Theater of Cruelty

To see and be seen

The shawl is the best defense against sexual harassment, shall we believe the women who wear them. Is it that simple?


[headgear] "Woman is an object in all societies. If it wasn't, I don't think the shawl would exist. But when it looks like it does, I think it's easier to be an individual with the shawl on. "

This is one of the women depicted in the book Slöjor. She is one of 53 ladies interviewed and photographed by Elin Berge. Academician Edda Manga has written the concluding essay that puts Western understanding of the shawl into a historical framework.

The intention behind the book is commendable. The authors want to give a voice to the ladies who, in the Western cultural interpretation, have either been understood as exotic, erotic beings of the type "under every shawl there is a belly dancer", or as oppressed victims that must be saved.

The escape from the gaze

Many of these women's statements are about the right to be a subject and the pleasant escape from the sexually objectifying gaze. Several of the girls believe the veil is the best protection against sexual harassment. But is this a viable strategy? Is sexual harassment caused by short skirts and too much makeup? Will an uncovered woman always be understood as a sex object? Isn't the opportunity to be a subject in one's own life about economic, political and cultural power relations, rather than how covered women can be? The authors effectively dismiss the myth of the victim behind the veil, but avoid confrontation when it comes to these issues. According to the book, the shawl gives the Muslim woman the opportunity to choose not to be subjected to sexism. One result of this choice is that she is faced with other prejudices.

The sloppy girls' message is unequivocal that this is something they have chosen for themselves, but that Swedish society is depriving them of independence when it believes the girls are unwilling victims of a religious patriarchy. In doing so, they confirm what the Swedish research report "Living with a headscarf ..." concludes, namely that veiled women are faced with discrimination and prejudice in Swedish society.

After looking at the beautiful portraits, it strikes me how these ladies reflect on every look they encounter. They express the strength that lies in a conscious visibility – but the image painted by the strong woman becomes too simple. Although there may be a minority of Muslim women who are forced to cover up, they do exist. It would have been a brave move to mix the voices, but the book does not.

The shawl as a symbol

How can a piece of clothing on a woman's head be such a strong symbol of the political, religious and political struggles going on in our day? In the closing essay, Edda Manga encourages us to understand the shawl in context. The shawl has been the foremost symbol of anti-colonial resistance in the Muslim world. At the same time, for the West, it has been the foremost symbol of a retro-modern society. Manga is quite right in that the shawl and the woman who wears it cannot be understood outside of a social context, but are there any ideals about a gender-just society that is independent of context?

For those who believe that all Muslim women are victims and believe that women's liberation is about undressing, this book should be a mandatory read. But for those with Palestinian scarves who believe that all veiled women are the vanguard of anti-imperialism, the book can reinforce prejudice. The problem is that it is the last group the book appeals to, and that the others continue to swear on the West's excellence.

Reviewed by Hannah Helseth

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