Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hidden in Plain Sight

by Christine Stansell

New Republic
April 29, 2011

Around the World past and present, women cover their heads before God and man. That is, they veil. A dispassionate list of veils would include nuns’ cowls, saris, lace mantillas for Mass, peasant babushkas, brides’ veils, church ladies’ Sunday hats, the wigs and headscarves of Orthodox Jews, and the headscarf my mother (middle class, Midwestern, Protestant) threw on in the 1950s when she ran across the street to the corner store. All these forms of veiling refer, religiously or secularly, to the old idea that women have something that should be hidden. Call it modesty, or propriety; but at heart it is about the sexual shame that women incur if they reveal themselves in public. In this regard, culture and tradition may be more decisive than religious belief: my mother wore a scarf because “ladies” didn’t go bareheaded in public, not because the Apostle Paul told women in the early Church to cover.

But despite all that these many veils share, there is only one kind of veil that is widely seen as a barbaric imposition, and that is the Muslim veil. From the late nineteenth century onward, Westerners defined covering as the sine qua non of women’s degradation under the yoke of Islam. Denunciations of veiling were a set piece of colonialist discourse, along with polygamy in Africa, widow-burning in India, and bound feet in China: evils to be extirpated in the name of a modernity which, even if it did not grant women equality, defined Western men as respectful and protective of women of all races. The swaggering British called for emancipating Muslim women from the veil even as they fought the women’s rights movement in Britain.