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Jennifer Heath published The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam in 2004. And I loved it. It profiled strong, intelligent women in Islam’s history, including the women of the Prophet’s life, but also Hadith scholars, poets, warriors, etc. It was a quick read despite the thickness of the book because Heath made these women into great stories without stripping them of their humanity.
So when I read that Heath edited and wrote for The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics (published in 2008), I was really excited.
The paperback book has a great cover, using an abstract image for the cover art (pictured here). There is no actual veil on the cover, but the blue evokes the same blues found in the Afghan chadaari (burqa). No pictures of women with heavily-kohl-rimmed eyes peeking out from behind a black cloth. Yay!
The very word “veil” elicits groans and eye-rolling from the Muslim community, but it’s something that eludes many. In her introduction, Heath argues that the veils have multi-layered meanings, and are part of societies, politics, religions, and that the veil still has heavy symbolism around it. Because of this symbolism, the veil is often imbued with mystery.
The book is separated into three sections, which aren’t officially themed. The first section concentrates on the religious use and history of the veil in different contexts. Mohja Kahf writes an interesting essay about forced unveilings in the Middle East (something that doesn’t ever make it to the evening news). Pamela K. Taylor writes an excellent essay about the politics imbued with the scarf she wears, and how she navigates through the positive and negative aspects of these associations.
Section two deals with the veil’s relationship to the physical realm. In this section, Shireen Malik details a history of Salome and her veils. One of my favorite pieces, “Drawing the Line at Modesty My Place in the Order of Things,” by Michelle Auerbach, talks about her yearning for an idyllic version of a Jewish lifestyle, complete with family gatherings and dinners, but her struggle with the modesty requirements of the sect of Judaism she was practicing. I found this personally resonant as a Muslim woman who loves the idea of community, but finds herself at odds with the seeming rigidity of what is modest and what isn’t.
The third section focuses on sociopolitics and the veil, following histories of the veil in different countries and political environments. Aisha Lee Fox Shaheed asks the question “How Islamic is the veil?” in her essay “Dress Codes and Modes,” while Dinah Zeiger traces the Orientalism and privilege inherent in National Geographic’s search for the (heretofore) nameless Afghan girl, now a woman with children, featured on the 1985 cover of the magazine.
The book’s inclusion of Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity alongside Islam is one of its best features. So often, veils are ascribed to Islam and Islam only, ignoring the extensive pre-Islamic existences of this piece of cloth. This inclusion also has the (perhaps intentional) effect of interfaith communication and alliance-building: reading about the different reasons, histories, and levels of veiling in other religions makes women of these faiths seem less different than we are taught.
Heath doesn’t aim to give a concrete definition of what veiling is. The book gives several different (and differing) perspectives on what veiling is to the women within these pages, and lets the reader mull over what this may mean herself. In a politically-charged atmosphere, where most books, speakers, and articles aim to define and control the veil and its meanings, The Veil is a refreshing anti-viewpoint.
Full disclosure: MMW’s editor, Fatemeh, interviewed the editor of this book, Jennifer Heath, for the upcoming issue of Bitch magazine.