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What Is Veiling?

Sahar Amer

Publication Year: 2014

Ranging from simple head scarf to full-body burqa, the veil is worn by vast numbers of Muslim women around the world. This book explains one of the most visible, controversial, and least understood emblems of Islam. Amer's evenhanded approach is anchored in sharp cultural insight and rich historical context. Addressing the significance of veiling in the religious, cultural, political, and social lives of Muslims, past and present, she examines the complex roles the practice has played in history, religion, conservative and progressive perspectives, politics and regionalism, society and economics, feminism, fashion, and art.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Series: Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xiv

I could not have completed this book without the unfailing support of family, friends, and colleagues, and I wish to express my most sincere gratitude to them. I am mentioning only some people here; others are not named for reasons of privacy, even though their support and help has been equally instrumental to my writing over the last two years. They will no doubt recognize themselves in some of the stories recounted in the following pages. To them also goes my deepest appreciation....

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INTRODUCTION: What Is Veiling?

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pp. 1-18

Islam did not invent veiling, nor is veiling a practice specific to Muslims. Rather, veiling is a tradition that has existed for thousands of years, both in and far beyond the Middle East, and well before Islam came into being in the early seventh century. Throughout history and around the world, veiling has been a custom associated with “women, men, and sacred places, and ...

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PART ONE: Islam, Politics, and Veiling

This section focuses on why veiling has become associated with Islam, and with Muslim women in particular. It also examines how the governments of some Muslim-majority societies have at times emphasized and implemented particular interpretations of core Islamic texts....

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1. Understanding Veiling in Islamic Sacred Texts

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pp. 21-37

Muslims and non- Muslims alike commonly believe that Muslim women are required to veil and that Islam prescribes veiling in no uncertain terms to its female adherents. Indeed, most veiled Muslim women I have met report that they cover primarily because the Qurʾan prescribes it. And when asked whether they feel hot with their entire body and head covered, many reply with a smile that they do indeed feel hot, but that ...

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2. What Do Progressive Muslims Say about Veiling?

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pp. 38-55

The mainstream and restrictive interpretations of Qurʾanic verses on female dress and the hadith tradition regularly cited in support of women’s veiling, like the imposition of hijab on women by some Muslimmajority governments, have all been challenged by a contemporary group of Muslims, many of whom self- identify as “progressive.” Many Muslims and non- Muslims know little about these modern progressive...

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3. Politics and Sociocultural Practices of Veiling

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pp. 56-74

Religion and piety are not the only factors that determine whether a Muslim woman will veil, or even how she will veil. In a handful of Muslim-majority societies, the government mandates hijab and legislates the particular form that veiling must take....

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PART TWO: Veiling in Euro-American Societies

This section focuses on current debates about the veil in Euro-American societies. These discussions can best be understood when contextualized in their long historical and political lineages. For this reason, I begin this section with a chapter on veiling during the nineteenth century, a period marked by European imperial incursions into and control over much of the Middle East. European views of Muslim-majority societies...

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4. Veils, Harems, and the Mission to Civilize

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pp. 77-93

This scene, excerpted from the prologue of Arabian Nights,1 has contributed much to the way Muslim women, veiled ones especially, have been perceived in Euro-American societies since at least the early eighteenth century. This fictional tale, like many others from the same collection, was received as truth by its European audiences and considered a factual representation of what veiled Muslim women are like and what veiling means for Muslims....

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5. Veiling in Western Europe Today

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pp. 94-111

It is not easy being a veiled Muslim living in western Europe today. If you are a Muslim woman living in France, for example, and you wear any sort of veil, you have no chance of being employed in the public sphere or government sector. If you are a school girl in France and you decide to adopt hijab, you must basically forfeit your education. And if perchance you happen to be a Muslim who wears the...

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6. Veiling in the United States of America Today

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pp. 112-130

When I ask undergraduate students enrolled in my “Arabs in America” or “Arabs and the West” classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill what comes to mind when they hear the word “veil,” I am always struck by the changes in their response since the events of 9/11. Before these events, veiling systematically evoked orientalist fantasies, harems, sheer veils, Hollywood films, belly dancing, and erotic or sexual promiscuity. ...

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PART THREE: Veiling in the World and Words of Women

Understanding Muslim women’s veiling cannot be complete without a consideration of Muslim women’s own voices, modes of expression, and cultural practices. What does veiling mean in the life of a Muslim woman and how might she express her own style or assert her resistance to this sartorial tradition? These are some of the central questions I explore in this third and final section...

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7. Veiling and Feminism

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pp. 133-147

Can veiling really be an outward sign of feminism? This question is often posed with much skepticism, if not downright irony. The mere suggestion that one might associate traditional Islamic dress—the alleged symbol of Islamic patriarchy and the oppression of women—with feminism, a movement that many value as a hallmark of Euro- American civilizational advances, is perceived as an oxymoron. Many Muslims and non- Muslims think it is simply impossible that a veiled Muslim woman could consider herself or be considered a feminist....

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8. Islamic Fashion, Beauty Pageants, and Muslim Dolls

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pp. 148-175

In the past decade, each time I travel to the Middle East, I find myself eagerly anticipating the new styles and colors of hijab that Muslim women will be wearing. I am struck, every time, by the new veiling fashions, the growing complexity in the way headscarves are wrapped around the face and neck, the creative layering of the clothes, the colors that are becoming more and more vibrant, as well as by the detailed embroidery,...

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9. Veiling through the Arts

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pp. 176-197

Muslim artists from around the world are increasingly participating in contemporary debates about the veil and taking up the subject of Muslim women and veiling. In their artistic productions, they use the veil as a forum to actively challenge the homogenization of Muslim women and to contest the prevalent view held that veiled women are oppressed, silent, and that they lack subjectivity and agency. As they voice their double struggle against common Euro-American stereotypes, on the one...

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pp. 198-200

This book has provided a complex understanding of veiling and of the practices of 1.5 billion people around the world. It has reminded us that veiling is not a practice that began with the advent of Islam, nor is it one taken up solely by Muslims. Many other women around the world cover for various spiritual, cultural, personal, and political reasons. Moreover, the history of veiling among Muslims is one intimately linked to...

Glossary: Terms Referring to Veiling

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pp. 201-210


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pp. 211-218


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pp. 219-224


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pp. 225-234

Other Works in the Series

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p. 235-235

E-ISBN-13: 9781469619804
E-ISBN-10: 1469619806
Print-ISBN-13: 9781469617756
Print-ISBN-10: 1469617757

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 24 halftones
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks