Veil, Patriarchy, and Gaze: The Challenge of Islam


By Waseem Akber Baba, Pratyush Bibhakar & Manasi Sinha

Women in Iran are leading the protests against the imposition of hijab and publicly defying the patriarchal norms. The women in Iran are dancing in the streets, waving their head scarves, and the iconic chopped hair hoisted as a flag to proclaim their agency and foreground how their lives are controlled. The protests were unfurled by the killing of Mahsa Amini by the morality police and the ensuing “hijab protest” met a brutal clampdown by the authorities. Behind the scenes and on the streets, women are organising the protests. Some of the powerful images from the Iran protests have become a rallying cry far away from their borders. Why is the Islamic world, particularly the Arab world, so intimidated by such supposed acts of moral corruption and westernisation?

Islam is, interestingly, the religion that excludes God-Allah from the patriarchal logic. Allah is not even a symbolic father. The Prophet Mohammad is also not the father or son of the God. There is a genealogical desert at the very core of Islam and Fethi Benslama is right in asserting that Islam is inherently vulnerable to be co-opted by the state power because of the genealogical desert between the father and God. To put it simply, Islam lacks an inherent principle of institutionalization that accords it a character of both the precarity and emancipatory potential. That’s the reason despotism is so rampant in the Islamic world. Not to say, there has been no progressive times in the society. Further, Islam suppresses its founding gesture too as Hajra (Hagar), considered Mother of all Arabs, is entirely missing from the official accounts. However, she continues to haunt Islam in the form of re-enactment of rituals (the obligation of the pilgrims to run seven times between the two mountains) symbolic of desperate search for water for her son in the desert.

There is one more woman, Khadija, Prophet’s first wife, who is not only the first Muslim but the one who enabled him to differentiate between the demonic and the angelic or to draw the line between the truth and the falsehood. That’s why she represents the guarantee of truth of Prophet- God’s message. The genealogy of Islam holds the key to understand the issue of “hijab” and woman. Over the ages the meaning of ‘woman’ has wavered between one who can verify truth and the one who is essentially evil, lacks faith and provokes men. It’s in the latter sense that she needs to be made invisible as her presence is disturbing. Zizek says, she is seen as an ontological scandal whose public exposure is an afront to God. So, the question is: why is loose hair as an object so strong that it precipitates disquiet and seen as “anti-sign” of modesty? The answer lies in locating patriarchy as the process of creating and establishing an equation of truth and woman. After all, woman has no sign of her own in the symbolic universe. She stands for something which is not there. That’s why we impose the veil on her in order to create an illusion that there is the feminine truth. Beneath this transposed veil is ensconced the horrible truth – deception and lie. Further, in the feminist analysis the ‘body’ has been viewed as a scaffolding on which discourse and performance are played out resulting in what we call body politics. It is the web of these discourses and performances that produce racialized bodies, sexes, genders, etc. (Sterling, 2000, p. 6).

Hegemonic masculinity and interplay of gaze

Michel Foucault observed how the society devised new methods to control and discipline the ‘body’ suited for a certain social framework. This control was exercised at two levels: ‘the individual body’ and what he calls ‘bio-power’. The power and control over the individual body produced ‘standardized and optimized body’ such as ‘Muslim woman’ or ‘Arab’. The second level of control, ‘bio-power’ – a biopolitics of the population – helped in managing and supervising the population in general through control over “births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity.” Consequently, they were able to control the very gender of the body – their capacities, gestures, movements, behaviours, etc. and eventually, it led to the prevalence of ‘normal’ over ‘natural’. In the words of Foucault, such societies were ‘society of normalization’. And in order to maintain the social divisions, the unruly bodies had to be controlled because if they were left free, they could potentially blur the borders (Sterling, 2000, p. 10). For decades, this hierarchical gender structure which is predominantly male dominated has entered the social milieu as a usual norm and continues to reinforce and create a narrow social gaze through which things are viewed from the perspective of men.

Gramsci identified that the maintenance of this hegemony is done through generating consent among people. For Gramsci, hegemony involves two elements through which it maintains its power.  First, hegemony generates consent among the subjects and confer legitimacy on the ruling elite. Second, with this conditioning hegemony (re)produces what Gramsci (1971) calls “historically organic ideologies [that] organize human masses and form the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc.”( Jubas. K, 2006). In the process of permeating both culture and politics, the elements of ideologies settle into what Gramsci says “people’s unconsciousness to generate sedimentation of common sense” (ibid.). This further maintains the understanding that workings of society have a natural logic and are meant to be the way they are. In a patriarchal set up, this culture of male hegemony is reflected in the lifestyle, the dress code, and choices over the mobility or code of conduct, which men prescribe for women. These prescriptions are further diffused, sanctioned and reinforced as a norm of society. Thus, the projection of women in their various gender roles, responsibilities, and their prescribed way of lifestyle is constructed and maintained through a larger social-cultural framework in which a woman acquires a gender.

In his book The Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger notes that while a man’s presence denoted a promise of power, the presence of a woman was related to a self-conscious display. Her sense of self lay split somewhere between the surveyor and the surveyed. Thus, he claims that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” This pleasure of seeing was primarily a creation of male fantasy which imagined women as some fetishized objects of ‘masculine’ gaze. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), Laura Mulvey conceptualized the ‘male gaze’ as a feature of gender power asymmetry in film. Mulvey stated that women were objectified in films because heterosexual men were in control of the camera and women were represented for male gaze.

Religion reformulates and reinforces the gaze in a more aggressive and sexual manner which could be gleaned from the sermons across the Muslim world that quite often espouse that ‘looking’ is rape with the aid of the eyes. In Islamic epistemology, the eyes are more than just being receptive organs unlike ears that function simply as a conduit to carry information from the surroundings to the brain. The eyes are active and, in a way, invasive. Be it religious literature or poetry, particularly romantic poetry, looking is likened to an arrow that pierces the object of gaze, could be even the beloved. Interestingly, Muslim women’s sexuality is also construed as excessive and modesty not only suppresses it but also protects moral decay of society in general and perversion of men. In this sense, gaze is not only invasive and aggressive, as western feminist theory of gaze espouses, but affects the owner of the gaze itself too. Hamid Naficy, on the other hand, identifies this type of look as masochistic that is different from voyeuristic and narcissistic as it explains both the “excessive” attribution of women’s sexuality and the effect of the male gaze on its owner. That’s why averted look or what Zizek formulated “awry look” is demanded by the modesty. The veiling system aptly creates the desire by playing the game of hide and distance. As a consequence, voyeurism and eavesdropping precipitate this game. This is equally true of gender segregation.

Ironically, the veil and associated rule of modesty tend to turn women into an erotic object (to some extent, men too become an object), rather than protecting them from the male gaze. That’s why all looking is implicated in power relations. However, the veil also expresses exhibitionism and redound power to women that they may exert over men. So, veiling is not simply unidirectional but a complex dialectical process in which both men and women are implicated. That’s why the field of vision of both men and women is seen and organized by each other. And women waving their head scarves in the air or chopping off their hair is reflective of acting upon their own agency against this male gaze. This gaze asks them to conform to normative preferences and restraints their mobility or choices in life.

Waseem Akber Baba is a Research Scholar at Delhi School of Economics. Dr. Pratyush Bibhakar is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Galgotias University. Dr. Manasi Sinha is Associate Professor of Political Science at Galgotias University.


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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Thinking through the body: Fear, faith, and fluids”, edited by Dr. Papia Sengupta, Assistant Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

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