Marnia Lazreg


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

Cover Interview of October 05, 2009

The wide angle

In the past I wrote books that were historical in nature in so far as they relied on archival research or on existing historical research; I focused on structural rather than existential issues.  This book is not written from a narrowly defined academic perspective.  I weave personal experiences with interviews of women in order to provide in-depth social analysis.  I present a phenomenological interpretation of the turn to veiling that enables the reader to enter the “subjective” side of veiling that is, the manner in which motives for veiling are constructed, experienced and talked about by a small group of women.

In this sense, I am “in” this book more than I was in my previous books.  I needed to put myself in it because veiling concerns me as a woman who grew up in a society where veiling was unquestionable, and is now witnessing a return to that time.  The current veiling trend has had the effect of erasing, or at least concealing, the intervening period of time, between my coming of age, which coincided with the independence of Algeria in 1962, where I was born—a time when younger women no longer felt compelled to wear a veil—and the present when young women take up veiling as do others throughout the Muslim world.

Unlike studies that interpret (re)-veiling as a form of protest against allegedly failed “modernization” policies adopted by Middle Eastern states in the 1960s and 1970s, or hail it as ushering in a new form of modernity, I focus on how women re-construct justifications of their turn to the veil, and present them as their own.

There is a tendency to romanticize veiling, and see in it what is not there, especially if the writer does not belong to a culture in which veiling is common.  Some American women think of veiling as an alternative to dressing up or having to do up one’s hair.  A veil is hardly “liberating” as some women have claimed—unless you equate liberation with placating a father, a husband, brother or the community at large.  It is the compulsion that a woman may feel to wear a hijab, no matter for what purpose, that needs to be thoroughly examined.

Against this background, I decided to write this book and show that whether formulated by advocates of veiling or by researchers eager to be culturally-sensitive—but end up being relativists in a dubious sense—justifications of veiling miss an important point:  donning the hijab in one country has effects on women in another country.  A woman who opts for the hijab in Algiers makes it more difficult for a woman in Saudi Arabia or Iran to question the veil that she is obligated to wear by law.  The apparently “free” decision made by the woman in Algiers, prevents the Saudi or Iranian woman from wishing to be free of the veil; it strengthens the Saudi or Iranian censors’ conviction that all Muslim women wear or should wear a hijab.

This principle of existential philosophy is enormously important in understanding that a woman’s “choice” of the veil is constrained in two ways: in being a response to an existing local situation, and in involving the life circumstances of other women.

In my view, veiling is a discourse as well as a history.  As discourse, the veil is a manner of thinking about women, speaking and writing about them and their behavior.  As history, it is a configuration of laws and practices that have been common to women throughout the Muslim world.  Consequently, a woman’s “choice” to wear a veil re-inscribes her into that history just as it also re-inscribes other women me in it.  And this was not a history of gender equality—it could not have been—or of freedom of deportment.