Here we go again: another book on the veil, the third one I have reviewed within seven months. Is this a trend? Friends have repeatedly asked why we ("Westerners") are so obsessed with their ("Middle Eastern") women, including the way they dress.
Marnia Lazreg's discussion of the infamous piece of cloth, however, is different from most other treatises on the issue. It is personal and passionate. As a professor of sociology of Algerian origin working in the US, she is an expert on the issue. Yet, like many of her colleagues, she seems to have reached a point where she could no longer keep quiet. Not only has she become frustrated with the reveiling trend across the Muslim world, but also with the apologetic ways in which some academics have treated the issue.
The book is addressed, Lazreg says, to Muslim women in the first instance. It is a series of five "letters", each of which takes issue with a common justification for the contemporary reveiling trend. Her discussion relies on the assumption that what the Koran says about veiling is at best ambiguous. While many, perhaps most, Muslims accept that some form of veiling was ordained by God, Lazreg presumes that veiling is not compulsory in Islam. In the first two letters she explains that the argument that veiling equals modest behaviour does not hold, nor does the assumption that sexual harassment ceases when the veil is donned. The third letter does away with the argument that veiling equals an assertion of cultural identity against and within the "West". Letter four then examines the motive of piety and religious conviction.
In all these cases, Lazreg insists that we need to view the veil in its historical, political and socio-cultural contexts. Contrary to the contention that the new veiling expresses a different kind of (post)modernity, she stresses that the veil always comes with political and historical baggage, that it is "never innocent". In this analysis, the veil is not a sign of greater piety - as many Muslim women I know would claim - but a male strategy of asserting their (men's) identity and power. Lazreg's main concern is with "women's social progress", their moral autonomy, agency and control over their own bodies, all of which, she claims, are infringed upon by the veil. What it does is to cover the real issues that need to be addressed - "problems such as the feminisation of poverty or elusive political rights".
I very much sympathise with Lazreg. The quibbles I have with this book are its tendency to essentialise and its psychological speculations. Lazreg is quite open about the personal nature of this book - it is largely based on her experience as a Muslim woman growing up in Algeria and living in the US. She has experienced the veil as suffocating, and she feels under siege, as a non-veiled Muslim woman, by the insistence that you can be a good Muslim only if you veil. But from these personal experiences and some anecdotal evidence, she seems to infer that all (or at least most) Muslim women feel the same way. She also refers repeatedly to the psychological consequences of women wearing the veil, but does not provide evidence.
Yet, as this book does not purport to be a scholarly treatise, these quibbles seem minor. It should be taken as what it claims to be: a very personal and committed response to a trend that deeply troubles the writer, and many others besides. As such, it is a highly relevant intervention into the debate on the veil.
Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women
By Marnia Lazreg
Princeton University Press
Published 7 October 2009