Why should we remain curious about and aware of the multiplicity of people’s lived realities? Because dominant discourses will never reveal the true complexity of why people do things, the different meanings behind people’s actions and what drives us to produce identities at all.

by Eva Hansen

In 2016, a clothed and veiled women was forced to remove some of her clothing by local authorities on a beach in Nice, France. Indeed, at the time, several French cities implemented bans on the burkini following recent terrorist events in the country. The ticket she received read that she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”. This incident provoked huge controversy – even beyond France’s borders. 

More recently, in October 2019, a veiled mother accompanying her son’s school outing to a regional council in France was asked to leave the chamber by a far right local politician. He justified his request by claiming that the veil was a provocation, a manifestation of salafism and against French law (which it was not). 

Although generating much outrage, these two incidents were defended and justified by press and politicians in France as attempts to ‘liberate women from the oppression of Islam’. 

Despite the prominence of discourses generated by politicians or the media, such narratives are rarely articulated in the public space by the veil-wearing women themselves, who might, if given the chance, explain some rather interesting and complex reasoning behind their choices.

Instead, however, dominant media discourses (in France and often in other Western contexts) often use the veil to project images of oppression, religious radicalism and patriarchy as a cluster of “not-us” imagery. As a result, such discourses contribute to the othering of Muslim women and to their stigmatization as victims or simply “others”, and as such assist in a further separation and cultural distancing of perceived Muslim vs. perceived Western values and peoples.  

In order to set out to unveil the true complexity of identity and cultural dynamics it is worth remembering that dominant discourses are not vehicles for true insight and understanding. Rather, dominant discourses simply allow individuals to position themselves vis-a-vis others in a given cultural setting (in this case media discourses within Western Europe setting a distinction between perceived Muslim vs Western values and practices).

A true understanding of human identities comes from first learning to unlearn the notion that individuals are containers for cultural values or identities. Whether within Muslim, Christian or any other kind of community, for example, values are not consensual among members. Values and images that are projected onto another community obscure internal struggles for identity definition and struggles for power and status within the community doing the projecting.

Narratives of the veil illustrate how important it is to remain curious and open to the fact that there can be a very wide array of different reasons why people choose to express themselves in particular ways. For example, Saba Mahmood in her book The Politics of Piety, explores the very pious Women Mosque Movement in Egypt, highlighting how a bodily practice is not only about representation but is also the means of self-cultivation. Through the example of the veil, which we often tend to consider as a marker of difference and a tool for religious representation, she underlines that there is more to its wearing: the veil does not only express the interior self, but it is the means through which the pious self is cultivated. 

Lila Abu-Lughod (2002), brings forward another lived reality and explains that in her ethnography of a Bedouin community in Egypt in the late 70s/80s, “pulling the black head cloth over the face in front of older respected men is considered a voluntary act by women who (…) have a sense of honor tied to family. One of the ways they show their standing is by covering their faces in certain contexts. They decide for whom they feel appropriate to veil.” 

Katherine Bullock in an article that challenges media representations of the veil, explores the phenomenon of re-veiling across the world, which started in the seventies among university students in Egypt. At the time, this movement was neither understood nor taken seriously by the middle class or elite families, a fact that re-enforces the notion that all identity expressions are internally contested (particularly often across generations). Fatima, a seventy year old woman, quoted in Bullock’s article, claims: “Why have young girls started to cover themselves in this new type of veil and dress like old women? (…) A woman’s modest conduct is more important than what she wears.”

Bullock explains in her article that there are many reasons for re-veiling, and these vary from one place to another, from one individual to another. One prevalent pathway to covering stems from the idea that Islam is an alternative to westernization and secularization. A young Javanese woman asserts for instance that “veiling here signifies a new historical consciousness and a new way of life, weighed down neither by Javanese tradition nor by centuries of colonial rule, defined neither by western capitalism and consumerism nor by the dictates of the Indonesian political economy.” 

These examples offer new insights into different pathways of cultivating oneself and expressing identity. These insights differ from the ‘loudest’ narratives about the veil and indicate that internal divergences abound. By homogenizing a community, dominant discourses ignore the reasons why identity is being expressed in the first place, failing to see that such expressions are the result of internal struggles for power and recognition. As such, dominant discourses further obscure an important fundamental human truth: far from separating human cultures or communities, our struggles for power and recognition perhaps represent our most common and universal experience. 

Eva Hansen is Project Research & Development Assistant, OICD