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Representations of Muslim women and the veil: questions of image and voice
Unformatted Document Text:  from the woman of the streets, or prostitute. In prophet Muhammad’s time, only his wives were subject to the requirement to wear the veil. The Qur’an demands modesty of dress (on the part of men as well as women), and an avoidance of sexual display in public, but makes no explicit reference to the necessity of veiling. Despite this variegated history, and indeed the contemporary variations in veiling and seclusion practices in relation to women (in, for example, the residual Hindu practice of purdah), negative connotations of ‘the veil’ have become primarily associated with Muslim women. These have been enabled by Western binary discursive constructions that see freedom of the body (and especially the female body) as symbolic of liberalism and recognition of human rights, and its restriction or constraint as indicative of oppression and barbarism. But it is also arguable that we cannot understand Western reactions to the practices of veiling, as these are constructed visually in media representations, without exploring the West’s fascination with the exotic, and eroticized, ‘other’. Edward Said’s analysis of ‘Orientalism’ (1991 [1978], 1997) investigates the confluence of fascination with, and anxiety about, ‘the other’ in the mind of the Western observer. Defined by what was absent in Western cultures, the Orient as a construction of discourse becomes symptomatic of lack and envy as well as fear and apprehension. Although Said is disappointingly taciturn on the specific construction of the Oriental woman, his references to Flaubert’s work do draw attention to the recurring motif of an association between an Orientalized femininity and ‘untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep

Authors: Macdonald, Myra.
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from the woman of the streets, or prostitute. In prophet Muhammad’s time, only his
wives were subject to the requirement to wear the veil. The Qur’an demands modesty of
dress (on the part of men as well as women), and an avoidance of sexual display in
public, but makes no explicit reference to the necessity of veiling.
Despite this variegated history, and indeed the contemporary variations in veiling and
seclusion practices in relation to women (in, for example, the residual Hindu practice of
purdah), negative connotations of ‘the veil’ have become primarily associated with
Muslim women. These have been enabled by Western binary discursive constructions
that see freedom of the body (and especially the female body) as symbolic of liberalism
and recognition of human rights, and its restriction or constraint as indicative of
oppression and barbarism. But it is also arguable that we cannot understand Western
reactions to the practices of veiling, as these are constructed visually in media
representations, without exploring the West’s fascination with the exotic, and eroticized,
‘other’.
Edward Said’s analysis of ‘Orientalism’ (1991 [1978], 1997) investigates the confluence
of fascination with, and anxiety about, ‘the other’ in the mind of the Western observer.
Defined by what was absent in Western cultures, the Orient as a construction of discourse
becomes symptomatic of lack and envy as well as fear and apprehension. Although Said
is disappointingly taciturn on the specific construction of the Oriental woman, his
references to Flaubert’s work do draw attention to the recurring motif of an association
between an Orientalized femininity and ‘untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep


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