The Veil: Issues of Identity & the Postcolonial (week 7)

In our week 7 readings on Identity in Postcolonial art, I found myself reflecting upon my own identity—a mixture of my traditional Middle Eastern upbringing and my exposure to western culture at a fairly young age. I have no doubt this is a recipe for an identity crisis for how could one bring east and west together when they are so fundamentally different.

This was the basis for my entry into this topic. I think much of the work produced by artists in formerly colonized territories is rooted within a desire to understand the ‘self’ and a need to find one’s place as colonialism released its grip. My main interest is in the shift that happens from being ruled to being the rulers, which in many ways opens the door to people taking control of their own destiny—coming to terms with their culture and tradition and attempting to shake off an identity crisis, which for many can take a lifetime. My focus is on a symbol that has become synonymous with the Middle East, particularly with Middle Eastern women.

The veil has become a trademark image of Islam. In the west and even within the Middle East itself, the veil is often seen as a symbol of the other world’s primitiveness and a sign of Islam as an oppressive practice that sees women as subordinates. I have my own reservations against certain forms of the veil but not the veil (hijab—sheer fabric covering a woman’s hair, neck and ears) but for the purposes of this commentary I am only going to address the veil as a reflection of a woman’s identity, taking Egypt as my focus for historical references.

(This clip is sort of funny and shows how the veil has evolved from religion to fashion)

In “Conflict Behind Women Wearing the Veil in Egypt“, Michelle MacNeill says in early 20th century Egypt, a young Egyptian jurist who later went on to establish the first Egyptian National Movement, published his book Tahrir al-Mar’a (The Liberation of Woman). Qassim Amin probably had not anticipated the fury his book would ignite. MacNeill writes:

“According to Amin, the veil was the symbolic reform for a much larger cultural and social transformation that he contended was essential for the Egyptian nation. He believed that the veil created an enormous obstacle to a woman’s elevation and this in turn affected the advance of the nation. His reasons for thinking this way had much to do with Egypt’s status as a British colony.”

(Conflict Behind Women Wearing the Veil in Egypt – accessed Jan. 24, 2011).

But what Amin had not considered, is that women in Egypt at that time used the veil as a psychological way to rebel against British colonial power. One British Administrator based in Egypt had expressed the veil was “the fatal obstacle” to the Egyptians’ “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization.” (Conflict Behind Women Wearing the Veil in Egypt – accessed Jan. 24, 2011).

I think this statement echoes the general philosophy driving most colonial powers—they are there to rescue the people from primitiveness and bring them into the light of western civilization. MacNeill later concludes with a rather resonant statement:

“It is not without irony that Western discourse first determined the new meanings of the veil that gave rise to its emergence as a symbol of resistance, one that continues today.”

(Conflict Behind Women Wearing the Veil in Egypt – accessed Jan. 24, 2011).

The Muslim world today is not seen for its various contributions to history, culture, art, science, architecture or innovation, but it is generally seen for its Islamization, reflected in the extreme adoption of the veil across the whole of the region. Caryle Murphy is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and author of “Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East – The Egyptian Experience.” Her book deals with how the veil is a symbol of political, social and economic repression—but not religious.

“The yearning for personal solace, a just political system, indigenous lifestyles, and relevant theology all await satisfaction….Just as the Nile runs through Egypt for almost eight hundred miles, giving it life, so also the Straight Way, the way of Allah, runs through it, beckoning its people. The search by Egypt’s Muslims for a modern understanding of the Straight Way is the essence of today’s passion for Islam.”

(Foriegn Affairs, accessed Jan. 25 2011)

Many artists have since used the veil and its reflection of Arab/Muslim women’s identity to make statements about culture, tradition or politics. The Iranian born American artists, Shirin Neshat has done this extensively. Her “Women of Allah” series juxtaposes women’s bodies with traditional Persian calligraphy as a statement on social, political and psychological dimensions of women’s experiences in modern Islamic societies. Her work attempts to resist western stereotypes cast upon Muslim women.


Shirin Neshat – from “Women of Allah” series
Shirin Neshat – still from film installation “Rapture” 1999

Another interesting artist using the image of the veil to comment on social and political changes is the French gorilla artist, Princess Hijab, an anonymous graffiti artist based in Paris. Her most recent series of works was a statement against the burqa ban.

Princess Hijab

“If it was only about the burqa ban, my work wouldn’t have a resonance for very long. But I think the burqa ban has given a global visibility to the issue of integration in France.”

(Princess Hijab: Underground Resistance, Guardian UK – accessed Jan. 24, 2011)

Princess Hijab at work in Paris underground


About leltant

Laura El-Tantawy is an Egyptian documentary artist based in London, UK. She studied journalism & political science at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia (USA) & started her career as a newspaper photographer with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Sarasota Herald-Tribune (USA). Her work has been exhibited in the US, Europe and Asia. She exclusively works on self-initiated projects. Laura lives between the UK, her country of birth, and Egypt, where she associates most of her childhood memories. She is currently completing a masters degree at the University of Westminster in London where she is studying mixed media, with emphasis on film-making. She is working on producing a short film about farmer suicides in India.
This entry was posted in identity/postcolonial art, laura, tp1011 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Veil: Issues of Identity & the Postcolonial (week 7)

  1. Thanks for this post Laura, it really made me think. Being from a European background and upbringing I had also fallen into the trap of seeing the veil as a symbol of female repression. Your quote regarding it being used as a form of rebellion against colonial oppressors was a point of veiw that I had not considered and is a very valid one. With regard to the artist, Shirin Neshat, if anyone is interested in seeing more, her work is currently being exhibited at one of the galleries in Cork St, London. I think it was at Waterhouse Dodd. I particularly liked the title of the first piece of hers that you included. It is called “I am its secret” – very evocative…….

  2. lleenaa says:

    Laura interesting post reminds me of working with young generation who wishes to seclude themselves, i have experience that the Art world is more focused on the Adults and forgets about the young people today. I have noticed that due to suppression young people pretend to follow parents and then in the public domain they want to liberate themselves.

    I read a very interesting chapter on Fabric of Vision: Liberated Draperies:
    We have seen how fifteenth-century painters, like antique sculptures, showed their deep respect for the properties of cloth itself, whether draped and tailored as clothing, or hung and stretched as decoration. We saw this respect saw this respect extended to the artistic use of fabric for legendary clothing, including traditional garb for Christian saints, as well as to the rendering of modern tailored garments; and that the real and legendary garments combined in pictures were all responsibly constructed and made of equally sane stuff.
    Century later painters found other ways to build on the prestige of the draped cloth in earlier works of art, both in antiquity and in the recent past. Sixteenth-century painters began to emphasise the purely artistic life of draped fabric, turning it into a painterly component with much wider scope, enabling the cloth represented in pictures to enjoy a new freedom from the practical rules constraining a man-made substance with specific technical qualities and uses.

    Which raises bak the issue of the spectator and gaze, Simply Men just needs to control their gaze and Media needs to stop undressing women to sell us as products.

    When Vermeer’s subjects do look away, they are pouring milk, writing, and reading letters, holding a guitar, a balance or a pose, he never painted a woman doing nothing but thinking. By contrast, these late nineteenth and early twentieth-century pictures present a modern apparition, one that expounded the existence of female inward states in much the way that modern fiction doesnt, understanding of a real women and necessasity pertinent to her thoughts are lacking.

  3. Julia Guest says:

    Laura, is the use of the veil as a symbol of resistance unique to Egypt?

    I have understood it other places to be something of a ‘social trend’ one enforced by society, men and women alike.
    Its use and style in Yemen as an example.. had been traditional, with women wearing coloured scarves, that have a more cooling effect, yet retained their potential to be identified and attractive.

    Here Badr Ben Hirsi talks a little about the relationship with the veil and being seen for Yemeni women.

    It seems that its only been in the last 15 years in Yemen that you will only see the full black hijab, complete with face covering worn by Yemeni women and from what I’ve been told, that is largely due to cultural influences from Saudi Arabia.. Which now removes all identity from men and women alike and could almost be compared to the Maoist identity of loss of identity/ego and individual expectation and hope.

    Similarly in Iraq and Afghanistan.. there has been a huge shift from the mini-skirt era of the 1960’s.. and I have seen people’s personal photographs.. one working as a teacher in a miniskirt in Nassiriya, where now you will only see a fleeting black shape on the street.. flitting from house to house. The girls in Nassiriya live a fantasy life under all that black.. a small group of them once showed me the pictures they had of Real Madrid all stuck in their notebooks.. they had no interest in football, just escape in their minds from what was around them.. and their gaze was every bit as lustful as that of any man seeing a woman.

  4. Alexa says:

    HI Laura,

    Thanks for the post,

    If I can offer some comments from a personal perspective. I think that it is interesting that many British women today are choosing a different perspective and turning to Islam and the veil to escape the consumerism, scopophilia and sexism that is prevalent in the west, which for them is an oppression that the hijab and Islam can give them freedom from. Recently there have been a few high profile western female converts, including Cherie Blair’s sister, Lauren Booth. Her treatment in the media after her announcement was one of ridicule, or so I felt, which is a shame as it just shows how myopic Britain can be sometimes.

    In terms of religion, I have always found the contrast between western Christianity and Islam with regard to art very interesting. It seems to me that art in Christianity has always been visual. With a rich history of stained glass, icons, reliefs, sculptures and paintings that have been created from scenes in the bible. Whereas worship in Islam moves toward the verbal, with calligraphy being the main form of religious art since it is prohibited to represent the prophet and others. There is also great emphasis placed on the sound of the Koran being read and the sound of the call to prayer.

    I would just like to end talking about one scene that is often depicted repeatedly in western Christian art, that of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger makes note of how since the renaissance (a time when Christian art became quite prolific) it is the moment of shame, the knowledge of nakedness that is focused upon on again and again. After this moment Eve is disgraced and Adam becomes God’s agent over the earth (2008,42,43). Thus leading to the idea of women’s subservience to man and their weakness to temptation (as it was Eve who gave into the snake and persuaded Adam to take a bite). To illustrate I have enclosed some links below.

    I thought I might note that in the Koran, it there is no mention of Eve giving into temptation or persuading Adam to eat the fruit. Both Adam and Eve were punished accordingly as equals, due to the fact they both had free will.

  5. paula roush says:

    the animated debate ensuing laura’s post reminded me of the multilayered perspectives on the veil raised by Iniva’s 2003 exhibition Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art
    In her review of the show for African Arts, Meier (2004) writes
    “In the last two decades, a body of scholarship and revisionist exhibitions have highlighted the interstices between visual culture and the processes by which cultural boundaries of inclusion and exclusion are created. These critical works have sought to disrupt conventional narratives regarding cultural signs and symbols. By investigating the visual realm, including film, television, advertisements, photographs, and painting, such projects explore the ways in which visual forms operate in their representation of cultural difference. Veil contributes to this larger narrative by examining the cultural politics at work in representations of one of the most well-worn signs of “difference”: the Muslim and Islamist veil. Like other paradigmatic symbols essentializing the “other,” images of the veil and veiling reproduce imbricated histories of intercultural encounter, negotiation, representation, and domination. Anthropologists, cultural historians, and sociologists utilizing the critical tools of postcolonial theory have already engaged the complex histories and multiple meanings of the veil in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. Yet the vital contribution of Veil is its insistent interrogation and production of ambiguous and contested images.”

    Fingers crosses laura returns soon from egypt so we can carry on the conversation!

  6. Laura says:

    Sorry to come in late on this discussion. As all of you know by now, I was in Egypt and now I am trying to catch up.

    This is certainly an interesting conversation with a lot of interesting points being made.

    Leena – do you have this book you mentioned: “Fabric of Vision: Liberated Draperies”? I’d love to read it.

    Julia – the veil as a symbol of resistance is not unique to Egypt. During the Algerian revolution, it was used by women in the same way and I’m sure in other countries as well. I usually focus on Egypt in my writing because it is the territory I know most about since it’s where I am from and I do feel like I know what I’m talking about.

    Alexa – interesting take on the difference between Christianity and Islam in terms of art depictions. I hadn’t thought of it this wide, but it totally makes sense. Yes, Muslim art traditionally revolved around calligraphy and a lot of attention is given to the voice of people reciting the Qur’an.

    Thanks, Laura.

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