Marnia Lazreg


On her book Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women

Cover Interview of October 04, 2009

In a nutshell

This book started out as a reflection on why it is that in the past two decades a re-veiling trend has swept over the Muslim world and Muslim communities in Europe and North America.  I set out to examine four most commonly cited arguments given by women for donning a hijab—a term I use interchangeably with the generic veil—and offer reasons for which they should not wear one.

I draw on my personal experiences growing up in a predominantly Muslim society, supplemented by interviews and discussions I have had over the years, principally in Algeria and the United States, with women who have either resumed wearing a hijab or started wearing it for the first time.  I look into the logical consistency of arguments in favor of veiling and explain how they need to be replaced in their socio-political as well as geopolitical contexts in order to understand their meanings.  When this is done, it becomes clear that what appears as a personal decision to wear a hijab is in fact contingent upon the interplay of outside forces that include militant religious male figures, states that mandate the hijab, states that hound women in hijab, or diffuse anti-Muslim prejudice in some Western societies.

When viewed in context, the most frequently cited arguments, namely conviction or piety, modesty, protection from sexual harassment, and the need to assert a Muslim identity, appear to be more mundane than faith-induced.  For, even religious conviction, when contextualized, is less compelling as an argument for wearing a hijab since it too is inflected by outside forces.  In questioning justifications of veiling, my goal is to show that although veiling is presented as a religious requirement, it is worn for a variety of reasons that generally have little bearing on religion as such.

My hope is that the reader approaches this book as a reflection by a concerned woman on the necessity to depoliticize the veil, question the justifications that are usually advanced for making it palatable, examine its role in sustaining deep-seated and prejudiced conceptions of women (whether conscious or unconscious), develop awareness of its impact on the girl child’s perception of her body, and realize that the decision to wear a veil made by one woman also involves other women who may find it more difficult to refuse to follow suit.

The veil is not an innocent custom that one adopts without concern for its social and psychological implications for women.  It has a layered history of gender inequality, just as it is imbued with multiple meanings.  The decision by one woman to wear it summons up that history, but also prevents a woman from having control over which of its symbolic meanings she wishes to convey: Is she wearing it to display piety?  Is she wearing it because a religious figure told her it was her duty to do so?  Is she wearing it as protest against its prohibition by a state?  Is she wearing it because her fiancé wants her to?  The veil stands for all these meanings and more.  It controls a woman instead of being controlled by her; it defeats her power to choose.