BOOK REVIEWS 1 Sociocultural Anthropology, p. 247
Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Fadwa El Guindi. New York: Berg, 1999. 242 pp.
Wayne State University
This study is an engrossing, scholarly, and comprehensive analysis of the veil in its historical, social, and contemporary political context. It distinguishes between hijab (head covering) and the face-veil, and it challenges Western ideas of the veil as a symbol of women's oppression in Islamic societies. El Guindi focuses on the multilayered areas of women's cultural identity. By drawing on the analysis of data and personal fieldwork, she synthesizes ethnography, history, Qur'anic text, Hadith (sayings of Muhammad), and Tafsir (interpretations) (p. iv). In her own words, El Guindi is bridging two orientations to Middle Eastern phenomena, "that of scholars of Religious and Islamic Studies, who rely heavily on textual sources, and that of anthropologists of the Middle East, who rely heavily on contemporary ethnography" (p. xiii). Her interest in visual anthropology and the anthropology of dress in its sociocultural context captures the meanings people give dress in their everyday lives. Presentation of numerous photographs and art accompany her descriptions and analyses, making the reading of the study extremely enjoyable.
The author documents how the veil occurred historically in earlier periods, such as the Persian, Hellenic Byzantine, and Greek, but feels that viewing it only as borrowed lessens its cultural use. Certainly in most Mediterranean and desert cultures, covering parts of the body in deference to the sun and sand is quite rational. Not confined to Muslims, it was an urban phenomenon associated mostly with the upper classes. Christian Coptic women wore long veils until the early 1900s when Western Christian missionaries influenced them against it. Most discussions are in relation to women, while men have also had a variety of head coverings, which are discussed in terms of dress codes and status. Few of these have negative associations. In the area of hierarchy and dress, clothing for both men and women was used in Assyrian/Persian history both as prohibition and punishment if people were to go outside their political or economic class status. El Guindi notes that the early secular feminists in the Arab world, such as Huda Sha'rawi, lifted the faceveil (burqu') not the hijab, the head cover, in the 1920s.
In the chapter "Ideological Roots to Ethnocentrism," the author presents a critical analysis of Western and Christian views and interpretations of veiling. She stresses that the concentration on the veil and harem imposed Christian or Western feminist ideas on Islamic cultures, focused on gender alone, and usually omitted the cultural context. She makes the interesting point that some of the confusion relates to the fact that in Christian culture, seclusion has been associated with religion and religious concepts of purity, concepts both absent in Islam.
El Guindi criticizes the overemphasis that Women's Studies uses when it associates the veil almost exclusively with seclusion. Western feminist discourse, she feels, is "politically charged with connotations of the inferior `other,' implying and assuming a subordination and inferiority of the Muslim woman" (p. 157). To demonstrate this point, she extends the study of dress in Arabo-Islamic culture to connote "family and gender as haven-shelter-sanctuary (all in one)-a protective shield as it were" (p. 70). Sacred privacy is discussed in its different meanings with relation to space in the West and the Middle East. Western culture emphasizes individual space and privacy, while space in Eastern culture conveys messages about kinship distance, group status of the individual, identity of the group, and sacredness of privacy. She criticizes Abu-Lughod for focusing her book Veiled Sentiments (University of California Press, 1986) on modesty, deference, and sexual shame, noting that this distorts other aspects of cultural identity (p. 90). She quotes extensively from the rich materials Young has presented in The Rashaayda Bedouin (Harcourt Brace, 1996) to show how dress and veiling serve to establish a woman's identity and status (p. 93). A kinship chart is presented (p. 86) showing those with whom a woman can loosen her guard. This is a valuable discussion, and it is here that one would have liked more analysis of patrilineality, its relationships and power privileges. Many factors are included in identity, but where the patriline is stressed, and does not compete with other groups' associations (such as, for example, age-grades in Africa), the purity of the line is seen as an important part of the ideology. Concepts of honor, covering, and modesty are similar to other patrilineally based societies such as India, and earlier periods of China, where virginity at marriage is seen to ensure biological progeny for the husband.
In the chapter on "The Veil of Masculinity," we find that some men in Arabia covered their faces before Islam, as do matrilineally organized Berber men in North Africa. There are also instances of Islamic textual data in which the Prophet is mentioned as having veiled his face on some occasions. Thus it is not the veiling per se but the code underlying the veil that should be the focus of research attention.
In a very interesting chapter, El Guindi discusses the veil and hijab as a symbol and tool of resistance against occupation and oppression. In Algeria during its liberation from French colonialism, the veil became a symbol of liberation, and the occupying French attacked it. She discusses the recent Islamic revitalization movements in Algeria and Iran and their relation to veiling. She quotes Hamami's study of Palestinian women under Israeli occupation (Middle East Report 20, 1990, p. 24), which describes the variation of dress forms by class, region, religion, and age. Hamami shows how the rise of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has sought to restore the hijab, often harassing women into wearing it, as have other Islamic revitalization movements.
In sum, the study demonstrates that the veil and hijab are complex symbols of many meanings relating to privacy, identity, kinship status, rank, and class. "Emancipation can be expressed by wearing the veil or by removing it. It can be secular or religious. It can represent tradition or resistance" (p. 172). It is tied culturally to a particular area of the world where it is related to geography, patrilineal and patriarchal social structure, class, and political movements.
The Veil is the most comprehensive and interesting study to date that explores a misunderstood subject involving the lives of more than one billion persons. The author includes research from anthropology and other disciplines in a rich fashion, and
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the use of photos is extremely helpful in showing context. It should be required reading for those studying the Middle Fast, Islam, dress, gender, political resistance, arid anthropology.