The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics

John Borneman writes:

As Jennifer Heath writes in her introduction, veiling attracts attention to women’s faces, to the eyes, the mouth and the hair. Veils don’t hide the face so much as frame it. They illuminate one part of the face by setting it in relief to the part they conceal. At the same time, of course, concealment draws attention to the veiled object, awakening curiosity as to what might lie behind. Only the black burqa (in Syria women who wear them are sometimes called ‘walking tents’) tries to prevent looking altogether. It makes the face and other parts of the body invisible and indivisible, as if making any part of the woman distinct would provoke the unthinkable. The many other sorts of veil – headscarf, tagelmust, parandja, niqaab, muhapatti, bridal veil, sari, hijab, chadri, batula, abaya, kufiyya – make it possible to see and be seen. That said, a woman can see out from inside a burqa, though with darkened vision. In this respect, the burqa functions like sunglasses. By contrast, most veils highlight and minimally reveal the eyes, while covering other parts of the face and body.

(LRB 18 December 2008)