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Representations of Muslim women and the veil: questions of image and voice
Unformatted Document Text:  generative energies’ (1991, p. 188). The figure of the veiled woman, as she becomes visually dominant, draws on traditions of abnegated envy and desire as well as those of hostility or pity. The figure of ‘the other’ has also increasingly breached the borders between ‘us’ and ‘them’, through diasporic dispersal and, especially in the case of religious identification, through the deliberate adoption of Islam by some Western women. Even without its association with Muslims, Western cultural representations of women and the veil operate within dual paradigms: the veil as signifier of female modesty, a means of creating private space in public contexts, and denying female sexuality (as in ceremonies and rituals associated with marriage, or mourning); or as suggestive of a seductive sexual power. In the first case, the veil signifies privacy, either protecting the self from the intrusive gaze of the other, or denying the possibility of self-assertion in a public space. But secondly, the veil, especially in film, in its most diaphonous and translucent forms (the shimmering veil), connotes seductiveness, underlined often by alluring body movement and dance. The erotic charge comes from the promise of that which is not (yet) fully revealed. In its association with Islam, it seems clear that it is the first of these that applies: the veil connotes restriction, a Foucauldian regime of the body imposed by patriarchal and oppressive cultures to inscribe Muslim femininity within rituals of control that extinguish selfhood and identity and produce a ‘docile body’. To the Western non-Muslim world, the veil evokes comparison with the widow’s weeds or the nun’s habit that confined

Authors: Macdonald, Myra.
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generative energies’ (1991, p. 188). The figure of the veiled woman, as she becomes
visually dominant, draws on traditions of abnegated envy and desire as well as those of
hostility or pity. The figure of ‘the other’ has also increasingly breached the borders
between ‘us’ and ‘them’, through diasporic dispersal and, especially in the case of
religious identification, through the deliberate adoption of Islam by some Western
women.
Even without its association with Muslims, Western cultural representations of women
and the veil operate within dual paradigms: the veil as signifier of female modesty, a
means of creating private space in public contexts, and denying female sexuality (as in
ceremonies and rituals associated with marriage, or mourning); or as suggestive of a
seductive sexual power. In the first case, the veil signifies privacy, either protecting the
self from the intrusive gaze of the other, or denying the possibility of self-assertion in a
public space. But secondly, the veil, especially in film, in its most diaphonous and
translucent forms (the shimmering veil), connotes seductiveness, underlined often by
alluring body movement and dance. The erotic charge comes from the promise of that
which is not (yet) fully revealed.
In its association with Islam, it seems clear that it is the first of these that applies: the veil
connotes restriction, a Foucauldian regime of the body imposed by patriarchal and
oppressive cultures to inscribe Muslim femininity within rituals of control that extinguish
selfhood and identity and produce a ‘docile body’. To the Western non-Muslim world,
the veil evokes comparison with the widow’s weeds or the nun’s habit that confined


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