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Representations of Muslim women and the veil: questions of image and voice
Unformatted Document Text:  Western discourses as symptomatic of the barbaric and pre-modern characteristics of Islam. As Helen Watson comments ‘the image of the veiled Muslim woman seems to be one of the most popular Western ways of representing the “problem of Islam”.’ (1994, p. 153). Indeed, as Leila Ahmed points out, patriarchal Western colonialists eagerly deployed the justification of rescuing Muslim women from repressive regimes to vindicate their imposition of their own cultural values on the ‘natives’: The idea that Other men, men in colonized societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilized West, oppressed women was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples. (1992, p. 151) The veil has become the quintessential signifier of women’s oppression in Islam, and, by extension, symbolic of Islam’s perceived hostility to Western secular liberalism and of Islam’s own regressive and repressive practices. Yet, as numerous commentators have observed, the veil was not an invention of Islam; nor is there any exhortation in the Qur’an that women should veil. Veiling as a practice, particularly among wealthier classes, pre-existed the rise of Islam, especially in Syria and Arabia. It was also a custom among Greeks, Romans, Jews and Assyrians, and not peculiar to Islam (Ahmed, 1992, p. 55). Byzantine women in the Christian era, before the Arab conquests of the eastern Mediterranean, and (going further back in time) pre-Christian Greek women had, for example, been subject to seclusion from the public gaze and to veiling. The veiled woman, in these contexts, was often perceived as the ‘respectable’ woman, marked off

Authors: Macdonald, Myra.
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Western discourses as symptomatic of the barbaric and pre-modern characteristics of
Islam. As Helen Watson comments ‘the image of the veiled Muslim woman seems to be
one of the most popular Western ways of representing the “problem of Islam”.’ (1994, p.
153). Indeed, as Leila Ahmed points out, patriarchal Western colonialists eagerly
deployed the justification of rescuing Muslim women from repressive regimes to
vindicate their imposition of their own cultural values on the ‘natives’:
The idea that Other men, men in colonized societies or societies
beyond the borders of the civilized West, oppressed women was to be
used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its
project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples. (1992, p.
151)
The veil has become the quintessential signifier of women’s oppression in Islam, and, by
extension, symbolic of Islam’s perceived hostility to Western secular liberalism and of
Islam’s own regressive and repressive practices. Yet, as numerous commentators have
observed, the veil was not an invention of Islam; nor is there any exhortation in the
Qur’an that women should veil. Veiling as a practice, particularly among wealthier
classes, pre-existed the rise of Islam, especially in Syria and Arabia. It was also a custom
among Greeks, Romans, Jews and Assyrians, and not peculiar to Islam (Ahmed, 1992, p.
55). Byzantine women in the Christian era, before the Arab conquests of the eastern
Mediterranean, and (going further back in time) pre-Christian Greek women had, for
example, been subject to seclusion from the public gaze and to veiling. The veiled
woman, in these contexts, was often perceived as the ‘respectable’ woman, marked off


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