Veiling Between Denigration and Glorification in Algeria

Abstract

Veiling is a cultural practice that has created controversial debates since colonial intervention in Algeria. Such debates either condemn veils as “oppressive” or deify them as markers of cultural authenticity, and women are often seen either as “victims” of an “oppressive” culture or as “dignified” guardians of a “glorious” culture. Informed by postcolonial feminist scholarship exposing the political motivations of the debates associating women with culture, this paper outlines the history of the controversies about veiling in Algeria, where women’s bodies still serve as a battlefield in power-motivated struggles. The ongoing interpretation of Algerian women’s experiences within dichotomized discourses has harmful consequences on both women and their cultural practice. While veiling is getting mystified due to denigration and glorification, women’s lives are affected in different ways by the polemical debates. The most tangible effect is the violence endured by women because of the growing tensions between the two sides of the debates, which have intangible effects that are also detrimental. These debates are shaping and distorting the attitudes of so many women about veiling. Examined sources show that women’s opinion is divided between advocates and detractors of veiling, and arguments are repetitive of the same inconsistencies created throughout the long history of the power-motivated debates. Interpreting women’s attitudes in the light of dissonance theory shows that both women who advocate veiling and those who condemn it repeat inconsistencies often motivated by defensive purposes, which obscure vision and undermine scrutiny and inquiry in what would help settle the conflictual issues.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    ‘Colonial discourse’ is the equivalent of what Edward Said calls “orientalist discourse” which he used to describe how colonialism relied not only on military intervention and political rule to dominate the colonized, but also on a large variety of texts from different disciplines, which associated the will to know the Other with the will to maintain colonial domination (1979).

  2. 2.

    The literature advocating veiling as a religious requirement is now available through multiple websites, and it is still influencing women’s attitudes to veiling.

  3. 3.

    A popular Islamist political party which won success in the 1990s but was dismantled later.

  4. 4.

    The translations from French are my own throughout the paper.

  5. 5.

    The literature about the perpetrators of violence in the 1990s is highly controversial. Many sources repeat the thesis of the Algerian authorities accusing the dismantled party FIS for all the atrocities against civilians and especially against unveiled women (Djerbal 2003; Salhi 2010; Ghanem 2019). Yet other sources emphasize the responsibility of the Algerian state and the military for much of the violence endured by women and all Algerians. Relying on the testimonies of the survivors of violence and officers deserting the army, this second thesis argues that the state and the military are largely responsible for that violence (Pennell 2019; Roberts 1917; Bedjaoui 1999; Ladewig 2014). Whoever the perpetrators were, it seems that once again, women’s bodies and their lives were enlisted as a battlefield for political struggles.

  6. 6.

    “Al-Azhar” is a prestigious university for Islamic studies in Egypt, “Fatwa” is the Arabic word for legal ruling. Al-Azhar Fatwa Global Center is an electronic religious center in charge of interpreting Islamic legal rules to Muslims around the world.

  7. 7.

    Ijtihad in “Islamic law is the independent or original interpretation of problems not precisely covered by the Quran, Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet Muhammad’s life and utterances), and ijma’ (scholarly consensus)” (Britannica 2018).

  8. 8.

    The excerpt is translated from Arabic by the author.

  9. 9.

    The changes can be tracked in the history of modification on the Facebook page where the statement is published.

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Correspondence to Malika Boussoualim.

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Boussoualim, M. Veiling Between Denigration and Glorification in Algeria. Sexuality & Culture (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-021-09825-w

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Keywords

  • Veil
  • Algeria
  • Culture
  • Religion
  • Postcolonial feminism
  • Dissonance theory