Translating Muslim Women's Bodies: The Semantic Battle on the Hijab

Translating Muslim Women's Bodies: The Semantic Battle on the Hijab

Alina Isac Alak (University of Bucharest, Romania)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6458-5.ch003
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Abstract

In the chapter, the author briefly analyzes the turbulent semantic and semiotic confrontation that accompanies the process of decoding the significances of the hijāb. The current mythologization of the hijāb unveils diverse mechanisms of constructing and regulating Muslim women's bodies and their right to autonomy. In the first part of this chapter, eight meanings attributed to the hijāb by Muslim interpreters are discussed: a local social convention, a symbol for and a protection from the fitnah of women's bodies, a manifestation of religiosity, a feminist practice, a political statement, a cultural tradition, a subversive strategy of regaining autonomy, an artistic expression. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to some peculiar translations of hijāb that are usually validated by non-Muslim interpreters: hijāb as a religious symbolic object, a symbol of alterity, a sexist cultural manifestation, a reminder of terrorism. The chapter ends with a succinct analysis of the transformation of hijāb into a condensation symbol that manifests a mobilizing emotional power.
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Introduction

Some Muslim women choose an attire which does not clash with Western norms that regulate what has been agreed upon as acceptable for the female body to reveal to the public gaze. Other Muslim women do not follow these rules of benign sartorial integration, bringing out difference in the form of hijāb or of the less common niqāb (not to be analyzed here). Hijāb was rooted in an abstract, culturally conditioned, ethico-moral concept of modesty and diversely transposed into a specific practice of administrating the exposure of Muslim women’s bodies. Consequently, hijāb was semantically interpreted in a very dynamic, various and fluid manner. Moreover, in our contemporary settings, more often than not hijāb was translated as a symbolic object, more precisely, as a non-verbal condensation symbol that was finally directly substituted ontologically by the Muslim women’s bodies themselves. In what follows, a brief analysis will be developed regarding this turbulent, often reactive and authoritarian semantic and semiotic confrontation that accompanies the process of decoding the significances of the hijāb, especially in today’s socio-political and cultural contemporary circumstances. This clarification is especially relevant from a gender study perspective because the current, often highly politicized, mythologization of the hijāb unveils diverse mechanisms of constructing and regulating Muslim women’s bodies and their right to autonomy.

In the interest of simplification and clarity, two social contexts that defined the hijab will be emphasized: the original historical context, specific to the Muslim cultural space, and the contemporary Western social context that includes Muslim minority communities. Moreover, the analysis will underline the double conflict that exists, on the one hand, between translating the hijāb in the sphere of non-symbolic, individual practices and its recent categorization as a symbol, and, on the other hand, between the symbolic constructions of hijāb legitimated in the Muslim culture and hijāb’s symbolic constructions created, overlaid and validated in the Western society. Therefore, in the first part of this chapter eight strategies used by Muslim women (and men) in attributing meanings to the hijab will be analyzed, taking into account their historically complicated evolution: hijāb as a local social convention that protected Muslim women in the public space from the non-Muslim men’s rampant aggressions; hijāb as a symbol for and a protection from the fitnah of women’s bodies and sexuality, a mode of regulating women’s sexuality in order to protect the patriarchal honor and Muslim women’s bodies from the Muslim men’s aggression; hijāb as a manifestation of religiosity; hijāb as a feminist practice; hijāb as a political statement; hijāb as a simple cultural inherited tradition; hijāb as a pragmatic, subversive strategy of regaining Muslim women’s autonomy and their presence in the public space; hijāb as an artistic expression, here including the aspect of the modest fashion.

In the second part of the chapter, some new, contemporary translations of hijāb will be succinctly presented, which are usually, but not exclusively, created, disseminated and validated by non-Muslim interpreters: hijāb as a religious symbolic object, a controversial categorization that throws into crisis Muslim women’s collective right to religious freedom and their individual right to autonomy; hijāb as a symbol of alterity, an irreconcilable, dangerous cultural alterity that could jeopardize Western values and way of living; hijāb as a sexist, homogeneous cultural manifestation; hijāb as a reminder of terrorism and its corollary, hijābophobia, the gendered dimension of Islamophobia. The unbalanced space dedicated to the explanations of these different types of hijāb is unavoidable and reflects the various complexity of the reasoning involved in the process of signification relevant to the main goal of this chapter, that is the contemporary definition of the hijāb as a nonverbal condensation symbol.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Modesty: An ethico-moral Qur’anic value that applies to both genders and includes a conscious, just, and non-harmful manner of approaching social interactions. It also refers to a sexual moral practice.

Oppression: Specific kinds of injustice that afflicts women.

Fitnah: An Arabic term that refers to discord, anomie, affliction, sedition or trial. Used here as seduction, feminine temptation of an erotic nature.

Sexism: Stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminations (here against women) based on sex.

Niqab: A face veil worn by few Muslim women in public that covers most of the face, leaving only the eyes exposed or covered by a thin fabric.

Condensation Symbol: Verbal stimulus that mobilizes vivid impressions and emotions in the listener and functions as symbol that condenses a host of different meanings and connotations.

Hijab: An article of clothing that conceals Muslim women’s hair and/or neck in various ways in public. It can also designate non sartorial manifestations of the value of modesty such as a type of behavior or speech.

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