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Faculty OpinionsRelease Date: May 28, 2004



Farzaneh Milani
Director of Studies in Women and Gender
College of Arts & Sciences

IMAGES OF THE MIDDLE EAST: FROM VEILED WOMEN TO NAKED MEN

A remarkable shift has occurred in the representation of Muslims in the United States: naked men are replacing veiled women.

Consider the hooded-yet-naked male prisoners of Abu Gharib and the near absence of veiled women in their midst.  There was not a single woman among the hijackers of September 11 just as there are no known women in Al-Qaede's leadership.

For decades, the veil attracted the attention and titillated the curiosity of American people as the defining feature of the Islamic world.  Women severely garbed in their all-enveloping veils appeared and reappeared in novels, paintings, advertisements and movies, invading our fields of vision and imagination.

The cataclysmic events of September 11 changed all that.  It repackaged Islam.  The bodies of Muslim men rather than those of women took center stage.

Consider how quickly the turban became a badge of Islamic identity, a flag, separating "us" from "them."

Although none of the 19 hijackers wore turbans, and all were smooth-shaven, close-cropped, bareheaded men in Western clothes, the turban quickly substituted for the veil as the central metaphor for the Islamic world and became associated with terrorism. 

Although many Americans showed great restraint and admirable tolerance, some lost it. John Cooksey, the congressman from Louisiana, called the turban "a diaper on the head."  In a radio show, he announced that should he encounter a diaper-headed guy on a plane, he would need to have him "pulled over."

Some passengers were not allowed to be airborne and turbaned at the same time.  A few who attempted to board planes wearing turbans were pulled off their flights.  Others found it preferable to give up on air travel altogether.

Much to their surprise and dismay, even non-Muslim men who wore the turban found themselves the target of anger.  One Sikh man paid with his life for wearing a turban.  A gunman who had mistaken him for a Muslim shot him dead at his convenience store in Arizona in mid-September 2001.

The detainees in Guantanamo were denied the right to wear their turbans.  Although shackled, blindfolded, sedated, exposed to the elements, caged, and denied legal counsel, they fought for the right to wear their headgear and concessions were made.

Why, then, were the detainees at Abu Gharib forced into nakedness? 

Desecration is desecration the world over, regardless of race, creed, region, or religion.  To drag naked prisoners across the floor with leashes around their necks, to sexually exploit or humiliate them, are ghastly abuses of basic human rights and flagrant violations of universal standards of morality and international law. 

To build a pyramid of nakedness out of detainees is torture sadistically laced with fun and frolic.  It is especially cruel and insensitive in an Islamic country where nakedness is not only socially stigmatized but also considered a divine punishment. 

It is instructive to compare the myths of origins in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions.

In the Islamic Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are properly covered.  After they disobey God's commandment, they are stripped naked and expelled from paradise.

Verse 115 of chapter 20 of the Qur'an reads: "He brought your parents out of the Garden, stripping them of their garments to show them their shameful parts."  Again, in chapter 27, verse 7 proclaims "Children of Adam! Let not Satan tempt you as he brought your parents out of the Garden stripping them of their garments to show them their shameful parts."

Although the Qor'anic and the biblical story of creation share many similarities, such as temptation, the fall, and expulsion, they differ on how they represent the primordial couple in the Garden of Eden.  

In the Christian version, Adam and Eve are naked in the Garden and must cover themselves upon expulsion.  Although the conclusion is the same for both versions-a fallen world creates shame-the ideal state for the Judeo-Christian seems to be uncovered, and for the Muslim, covered.

Celestial ideals correspond closely to terrestrial patterns.  "To dress," which means, among other things, to decorate and to adorn in English takes on a different meaning in Islam. 

Traditionally, the function of clothing, for Muslim men and women alike is not to display the body, but to cover it. 

The sordid events in Abu Gharib prison have not only caused grisly torture for Iraqi prisoners; they also have fanned the flames of interfaith mistrust and hostility.

Farzaneh Milani is director of Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia.

Contact information: Farzaneh Milani can be reached at the office at (434) 982-2960, at her home office at (434) 979-4412, by email at fmm2z@virginia.edu, or by U.S. mail at 2805 Meadow Vista Drive, Charlottesville, VA  22901.


 
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Last Modified: Thursday July 01, 2004