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MORGANTOWN, W.Va.—British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, both of whom have recently spoken out against full-face veils, have an ally in me, an American-Muslim woman who believes that Islam does not require women to veil—or even to wear a head scarf.
I just wish I felt supported by the image-makers of the West, who seem to have a veil fetish. They are doing the exact opposite of what the European politicians suggest: They’re imposing the veil on women. I barely escaped the same fate myself.
Publishing houses, art directors, and photo agencies are increasingly using stock photos of (supposedly) Muslim babes with piercing kohl-lined eyes framed by the pitch-black niqab—the black shroud favored by puritanical Islamic ideology—to sell books about the Islamic world.
A Google search for “Muslim woman” and “stock photo” reveals the plethora of veiled images into which the West’s creative directors can dip. In the electronic database of photo giant Corbis, a search on the term “Muslim woman” results in 3,302 shots of mostly veiled and covered women in various acts of gazing, driving, working, weeping, voting, praying, and shooting. Among the first 100 Corbis “Muslim woman” photos, 26 cover their hair and veil their faces, 71 cover their hair, and a scant three do neither. This does not reflect the real world, in which an estimated half of Muslim women don’t cover. This pattern was repeated at the other stock agencies I researched. Ross Sutherland, chief creative officer at Corbis, acknowledges that the image of a veiled woman can have negative connotations. “They’re kind of like bank robbers. They’re threatening.” Add a “come hither” look, he says, and the image says, “Hey, big boy.” Sutherland says the image of a veiled woman is “Western symbolism for beliefs and cultures we don’t understand.” He adds, “It hasn’t yet been demystified.”
“Veils in the 21st century are a mental shortcut to signal ‘Muslim woman’—like afros in the ‘70s were used to signal ‘black power.’ We just love to use symbols to stereotype ‘the other,’ ” says Nancy Snow, a scholar of propaganda at Cal State Fullerton. Mohja Kahf, the Muslim-American author of Western Representations of the Muslim Woman, says the image forces Muslim women into “a Victim or Escapee package.”
Book publishers seem to be the worst offenders. And, ironically, veiled women are often used to promote books by and about women who reject the niqab. Arab-American writer Susan Muaddi Darraj protested when Praeger Publishers slapped the image of menacing eyes framed by a black veil (with minarets curiously rising out of the veil’s blackness) on the cover of Scheherazade’s Legacy, an anthology she edited of writings by Arab and Arab-American women, most of whom are Christian. “I was not happy with it—it seemed almost sarcastic given the content and the scope of the book itself,” says Darraj. “However, the publisher seemed to show no interest in my perspective. … The cover was ‘finished,’ from their point of view.”
In my brush with the veil, I have to admit that I covered up my true self. This is my mea culpa.
In a book I wrote after doing the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2003, I argued that Islam doesn’t require women to cover. Chapter 33, Verse 59 of the Quran states: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks over their bodies.” Saudi translators have added parenthetical phrases into the Quran published by their government, pushing a puritanical Wahhabi interpretation: “[D]raw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e., screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way).” So, imagine my surprise when I saw one of the first designs for the book jacket of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Above the title was a woman’s head, mostly covered with a white scarf.
That’s how I came to be in the backroom of a local photo studio the summer before the book’s publication, surrounded by Little League pictures, adjusting, of all things, a flowing white cotton scarf, trying to replicate the cover design, so that only my eyes would be visible. Jackson Lynch, a photographer friend from New York, stood on a ladder to elongate my otherwise petite frame for the photos. “Perfect,” he said, as I got the scarf to frame my eyes just right. I shot other pictures with the scarf slipped down so it would frame only my face.
I didn’t like my veiled image for aesthetic and ideological reasons—I looked scary, and the theology behind the veiling of women is scary to me. I explained to my gracious editor at HarperSanFrancisco that while women from Afghanistan to Egypt cover their faces in the name of Islam, the most puritanical interpreter of Islamic law in the world—the Wahhabist government of Saudi Arabia—says women cannot do the pilgrimage to Mecca with their faces covered. In a crowd headed to the sacred mosque one afternoon during the hajj, I had been struck by a woman scurrying beside a man who was wearing the black turban that’s become a symbol of the Taliban. She looked like so many of the women I had met in the North-west Frontier region of Pakistan, but with a marked difference: Her face was bare. At home, the women of that part of the world fully veil their faces in public.
“For Westerners, the veiled woman is mysterious. We don’t know what to do with her. We were trying to re-create the mystery,” explained my publisher, Mark Tauber (who I hope will still be my publisher after this story runs). My publishing house relented, designed an interim cover with the image of a veiled babe from Getty Images’ stock files, but then, after the typical author whining, settled on an image of me with my white scarf over my hair (but not my face) for the final hardback cover. The photograph captured me just as I had looked on the pilgrimage to Mecca, but as I traveled around on my book tour, my publishing house and I came to realize that it didn’t represent me as I am in the world.
Except for a few experimental runs and prayer at the mosque, I’ve never covered my hair. My mother grew up in India in the 1950s and early ‘60s wearing a traditional black burqa. In fact, her family wouldn’t allow girls to go to college after she dared to remove it in her Mumbai women’s college. (The driver ratted her out.) After graduating, she was quickly set up in an arranged marriage. When she arrived in Hyderabad with my father, her new mother-in-law greeted her at the train station. My sassy grandmother wrenched off my mother’s veil right there on the platform. “I felt naked,” says my mother, but she never chose to return to the veil.
To my publisher’s credit, the paperback edition of my book used a photo that resembles me as I appear on the streets: unveiled, my hair flying in the wind. It was shot at the corner of Amsterdam and 111th Street in New York by a fashion photographer. Just as Tony Blair called the veil “a mark of separation,” Tauber says, “We decided for the paperback that the scarf was a barrier to the true reader for the book.” For future titles, he keeps his options open, saying, “It depends on the book.” But one thing is clear about the veil, he says: “It’s a tired device.”