive) verb which means covering something, especially the face or
body, with a veil, but also hiding something so it cannot be seen clearly.

Intriguingly, the subject of veil has been shrouded in mystery for almost three and a half millennia
and counting. Why is it still so important? Certainly, wearing the veil is an ancient tradition, dating
back as far as 13th century BC, but the Christian Civilisation has reduced its usage for rare
occasions which occur in specific circumstances (i.e. traditional wedding ceremonies 2), haute
couture fashion shows, fancy dress parties 3), parts of female costumes for historical films or
theatre performances, etc.). Conversely, the Islamic Tradition has stuck to wearing the veil as the
prevalent social norm for the Muslim women's public apparel to this day, whereas the exceptions to
this rule are mainly universities or governmental buildings where such attire is discouraged if not
downright prohibited.
Being a part of 21st century's world, living in McLuhan's global village with so many points of
conflict and dispute, it seems almost laughable that such a tiny item, as a piece of female clothing
is, can provoke so fierce a controversy. (Then again, wars were known to have broken out over
smaller things...!) The Veil Controversy has been a veritable bone of contention amongs the Orient
and Occident for almost a decade. It is widely perceived to be a most visible symbol of the clash of
civilisations.
___________________________
1)

Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary Third Edition (2008)

2)

See Appendix (Photo #1)

3)

See Appendix (Photo #3)

The veil can be looked upon from numerous standpoints which, in addition, keep incurring various
(and quite opposite) interpretations:

From SACRED to CARNAL (and back again)

Originally, the veil was designed in order to represent a barrier between the sacred place (i.e. altar)
and the worshippers or to cover the holy chalices. In the early Christianity, women used to wear
scarves to cover their heads upon entering the church. It was regarded as a gesture of humility in
front of the God and modesty in front of men. (For centuries, Theotokos, the Mother of God, had
been represented veiled, too.) But the face itself was seldom hidden the custom, which is still
alive, dictated that only the face of a bride is covered with a sheer veil during the church ceremony.
As soon as the priest pronounced the bridal couple man and wife, it was common for the
bridegroom to lift the veil and kiss the bride. After the wedding, the bride would stop obscuring her
face with the veil. But the virginal white veil, which denoted the purity, did not exclude the
existence of the other, darker side i.e. hiding under the black veil in order to engage in a lover's
tryst (unsanctioned sexual encounter) or to mourn a deceased person. Lust and death were the other
side of the same coin; thus the veil was important for those occasions, too.

From CHASTE to SINFULLY PROVOCATIVE

There is this belief that covering a female body in baggy, non-clingy clothes will lessen the sexual
temptation that the aforementioned body represents to the carnal nature of an adult male. But there
is also the issue of the forbidden fruit and its irresistible allure. The more a woman is swathed in
layers of cloth, the more a man may want to peel those layers off (just like an eager child unwraps
its birthday presents). The mysterious veil adds a touch of sensuality and unknown, perhaps illicit
pleasures of the flesh. It challenges and disturbs, makes one curious to see what is hidden behind it.

The enduring legend of Salom an ultimate femme fatale, whose Dance of The Seven Veils 4)
pleased the emperor Herod Antipas so much that he had offered her half of his kingdom in order to
gorge his eyes on her seductive dancing comes to mind.

From ORDINARY to STRANGE

In Arabic countries, there is nothing more ordinary than seeing women encased in a tent-like
garment from head to toe. This kind of veiling is called a chador or a niqab or a burqa.
But what is ordinary in the Near and Middle East it is downright strange in the western
hemisphere. Women wearing chadors, burqas or niqabs are stared at and, more often than not,
frowned upon. They raise suspicion, and even strike fear in people's hearts. And people who are
fearful or feel threatened by the unknown and weird tend to become aggressive and less tolerant.
Instead of minding their own business, they will make it their business to teach you a lesson and
tell you to go back where you came from. Regardless of how civilised they deem themselves
of being, the quite barbaric atavism of loathing the Other will rear its ugly head and strip them of
all westernised trappings of so-called tolerance and sophistication.

From SAFE to DANGEROUS

When asked why they wear veils, the traditional Muslim women often cite the sense of security
and privacy the veil provides them with. They are uncomfortable with strangers in the streets and
feel safe under their traditional robes with veils. For them, wearing a niqab is as natural as it must
have been for a mediaeval knight to wear his chainmail armour.
________________________
4)

The Bible does not mention the name of the dance, but it became known as such after Oscar Wilde's infamous
play Salom (1891).

But, since the increase of terrorist attacks in a lot of Occidental cities, there has been a growing
hysteria that any veiled woman can be a suicidal bomber in disguise. Consequently, the
predominant narrative is that the sense of safety of one individual has to be sacrificed for the sense
of security of the thousands in the West. In addition, there are those who are not loath to liken a
woman wearing burqa to a deadly Japanese assassin ninja.

From MEEK/ENSLAVED to REBELLIOUS/LIBERATED

The most common stereotype of a veiled woman is that she is an epitome of meekness,
subservience; therefore, a silent creature who is neither seen nor heard in the presence of people
outside their immediate family circle.
It is percieved that in the Arabic tradition it is customary for women to be barely visible and not
heard from. They do not speak unless spoken to, nor do they participate in men's discussions or
decision-making. But, inasmuch as this may or may not be true, there are women who do not wear
a hijab because they are coerced to do so. Ms. Tawakkul Karman speaks rather eloquently on the
behalf of her freedom of choice and reasons for wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf. There are
other educated women who do not want to be liberated by the overbearing Occident from their
own personal choice to wear a veil in any way they want to. A fellow 2015 Summer School
participant, Ms. Enfal Nur zyayla from Turkey, told me that her mother had not graduated from
the university because she had refused to take off her hijab (which has been officially banned from
___________________________
5)

Tawakkul Karman, First Arab Woman and second youngest Nobel Peace Laureate, when asked about her
hijab by journalists and how it is not proportionate with her level of intellect and education, she replied:
"Man in early times was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes.
What I am today and what Im wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilization that
man has achieved, and is not regressive.
Its the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to ancient times."

Turkish universities since 1980). She herself wears it, as it is permitted by the current government,
but is obviously embittered because her mother has not had a degree due to her rebellious choice in
that time. (Having looked at the dilemma from her perspective, it does get pretty foggy what is
progressive/liberal and what is opressive/prejudiced, doesn't it?)
***
Indeed, the complexity of the problem that the veil poses keeps sprouting like a maze as it inspires
more questions than it gives answers.
Is the veil a matter of tradition or religion?
Is it a simple means to blend in or a cunning way to stand out?
Is it made to protect from prying eyes or to draw more attention to the wearer?
Is it a danger in itself?
How do we react to seeing it and why? (If it is being worn in a bazaar, then nothing it is an
ordinary sight. But if it is sported in the middle of, say, a university campus it can provoke a
bloody riot or perhaps something called war.6))
Does it represent only a relic from the past or is it important for the present, too? More importantly,
does it have a foreseeable future?
Such a heated controversy over a small piece of cloth... When the veil is transparent, then it is said
to provoke daydreaming and/or sexual fantasies... When it is thick and impenetrable, then it is
foreboding, even threatening.
What hides beneath this form of camouflage? Whose tastes does the veil cater to? What messages
does it send and to whom?
___________________________
6)

http://gulfnews.com/news/mena/egypt/veil-war-breaks-out-on-egypt-university-campus-1.37235
(written by Ramadan Al Sherbini, first published on October 22nd, 2006)

Is it a symbol? And can any symbol be more controversial? Is it frivolous or profound?


Is it a fashion statement? A symbol of female chastity, morality or of female slavery, and a lack of
free choice? And, perhaps, a certain quaint kind of rebellion? Is it in-your-face opposition to
regulations which rule almost every aspect of westernised lifestyle? Or is it merely a way to stick
out the more you refuse to blend in? What is more courageous (or foolhardy) wearing a burqa in
Australia or not wearing it in Saudi Arabia? It appears that it depends on the severity of inflicted
punishment for the crime.
Breaking the enforced law. Being the Other. Risking your health and very life for your beliefs. Is it
still worth it?
It all boils down to a woman choosing to wear (or not to wear) a not-so-harmless piece of cloth
called the veil and last but not least her freedom to do so or not wherever she happens to live,
either in the realm of Orient or Occident.

APPENDIX:
Photo #1: Princess Grace of Monaco on her wedding day (1956)

Photo #2:

Princess Grace of Monaco (1962)

Photo #3:

Masked Ball/Fancy Dress Party in Venice Princess Grace of Monaco (1967)

Photo #4: Saudi journalist Sabria S. Jawhar wearing the hijab

THE LIST OF REFERENCES:


http://peopleus.blogspot.com/2012/05/princess-grace-kelly-of-monaco.html