Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Refusing the Veil, part of the Provocations series by Biteback publishing, is a very short, refreshingly honest book about why the author thinks Muslim women should give up wearing the veil, in all its various forms, so that they can be liberated women in the 21st century.
The book begins with a list of all the possible words for veil. It proceeds, taking a conversational tone with very occasional academic flourishes but a merciful lack of jargon, in three parts. The first, the personal, the most conversational, is entitled “what I see, what I hear, what I fear” – a very accurate reflection of the contents. Here Alibhai-Brown relates various incidents, including feeling judged for what she was wearing (such as a short-sleeved top and a midi daisy-festooned skirt), and when she judged other women for what they were wearing (veils, black or bleak grey). She makes liberal use of the metaphor of veil as prison. Whether you agree with this depends on what you already believe. Discomfort with veils, the belief that they negate womanhood – these are personal. Many of these scenes won’t convince the unconvinced. However, Alibhai-Brown does raise some serious issues here, such as the use of the veil to hide domestic abuse, relating a story of one woman who followed her home and removed her veil to reveal a face covered in bruises. The author returns to this use of the veil as a cover up of domestic abuse frequently – and it is a serious issue, although like security concerns around identity, it applies to the face-veil alone, not the hijab.
I enjoyed this section of the book most. Alibhai-Brown writes as though she is speaking, with self-reflective honesty, as in this passage:
“My reactions were probably unfair. What right did I have to be so censorious? Live and let live is the great British way. Only one can’t. Not really. Clothes worn by men and women, girls and boys, are full of meanings and messages – intentional and unintentional. Advertising, psychology, physiology and social strictures – societal changes determine buying and sartorial behaviours” (10-11).
This passage sums up much of the book for me – it acknowledges what must be acknowledged. Clothes do make a difference. But what does that mean? What dress codes should society decide are acceptable? How narrow should we make the boundaries of the “acceptable”?
The second section “cycles of enlightenment and darkness from the past to the present” provides a historical overview of sorts. It goes over, very briefly, what the references to the hijab might mean in the Quran, with no engagement with hadith whatsoever, even to make the case that some Quranists make that hadith should be dismissed. Alibhai-Brown references a talk by Sahar Amer, author of What is Veiling, for her understanding of what the Quran says on the veil, and notes the talk can be found online (I haven’t found it yet, if anyone has a link please do share).
Much of the latter part of this section involves acknowledging the tyranny of figures like the despotic Shah of Persia and the fascist Ataturk, and then proceeding to argue that they did much for women’s rights. It’s a “yes, but” kind of argument backed up by actual anecdotal evidence, like this, about Ataturk: “When I first went to Turkey in the ‘70s, Ataturk was revered. It was illegal to say anything negative about him, but in most urban areas he seemed to be genuinely admired” (73).
The third is the “what we should do about all this” part – and explains, as the title of the section indicates “why the veil should be repudiated”. Alibhai-Brown takes a rapid-fire approach here, offering a bunch of arguments, some convincing and some less so, under headings such as “security and safety,” “brainwashing” and “health.” I nodded along with some: “Unfair to men” – yes, I thought. And shook my head at others “commonalities matter more than differences” – this section was problematic on multiple levels. For one, it begins with this sentence: “the banning of the headscarf in France was, in fact, supported by many Muslims.” This is likely true, however, it was also not supported by many Muslims. Alibhai-Brown goes on “the state was too arrogant and confrontational but the policy was right” (103).
However, she also states that “bans are cudgels. They punish or frighten veiled Muslim women, or worse, criminalise them, as in France. That would be deeply unjust and a violation” (89). Instead, Alibhai-Brown supports dress codes: “I think it is perfectly fair and civilized to insist on dress codes that apply to all citizens in schools and other public service establishments, and within limits, the private sector too” (90). Thus Alibhai-Brown is able to simultaneously indict France for its ban which she sees as “violation” and yet when it comes to its school dress codes argue that “the policy was right”. That there is no acknowledgement of the continuity between dress codes and the “cudgel” of bans is telling. It seems to me that the distinction between bans and dress-codes is more blurred than she wants to admit.
Ultimately, Alibhai-Brown consistently makes no bones about her unease and personal discomfort with the veil, in particular in its black robe enveloping form.
I can relate to this – I have to confess that I have experienced the discomfort of seeing someone dressed differently and not knowing where to look. In my case however, it was while I was in a mall in Cairo. I saw an Indonesian woman walk by wearing trainers and what I would describe as “prayer clothes” – something like this. I would never have ventured outside the house in that, I thought. How could she? That woman got some strange looks. Some years later, I found myself on the receiving end of those looks, one evening when I was standing in the balcony, enjoying the just-rained cool evening air. Some girls walked past, and one of them looked up at me and gave me a taken aback, then uncomfortable look, quickly pulling her gaze away. I looked down and realized I was standing there in my prayer clothes.
I have been on both ends of this discomfort for some time, as someone in two minds about hijab. I hoped this short book, because of its very shortness, would help me condense my jumbled thoughts. It didn’t – instead I found myself alternating between taking the opposing stance when confronted with flimsy anecdotal evidence and wishing for more solid persuasive arguments that I could use to buttress my own doubts.
I would recommend this book primarily for those at the very beginning of an exploration of this subject. Alibhai-Brown references several books in the course of her argument, and by the time I got to the end I wished for a bibliography and further reading list, as long as possible. This is an indication, perhaps, of what you can expect from this book.