Uncovering the Veil

Fadwa El Guindi, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford: Berg, 1999.
xx, 242 pp. ISBN 1 85973 924 5 (cloth)

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 43 (2001)

What do the Victorian traveler Richard Burton, Charles Darwin, Emil Durkheim, Elizabeth Fernea, Ibn Khaldun, Alfred Kroeber, Carla Makhlouf, the playwrite Arthur Miller, Lewis Henry Morgan, Cynthia Myntti, Nawal El Saadawi, Edward Said, Herbert Spencer, Tertullian, Edward Tylor and Shelagh Weir have in common? These are just some of the individuals quoted in Fadwa El Guindi's recent anthropological assessment of the notion of "veil" in study of the Middle East and Islam. Fadwa El Guindi, ethnographer and visual anthropologist, is well qualified to offer this survey, ironically the first book devoted exclusively to the subject. She cites numerous relevant ethnographies, including the work of Carl Makhlouf on urban Yemeni women. This is a book that should be read not only by anthropologists, but by anyone interested in how the veil has been interpreted across the board in Middle East studies.

A modelled display of an urban Yemeni woman's dress: reproduced in El Guindi, p. 101.

Taken from Human Nature Magazine, January, 1979)

First, a word about the author. Fadwa El Guindi, currently Adjunct Full Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California, is somewhat of an ethnographic polyglot with field experience in Egypt, Nubia, Mexico and among Arab Americans. She has produced several ethnographic films, including "El Sebou': Egyptian Birth Ritual" (1986) and "El Moulid: Egyptian Religious Festival" (1990). She is an active scholar, having served as President of both the Society for Visual Anthropology and the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. She has also written extensively, including 33 publications referenced in the bibliography of this book.

As El Guindi observes, quite a bit has been written about the veil but there is no single and systematic study of the veil or veiling practices (p. 4). Her own approach liberates the "veil" from the ethnocentric bonding to sex and shame and calls for a nuanced cultural contextualization:

"The present work is devoted to the phenomenon of the veil, which is examined within the anthropological framework developed for a cross-cultural analysis of dress. Rather than an isolated material object or practice, the veil will be analyzed comprehensively within a holistic analytic approach that situates it in the multidimensional contexts of dress - the material, the spatial, the religious - as a mode of communication that builds on cross-cultural, cross-religious and cross-gender knowledge" (p. 5).

Although ethnography is the author's expertise, she blends in historical information and provides an up-to-date look at the role of "Islamism" and feminism in the discourse on veil. As a visual anthropologists, she also has a keen eye for how the veil is pictured as a representation of the Middle Eastern woman-as other. Included here is the work of Malek Alloula on colonial postcards from Algeria and Daile Kaplan on missionary magic lantern images of "Oriental" women.

This is a valuable book for many reasons, whether or not you accept all of the author's points. It is first of all a genuinely "anthropological" look at the veil. Having done fieldwork outside of the Arab world, as well as within it, El Guindi escapes the regional tunnel-vision that many works touching on Islamic gender show. She continually situates the Middle Eastern data against the backdrop of how anthropology as a discipline treats issues. For example, in leading up to her discussion of "dress" in the Middle East, she begins with the classic studies by Alfred Kroeber on women's fashion in America (p. 49). I must say it has been some time since I have come across a work in Middle East anthropology which brings in such hallowed founding fathers as Edward Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, not to mention Darwin and Spencer.

A second value to anyone interested in what has been said about the veil is the large amount of ethnographic material cited, including relevant materials from travelers. This HRAFesque approach brings under one cover a wide range of information about the variations in make-up and use of the veil across many Islamic countries. El Guindi is effective in providing examples in enough detail to show the richness of much of the material and the paucity of other accounts. She is also well versed in anthropological discussions, including an earlier exchange between Richard Antoun and Nadia Abu-Zahra, as well as the well-known Veiled Sentiments of Lila Abu-Lughod. One of the more useful arguments in her book is the rejection of attempts, as in the work of Mernissi and Abu-Lughod, to reduce the "veil" to a primary sexual symbol (pp. 25, 157). She also points out that the "veil" is not simply a woman's issue. A whole chapter is devoted to cases when Islamic men veil, either directly or figuratively. One of the more interesting examples from her own experience is about an event in a women's lounge at ‘Ayn Shams University in Egypt:

"It was during the semester when college lectures were in session, and I was engaged in fieldwork, that is, spending time on campus observing and talking with students in and outside the movement. While I was with women students in the women's lounge, a man knocked on the door. The women scrambled for their hijabs and qina's. Moments of confusion and tension passed, after which the man knocked again on the door. Finally, although still unsettled, the women leaders among them invited him in. I looked out of the door and saw a man in a gallabiyyah (an ankle-length white, unfitted gown with long sleeves). He pulled his kufiyyah (head shawl) over his face and entered very cautiously, literally rubbing aginst the wall trying not to look in the direction of the women until he reached a curtain diagonally hung in the corner of the room. He went behind it and sat facing the women from behind the curtain. That is, it was a man who both face-veiled when with women and sat behind the hijab (curtain)" (p. 118).

Third, El Guindi effectively shows how important it is to understand Arabic terminology on its own terms, especially for the various words used for veil and dress in Arabic. Her discussion of libas (mentioned in Quran 2:198), which she finds similar to the English notion of "dress," is particularly well done. She also looks at loaded terms like haram and hijab, at times rescuing them from the ethnocentric gender biasing rampant in the liteature. Her fluency in Arabic and ability to navigate crucial Islamic texts contribute to the balance of El Guindi's monograph.

Tihamah woman: photo reproduced in El Guindi (p. 138).

Taken from Serjeant and Lewcock, San'â': An Arabian Islamic City, 1983, p. 413.

Although this is not a book on Yemeni veiling, as such, El Guindi quotes extensively from the ethnographic work of Carla Makhlouf (esp. pp. 97-103). I am surprised she does not cite the more extensive and technically elaborated discussion of Sanaa dress by Martha Mundy in the Serjeant and Lewcock volume (San'â': An Arabian Islamic City, pp. 529-549), especially since she does include a picture (p. 138), taken from this volume, of a Tihama woman. Mundy's analysis I quote in part below:

"First, however, a word on language - although too much may be made of it, in Arabic a woman veils herself 'from' (tataghattâ 'an or min) or 'towards' ('ala, even against). In order to simplify problems of translation, I have substituted for veiling or covering the analogy of 'keeping one's distance', an idiom common in English. In fact, the cultural ideal was also to keep women apart from foreign men and, except at certain times of day, even from their own menfolk, but in practice, certain circumstances in San'â' made the actual physical separation of women rather difficult. Unlike the homes of the upper classes of many Islamic towns, such as Zabîd on the coast, the San'ânî townhouse did not provide inner courtyards of fully separate quarters for women. Within the house, the lithmah (the face veil formed by a long rectangular piece of cloth wrapped ingeniously so as to cover the forehead, nose and mouth) allowed a woman to veil from men who were not of the immediate family and yet to be unhindered in her movement. Thus, the lithmah veil permits women to be symbolically separated from men without having to be at any physical distance."

It is important to note regional differences in Yemeni veiling, beyond the information provided by El Guindi. Anne Meneley (Tournaments of Value, 1996, p. 88-91) discusses the practice in Zabid and Najwa Adra ("Dance and Glance..." Visual Anthropology, 1998, pp. 69-70) provides details for rural tribeswomen.

All in all, El Guindi provides useful documentation and provocative ideas about the veil as a phenomenon. This is clearly a book that will be of value for years. At times, however, there is duplication, almost as if some of the chapters were written as separate units. There are almost so many ideas presented that the reader may have to read the book in parts or slowly to absorb her original, valuable and time-someone-said-that points. Her methodical uncovering of an ethnocentric fetish, among many scholars as well as in the public media, in linking "veil" to "sex and shame" is a most welcome contribution. Hopefully, it will inspire yet more analysis of the cultural nuances of dress, of which veiling is only one -- highly sensationalized -- dimension.

[For information on Fadwa El Guindi and her films, go to http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~elguindi/index.html; her book is available on-line from Berg Publishers at http://www.berg.demon.co.uk/guindi.htm.]

Book Contents

Transliteration and Translation


Part 1: Veiling in Perspective

1 Introduction

2 The Veil in Comparative Tradition

3 Ideological Roots to Ethnocentrism

Part 2: Dress, "Libas" and "Hijab"

4. The Anthropology of Dress

5 Sacred Privacy

6 The Veil in Social Space

7 The Veil of Masculinity

8 The Veil Becomes a Movement

9 The Sacred in the Veil: Hijab

Part 3: The Resistance of the Veil

10 Reactions to the New Trend

11 Contexts of Resistance

12 Veiling and Feminism




Book Excerpt

Preface (xiii-xviii)

"... The approach in this book bridges the two orientations to Middle Eastern phenomena &endash; 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, making marginal use of texts from secondary or English-translated sources...

In ordinary life people integrate a multiplicity of dimensions. Muslims live according to rhythmic patterns alternating between sacred and secular space and time in daily life and throughout the life cycle. Islamic text, far from remaining frozen in Islamic scholars' specialized teachings and writings, spreads to ordinary folk through forums of collective worship and public media, and is transmitted through socialization and by oral tradition. It enters the cultural constructions that shape thinking and influence ordinary lives. Separating formal text from ethnography in the study of Muslims, no matter how traditional their lifestyle, misrepresents and distorts the reality.

These are problems that face studies on non-Islamic societies as well. I carried out long-term intensive fieldwork, thirty-two months of field research and twelve years of observation, among the valley Zapotec of Oaxaca. They too are considered only "nominally," (in this case) Catholic. I too, at first, engaged in "localizing" my study by separating out formal elements of Christianity from daily practices. But ultimately the conceptual approach I formulated to describe their system of rituals was integrative, and shows how the Zapotec draw upon various corpora of belief, including formal elements of Catholic beliefs. Analysis was not built on polarities, but on complementary oppositions mediated dynamically in a way that integrated the various corpora. It is a "living" process in which some occasionally see contradictions, contest them, and seek means to resolve them. The believing process is live, though perhaps not observable in anthropological analysis if the tools are not sharp enough...

My argument, developed in Part II of this book, is that veiling in contemporary Arab culture is largely about identity, largely about privacy - of space and body. I contend that the two qualities, modesty and seclusion, are not adequate characterizations of the phenomenon as it is expressed in the Middle East. In their social setting, veiling proxemics communicate exclusively of rank and nuances in kinship status and behavior. Veiling also symbolizes an element of power and autonomy and functions as a vehicle for resistance. It was no accident that colonizing powers and the local state both consistently used the veiling of women as their "field of operation" or as an element in a "controlling process." Ironically, as the textual research in this study shows, "purifying" campaigns of emergent Islamic movements, such as the Taliban, are now at the stage of estrablishing themselves politically, at first regionally and then internationally, through membership in the United Nations. They are consolidating control over their society and what counts in it - and that means women. They are not examining the Qur'an for fundamentals about Muslim life. When they do, they will find a kinder model. Extremist forces, along with the whole world, are watching the United States' upheaval over the sexual adventures in the White House. People worldwide are also watching, and reading on the internet, how American culture has ultimately produced the kind of disturbed young woman who engages in what many consider sexual perversions in seeking men in power. What kind of values, family, womanhood lead to that? The effect of such real-life drama produced by a superpower in a worldwide theater is not to be underestimated. After all, less realizstic dramas, such as "Dallas," had their effects in the 1970s on the nonwestern viewing world.

In sum, many cultural domains and methodological tools inform this study: original fieldwork-based ethnography (my own and that of others); Islamic textual sources; visual analysis; linguistic analysis; and the ethnographic analysis of historical materials. The study of contemporary veiling (since the 1970s) draws on my own fieldwork in Egypt and observations from research trips I took to many parts of the Arab East, South Asia, and Andalusian Spain. The scope of this research provides insights as to the manner in which all the bodies of data used here are analyzed. Veiling is set in historical, cultural, and Islamic textual contexts. Social science, like science in general, builds on existing knowledge furthered by new data and original re-analysis. The notions of "primary data" and "original analysis" carry methodological significance. In social anthropology, the primary source is traditionally field-discovered ethnographi data; for a historian it is archival materials; and for an archeologist, the products of excavations. But all bodies of data, primary, seondary, ethnographic, or textual, are amenable to anthropological analysis. Anthropology provides both primary data and methodological tools for the analysis of any data. Its orientation is characterized by a specific perspective based on mastery of cultural knowledge. I contend that anthropology, in particular, has the rigor and the framework and disciplinary tools most suited for this kind of synthesis - to combine a wide range of approaches and bodies of data in analysis..."

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