- Veiled Figures: Women, Modernity, and the Spectres of Orientalism by Teresa Heffernan
In the summer of 2016, the controversial specter of the veiled woman in Europe became the locus of public drama when several French mayors of coastal cities banned the burkini. In 2016 and 2017, the far-ranging debate about Muslim women’s public attire, in particular face coverings, became a focal point and a flashpoint for much animated public and political debate in several other European countries as well. However, these debates about Muslim women’s attire were about far more than public appearance; they were a forum for airing concerns about sociocultural dichotomies, primarily those between secularism/religiosity, modernity/tradition, and liberation/oppression. At stake was the definition of what it means to be European.
Since the 1970s, there has been tremendous activity in terms of scholarship and publications on the so-called woman question in the Middle East. Deniz Kandiyoti’s Women, Islam, and the State (1991), Lila Abu-Lughod’s Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (1998), Zeynep Inankur, Reina Lewis, and Mary Roberts’s The Poetics and Politics of Place: Ottoman Istanbul and British Orientalism (2010), Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America (2011), and many others have contributed to a better understanding of the complexities associated with this expansive topic. Heffernan’s timely book Veiled Figures: Women, Modernity, and the Spectres of Orientalism adds a fresh perspective. Heffernan sets out to release the figure of the (un)veiled woman from her central role in the various constructions of the East/West divide in order to reflect on the “possibility of a dialogue that opens up [what Edward Said called] ‘the human encounter between different cultures’” as opposed to amplifying cultural conflicts (p. 9).
Heffernan carefully and thoughtfully elaborates the ways in which the [End Page 509] image of the veiled woman, over the course of the past three centuries, has been constructed and maintained in order to serve as the ultimate and overdetermined symbol of Islam’s supposed diametrical opposition to the West. Drawing on the most relevant and current scholarship about veiling, unveiling, orientalism, nationalism, Islamism, colonialism, and feminisms while making astute use of travel writing, histories, fiction, harem literature, and newspaper accounts as source material, Veiled Figures asks how the figure of the veiled and unveiled woman—whether unveiled by choice, by a state authority, by an outside power, for pure representation purposes, or never veiled—has ignited controversy and has been made to serve various political, religious, and cultural agendas in the global arena.
Heffernan charts the changing nature of the East/West divide at three important historical moments: the birth of secularism in the West in the eighteenth century, the racialization of nations in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, and the rise of global capitalism and Islamism in the latter half of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In each case, Heffernan examines the construction of the (un)veiled woman as a symbol and the reactions of American and British women, as well as initially Ottoman and later Middle Eastern women, to debates and policies about veiling and unveiling. Heffernan further illuminates historical patterns and their significance, as she elucidates how the unveiled woman becomes the symbol of modernity and how the ugly ghost of Orientalism, as defined by Said, continues to haunt the ways in which the Middle East and the veil as a symbol are both constituted and maintained.
Heffernan’s juxtaposition of group descriptions and reactions, such as those provided by travel writers, with close readings of narratives by individual women allows for a nuanced and complex presentation of women’s relationships to modernity and Orientalism through veiling during different time periods. While eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel literature shores up the notion of the oppressed Muslim woman and documents how early British women travelers contributed to this misrepresentation, Heffernan also discusses Western women writers who challenged orientalizing notions. Lady Mary Wortley...