The Symbolic of the Veil


This is an unedited Essay I wrote for University.

The Symbolic of the Veil in the Orientalist, Colonialist and Nationalist Discourse of Algeria.

The partial ban of “burkinis” in France during the summer 2016 led to new waves of debate on the veiling of Muslim women in Europe reflecting the rise of anti-Muslim bias. In these debates, the veil is not only employed as the symbol of Islamic patriarchy, but also as a signifier of a general Islamic threat. This ascribed symbolism is not a recent phenomenon, but the use of the veiled women as emblematic has a long tradition in Orientalist and colonialist thought. This essay will try to answer the question which role the symbol of the veil had in the European othering of the orient generally and of the Algerian women especially.  The hypothesis is, that the veil as a charged symbol, was used by the colonizer as well as the colonized for their political projects and that the implicit meanings ascribed to the veil reveals the high degree of gendering and sexualization of “the other” in the orientalist and the associated colonial discourse. Using Meyda Yeğenoğlu’s Colonial fantasy, I will first argue that gender and sexuality are not a minor but an integral part of orientalist discourse, then this essay will provide an outline of the use of the veiled women as a metaphor for “oriental culture”. Following Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem it will describe the sexualization of the veil. The final section of this essay, will be an analyzation of the changed employment of the veil as a symbol of Islamic threat for France during decolonialization and finally about the Algerian nationalists’ employment of the symbolic of the veil for their nationalist political projects.

Gendering played an essential role in the othering of the Orientalist discourse and must be addressed for an appropriate understanding. Through the depiction of femininity to embody tradition, spirituality, religion and culture the “conquering” of the Algerian women became a main goal of the European colonialists towards their intended destruction of the Algerian social structure.[1]

Furthermore, did imageries of sexual difference, fantasies and desires fundamentally structure the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer.[2] Erotic and sexual imagery, especially in terms of “primitive”, sexual utopias with lascivious women were a common fantasy of European travel and colonialism from Africa to Tahiti. In the Orient, the sexual imageries of lasciviousness women were adapted and reversed to the secret and forbidden, found in the fantasies of the harem, the hammam but also behind the veil. The pervasiveness of erotic fantasy in the colonial discourse, so that even the contact with heavily veiled women was erotically charged, reveals the importance of sexuality in the construction of otherness in the colonialist projects.[3] This construction was not only achieved through cultural but also significantly through depiction of sexual difference. The fantasies towards veiled women can be seen in Pierre Loti’s writings: The French novelist felt seduced, mocked, and threatened by the veiled women.[4] It becomes even clearer in Alloula’s analyzation of postcards which extends the cultural difference into a constructed sexual difference.[5]

The sexualized notion of the veil did not remain unchanged throughout the French colonialization of Algeria but became a symbol of Islamic threat. Colonialism ended the notion of the Orient as a mere phantasm and as religion turned into the major obstacle for “acculturation”, the Orient and therefore also the veil lost its romanticized and sexualized notion and became a symbol of danger. Firstly, in contact situations between colonized and colonizer, the veil broke with the active-passive dichotomy the colonizer was used to: The veiled women was able to see without being seen. This was a frustrating experience for the colonizer.[6] Similarly did the photographers of Alloula’s postcards face a rejection of their desire and voyeurism through the veiling of their subjects.[7] Secondly, did this reversed visual experience and the lack of visibility of the veiled women also pose a threat as an inversion of Bentham’s powerful gaze, and therefore undermined the domination by the colonizers.[8] Through the Algerian war, the veil remained a symbol for the Orient and Islam per se. It depicted fanaticism, barbarism, and oppression. The veiled women illustrated media reports about “fundamentalist” resulting in an equation of Islam, terror, fundamentalism and the oppression of women.[9]

The motif of unveiling can only be understood through the veil as a signifier for the whole Orient and through the perceived threat the colonized and the veil posed. Not only (oriental) femininity was signified through the veil but the Orient itself.[10] As Fanon wrote, are Men’s and women’s dress the most perceptible form of a society’s distinctiveness and that therefore the constancy of appearance of the veiled women seems to be a sufficient characteristic of Arab society.[11] In texts, paintings and photographs the veiled women was “strategically placed to signify a much wider field of religious, social and cultural practices which include purdah, the harem, polygamy, a repressive political order based on the subjugation of women, Oriental despotism, sadism and lasciviousness.”[12] Unveiling therefore had multiple ascribed layers: It is the uncovering of the essence and mystery of the foreign culture, the destruction of religious and social structure through the conquering of the Oriental women – thus the benevolent bringing of “progress” and “modernity” and a revenge for the inaccessible women behind their veils. In other words, a metaphor for domination of the colonized subjects.[13] The motif of unveiling was so prominent that it was used in a mass demonstration for French propaganda purposes in 1958, in which European women “liberated” their Muslim sisters through unveiling.[14]

The usage of the symbolism of the veil was not limited to the colonizer, but the ascribed meanings were used for the nationalist projects of the colonized as well. During decolonialization Islam became an important element embodying authentic tradition and identity. As Islam and the veil was used for the construction of difference by the colonizer, the employment of the same symbolism by the colonized is unsurprising. For both Algerians and French, the veiled woman thus embodied tradition and culture. Consequently did the colonizers obsession with unveiling led to the wearing of the veil as a symbol of resistance.[15] Women as a symbol of tradition can be furthermore seen in the process of establishing a distinctive nationalism, were women’s rights became a core of the debate. The conflict was a balancing of emancipation and a preservation of religious and traditional values.[16] For example, was the National Liberation Front (FLN) generally in favor of women’s emancipation but at the same time insisted on Women’s traditionalist roles as a preservation of the nation’s distinctiveness.[17] But the involvement of Western imageries of the veiled women went further than the adaption of the ascribed values. Women of the FLN used their haik to smuggle weapons through French military controls. Later this imagery was inversed and Algerian women dressed up as chic Europeans. Their playing with the stereotypes the French had of them was a practical as well as psychological instrument against the colonizer.[18]

In conclusion, one can answer the research question by stating that the symbolism of the veil played a decisive role in the process of othering “the Orient”, even though the respective ascribed meaning changed over time in relation to the political context. This essay argued that not only a distinctive gendering of the orient occurred, but the ubiquitousness of sexual difference and the ascription of erotic meaning even to heavily veiled women reveals the importance of fantasy, desire, and sexuality in the colonialist and orientalist discourse. Even though the veiled women continuously symbolized the Oriental culture per se, both throughout the eras of colonialization and decolonialization and for the colonized and colonizer alike, the concrete employment of the symbolism changed depending on the political project. For the French, the veil turned from an enigma charged with sexualized meaning into a symbol of a threatening Islamic fundamentalism. The employment of the symbolism by the colonized changed in negotiation with the ascribed meanings of the French and was employed as a sign of resistance. The hypothesis can therefore be confirmed as the employment of the veil as a symbol indeed reveals the importance of gendering for the orientalist and colonialist discourse, but changed over time depending in the user and his or her political project. The recent employment of the veil as a symbol of Islamic patriarchy and danger is nothing new, the veil has been a symbol of “the essential Orient” since the 19th century and a symbol of danger at least since the Algerian resistance against French colonialization.


Alloula, Malek. The Colonial Harem. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987.

Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

McMaster, Neil, and Toni Lewis. “Orientalism: From Unveiling to Hyperveiling.” Journal of European Studies 28 (1998): 121-135.

Yeğenoğlu, Meyda. Colonial Fantasies: Towards a feminist reading of Orientalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.



[1] Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 37-38.

[2] Meyda Yeğenoğlu, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a feminist reading of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 2, 26.

[3]Neil McMaster and Toni Lewis, “Orientalism: From Unveiling to Hyperveiling,” Journal of European Studies 28 (1998): 122-123.

[4]Yeğenoğlu, Colonial Fantasies, 45.

[5]Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987).

[6]Fanon, Dying Colonialism, 44.

[7]Alloula, Colonial Harem, 7.

[8] Yeğenoğlu, Colonial Fantasies, 43.

[9] McMaster and Lewis, “Unveiling to Hyperveiling,” 128.

[10]Yeğenoğlu, Colonial Fantasies, 48.

[11]Fanon, Dying Colonialism, 35.

[12]McMaster and Lewis, “Unveiling to Hyperveiling,” 121.

[13] Ibid., 132.

[14] Ibid., 127.

[15] Fanon, Dying Colonialism, 63.

[16] Yeğenoğlu, Colonial Fantasies, 143-144.

[17] McMaster and Lewis, “Unveiling to Hyperveiling,” 126-127.

[18] Fanon, Dying Colonialism, 63.

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21 I International Studies I The Hague

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