The following discussion demonstrates the richness of meaning to be found in the veiled figures depicted in Lalla Essaydi’s photographs of Muslim Arab women. Essaydi, who is herself both a Muslim and an Arab, frequently depicts women wearing coverings that fall under the category of veil. This essay highlights the history of the veil and different terms that are associated with its use, and points out that the use of veiling is not unique to Islam but has been found in other cultures and religions. This essay also highlights non-Muslim associations between the veil and Islam that stem from the Colonial period, when veiling was associated with restriction of women’s rights and the “backwardness” of cultures that veiled in an attempt to justify colonization.
The field of Orientalism was born during the Colonial Period, and its depictions of women in Oriental cultures and how these images still affect both contemporary art and current thinking on Islam and veil. The myriad purposes of the veil in contemporary culture contrast sharply with the non-Muslim association of the veil as being simply a symbol of Islam or a means of women’s oppression. Contemporary artists like Essaydi use both the history of Orientalism and different readings of the veil to challenge both bias against the veil and assumptions about the necessity of the veil; to tell a fuller story about Islam and Arab identity that is offered in art historical works; and seek to reshape the dialogue around Islam and veiling.
Click here for a .pdf of the entire essay by Jennifer Tremblay.