What is Veiling?

[Cross-posted from New Books in Islamic Studies] There are few concepts commonly associated with Islam and Muslims today that evoke more anxiety, phobia, and paranoia than the veil, commonly translated as the hijab. Seen by many as the most quintessential symbol of the alleged Muslim oppression of women, the veil has for some time represented a subject of tremendous rage, debate, polemics, and fantastical stereotypes. But what is the veil? What is its history? Is the veil primarily an Islamic concept and object? What are some of the problems associated with reducing the veil to religion? What is the genealogy of sensationalized representations of the veil in popular discourse and media?

These are among the questions addressed by Sahar Amer, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney, in her brilliant new book: What is Veiling? Published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2014. Remarkably nuanced and thoughtful, this timely book takes readers on a riveting intellectual journey that brings into focus the complexities of the veil as a discursive, political, and material object. Amer moves seamlessly between multiple texts and contexts, while showing the diversity of ways in which Muslims and non-Muslims have approached, contested, embraced, or resisted the veil in different historical conjunctures. Just as there is no one “Islamic” position on the veil, there is no one or predetermined meaning that the veil or veiling carries, Amer argues. Puncturing essentialist and stereotypical narratives about the veil, Amer convincingly argues that while seemingly a purely sartorial object, the discourse on the veil is in fact invested in and embroidered by a multiplicity of normative commitments, hopes, fears, and anxieties, irreducible to any singular history, text, religion, or motivation. Beautifully written and exhaustively researched, this book is a must read for novices and experts alike; a helpful summary of the argument after each chapter should prove particularly useful in the undergraduate classroom. In our conversation, we talked about the history of the veil, discussions on the veil in major normative Muslim textual traditions, progressive Muslim reinterpretations of the veil in Islam, the veil and orientalism, competing imaginaries of the veil in Europe and the US today, Islamic fashion, and resistance to conservative understandings of the veil in contemporary art and poetry.