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  • The Newly Veiled Woman: Irigaray, Specularity, and the Islamic Veil
  • Anne-Emmanuelle Berger (bio)

In 1995, in a piece published in a special issue of Les temps modernes devoted to the Algerian “Guerre des frères,” the late Monique Gadant, a sociologist of postcolonial Algeria, called for a dispassionate reflection on the reasons why a sizable number of Algerian women, in Algeria but also in France, decided to wear the hijab, or “Islamic veil,” without, she said, being coerced into doing it. Warning against a naive French ethnocentrism which may have led people to mistake the hijab too quickly for a sign of women’s oppression, she wrote:

C’est s’aveugler que de ne pas voir qu’il y a de très nombreuses femmes qui portent le hidjab sans y être forcées par personne. . . . Avant de se dresser contre le hidjab, réduit à un symbole d’oppression (les femmes qui le portent étant jugées en contradiction avec ce qui est censé être leurs intérêts et la vérité sur elles-mêmes dites par d’autres), on devrait prendre un peu de temps pour réfléchir aux motivations de ces femmes.

[”Femmes alibi” 228]

[One would be blind not to see that numerous women are wearing the hijab without being forced to do it by anybody. . . . Before denouncing the hijab, reductively conceived as a symbol of oppression—the women wearing it being found to contradict what are supposed to be their interests and the truth about themselves as told by others—one should take some time to reflect on these women’s motivation.]

Indeed, a growing number of women have adopted the hijab in the past decade, in Muslim or predominantly Muslim countries where the “Islamic veil” has not yet been made state law, as is the case in Iran. One thinks of Egypt or Indonesia, for instance, as two other examples where—against weak attempts by the governments in place to curb the powerful development of Islamism, after they helped foster it—the hijab has enjoyed considerable though unequal success. One should not underestimate coercion as a factor, especially within the last few years, when terrorism directed against civilians in Algeria and ever-growing intimidation stemming from Islamism’s social success in Egypt have undeniably led tens of thousands of scared, weary, or energetically “persuaded” women to wear the veil. Nonetheless, I want to take up Monique Gadant’s suggestion that we seriously try to think through at least some of the stakes of the phenomenon she identifies: an impressive number of women today affirm that they want to wear the hijab, and they do it. This raises at least two series of questions: (1) if the hijab fulfills a wish, rather than indicating a state of oppression or alienation, one has to reflect on the nature and structure of this wish or desire, and perhaps ask what the relation might be between desire and the veil, or rather this veil. For the hijab, as it is called in Arabic, is indeed a new kind of veil, or rather a new way of using an old Koranic precept, one intended to replace traditional modes of dressing and veiling. (2) If the hijab, and sometimes even the nikab and the jelbab, which cover women’s faces and bodies entirely, are willingly worn, should one [End Page 93] take this as a particularly blatant testimony to the radical relativity of cultures, which would in turn preclude any “Westerner” or non-Muslim individuals or groups, beginning with women, from making any assumptions concerning the condition of women or the hermeneutics of gender relations across cultures? This is indeed what Gadant hints at when she denounces the “naive [French] ethnocentrism” [228] at work in the negative response to the hijab. 1 One encounters here, as we know, a most divisive, philosophically crucial, and politically decisive issue, one that not only pitches non-Westerners against Westerners, but sometimes equally forcefully, as in this case, “Westerners” against “Westerners.” Ethnocentrism, as a tendency to (mis)understand a different culture in terms of one’s own, hence as a veiled form of cultural imperialism, should be uncovered and indeed denounced...