The Muslim Veil in North America Issues and Debates by Sajida Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough, eds. (Toronto: Women's Press, 2003. 306 pages.)

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Shabana Mir

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Abstract

When it comes to Muslims in the West, nothing is a more sensational visual
symbol than the hijab. Due to the current Muslim and non-Muslim fixation
on it, scholarly examination of hijab and related issues is necessary.
The Muslim Veil in North America examines some of its historical, sociological/
anthropological, and theological aspects. Part 1 engages with the
veil’s hyper-visibility in Canada. Since the book does not engage with the
American experience, I am not sure why the title refers to North America.
I enjoyed part 2 immensely, and will use it as a reference on the subject.
The bulk of this section explores the historical development of the veil’s
theological status and nature. This book is different from, say, Maudoodi’s
Purdah, which sees the veil in its contemporary form as a product of historical
processes.
This book is dedicated to diasporic Muslim women, although introductory
material in various chapters addresses readers unfamiliar with Islam. Undergraduates will appreciate its accessibility in comparison to
most academic texts, and it will make the subject comprehensible to lay
readers. Unfortunately, this means that the book wavers between being an
academic (education, anthropology, and sociology) and a lay read. This is
not because the entire book is tailored to different kinds of readers, but
because its two parts are rather disjointed. Part 1 addresses a more lay and
introductory social science-related reader with basic information; part 2, on
the other hand, is a highly specialized examination of exegetical and hadith
history.
The editors, in addressing a gaping void in the literature, possibly
attempt to do too much: specialized theology, history, politics, anthropology,
and sampling of “voices.” I would have preferred it to be more selective.
Also, “let the voices speak” is a commendable approach, but after a certain
point we should go beyond it. There is also a line between “reportage syndrome,”
writing without an adequate theoretical framework, and skillful
academic writing, which allows contextualized voices to be heard by fellow
academics within the social sciences. I would also have preferred that the
theology and sociology chapters be connected by common threads ...

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