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  • Veiling and Other Fantasies of Visibility
  • George C. Grinnell (bio)

I want to begin with two scenes, each one differently shameful for the ways in which they make the face an object of scrutiny in the name of justice and freedom: one takes place at the eve of Europe’s first encounter with terror and features the insular cosmopolitanism that marked European travel eastward before the French Revolution; the other is a recent Canadian example of increasingly common Western efforts to legislate against head scarves. Both scenes participate in an Orientalism that repackages the prejudices, fears, and anxieties that characterize a tradition of thought that sees the East as an undifferentiated zone of civilization and a set of cultural provocations that work to secure the Western identity of Europe. They are also both oddly out of time. As I will examine in a moment, the Canadian law against wearing the veil is powerfully anachronistic as it seeks to legislate a solution where clearly the past decades have not demonstrated [End Page 241] there is a problem, and Elizabeth Craven’s 1789 account of her travels into present-day Turkey in 1789 is an enduringly prescient account of the complicated ways in which cultural fantasies are projected and unsettled at the same time. It is worth returning to A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople not because its arrogance or violence is surprising, but because it helps us to think about what is designated by Western encounters with the Eastern veil, in particular. Its encounters with Ottoman culture document a history that continues to inform European and North American anxieties, and it offers a revealing commentary as to the stakes of current practices of unveiling. I speak here of the veil, using an intentionally nonspecific term that might designate anything from the Niqab to the Hijab or even more minimal head scarves that observe codes of modesty by concealing one’s hair. The veil exists for the West as a fabric and a concept that mediates a number of concerns, not the least of which is the idea that such a small piece of cloth marks a decisive and fundamental separation between Eastern and Western cultures, marking one as regressive and the other as liberal. The veil is frequently identified as the expression of a problem in Western discourse, a visual interruption in a sea of apparently open faces. Such a sense of the veil has little to do with the material object, I would suggest, and much more to do with a fantasy of visibility and openness that encodes a very particular biometric understanding of what the face is, what it does, and what it means to insist upon seeing it. I insist that this contemporary imperative toward openness has a history, and that this history is complicatedly involved in an ethical rhetoric of face-to-face sociality that has been repurposed as a means of forcibly violating some people through acts of unveiling. While the misreading that such a politics of public visibility embarks upon is immediately apparent, supplanting the responsibility that arrives in the figure of the face with the very different desire to legislate Western norms of visibility, identifying it as an error does little to diminish its effects or the rhetorical pull of the face. Returning to a history of biometric thought, I contend that efforts to scrutinize faces remain deeply troubled by a species of shame that remembers the destruction of the very faces it pretends to apprehend.

On December 12, 2011, Canada’s Immigration minister Jason Kenney announced that his government had banned veils such as the Niqab during [End Page 242] citizenship ceremonies. His comments that “all those taking the oath do so openly” are worth dwelling upon to consider how the face has been constructed as a mark of citizenship, identity, and legibility in ways that are complicatedly related to an ethics of obligation and a politics of reading. After announcing new measures to educate would-be citizens on the values held by Canadians, and implement new measures to assess competency in French or English, Kenney turns his attention to the act of taking an oath of citizenship, the culmination of his...


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pp. 241-265
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