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Representations of Muslim women and the veil: questions of image and voice
Unformatted Document Text:  women within a uniform of all-embracing non-revelatory black clothing. It is also often associated discursively with death, and referred to as a ‘shroud’ or ‘mummy-like’. Yet some of its potency as a signifier also arises from the enigma it evokes for the non- Muslim viewer. What is hidden under the veil: beauty? or the guns of the terrorist? or values which a consumerist West covets but refuses to admit? As well as the derogatory associations of the veil, it can also, and simultaneously, become an object of romanticised gaze. Scope for speculation is encouraged by the denial of the Muslim woman’s voice: the veiled woman is (or at least has been, pre-9/11) almost always represented as silent. It is this silence that allows diversity of experience and subjectivity in very different political and cultural contexts to be written out of the script. The image of the shapeless veiled woman contrasts sharply with contemporary post- feminist Western representations of women’s bodies, accentuated as occupying public space assertively, with freedom (dubiously) coded as freedom from constraint in dress and sexual self-expression. Within post-feminist discourse, the ability to be sexually expressive is coded especially through bodily exposure, or bodily eroticization without concomitant attention to issues of bodily freedom. The post-feminist female body is a highly sexualized one, with emphasis on a sculpted, sexually revealing shape. It is quintessentially a youthful (and even at times an infantalized) body that denies sexual desire or expressiveness to the mature woman. A glimpse through any fashion magazine would question the implicit isolation of ‘the veil’ as uniquely restrictive of free bodily movement or self-articulation. Muslim women’s deliberate adoption of the veil in countries where this is not a statutory requirement is often, indeed, defended on the basis

Authors: Macdonald, Myra.
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background image
women within a uniform of all-embracing non-revelatory black clothing. It is also often
associated discursively with death, and referred to as a ‘shroud’ or ‘mummy-like’. Yet
some of its potency as a signifier also arises from the enigma it evokes for the non-
Muslim viewer. What is hidden under the veil: beauty? or the guns of the terrorist? or
values which a consumerist West covets but refuses to admit? As well as the derogatory
associations of the veil, it can also, and simultaneously, become an object of romanticised
gaze. Scope for speculation is encouraged by the denial of the Muslim woman’s voice:
the veiled woman is (or at least has been, pre-9/11) almost always represented as silent. It
is this silence that allows diversity of experience and subjectivity in very different
political and cultural contexts to be written out of the script.
The image of the shapeless veiled woman contrasts sharply with contemporary post-
feminist Western representations of women’s bodies, accentuated as occupying public
space assertively, with freedom (dubiously) coded as freedom from constraint in dress
and sexual self-expression. Within post-feminist discourse, the ability to be sexually
expressive is coded especially through bodily exposure, or bodily eroticization without
concomitant attention to issues of bodily freedom. The post-feminist female body is a
highly sexualized one, with emphasis on a sculpted, sexually revealing shape. It is
quintessentially a youthful (and even at times an infantalized) body that denies sexual
desire or expressiveness to the mature woman. A glimpse through any fashion magazine
would question the implicit isolation of ‘the veil’ as uniquely restrictive of free bodily
movement or self-articulation. Muslim women’s deliberate adoption of the veil in
countries where this is not a statutory requirement is often, indeed, defended on the basis


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