Between Vulnerability and Resilience: Representations of the Veil in Art, Film, and Literature

The session will begin with Nancy El-Gendy’s paper “The Veil as Cultural Myth in Contemporary Arab American Female Muslim Discourse” in which she examines the simultaneous construction and deconstruction of the cultural mythology of the veil in Syrian American Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2003). This novel illustrates the interrelatedness of the various social apparatuses in which a present-day female subject is embedded. It foregrounds multiple factors that cooperate in inventing the bodies of Muslim women. What the novel makes clear, El-Gendy argues, is that only through its emphases on differences, heterogeneity, and multiplicity may Arab American literature today question, resist, and deconstruct dominant racial and sexist stereotypes.


Continuing the discussion of the identity of the diasporic Muslim women, Md. Mahmudul Hasan, in his paper “Fetishized hijab and Resilient Muslim women: Representations of the Veil in Leila Abulela’s Minaret and in Shelina Janmohamed’s Love in a Headscarf,” discusses how these women suffer dual oppressions of racism/Islamophobia and sexism from within their communities in the metropolis. An added vulnerability of diasporic Muslim women is the palpable and distinguishable visibility of the hijab many of them wear and become subject to collective stigmatization. While the Muslim woman’s headscarf is an unmistakable target for attacks from right-wing forces, it also provokes unease and invites disapproval from a section of diasporic Muslim men.


From literature to film, the construction of the veil takes a different turn. Afrin Zeenat’s paper, “Veiled Anxieties in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay” focuses on the concept of purdah (veiling) and how it pervades Bollywood film industry’s century long history. Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995), a neo-liberal attempt at depicting the Hindu-Muslim communal tensions in a post-Babri Masjid India, delineates the Muslim girl wearing the burkha as the religious other. Shaila’s veil further symbolizes her underdevelopment, thus her exclusion from her prospective abode in the eponymous city with Shekhar. The veiled Shaila becomes the movie’s subject of inquiry, reflecting the neo-liberal urban Hindu audiences concern for her assimilation (through a voluntary eschewing of the practice of veiling), but also the troubling nature of her exclusion from modern Indian society.


The veil has been conceptualized in literature and film but what about those who wear it and read these pieces of work? Maya Kesrouany in her “Veiling Words, Silencing Faces” explores the trope of the veil in Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia published in 1985 (translated as Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Heinemann 1993) as a textual praxis of layering over and “hiding” words. The text performs the veil as a silencing agent of language rather than of women, thus re-inscribing the religious and cultural meanings of the veil into discourse, and feminine discourse in particular. She addresses the challenges of exploring the unveiling of this trope in her classroom in Sharjah with the majority of her students being veiled women.


Finally, through her PowerPoint presentation “Veiling in Art Across the Mediterranean,” Martine Antle surveys art produced by contemporary women artists in the Mediterranean that addresses and engages in dialogue with the question of veiling. Their art points to the complexities surrounding any discourse on the veil and the contradictory meanings that the veil can take in a postcolonial context. From the perspective of these artists, the act of wearing or of taking off the veil is multifaceted and points more to the multiplicity of meanings of the veil than to a singular essential meaning of the veil itself.


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