chapter  14
11 Pages

The Body and the Veil

BySonja van Wichelen

The subject of the veil received much public attention in recent decades. This is because the phenomenon of ‘new veiling’ (MacLeod, 1991) entered mediated and globalized public spaces in many contemporary secularized societies at around the same time. As a revived Islamic practice that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s for Middle Eastern and Asian countries, and for European countries in the 1990s and 2000s, public veiling engendered a confrontation with the modern fabric of secularity. Whether we are talking about France, Turkey, Egypt, or Malaysia, the topic of the veil raised questions and anxieties pertaining to the role of religion in the public sphere and the status of women in a democratic polity. It is tempting to explore the topic of the veil through the question what it is about this piece of fabric

that attracts such grand attention? Here, one would ask what beliefs are attached to veiling and to what extent they correspond to the moral ethics of the veiled. And even though this chapter partly succumbs to describing the peculiarities of the ‘politics of the veil’, its aim is to examine the ‘veiled body’ as ontology, marking religiosity as one marker of embodied experience that operates in a sociality of other lived experiences. This chapter is set up in two parts. The first part orients the reader with a brief summary of veiling in

the past and its appropriation by Islam within a theological framework. It then turns to discuss the phenomenon of ‘new veiling’ in the Muslim world. Although different empirical locations have their own dynamics, several generalizations can be made about the emergence of ‘new veiling’ in Muslim countries, namely that it is foremost a public phenomenon and that this publicness is informed by two modern paradigms: a politicized Islamist discourse and a consumerist market discourse. The last section of part one engages with contemporary debates of veiling in the Western world and describes the theoretical challenges that veiling holds for feminist theory and theories of liberal democracy. In the second part I scrutinize liberalism’s efficacy in highly globalized and multiculturalized nations

where bodies – incommensurate to liberal sensibilities – increasingly demand recognition. I argue that in order to come to a more just practice of acknowledging difference, we need to take more seriously the role of embodiment in sociality. Instead of looking at the veil as such, or ‘Islam’ for that matter, I take the pious body and its relationality to non-pious bodies, as the central locus of epistemological inquiry.