Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani was born in Zagreb in 1965. She moved to London in 1995 where she has been living since. Jasmina holds a PhD in Francophone literary and cultural studies from the University of Westminster. She has published several articles in peer-reviewed journals and has given a number of conference papers, both nationally and internationally. She is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Westminster and is currently working at Queen Mary University of London. Jasmina has also been writing poetry (English, Croatian and French) since 2014. Her poetry has been published in the UK literary journal The Still Point Journal (King’s College London, 2015), the Croatian literary magazine Tema (Meander Media, 2016) and the Canadian bilingual CMC Review journal (York University, Ontario, 2016).

Feature image courtesy of Branko Čegec, used with permission.

My mother is from Algeria, which makes me half-Algerian (I am half-Croatian from my father’s side). As a child, I used to spend my summers there. What I remember mostly from that period are my grandmother’s cooking, my grandfather’s motorcycle and their long garden with lemon and orange trees. I also remember the colours of the deep blue sky and the red earth, the smell of jasmine and the sounds of the Arabic language that my grandparents, my mother and her siblings spoke during those long summers at my grandparents’ house.

In 2002, I decided to study Algerian writing in French as part of my MA in postcolonial Francophone studies. I became interested in the subject of the veil and its political and cultural significance in Algeria and the rest of the Maghreb.[1] My trips to Algeria in recent years (2005 and 2011) became primarily an experience of the politics of the space, as I found myself in a social context where I was required to be covered simply because I was a woman. I must say here that I respect the choice of women who decide to wear the veil as an instrument of tradition, identity affirmation or a tool of protection. However, I experienced the veil as an object of clothing that was not only physically, but also spatially and symbolically restrictive. During my second visit, whilst I attended a conference on women’s literature in the Maghreb, I met a young, brilliant PhD student who wanted to travel to Europe and study there. She was veiled, of course, but told me of her profound identity crisis and depression whilst she was a young teenager trying to behave and dress like her contemporary European counterparts. She mentioned to me the fact that she was torn between wearing the veil and taking if off. Her story marked me deeply. It is because of my conflicting emotions of recognising it as a cultural object of tradition, but more as a tool of domination that I refused to veil myself on both of the occasions I visited Algeria in recent years. My refusal was emphasised by the feeling of being perceived as dangerous simply because I was walking on the street and in other public spaces unveiled.[2]

To discuss the veil and the practices of unveiling in Algeria is for me both a personal investment and a fascinating research question. In this piece, I try and unpack the concept of the veil and the act of unveiling by using an interdisciplinary perspective. I pose the question of whether a woman in a non-Western context walking unveiled in public spaces today is less or more dangerous than a woman entering these public spaces through the act of writing. More specifically, I examine the practice of writing in French as one of the practices of symbolic unveiling in the postcolonial context of Algeria. At the centre of this piece is the question of what it signifies for a woman in Islamic society to be “unveiled” from a sociological and political perspective, as discussed by the sociologist Fatima Mernissi, and what sort of meanings can the act of unveiling acquire through the act of writing based on the example of two Algerian writers: Assia Djebar and Kaouther Adimi.

  1. Beyond the Veil: Fatima Marnissi

There has been a wealth of literature written on the subject of the veil and the condition of the woman in Islamic society both by Western and non-Western scholars. One of the most insightful theories on the woman’s position in Islamic society and the concept and function of the practice of veiling has, in my opinion, been given by the late Moroccan sociologist, Fatima Mernissi. Positing that Islam does not consider women to be inherently inferior, something that Western feminist theories commonly imply or explicitly claim in their analysis of the question, Mernissi argues that the woman’s inferior position in Islamic society is not the result of some predetermined biological differences, but of the specificities or ways in which these are organised:

Paradoxically, and contrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam does not advance the thesis of women’s inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it affirms the potential equality between the sexes. The existing inequality does not rest on an ideological or biological theory of women’s inferiority, but is the outcome of specific social institutions designed to restrain her power; namely, segregation and legal subordination in the family structure.[3]

The necessity to install mechanisms of surveillance, such as for example, reclusion or the imposition of the veil in Islamic society, argues Mernissi, is the consequence of the conceptualisation of feminine sexuality in that society as being “active” as opposed to being passive.[4] This, in turn, is anchored in the “Islamic uncounscious”, claims Mernissi. It propagates the image of the woman as being endowned with a destructive power or as being the carrier of the fitna or social chaos that needs to be controled by means such as the veil. Precisely because woman’s sexuality in the Islamic uncounscious is conceived as active, it is automatically also conceived as dangerous. This view goes hand in hand with the belief that in Islamic society woman’s sexuality represents a danger to social order and stability or, in other words, to the religious community or umma. The woman becomes “the embodiment of destruction” and a symbol of social disorder. She is perceived as “the epitome of the uncontrollable, a living representative of the dangers of sexuality and its rampant disruptive potential”, as explains Mernissi.[5]

In order to prevent the destabilisation of the umma, in Islamic society it becomes necessary to introduce a number of institutions that will guard its stability, such as the practices of reclusion and the wearing of the veil. This is accompanied by a number of social practices aimed at protecting the social order of the umma and the need to install a number of spatially constructed divisions between genders (feminine / masculine) that still exist in Islamic society today: interior / exterior, private / public, invisible / visible. The woman’s passage from the private to the public sphere breaks the social norms in Islamic society to such an extent that her passage from one sphere to the other must be codified by her wearing the veil and is restricted to a number of socially acceptable situations (such as going out to the hammam or to visit her relatives accompanied by her husband or her mother in law). Based on her sociological research of Morocco, Mernissi advances that the codification of women’s behaviour in Islam goes hand in hand with a prescriptive behaviour for men. The complexities of the relationship between the sexes in contemporary Islamic society, according to Mernissi, is the result of the discrepancy or a gap between the Islamic State’s proscribed religious codex on one hand, and the economic and socio-cultural realities of everyday’s life on the other hand, something that it is not capable of fully managing.

  1. Unveiling through writing: Assia Djebar and Kaouther Adimi

Is it equally dangerous for a woman in Islamic society to break into the public space, not only physically or spatially, but also symbolically? For a woman in that society, to unveil is to disturb, to break the social norms by her intrusion into the public space to which her passage and access is forbidden. In other words, to unveil for a woman is to pose a danger or a threat to that society. But how does this spatial transgression express itself at the level of the symbolic? Can or is the act of writing more or less dangerous?

Algerian female writers of the first generation have often described – either explicitly or implicitly – their act of writing in French as a symbolic act of unveiling.  Not only are they writing in French, the language of the coloniser, but by doing so they are at the same time challenging the strict division between private (female) and public (male) space. They are breaking into the public sphere simply through the act of writing. This makes their chances of getting published difficult, both historically and in the present day. For that reason, a number of Algerian female writers of the first generation writing in French moved to France, as was the case, for for Assia Djebar.

Assia Djebar (30 June 1936 – 6 February 2015) has explored the question of the veil and of unveiling in many of her novels. As a female Algerian author writing in French, the coloniser’s language, she was preoccupied not only with the cultural and socio-political aspects of the veil in Algeria, but has also pinpointed to the ambiguities resulting from using the French language as a way to mask or veil one’s identity of origin. At the same time, she tried to show that the act of writing for any Algerian female writer is act of affirmation or dangerous entry into the public space; it becomes necessarily an act of unveiling. In the case of Djebar, whose work is characterised by autobiographical writing, the act of writing an autobiography in French therefore constantly moves between the act of veiling and unveiling.

Djebar described in the postface to one of her early works, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, that not wearing the veil in the Arabic dialect means no longer being protected, as well as it means to be completely undressed, exposed, naked.[6] This socially constructed experience of the act of unveiling in Islamic society is inscribed in the language of the Arabic dialect. As Djebar illustrated, “la femme dira ‘je ne sors plus protégée’ (c’est-à dire-voilée, couverte) ou je sors déshabillée ou même dénudée” or “the woman will say ‘I am going out no longer protected’ (meaning ‘veiled’, ‘covered’) or I am going out undressed or naked”.[7]  The usage of these spoken language expressions testify well to the extent to which social normes in Islamic society have become inscribed in the texture of the symbolic. The act of unveiling becomes part of the woman’s act of undressing, of her nakedness. It becomes a dangerous act, as Djebar herself explains.

In her later works, Djebar has spoken of the multidimensionality of the act of veiling and unveiling by departing from her own childhood and teenage experiences. In Ces Voix qui m’assiègent, she described the act of going out veiled both as an experience of adventure and an act of self-preservation. [8]  The cultural and socio-political ambiguity on which Djebar played is evident in her last autobiographical novel, Nullepart dans la maison de mon père.[9] In a passage of the novel, she recounted her early teenage experiences of masking her Arabic background by walking through the city of Algiers uncovered. This feeling of a double movement of veiling-unveiling herself simultaneously was most clearly expressed in her choice not to use her mother-tongue and unveil her ‘true’ identity whilst walking without a veil.  Assuming a European identity allowed her, therefore, not to be condemned by men who would otherwise condemn her walking unveiled had she spoken in her mother-tongue. She described this experience as being  “‘masquée par la langue étrangère!” or as being “masked by foreign language!”.[10]  Interestingly, in the case that Djebar describes here, the danger becomes one of speaking one’s own mother tongue whilst not wearing the veil. Thus, the complexities that occur at the level of identity construction in which the language of the French coloniser is both a means of protection and alienation from one’s original identity become very clear.

Like Assia Djebar, Kaouther Adimi chose (and was not forced) to leave Algeria for France and can be seen to be a privileged social position in that sense. She has published two novels, both received positively by the French media and the public. I was unable to find any data on the type of reception that Adimi’s novels have received in Algeria. One can expect, however, that this reception is limited for several reasons, not only socio-political, but also economical. Writing in a very different style to Djebar’s Proustian style, Adimi’s literary strength lies primarily in her deceptively simple, journalistic and humoristic style of writing. For Adimi like for many Algerian writers of her generation, writing in French is no longer a problem of identity. Can one assume that it is no longer dangerous to write in French, as was the case for Djebar? Contrary to Djebar, Adimi does not feel the need to justify her choice of language, an attitude that she shares with her fellow contemporaries. Indeed, unlike for Djebar whose attitudes to the use of the French language as the language of writing were highly ambiguous for political and socio-cultural reasons, for Adimi the French language is simply the most efficient tool of expression allowing her to take the Algerian veil off in order to challenge the cultural practices, attitudes and social relations towards women not only in Algerian but also in French society. So, in her first novel, Les Ballerines de Papicha, the writer / narrator dissects the stereotypical beliefs and attitudes of Algerian society today through the marginalised narratives and everyday experiences of an Algerian family.[11] Her latest novel, Des pierres dans ma poche, is written in a more mature, intimist style.[12] In it, the narrator, a young Algerian woman living in Paris records her observations of life in the French capital whilst waiting to travel back to her native city, Algiers, in order to attend her younger sister’s wedding. The narrative is interrupted intermittently by her mother’s phone calls constantly nagging her about the fact that she should marry; they are a metaphor of the social pressures and expectations that (Algerian) society imposes on (Algerian) women who decide to live and behave differently to the social and cultural norms of that society. Thus, Adimi’s writing in-between two cultures is an effective tool of ‘demystification’ of stereotypical representations of what it means to be a woman allowing her to debunk both Western and non-Western repressive attitudes and systems of thought on the female body.

Ultimately, both Djebar and Adimi use writing as a powerful practice of unveiling or unpacking attitudes towards women in the societies they inhabit, but they also point clearly to the complexities of writing in French in the (post)colonial context of Algeria. One can assume that whilst Algerian women may have conquered their place in the field of the symbolic, it still remains dangerous for them to take the veil off in public space. So, as long as it is dangerous for them to do so, one cannot argue that it is really their choice to wear the veil in public.


[1] I am using the term ‘veil’ here in its generic sense, that is, to designate any type of body coverings used.

[2] It has to be said here that not wearing the veil in the capital of Algiers is considered today to be less problematic than in smaller cities and towns such as Chlef, my grandparents’ town, where I was staying for some of the time during both of my recent visits.

[3] Mernissi, F., Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society, London: Saqi Books, 1975 (revised ed. 1985), p. 19.

[4] One can add here the use of more “sophisticated” social mechanisms such as polygamy or regulated access to the political sphere or earning through work.

[5] Mernissi, F., Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society, p. 44.

[6] Djebar, A., Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, Paris: Des Femmes, 1980. (Eng. Trans.: Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, University Press of Virginia, 1999).

[7] Djebar, A., Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, 1980, p.152. Note: all translations in English of the French citations listed in this article are my own.

[8] Djebar, A., Ces Voix qui m’assiègent, En marge de ma francophonie, Paris: Albin Michel, 1999.

[9] Djebar, A., Nullepart dans la maison de mon père, Paris: Fayard, 2007.

[10] Djebar, A., Nullepart dans la maison de mon père, pp. 305-307.

[11] Adimi, K., Les Ballerines de papisha, Alger: Editions Barzakh, 2010.

[12] Adimi, K., Des pierres dans ma poche, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2016.

One thought on “Unveiled

  1. I suppose Western women or women adopting the shield of a western identity through the French language need not be restricted in the same way as they cannot disrupt the umma since they are not part of the umma.

Comments are closed.