Veil

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Rafia Zakaria
Object Lessons
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     2017.
     136 pages.
     $16.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781501322778.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

I admired Rafia Zakaria’s Veil months even before I read it. I first came across this pocket-sized book last fall, perched on a shelf at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge among others from Bloomsbury’s “series about the hidden lives of ordinary things,” which includes books on luggage, golf balls, and whale songs. I was immediately obsessed with its look and the feel of its soft black cover with minimalist graphics. This gorgeously designed series of books have nothing in common other than that each is about 25,000 words long and focuses on a specific material object. And yet I immediately wanted to own them all, much like I did the Loeb Classical Library when I discovered it in college. And I confess that part of the reason is that I knew the series would look adorable lined up on my shelf. 

The author of Veil is Rafia Zakaria, a lawyer turned journalist who, as anyone paying attention knows, has been writing some of the best feminist work on Islamic politics and culture for media outlets like Baffler and New Republic. Her engaging prose is just what I hoped to find inside this little book, which is composed of short vignettes on the veil rather than a sustained philosophical treaty. “I hope to reveal not some incipient truth about the veil itself,” Zakaria writes in the introduction, “but rather its multidimensionality not simply as the moral or political indicator to which it is relegated but rather as a facet of life that transforms and reforms during its course” (6).

The book opens in a hospital waiting room in Karachi. It’s the summer of 2011, Zakaria’s mother is sick, and she is spending the majority of her days in this waiting room observing a woman whose eyes and forehead are the only visible segment of her body. What she describes is not the demure submissive veiled character we might expect, but rather a woman who by Zakaria’s judgment has an incredible amount of bravado. This woman speaks loudly, takes up space, stares back at men. As Zakaria puts it, “this woman refused to abridge her presence” in this public male-dominated space (4). The veil facilitates this boldness. 

Zakaria herself has at different times in her life “worn the veil, abandoned the veil, wished for the veil, championed the veil” (5-6) and she narrates these decisions as “culminations of an ever larger and more involved web of consideration” (25). Decisions to veil or not veil, she rightly tells us, “in this sense have a genealogy” (25), and thus the book is most successful when it is personal. We hear about the role of the veil in Zakaria’s attempts to navigate the moral and social expectations of her all-girls school in Karachi. Of the feeling of wearing a full-face veil on the day of her wedding. Of being accused of not being Muslim enough while on a human rights delegation because she was bareheaded. By sharing these stories, Zakaria is able to describe how as a Muslim woman, she “stands in relation to a particular physical object” (5). And as readers, this is how we begin to understand the diverse meanings of the veil that Zakaria has experienced.

Much of this book summarizes arguments others have made about the veil, but it does so in such an engaging style that it feels fresh and would work well in undergraduate courses exploring material religion, gender and Islam, or even religious identity. One place Zakaria’s own sharp analysis is found is in her diagnosis of current politics of the veil in the West. She argues that the rhetoric of the War on Terror has recast the veil as a symbol of “the subversive, the potential or actual terrorist” (104). Because the veil attempts to resist visible surveillance of a certain kind, its existence is used by some to justify increased monitoring of not only veiled Muslim women, but all Muslims. “If veiled Muslim women are trying to resist monitoring, they are the sign of a larger conspiracy against the West, livid at Western largesse, uninterested in Western freedoms” (105). And, Zakaria points out, things have gotten even worse in the US since the last presidential election. “Latent prejudice instigated by a religious symbol has always been a part of American, and perhaps any, society,” she argues in her epilogue. “There is a difference however, when that lurking prejudice is justified by legal imprimatur, elevated to a virtue signifying love of country, of putting ‘America First’” (109).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Liz Bucar is Associate Professor of Religion at Northeastern University.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher, and a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and AL Jazeera America. She is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Nation, Aeon, Guernica, the New York Times and others. Her book The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan(2015) received positive reviews in the New York Times, NPR, Ms.Magazine. Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, The Toronto Star, Bustle, Hindustan Times, DNA India, Indian Express, Calcutta Statesman, Dissent and The Nation

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