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'Debating the Scarf'
'Romancing the Veil'
'Contradictions of Cover'


Glossary of Terms
Veil-related Verses
Dinner Party Participants
The Dinner Party Moveable Feast
Veil-related verses: 



The Dinner Party & Moveable Feast

On 12 May 2010 a ‘moveable feast’ was staged at the University of East London’s Matrix Studio. Gathered on set was an extraordinary group of women of all ages, backgrounds, ethnic origins, political opinions and feminist and womanist orientations. Over some three hours, with women coming and going according to their commitments to study and paidwork, these dinner party guests engaged in a broadranging and insightful debate centred around the scarf and the veil. Students debated with professors and lecturers;  academics engaged with those just setting out on the path to academe. Countries of origin – as first generation or second generation British citizens – included Czechoslovakia, Poland, Serbia and India. International student participants came from France – with Algerian, Lebanese and Iraqi parentage. Marriage brought additional experience to the debate – a combination of United Kingdom British with a Bahrain national.

The discussion enabled all views to be heard – from women with opinions based in an understanding of the complexities of women’s position in a world where politics and business are most often peopled by fewer women than men, and which recognised the importance of women’s voices. As ‘The Dinner Party – A Moveable Feast’ concludes, it is deliberations such as this that should play a leading role in determining policy on the veil.

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt
University of East London
September 2010




(for women of the Muslim faith)

Jocelynne A. Scutt

Is it the scarf
I wear
my hair
that cannot be seen
That makes you mad?

How can I help
but see
You rampant
the very fanaticism
Of which you charge me

© August 2005.


Burqah  A loose body covering which Muslim women may wear over their clothing, and which covers the whole body. In other words, the body is completely obscured. When worn traditionally, the burqah includes a canvas grid covering the eyes, allowing the wearer to see without being seen, and the hands are also completely covered under the ‘cloak’.

images/stories/Chador.gif Chador  A ‘cloak’ or body covering which is worn by Muslim women in Iran. The entire body is covered, and the garment may be combined with a shawl or scarf covering the wearer’s head.

Djathah  Another name for the ‘scarf’ or hijab.

Eid  ‘Short’ for Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr, the Feast of the Sacrifice. This is held at the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.

Hajj  The pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is the largest annual pilgrimage in today’s world. It is a religious duty which every Muslim who is able to do so must fulfil at least once in a lifetime. It is known as the ‘fifth pillar of Islam’.

images/stories/Hijab.gifHijab   A scarf or headcovering worn so as to leave the wearer’s face free and uncovered.

Jilbab  Another name for a garment which covers.

Kabyle  The Kabyle people are centred in Algeria or of the Algerian diaspora, whose ethnic language is based in the Kabyle alphabet is also known as the Berber Latin alphabet.

Niqab  a garment – ‘cloak’ which covers the body completely, ending at the ankles and leave only the wearer’s eyes free. It can be worn with an additional covering or ‘veil’ covering the eyes.

Ramzan   Another title for Ramadan, along with ‘Ramadhan’ and ‘Ramadaan’.

Ramadan  The month of holy fasting undertaken by those adhering to the Muslim religion and following its precepts. The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during this period Muslims are obliged to refrain from eating, drinking or engaging in sexual relations from dawn to sunset.

images/stories/Al-Amira.gif Shayla   A shawl or cloak which is rectangular in shape which, in the Persian Gulf area, is worn as a veil or scarf covering the wearer’s head.

Umrah  The ‘mini-pilgrimage’ (‘mini’ as the Hajj is the ‘major’ pilgrimage) has as its destination the Kaaba. Generally the Umrah is held during Ramadan, however, Muslims are entitled to go on the mini-pilgrimage or Umrah at any time of the year, apart from five days. Those days are the day of Arafah, the day before Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) and the four days of Eid al-Adha.


Emena, Extended Business & Law Student, University of East London

Maryam, Student, University of East London

Raheema, Extended Business & Law Student, University of East London

Yasdani, Sociology & Psychology Student, University of East London

Sonia Ait Bouzard, MA (Film, Video & New Screen Media) Student, University of East London

Maya Davis, Administration Officer & Student, Performing Arts, University of East London

Susan SM Edwards, Professor of Law & Dean, Buckingham University

Fourate Chahal El Rekaby, MA (Film, Video & New Screen Media) Student, University of East London

Naheed Khan, Administration Officer, University of East London

Marta Rabinkowska, Senior Lecturer in Media & Advertising, University of East London

Bashan Rafique, Vice-Chair, All Pakistan Women's Association in the UK

Jocelynne A. Scutt, MA (Film, Video & New Screen Media) Student, University of East London

Eva Turner, Principal Lecturer in Innovation Studies, University of East London


The Veil
Diana Warburton

Beneath the veil
Our lady looks at us with tender eyes.

But in her arms
The naked child defies the world.

Love your neighbour as yourself, he says.

This is the rule for both the Samaritan and the Jew.

DW © August 2010

The Veil

Diana Warburton

Beneath the veil
Our lady looks at us with tender eyes.

But in her arms
The naked child defies the world.

Love your neighbour as yourself, he says.

This is the rule, the only rule

For both the Arab and the Jew.

DW © September 2010



BASHAN     The scarf is important in cultures everywhere and women have always used the scarf. I don't see why it should be controversial today in the West.

EVA    For me a scarf - particularly worn like that - was the socialist realism of working women. So as far as I'm concerned it's not something that i would voluntarily wear in any circumstances.

MARTA In Poland a scarf was a symbol of some prestige and class. But not necessarily higher class because under Communism really it was the last thing to think about, what class you were, but class in terms of taste. So when I came to the UK I found it liberating not to wear a scarf.

FOURATE   The scarf for me is not about the scarf at all. It's about a power relationship in all the world.

SUSAN   What is it? Thirty grams of cloth? Let's weigh it.  What is it that people are obsessed about? A handkerchief size that you put around your head. It's not just Islamic cultures who have actually worn  this as a dress. The bride would always veil herself, but nobody's getting hysterical about that, and becoming angered about that. So ...

EVA  I have a problem with wearing religious garments on the whole. I would fight for every woman's right to wear what every woman wants, however, if you analyse what religious scarfing actually means in terms of women and women's rights, the meanings become much deeper and much more sinister.

BASHAN   When I went for my Hajj, I had a friend from the Middle East and she said: 'Well, now are you going to wear the hijab?' And I said no. And she said: 'Well that is what we do in the Middle East when we go on Hajj. I said no, all my family has been on Hajj, my aunts and all from eighty years ago, and they didn't wear a hijab. and I said no, I don't think I will wear a hijab. And I said I live in England and I want to be a part of that society and I don't want a separation. There are enough divisions in my life not to have another one. I want to integrate and I don’t want a barrier, because when I first came here I had a lot of issues because I dressed up in my saris. I used to have a lot of saris. And everywhere I went out everybody talked about the sari and they didn’t go beyond the sari. Everybody started the conversation with the sari and ended on a curry and I wanted people to talk to me about me.

YASDANI Well, the main reason you wear a scarf – I mean religiously – is to cover your hair, so it doesn’t really matter however you’re going to wear it. Every culture is different;  every person likes to style it differently, if you’re comfortable in different ways. It’s just the meaning behind it. Obviously I’m wearing it because you’re supposed to cover your hair and that’s why I’m wearing it. It’s kind of part of my identity now and if I don’t have it I feel weird. I’ve been wearing it since I was 16 so a couple of years now and it’s just become a part of you.

NAHEED  I actually think that the way that Yasdani is wearing her scarf right now, I think that’s a very British way of wearing it. The way like [indicates] how you wear it. Because I think that in the Muslim world the way you cover up is very cultural so in Iran you get [indicates] – it’s just falling back like this big cloak and it just falls back and you wear something around here [indicates] to cover this bit. And in Africa you wear it like the - it’s like a turban-style thing and all your hair’s up, and in Pakistan and India you just have it round [indicates] it’s quite a long thing and you just kind of put it on like this and you just do that [indicates] and that’s hijab in Pakistan. And then if you go to Saudi Arabia, it’s like that [indicates] they completely cover up. But I think the way that Yasdani’s wearing it, that’s the British way to wear it. 

SONI  In my origins, I am Kabyle and I just wear the scarf just covering the head and nothing more. It’s like you can wear it and it’s normal, it’s not even religious. And then as a Muslim I see the scarf as a choice. You can wear a hijab, you can decide to wear a burqah, and then you can decide not to wear anything. And then I see it in a fashion way: I can wear it sometimes like this [indicates]. And what I see going on in France is a huge problem and it shows what’s going on in the whole Western world. People get afraid of Muslim and they don’t want to see it and they don’t want to know that people in their country can be Muslim so they just want to cover this fact and they are getting fined if you wear a burqah there. And it’s not even about being Muslim or whatever. It’s about being human. We should have the choice and people should get over the fact that a woman can decide to wear a scarf without being oppressed or whatever …

MAYA I feel quite privileged and free because I don’t have to think about the meaning of a scarf at all.

BASHAN  That’s right.

MAYA  It’s just a functional garment that keeps me warm, and having listened to various conversations I just wonder where or how has a piece of cloth come to symbolise so many different things – like oppression, or freedom of speech or choice. It’s something you pick up in the morning if the weather is cold and put around your neck. S I feel a little bit removed because I don’t have any strong opinion about what it should mean or what it should be.

MARTA  But clothing always has meaning. In the past and now - women’s skirts for example, when they were becoming shorter - they also had political meaning. So if it’s a scarf today, it’s just the urgency of the situation and how, yes, it has been used and politically also even, taken as a topic by different sides of politics and different religious wings. But look at Coco Chanel’s gesture of throwing a bra – how meaningful that became, and symbolic for women and women’s liberation in the West. You would have a stand on that – we all would like to decide on what length of our skirt we would choose for ourselves and when, rather than it being decided on.

NAHEED  I  went for Umrah – I went for the mini pilgrimage and came back and I was very emotional and I put it on and everything. I wasn’t married at that time, I was still single, and I put it on and I just felt that I was disappearing – that my whole personality was a bit – so I started doing the whole heavy eye make-up – the Arab kind of look. It was with the foundation and I was trying to achieve that Arab look. Then suddenly I just looked in the mirror and it wasn’t me. You were saying you felt removed. I don’t. I have it in my heart. I have this guilt thing. When I meet a girl, a British girl like myself who is wearing it – I’ll be honest with you, I feel a bit like ‘she’s wearing it and I’m not wearing it’. I’m a British Muslim, I’m from Pakistan. We’ve grown up here – it’s like two worlds, we really have – it’s like a Western world and then there’s a world that is at home.  Every Ramzan when it’s the fasting I say right, I’m going to wear it and then it’s Eid, and you’re dressing up – and then it just doesn't happen. But I do hope that one day I do.

SONI There’s so many ways to wear a scarf, I think. You can wear it like you [indicates Yasdani], and the burqah - is it white, is it beige, is it black. I think even with the scarf you can show of yourself. There’s no need to show the body itself. I mean according to the scarf and how you wear it - I think it’s already a message.

MARTA I think that maybe there is a problem in the fact that when we see a woman completely covered we don’t know enough about her. And you said it’s about humanity, about your personality, about your choice, about your individuality. But I think that Western people may have a problem with seeing through if they can’t see and in the West it has been a very strong motivation to always to have some evidence, always to touch, always to see through, always to know the truth on the surface, whereas all of a sudden the Western person sees only the eyes sometimes because that was the biggest problem, yes, in Belgium and in France - that the woman is completely covered and you only see the eyes you see very little of her personality or of the human being, of the distinction and they have a problem: how do you differ from me. Who are you if I can’t see you.

YASDANI  In fact I think that’s not true because I think you can. Someone who is fully covered – and doesn’t have the materialist things around them - you see them as a more modest, humble person. So you do know what sort of person they are.

MAYA   But we pick up on facial expressions when we communicate with people … 

BASHAN  And when you wear – the Middle Eastern women when they are coming and living in Knightsbridge and they come out of their hotels and they’re wearing these flowing abyehas which trail at the back, with diamonds, with hair [gestures] and their faces made up and they walk out in this headdress – and you think to yourself ‘sorry, it was to cover yourself, to be away and not for people to look at you and you are doing the opposite’.

SUSAN  What we have in the West at this present moment or what we have in the UK at this present moment and with political leaders in the West is this crude bifurcation of the veil, the hijab, the niqab into either subordination of women or a form of fundamentalist extremism and I know from my own relatives who were educated here, who 30 years ago wore whatever we wore thirty years ago – denim trousers – are returning to the – if you like Islamic, well not entirely Islamic forms of dress as a statement, as an anti-West statement. My mother-in-law wore a burqah, not because she was repressed – it was culture. It was what she did. And I do accept of course that there are women who are subordinated and forced to wear these forms of dress, but it is just a part, just a slither of the story. There’s a much bigger agenda going on in the West.

NAHEED  It is very cultural. Like where I come from in Pakistan, when I go there and if I don’t wear it - the djathah (gestures) - I feel really out of place and you’re attracting attention. So even though I don’t wear the hijab here, when I go there I completely wear it. I’ve got a lovely (gestures) - I drape myself and when I go out to the bazaar I feel so comfortable. Whereas if I don’t wear it people are going to be looking at me and I can’t – I don’t want that undue attention.

YASDANI  So you wouldn’t feel comfortable if you wore it here?

NAHEED  I really - I’m saying I really want to wear it but I don’t know why I’m so –

YASDANI   It’s so common now.

NAHEED   Oh, completely. I don’t know what the hindrance is.

EMENA  I’ve been wearing it since last September recently because I’ve started practising Islam. Because I was with a partner and he converted so I was really interested in it. Also I was  Muslim before but weren’t practising and then when it came to Ramadan I just couldn’t take it off, because I fasted for the whole month and I’ve kept it. And now I can’t take it off. Can’t go nowhere without it.

RAHEEMA  I have been wearing it ever since I was in year 6. It’s because my brother-in-law – he’s a religious teacher and used to tell me stories about Islam and that, so he encouraged me to wear it. So since then I’ve been wearing it. It’s like a habit now. I can’t take it off, if people tell me to.

EVA   In a way I agree with you. The politicians in this country are using Muslim women, particularly Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq, for their excuses for invasion of Iraq, for their excuses of their presence in Afghanistan. They’re not using them for any supposed invasion in to Saudi Arabia, for example, where lots of women are veiled and are veiled because they have to be, not because they particularly want to be. I also have a problem with the statement that women are supposed to be the treasures which are looked after. I think the treasures which are looked after can be sold. I also question the freedom with which women make these choices. We dress our little girls into make up, little pink short skirts and high heels. What freedom of choice do these girls who have been dressed like that from the age of 5 have? In terms of how they dress as women. Particularly under the influence of magazines. In the same way, I question the freedom of little girls where I live. What choice do these little girls of the age of 6 actually have, and will have, in their adulthood? What is the real freedom of choice? Some form of veiling brings up questions of Muslim fundamentalism under which I believe women don’t have freedom to dress into what they like.

SUSAN   That is the absolute kernel of the thing we have to struggle with, that really many women are not free and women who think they’re free  - I always say to my students, and I say to my girls – I’ve got two girls – ‘you will never be free. You must understand that’. Now, that sounds as if I am wanting to oppress them. I am wanting them to understand the crisis of their condition, even though they are middle-class Anglo-Arab, privileged. So how much worse is it when we come to the positionality and the crossroads of race, ethnicity, class, religion and how much freedom and choice is there? I want to empower my girls to understand.

EVA   But very often I hear from young women who have chosen to wear a full veil or part veil as their declaration of their religious identity. And I think that they should be free to do it. But I also often think that this kind of Muslim feminism is misinformed. They haven’t thought through the representations of fundamentalist religion which in gender terms and in feminist terms, at least to me, are unacceptable.

MARYAM   We’re taught not to have your hair out, but I was never really bought up in that kind of environment. I do pray, five times a day and so on, but I just thought that wearing a scarf - it wasn’t significant enough;  I didn’t need to publicise. It’s like an image isn’t it – like you’re Muslim because you wear a scarf, no other reason. But I didn’t feel I needed to show it as much by wearing a scarf. And also in the area I live in – it’s quite a prestigious area and we have very very little Muslims there, hardly any if anything and I do think that if I go out wearing a scarf I would be looked at differently. Right now I fit in very well. I’ve got wonderful neighbours. But I think I will be looked at differently, I will be alienated.

FOURATE   I am educated in a very liberated way, so I was never imposed to something. And my parents are mixed: my father is Muslim, my mother is Christian and I don’t think I am Muslim. But sometimes I am so pissed off with what happens that I feel like I am politically Muslim.

SONI   I’m Muslim since I am born. I never felt the desire of showing it so much but since a while I start feeling it because people are thinking I am just seen the same as a terrorist. I know that if tomorrow I wear the veil, yes, people are going to be different around me. When I am wearing this fashion veil I was talking about, people see me with my tattoos and they think yes, she’s cool, she’s fine. People call me ‘Soni’ so they don’t abuse you. I have a French accent, it’s fine … But I am sure that if I wear the same veil in a religious way I would be ‘Sonia, I am from Algeria’. People are going to see me differently. But we have to fight I think.

MARYAM  You think well, you know I will go out wearing a scarf, and I will still be the same person, and I’ll still talk in the same way, and still do the same things, but just because I’ve got this – It makes you rebel, it drives you even more. You think it won’t but it will. It doesn’t bring you down, it lifts you up.

SUSAN   Society’s becoming much more racist and it’s plainly hallowed ground. Oh, we must liberate these women. From another perspective, well if you want to liberate women, why don’t you start with pornography? Why is it that the whole of the fashion industry, the pornography industry, the sex industry celebrates these other forms, and at the same time is vilifying.

EMENA   This is why I thought I need to wear this as well because I don’t want to look like them. I’m proud to be Islamic, I’m proud to be a Muslim, and part of that is to cover my body so that when I walk down the street men aren’t staring at my assets – they aren’t staring – they don’t even acknowledge me which is a safety barrier as well. So I kind of like – I want to wear this and be left alone. People don’t – I get kid of discriminated against as well. On the trains people don’t want to sit next to me and when I go to my bag they think I’ve something in my bag like that and I just think that women should be allowed to wear what they want, especially ‘cause we’re not showing our bodies or doing anything to anyone. We’re just covering ourselves.

EVA  One thing which I have noticed is if you actually look on the internet for pictures of hijab, niqab, you’ll get images which could be construed almost as pornographic. So you have images of women who are partly veiled, partly almost naked. That’s one thing. The other thing I want to add to this – we are not really talking about the scarf. We are talking about women’s bodies.

SUSAN   I think it’s all part of the colonialist and neo-colonialist and imperialist approach to women of the other worlds. And if we look back at French painting and art and if we look back at photography if we look at some of the novels, if we look at, say, Leighton’s work on the harem, there was always this attempt to either trivialise or marginalise women from non-Western societies and then to eroticise them.

FOURATE   Yes, but if we keep on talking about whether women are oppressed by wearing the scarf, we are not talking about them not accepting that maybe half of the population in France is Muslim and so what? Maybe tomorrow it will be the majority – and so what? But it will keep on like this, but it is like this: you cannot colonise half of the world for centuries and then hope that people will stay in their home.

MARTA    But the scarves were banned. So you see it is a tool of manipulation.

SUSAN    Well, I’d like to put on the table the idea of secular fundamentalism. Because that’s what’s being done. In the name of secularism they are behaving, the government, the courts, throughout the Western world in terms of this banning and enforcement of particular dress codes, for particular communities.

SONI   They’ve found a very good way to mess with Islam and to control the things so we’re going to keep on having these conversations I think for a time sometime. I am imagining the end and I can’t see it – it’s been ten years now …

SUSAN   No, I agree. It’s just the beginning.


SUSAN  What the real answer is, is that it isn’t just fundamentalism, and it isn’t just subordination – and will you get it. What I would want to say to the government in the West is ‘will you get it;  will you listen to the dialogue’ – the kind of dialogue that has been set up here at this moveable feast.



Jocelynne A. Scutt

‘Ban,’ says Sarkosy
‘Don,’ say the Taliban
‘Remove,’ say the Belgians, ‘Take it off.’

‘Wear,’ they say in Saudi, Somalia, Iran
‘Or be damned.’
‘Wear,’ they say in Italy,
‘And be fined.’

‘Do,’ say the Fundamentalists, against religious freedom
‘Don’t,’ say the Secularists, fundamentalist in truth
‘Cover up, cover all, cover body, cover face.’
‘Cover off, cover out, cover banned, cover not.’

Underneath it all,
Yet again
Being told
What to do


In the law
Woman ‘covert’
Is woman ‘covered’

In the law
By tradition
Upon marriage
Women lost personhood
Under man
Being subsumed
In husband’s person/personhood

Every culture
All traditions
Throughout history
Ruled by man
Lost themselves
Or were expected to

By religious fiat, too

So, where do women stand?

Some say
‘My choice – cover’

Some say
‘My choice – go unveiled’

Some say
‘Cover, such a patriarchal notion,
‘Cover, such a sign of subjugation,
‘Cover, so say patriarchs
‘Their diktat personified in women’

Some say
‘To cover
gives me
for my body
as myself
to be myself

Some say
‘Uncovered I am free …’

Yet what choice do we have, we women, as women?

How free are we,
As women
In a world ruled by men

How free is any choice
To cover
Go uncovered

Embrace ‘girlpower’
Bodies photo-shopped
High heels
Boyfriend jeans
Tank tops

How free is any choice
We make
Do we make
In this world?

Give us another
A world where we
Make the rules
We make real choices

Our voice is heard
Our determination matters

No longer objects
We, the subject
Each one of us
Truly free
Truly freed
To decide
For ourselves
Cover up
Cover down
Bodies free
Free self
Without restriction
Mind or body
Mind and body

Our choice
Real choice
In another world
Other world
That other world
Where we
Truly are
Free to be

for then

We know
Who we are.

JAS © August 2010


Cultural Contradictions/Contrary Indications
Jocelynne A. Scutt

The scarf becomes her
As a golden shaft of sunlight
The sky

The scarf denies her
As a black cloud darkens
A face

The veil froths about her face
Depicting purity
At weddings
White weddings
Pale in perfect prettiness
Pure in perfect loveliness

The veil
Creates cover
Face covered
Veiled cover-up
World shut out
Woman shut out from the world

These cultural contradictions
Rule women
Deny women our own determination
Dictate women’s identity
Determine how
Women’s bodies
Should be seen
Or not seen

When will women’s voices
On the subject
Be heard

When will women’s voices
On the question
Yet be honoured

When will culture stop
Its imposition
On ‘our’ women –
women’s dress, women’s person, women’s bodies, women’s lives

When will culture cease
To ‘our’ women
World over
Despite women’s origin
Despite all religion
Despite every culture
Despite the clutch of history
The power of the patriarch

The time for women’s voices
To be honoured
To be heard

Is not
Years hence
Down the track
‘Sometime soon’

The time for women’s voices
To be heard
To be honoured

That time
Is this time
This time
Is now.

June 2010