Hearing the voice of the woman behind the veil

in Nonfiction by

By Bina Shah

If you go to a bookstore, chances are you’ll see a lot of veiled women looking at you. They gaze mysteriously at you from behind veils covering their faces, revealing only large, dark, kohl-lined eyes. Their veils may be black, or they may be coloured and decorated with exotic jewels. You might see a hand, exquisitely painted with henna, holding the veil in place. No, these aren’t fellow customers in the bookstore, but women on the covers of books about the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan or just about any Muslim country, as imagined by graphic designers and illustrators working for every publishing house in the Western world.

Recently some astute observers collected as many book covers of this type as they could find and placed them all together as a single image. The result was an arresting array of veiled, hidden women: “covered covers” as the jpeg was named when I found it on the Internet:

coveredcovers

In her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving, anthropologist Lila Abu Lughod observes the literary trope of the “abused Muslim woman” and says that the image of the veiled woman appears repeatedly on books “published by trade presses, reviewed widely, and adopted by book clubs and women’s reading groups, a lurid genre of writing on abused women—mostly Muslim [which] exploded onto the scene in the 1990s and took off after September 11.”

Indeed, the veiled Muslim woman is probably the first image that comes to the mind of the Western reader when asked to imagine a woman from Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Pakistan. If asked to play a game of free association, the first word that comes to mind when thinking about the Muslim woman is “oppressed.” And for a person raised in the West amidst ideals of democracy and freedom, the instinctive belief that the oppressed Muslim woman needs to be rescued from her oppressors—most likely abusive Muslim or Arab men—can’t be far behind all these thoughts. How better to free the oppressed Muslim woman than by reading about her? In doing so, she will uncover herself for the reader as the author of the blog ArabGlot writes in a blog post called “Book Covers Promote Orientalist Portrayal of Muslim Women.”

This blog post goes on to discuss the Orientalist stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women throughout the ages, including the fascination with the woman of the harem, who is meant to be sexually available at all times to the sultan, or ruler. While the books themselves may contain tales of Muslim women who actually free themselves from oppression, or present stories of resistance to political authority—tied up in gender discrimination, as is the case in many Middle Eastern countries—the book covers belie those important contents and instead present a Muslim woman as a passive creature, a collection of body parts, a victim calling for help not with her voice, but with her eyes. She is an object on the cover even if she is the subject of the entire book.

Covers have to tell a story quickly so as to convince the reader to at least pick up the book and consider whether she or he might want to read it.  The representation of the Muslim woman as victim evokes a kind of curious fascination combined with revulsion in a Western reader. It reinforces stereotypes already in place about Muslim women and the terrible plights they face at the hands of their male torturers, rapists, jailers, inquisitors—who are also their fathers, uncles, brothers, and sons. It cements the idea that there is something terribly wrong with all Muslim societies. And it allows the reader to feel good about him or herself for not coming from that kind of culture—a kind of cultural superiority that sells books.

When the Italian edition of my novel, A Season for Martyrs, was being published, a cover was floated along with a provisional title. The book was to have been called The White Veil of Benazir and featured a very Western-looking woman wearing a white veil. This was eventually changed to The Boy Who Believed in Liberty and featured a young boy in rags looking sadly at the camera lens, a counterpart to the previous novel, The Girl Who Could Not Dream, which featured a happier, but equally poor, little girl wearing a pink scarf on her head.  It seemed I could not escape the veil, or at least, my books couldn’t.

The English-language original edition of A Season for Martyrs also features a veiled woman on its cover.  Set within hexagonal tiles with a geographical pattern inspired by the ceiling of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta, a beautiful, historical Sufi shrine in the southeastern part of Sindh, is the image of a woman, looking down. She wears a pink scarf on her head, and her hands hold it to the side of her face, which is pictured in profile from the nose down to the mouth, leaving the eyes out of the image. This woman is meant to represent Benazir Bhutto: it isn’t an actual photograph of her, but her posture, skin color, and facial features are all reminiscent of the former Prime Minister of Pakistan who features as the central motif of the novel.

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Does this image fit into the oppressed Muslim literary trope as described by Lila Abu Lughod? I can’t help but think it does the very opposite: it breaks free of that trope. Benazir Bhutto died almost eight years ago, but to this day her name is a symbol of women’s empowerment in Pakistan, and the world, as one of the few women elected head of state of a Muslim country. Although she was assassinated by extremists, even in her death she has transcended victimhood and become a martyr in the way of freedom. The picture of her on the cover of my novel shows her mouth uncovered, which to me speaks of her tremendous voice, her words, and her lack of fear at speaking out.

Being a Muslim woman means living with adversity in countries that have always seen political turmoil. But it doesn’t equal being a faceless, voiceless victim. It means courage, resilience, intelligence, and passion. I look forward to the day when publishers, along with the book covers that are meant to represent us, catch up to the reality of what we really are.

BINA SHAH is a regular contributor to the International New York Times and frequent guest on the BBC. She has contributed essays to Granta, The Independent and The Guardian. She holds degrees from Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is an alumna of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Workshop. Her novel, Slum Child, was a bestseller in Italy and she has been published in English, Spanish, German and Italian. She lives in Karachi.

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