The “Veil” in Tunisia

P1020927I am very happy to share this guest blog post, written by a new member of our Cultural Detective community, Dr. Larry Michalak. His story illustrates a topic we’ve posted about before: veiling and how easily people can jump to the (wrong) conclusions about a person’s appearance.

What I particularly appreciate about Larry’s piece is that his list at the end illustrates a vital cross-cultural skill: the ability to generate multiple possible motivations for behavior. This ability is crucially important if we are to get beyond our own biases and expand our worldview, really get to know others, and develop respect, empathy and the ability to collaborate. Here is Larry’s post:

Sit in a café on any street in Tunis (one of the pleasures of life!), and you will notice that the women who pass are covering up more than they used to in years past. There is a new kind of women’s clothing that didn’t exist when I was here in the 1960s—headscarves and smock-like dresses that cover the arms.

This “veiling” phenomenon has become a widespread topic of conversation, journalism, and social and even political analysis. Women began covering up more in the late 1970s, the headscarf was suppressed by the government in schools and public offices until the Tunisian revolution in January 2011, and now women are free to dress as they please.

Some scholars count the percentage of Tunisian women who are veiled, and cite these statistics in articles. This mode of dress (the argument goes) has religious and/or political meaning. It shows an increase in religious conservatism, and/or means that the wearer of the veil is showing sympathy with Islamic politics, opposition to the U.S., etc. When these observations come from secularists they are usually accompanied by expressions of disapproval of the veil.

But there are problems with this argument. One of them is the difficulty of defining what constitutes “veiling.” There is the hijab, which in Tunisia can mean a headscarf or else a headscarf accompanied by a smock-like dress that covers the arms and comes down to the ankles. Sometimes there is just a headscarf, and sometimes the headscarf is worn to cover the woman’s hair—sometimes completely and sometimes not. Full veiling, such as one finds in the Eastern part of the Middle East (e.g., the chador in Iran, the burka in Afghanistan, and the nikab in Saudi Arabia), is very rare in Tunisia. The term “veiling” is used indiscriminately to refer to all these different ways of covering.

Some years ago there was an excellent article in Jeune Afrique by a Tunisian woman journalist who thought that fashion was probably the most important reason for veiling. Some women wear the veil as they would a miniskirt—because it’s the fashion—and the cut and the color are more important than any religious content. Many of these women who veil have never read the Qur’an or performed the prayer. Some go veiled on weekdays and wear bikinis on the beach on the weekend. Some wear the veil to nightclubs with their whisky-drinking boyfriends. And on the boulevards of Tunis, one can see veiled women holding hands with their boyfriends.

My conclusion is: You can’t tell much about people by looking at how they dress. Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, neither can you judge a woman by her clothing. This goes for men, too. I have known traditionally dressed men with very modern ideas, and men in Western suits who would feel right at home with the Taliban. I once heard a scholar give a paper at a conference, with statistics on what percentage of the women he observed in different places and at different hours were “veiled.” But he was calling lots of things “veils” and assuming that the “veil” reflects religious and/or political opinions.

To make my point, here is a list of ten reasons, other than religious or political, that a Tunisian woman might “veil.”

  1. “I do it to piss off my parents—especially my mother, who doesn’t veil.”
  2. “On TV I saw some women in Egypt who wear it and I think it looks great!”
  3. “I just got married and now I don’t have to advertise my looks.”
  4. “I just washed my hair, and I can’t do a thing with it.”
  5. “So that the guys will leave me alone on the bus.”
  6. “I want people to think that I’m a virgin so that I can find a husband more easily.”
  7. “I’m on my way to have sex with my boyfriend and I don’t want anyone to recognize me.”
  8. “I’m so beautiful that I have to cover up to keep the guys from going crazy.”
  9. “I’m not attractive and I’m self-conscious about it, so I leave my looks to people’s imagination.”
  10. And, finally: “It’s cold out today and I want to keep my head warm.”

In other words, sometimes a headscarf is just a headscarf!

Dr. Larry Michalak is a cultural anthropologist with degrees from Stanford, London and UC/Berkeley. He was Vice Chair of Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies for 23 years. His specialty is the Arab World, especially Tunisia, where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s. He has now spent over ten years there. Larry is fluent in Arabic and French. In his retirement he has enjoyed traveling with his wife Karen as an enrichment lecturer for UC/Berkeley and the Smithsonian, and he has also taught on Semester at Sea.  His favorite topics are anthropology of food and anthropology of tourism.

9 thoughts on “The “Veil” in Tunisia

  1. There are a lot of people writing about the veil right now – most of them doing it poorly and out of pity. Most of them non-Muslim. I appreciate Dr. Michalak’s tackling of this subject and certainly he does so with far more knowledge than most – the other side to it is that my Muslim friends could find his list somewhat offensive, particularly from a male perspective. (that could be a complete assumption on my part) There are two things I would encourage people to read in this climate of everyone talking about the veil. The first is a blog post by a young Muslim woman: Here’s what’s wrong with hijab tourism and your cutesy “modesty experiments” and A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America by Leila Ahmed available on Amazon.


    • Marilyn, I so love your blog and posts, and very much appreciate you sharing these resources with our readers here. Thank you. We take your comments to heart as well.

      What I like about Dr. Michalak’s post is that it models respect and free will, and it encourages the reader to think about possible reasons for behavior, rather than just boxing people into easy categories. While veiling is his focal point, I feel the focus is more on how we, especially when perhaps traveling on holiday and sitting in a café, can stretch our minds and hearts, enlarge them, without too much effort. But it’s effort so many of us don’t make, particularly on holiday. Thanks!


    • Marilyn–“Ms Muslamic” doesn’t allow comments on her blog, so let me comment here. Powerful article! Thank you. To me it’s beauty (of the article) is that it challenges the reader to soul-search, to take the next step on a learning journey. What I feel it fails to recognize, due to probably pain/anger, is that simulations can indeed create empathy. Anything can be done for air-time/visibility, and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes can be a learning event as well (when conducted in conjunction with learning from the experts). I suppose the difference is one’s goal: publicity or learning. ?


      • Good point – I think some of her frustration comes from people wanting to hear from others about the veil instead of Muslims themselves. I’ve had the same thing where people come and ask me questions instead of my Muslim friend who has just left the table. I get it, at the same time my goal is the same as yours in the desire to get people to talk to each other. And I do think you are right about the goal being key in how we are received. Thanks Dianne – love your blog as well and thanks for the lovely words about Communicating Across Boundaries!


  2. Yes, Marilyn, definitely. In my experience people do tend to ask a person they are more similar to, an “outsider” with some experience, rather than an “insider,” when seeking cultural information. Listening to and learning from the insiders themselves is something we all need to teach and learn. Frustration is natural and can fuel positive action, and it can also shut down others’ learning. We are all at different points along the journey, and on different journeys as well. Thank you for being here and so generously sharing your experience and expertise. I hope we’ll see a guest blog post from you someday.


  3. This article makes the same error that most articles do when discussing the Muslim practice of veiling women (and not men). The author assumes that the only consideration to discuss is the women’s reasons for veiling. And the author also assumes that people who find sex segregated customs oppressive are making assumptions about the women who veil and why they veil. I am very familiar with Tunisian culture. I was intimately involved with a Tunisian man, traveled to Tunisia with him and met and bonded with his extended family while I was there in the early 1990s. The women of his family did not veil and they discussed with me extensively about why some women do choose to veil. So, I do not make any assumptions about women who veil or their motivations for veiling.

    Yes, I recognize the agency of Muslim women who veil. Which is why I hold them accountable for the consequences of their choice on others. Humanity must balance freedom of personal choice with the effect on the collective good in order to maintain a free a civil world. Which is why Northern abolitionists in the U.S. were compelled to speak out against Southern slavery. And why non-Africans speak out about female genital mutilation in African cultures.

    What is missing from this article is an analysis of how cultural normalized sex segregated customs are fundamentally a human rights violation, just like race segregated norms are, because of the effect they have on the population. Notice the language in this article that women “veil” but men wear “traditional dress.” Men do not “veil” in the same way women do. Sex segregated ideas about female and male sexuality and anatomy decided upon by a leadership composed of only the male sex are fundamentally a human rights violation, no matter who personally supports the practice. Because it normalizes in children the idea that there is difference between male and female sexuality.

    Imagine, for example, saying that white people and black people have different “natures” and “anatomy” so that there must be a different standard of behavior for white people and black people and that black people show their devotion to God by adhering to their race segregated behavior. And, in many places, the white leadership would beat, jail or kill black people who did not conform to this race segregated practice. This would be a human rights violation, regardless of the reasons of individual black people for enabling the practice.

    Articles like this also commit the error of making invisible the women within Islam who oppose sex segregated customs for women and men. By implying that the only opposition to veiling or compulsory veiling comes from without Islam, this author silences the many voices of dissent within Islam who believe that veiling women is a human rights violation. In fact, Muslim women like Samina Ali, Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa assert publicly that the veil is in fact not a Muslim custom and goes against the principles of Islam and even the Quran itself.

    So, while this article may be informative on education the public on why some Muslim women choose to veil, it does not even scratch the surface of fairly ethically analyzing the custom of veiling Muslim women because it does not discuss 1) the effect of veiling on the culture as a whole in normalizing sex segregation 2) discussing how sex segregated cultural norms are human rights violations or 3) offering the opposing viewpoint of Muslim women who oppose veiling women.


  4. Thank you for your comment on my short article. You make a good point that Tunisian women have different reactions to veiling practices and some of them are critical. From my discussions with Tunisian women (and I have spent over a dozen years total in Tunisia and go there every year and know many Tunisian women), I think that the great majority of them are supportive of a woman’s right to dress as she pleases. I disagree that veiling is a sex-segregated custom. Certainly a headscarf does not segregate women from men. It just covers a woman’s hair, in the same way that a Russian babushka covers a woman’s hair. As for full covering (which as I pointed out is rare in Tunisia), there is at least one culture–the Tuaregs of the Northern Sahara, in which men cover their faces with veils but women do not. Men and women in the U.S. cover too, and in different ways, as anyone who has been to a swimming pool will have noticed. My main point was to defend the rights of people in other cultures collectively and individually to dress as they wish, and to argue that people should not make assumptions about other people based on their choice of clothing, whether the people making the assumptions are within the culture or outside it.


  5. Perhaps relevant to the discussion: one of my favorite sayings, often variously attributed to Anais Nin and the Talmud : “We do not see things as they are: we see things as we are.” Dr. Michalak’s piece for me underlines the influence of mistaken assumptions and stereotypes born of our own unique and limited experiences which naturally may distort our understanding of unfamiliar behaviors and images . So often we are the prisoners of our own prisms without knowing it, whether reacting to veils, other religious or secular symbols, unfamiliar sounds,tastes, smells even Dr Michalak’s essay! Another way of saying this is expressed in the Chinese proverb:” We do not see with our eyes but we see with what is behind our eyes. ”

    To add to the discussion of perspectives on veils some may not have considered, check out this New York Times Op -Ed piece:


  6. Amy, Laurence, and Joe, I thank each of you for helping to go deeper with this discussion and look at it from different perspectives, including the systemic vs. the interpersonal vs. the interpersonal, and that of different stages of intercultural competence development. All our key to our developing respect, understanding and collaboration.


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