Veil by Rafia Zakaria is an important read for the times we live in. It is an enlightened study, and does not simply make overt arguments around a subject that has been grappled by politicians, intellectuals, and journalists alike.
Rafia as an author, uses personal experience, academic thought, religious connotations, and societal expectations to uncover the layers that today define a veil. In about a 100-odd pages, she has mustered the understanding of a piece of clothing that has attracted far more public debate than any other in this century. Veil, thus encounters questions of feminism, law, rebellion, religion, war but personal space and decision-making above all.
The book has chapters that annotate her journey with the veil, including childhood vehemence and familial reverence, changing its discourse at different junctures in her life. Rafia faces questions of identity and patronage arising from her relationship with the veil. She recounts instances of women in her family who wore the veil and how it has served them different purposes. And through these narratives, Rafia highlights the skewed understanding that is of the veil in our current diaspora.
Throughout the chapters, Rafia quantifies her writing with strong examples where the veil has been the agenda of debate, but not the focus of attention. That has been enveloped by actors necessitating its presence as a tool to signify their motive and understanding of the veil’s role in a society.
Rafia mentions the Rebekah Dawson-Finsbury Park Mosque case versus the “NS” case in Ottawa, Canada; both dealing with women choosing to not testify without their veils, but for very different reasons. Reasons that Rafia identifies as the true causes that the veil falls into the grey zone of today’s political and cultural debate.
And that’s because she understands the veil from the perspective of the women who don it. Each women representing a part of her identity, despite being invisible underneath that clothing. Something so important, yet conveniently overlooked by the rest of the world. Therein lies the power of this book. The veil’s meaning defined by the woman who wears it, not the other way round.
Born and raised in an Indian Muslim family, I could personally connect with Rafia’s anecdotal references, going back to my own dilemmas and questions. Constantly in search for deeper understanding of socio-cultural norms that define Islam, and Veil is a perfect read to quench that thirst.
Rafia has picked a difficult object and she gives no easy answers.