This week the long anticipated French law making illegal any public wearing of the veil (niqab) went into effect. It will be fascinating to watch in the weeks and months ahead to see how the French legal system deals with this draconian bill. Anyone who has read Fanon’s justly famous essay, “Algeria Unveiled” from the midst of that most brutal, torture and terror filled war waged by France during the 50’s and 60’s, or who has studied the multivalent symbolic reach of veiling and unveiling of women in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers will both marvel at the uncanny repetition of irrational, orientalist fear shown by the French in this instance, and be frustrated by the way many westerners fail to recognize how resistant the veil is to simplistic reductions to either abject feminine submission or religious fundamentalism.
The Muslim practice of veiling is a rich and complicated one, as the remarkable recent scholarship of a number of Islamic scholars have shown. Two of the more interesting readings of the veil that I am aware of are those of Leila Ahmed, professor at Harvard Divinity School, and Saba Mahmood from UC Berkeley. Both are feminist scholars of Islam who reveal in arresting detail that the history and present practice of veil-wearing is a very complex one, and needs to be very carefully contextualized in its local adaptation to be properly understood. The veil in Saudi Arabia, for example, will mean quite different things than it does in Egypt, for example. Mahmood will even resist reducing it to a symbol at all, insistent that its religious significance should not be minimized in favor of sociological, political and personal interpretations. It may speak of an intensely intimate relationship with God, and not be primarily for public scrutiny or 'reading', in other words.
Ahmed, an Egyptian by birth, has just published a new book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, in which she shares her own slow transformation from having a deep dislike and suspicion of the veil and its meaning for women and Islamic life more broadly, to an appreciation for its role in progressive political and religious movements by women. How especially disappointing it is, then, that the French have moved to ban it in the name of making France safe from reactionary Islamic forces. It would seem that Fanon’s critique, launched in the very midst of a war because of which it had precious few ears to hear it in the metropole, has not yet found its mark so many years later. One hopes that American political leaders are not too quick to smugly dismiss the French law as something ‘unthinkable’ on American soil, and will take the time to listen to these prescient Muslim women’s voices. We have much to learn from them, not only about politics and inclusivity, but about the richness of the Islamic spiritual tradition, of which the veil is a significant and potent part.