The University Record, January 24, 1994

Melman: veil ‘a metaphor for female independence’

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Although Western society still perpetuates the mythical subservience of women in the Middle East and India, the veil and harem—traditional symbols of subjugation—have been used as metaphors for female independence, according to a visiting scholar.

“Western women, in particular, have thought there were freedoms behind the veil that they in their ‘veil-less’ world have not had,” says historian Billie Mel-man, the Norman Freehling Visiting Professor at the Institute for the Humanities.

Melman, who is on sabbatical from Tel Aviv University, has written extensively on European views of the Middle East and India, particularly with regard to the roles of gender and class during the imperialist era of the early 18th century to World War I. Her book, Women’s Orients, English Women and the Middle East, 1718–1918, was one of the first attempts to study the intersection of gender, race and class in modern colonialism.

By reading the books, diaries, letters and unpublished records of British women travelers to the Middle East and India during the colonial period, Melman has found that the prevailing view of Europeans toward colonial societies was much different than what is perpetuated today.

“Scholars have tended to think that Europeans have constructed an imaginary geography of the East as a psychosexual place of sensuality and eroticism,” she says. “The seclusion of ‘Oriental’ women has become the most powerful, most enduring topos of the Muslim and Hindu Orient. The dominant view in colonialist and de-colonialist studies is that these women were symbols of a cultural and political other.”

Melman says the veil worn by Eastern women came to represent the familial, social and economic system known as the harem, symbolizing segregation, multiple marriage and concubinage.

“What is most significant about the writings of Western women colonists and travelers is that the overwhelming majority de-sexualize the East,” she says. “The harem, the part of the house in which the women and children lived, is represented in their writings, not as a brothel, not as a paradise for the male libido, but as a female community in which the processes of production—work and labor, as well as reproduction and raising children—are taking place.

“It is striking that Oriental women are often compared to nuns,” Melman adds. “The veil is no longer that which stands for sexuality and the mysterious feminine, but it is the veil that keeps women in an autonomous space of their own.”

Melman says that many Western women who traveled to the East believed that their “veiled” counterparts were better off than they were. For example, the option of divorce was virtually non-existent for most Christian women during this time, but Muslim women could file for divorce, and many did, albeit with their husband’s consent.

“So they really thought that there was freedom,” Melman says. “There was freedom behind the veil, which, incidentally, is in many ways similar to what we find now in the writings of Muslim women in Iran or Egypt, for instance, who are putting on the veil because it gives them a sense of privacy, autonomy and, sometimes, power.”

According to Melman, the myth surrounding Eastern women has been perpetuated by European male writers who were not permitted to have contact with harems and, thus, “replaced truth with fantasy”; by the Western media (books, movies, advertising); and by scholars who think “the development of modern European orientalism—the colonist view of other non-European societies—was monolithic and homogeneous.”

However, “scholars are now beginning to be more aware of the wrongs of this unified picture as they look into different kinds of materials, like the writings of women and men outside the colonialist elite,” she adds.

Melman was invited to the Institute for the Humanities for a five-week residency during the fall term. In joining the Institute’s year-long study of the “Geography of Identity,” Melman finds that the University provides a plethora of materials to support her research, and says she has benefited from the Institute’s interdisciplinary environment.

“The Institute is unique in the sense that it brings together people from different disciplines and really makes them talk to each other and try to understand each other’s language,” she says. “To use the metaphor of the veils, people from different sides of campuses, sometimes even people from different floors in the same building, talk completely different languages.

“They speak through veils and the Humanities Institute is an attempt to rid ourselves of veils and communicate across disciplines.”