Symbolic Oppressions: The Rhetoric and the Image of the Veil in the West

Brigitte Johnson
Writer’s Comment: I intended this piece as a commentary on current international events and an analysis of their intersection with the creation and reception of symbols, images, and tropes. I hope that it functions, ultimately, as a reminder that history—in its web-like intricacy—always lurks in the shadows of transnational interconnections—in what we see on the “news”; and that every word, idea, symbol, and trope has a history, which plays out in its cultural exchange. We would be well served to remain acutely aware of these histories; they house the explanation behind prejudices and injustices that will only be replayed if they are not remembered and actively contested. I sought to shed light on the complicated history of US military intervention in Afghanistan, as well as on the history of Western imperialist, Orientalist tropes of veiled Muslim women, by tracing the intersection of these two histories in the story of the image of a woman named Sharbat Gula. I hope that my retelling of this story might motivate this kind of historical consciousness, as well as a continued commitment to the project of deconstructing the prejudices couched within cultural assumptions.
—Brigitte Johnson

It is well understood in the West that the image of the Islamic veil serves as a universal symbol of oppression. Although this connection is rarely questioned by the Western people to whom it is so familiar, its simplicity masks the ways in which the trope of the oppressed, veiled Muslim woman has operated historically in colonial and imperial discourse; how today it serves in the creation of new Orientalisms; and how it fundamentally undermines the feminist projects of both Western and Muslim women. The political nature of dominant Western understandings and interpretations of the veil, and representations of Islamic veiling practices, have engendered complicated political effects that range from discursive appropriation and epistemic violence to actual, physical violence and neoimperialist maneuvers. In this essay, I would like to explore some of the ways in which dominant Western representations of veiled Muslim women subject these women to a kind of double oppression—by constructing them as universal victims of “barbaric” Islamic patriarchy, and by implicitly erasing their agency and appropriating their actions and voices—and how this kind of Western discourse can be manipulated to reinforce Western hegemonies. In particular, I will look at the case of Western representations of one Afghan woman, Sharbat Gula, which intersected with older colonial and Orientalist travel fantasies, as well as recent US neoimperialist interventions. 

Homa Hoodfar offers the most comprehensive evaluation of how Western colonial and imperial history has both shaped veiling practices and constructed the veil as a symbol both of Muslim women’s oppression and of the inferiority of Arab–Islamic and “Oriental” peoples. She also lays out a detailed analysis of how the same attitudes prevail in the West today, marking veiled women as universal victims, symbols of the (assumed) oppressiveness of Islam and the inferiority of Arab/Muslim people (1). Hoodfar explains that the practice of veiling predates Islam, that it was largely co-opted into Islamic practice as a response to Western imperial presence, and that it has never exhibited a unified set of standards across cultural groupings. In fact, veiling has historically been tied to specific regional, ethnic, and tribal expressions of a range of social locations: expressions which vary widely, manifest differently in different local contexts, and have separate and distinct histories (Hoodfar 6). Nevertheless, Western representations have consistently constructed veiling practices as ahistorical, monolithic, and homogenous—a set of unchanging, one-dimensional religious practices that act as an emblem of the oppressiveness of Islamic society (Hoodfar 7). In this way, Western imperial discourse has constructed the veil as the avatar of Oriental otherness, an image created as much in service of a Western identity that sees itself as superior, as it was created in service of a homogenized, exoticized fantasy imposed by the West onto the East as a confirmation of the East’s inferiority.

This leads me to investigate a contemporary example of how Western Orientalist representations of veiled Muslim women have served imperial projects: those universalized images of burqua-clad Afghani women that proliferated in the US during its 2002 invasion of Afghanistan. I will focus particularly on the representations of one famous woman, Sharbat Gula. Her story fits into a complex weave of armed-conflict histories, US foreign interventions, and Western media representations that ultimately served to dehistoricize the US invasion of Afghanistan by erasing its 20-year track record of financing and equipping mujahideen rebels and later the Taliban itself, and in which the trope of the oppressed, veiled Muslim woman was used explicitly as justification for the war (Stabile & Kumar). 

According to Edward Said’s account of the long history of Orientalist discourse in the West, the rhetoric of “saving” the exoticized, eroticized victims of Oriental oppression was a key fantasy that played into the West’s construction of the seductive and inferior Orient and was used as justification for the West’s imperial interventions in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. This rhetoric functioned as the creation of an Orientalist fantasy in which, as Gayatri Spivak famously explained, “white men are saving brown women from brown men” (122). 

Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar argue that during the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan, the US constructed its own modern Orientalisms, projecting a rhetoric of “saving” oppressed, veiled Afghani women from their Taliban overlords in order to garner public support for the war. In the process of representing Afghani women draped in burquas as the universal victims of an evil Oriental enemy and in need of American saviors, the US government and media also erased their history of funding and arming the mujahideen rebels that would later form the Taliban, and their history of financially assisting the Taliban itself (Stabile & Kumar 767). In the slew of post-9/11 mainstream media reporting on Afghanistan and in particular on the abuses suffered by Afghani women at the hands of the Taliban, the fact that the mujahideen were once called “freedom fighters” by the US government and media was largely absent from mention (Stabile & Kumar 767). Instead, the mainstream media took up images of Afghani women in burquas and released countless stories documenting the oppression and abuse suffered by women at the hands of the Taliban (Stabile & Kumar 772). In this way, the media constructed Afghani women as victims in need of saving by the US, while it refrained from analyzing how the US had been complicit with the Taliban’s abuses, which US officials had had full knowledge of when they were funding the mujahideen and later the Taliban (Stabile & Kumar 768). 

Similarly, though the abuse of women under the Taliban had been decried by women’s rights and human rights NGOs for decades, the US mainstream media itself only began discussing and obsessing over the situation of Afghani women after 9/11, when the war focused their attention on the region (Stabile & Kumar 772). Furthermore, as Kevin Ayotte and Mary Husain contend, these dominant media representations of Afghani women universalized their victimhood under the image of the burqua, completely omitting, obscuring, and erasing the region’s resistance movements that fought against Taliban cruelties—such as RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan—and the positive role the burqua at times had played in this resistance. These media representations thus enacted epistemic violence against Afghani women by erasing these women’s endemic agency, portraying them as victims of not only regime abuse but cultural ignorance and abuse (as is apparent in using the image of the burqua as a symbol of their oppression), and appropriating their voices, struggles, and experiences of oppression to valorize the US and justify US military aggression (Ayotte & Husain).

Sharbat Gula’s story is interesting because it fits the pattern of Orientalist discourse that I have traced so far, from Western fantasies of the exotic and simultaneously victimized Other, of conquest, carnal knowledge, and unveiling through the subjugation of this Other’s mystery, to the recent neoimperialist military maneuvers of the US in Afghanistan and deployment of the image of the veiled Afghani victim as a justification for its invasion. The story begins in 1985, as Sharbat Gula’s face, but not her name, became famous throughout the Western world after a striking photograph of her was published on the cover of the National Geographic Magazine June issue. The photograph featured the face of the then 12-year-old girl, and was particularly captivating because of how it captured the piercing glare of her sea green eyes, which was at once fearsome, disarming, and haunting, telling tales of hardship, suffering, and willful determination that jarred disturbingly with her smooth and youthful face. Or, at least, this was the common sort of reaction to and explanation of the photograph in the West at the time. People from all over Europe and the United States wrote to Steve McCurry, the photographer, recounting stories of how his famous image inspired them to donate money or volunteer in support of the world’s refugees (Newman & McCurry). Yet I propose that Sharbat Gula’s image was so fascinating to its Western audience not solely for the beauty and haunting mystery of her eyes, but for the exotic mystery and dangerous vulnerability that she represented, particularly as a veiled Muslim woman, to the prevailing legacy of the imperialist, Orientalist imagination. 

The powerful allure of her image compelled McCurry to launch a search to find her, so that he might reunite with her and photograph her once more (Newman & McCurry). He contended that he felt concern for her well-being—yet I wonder to what extent his search for her was a quest to unveil her mystery, akin to the search of the imperial traveler, seeking out knowledge and experience of the exotic, the forbidden, the Other, whose quest is based on received and preconceived images of the eroticized, exoticized, veiled realm of Otherness (Said). I see McCurry’s search for the Afghan girl as having more to do with her image, and her presence as a symbol and an object of investigation and exposure of the mysteries of inaccessible (veiled) Otherness, than it had to do with legitimate concern for her person. 

In the same vein, the popular Western world’s interaction with and interest in McCurry’s quest was rooted in the implications of the image, rather than in the persona or experiences of this particular person. The reception of Sharbat Gula’s iconic image in the West was inevitably shaped by the tropes of the Orientalist imagination and the legacy of the imperial traveler/adventurer subject. Indeed, the history of National Geographic as a travel/adventure magazine that sends its writers and photographers to exotic, far away, “other” places and then puts together their collected stories and images to inspire and entice its consumers in the West, is inextricably tied up in the history of the imperialist, Orientalist imagination and imperialist legacies of travel, “exotic” experience, and sexualized fantasy. As always, this legacy and imaginary posits white Europeans as the traveling, consuming, cosmopolitan subjects who experience, explore, and conquer the primitive “Others” who are seen as immobile, static, unchanging, and bound to these exotic “other” places (Said).

McCurry’s search finally culminated in the discovery of the Afghan girl in 2002, coincidentally the same year of the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the eventual granting of permission for him to access and photograph her once more. The photograph chosen for the April 2002 “Special Issue” cover of National Geographic features the adult Sharbat Gula, completely obscured by a purple burqua, holding the famous photograph which ran on the cover of the 1985 issue. The photographs accompanying the article within feature close-ups of her exposed face and several shots of her with her family. These photographs promote an undeniable sense of voyeurism, of intrusion into an intimate and forbidden scene, just as the first image evoked this same sensation, which was commented on in the original printing of the photograph in National Geographic in 1985: the cover image caption reads, “Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee’s fears,” alluding to a certain enticing feeling of intimacy and intrusion that is elicited by the photograph. 

The 2002 images of Sharbat and her family follow precisely in the same vein as the original photographs of the young Afghan girl, creating a tension and play between forbidden looking and pleasurable exposing. Sharbat is quoted as saying that her burqua is “a beautiful thing; it is not a curse” (Newman & McCurry). Yet the article toys with and manipulates this self-representation, eroticizing it by describing Sharbat’s burqua as a garment “which walls her off from the world,” even while the article promises the Western audience intimate access to the breaching of these walls: the subheading states, “Seventeen years after she stared out from the cover of National Geographic, a former Afghan refugee comes face-to-face with the world once more” (Newman & McCurry). Sharbat Gula stares suspiciously, reprovingly at the camera lens aimed directly at her face; although submitting to the camera’s gaze, her manner and her expression remain defiantly disapproving. Yet the National Geographic audience’s viewing pleasure is constructed precisely as the voyeuristic exposure of Sharbat that she herself reproaches. The front cover photograph of a burqua-clad, completely veiled Sharbat acts as an exotic and erotic teaser, prompting readers to open the magazine and turn the page in order to pursue and access the pleasure of her unveiling. Moreover, the cover image of her in a burqua—covered, obscured, impeded, and symbolically silenced—echoes the US media’s post-9/11 obsession with images of burqua-clad Afghani women as the avatars of Taliban oppression and abuse, reinforcing her association with the victim subject of the US’s Orientalist “saving” rhetoric.

Furthermore, Sharbat Gula’s representation in the National Geographic images and articles is largely enacted on her behalf by the white American male reporter who photographed and wrote about her—her relative silence is apparent and even remarked upon within the article, but is brushed off as an expression of her cultural and religious beliefs, a practice which is aligned with her veiling (Newman & McCurry). To National Geographic, Sharbat Gula refrains from speaking for the same reasons that she “hides” herself behind a cumbersome veil. This implicit portrayal of Sharbat as the silent, ignorant victim of oppressive Islamic culture is in keeping with the epistemic violence and appropriation of Afghan women’s voices and experiences that Ayotte and Husain identify in media representations proliferating during the 2002 American invasion of Afghanistan. The National Geographic portrayal’s complicit participation in Sharbat’s silencing allows it to appropriate her representation in order to serve the construction of her as a victim in need of a savior—in this case, assumed to be the US. Sharbat is cited as saying that life was not so bad under the Taliban, because at least the regime allowed for a certain degree of stability that decades of violence, invasion, and civil war had taught her to long for (Newman & McCurry). Yet the article emphasizes her desire for her daughters to be educated—something that is implicitly suggested as impossible under the oppressive Taliban, and that will now be possible because of the US’s efforts to overthrow Taliban rule (Newman &McCurry). In this way, National Geographic portrays Sharbat, albeit indirectly and implicitly, as a victim of her own ignorance, whose support for the Taliban is the result of not knowing any better and whose daughters will now have opportunities that she could never dream of, thanks to the US’s intervention. In fact, the article explicitly states that it is now “too late” for Sharbat’s education, or even that of her eldest daughter—but now, her younger daughters may have unprecedented access to this opportunity. 

Without the US intervention being mentioned, these “new” opportunities are attributed to some seemingly magical, bright new future on the horizon: McCurry writes, “Afghanistan has been in a Dark Age for two decades. That she’s resurfaced now is perhaps prophetic, a hopeful sign” (Newman & McCurry). Though the 2002 article never explicitly refers to the US invasion, the timing of this piece ensures that most readers would be fully aware of the war and already conditioned by the American media to think of the US as the savior of ignorant Afghani women. Moreover, this article makes no mention of connections to the 1985 article, which detailed at length the conditions of life for the mujahideen “freedom fighters,” who were bravely sustaining a counterinsurgency against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Denker 772). The 1985 article begins with this connection: “. . . the six mujahidin, or Afghan freedom fighters . . . have escorted me across the Pakistani border” (Denker 772). One might think that, journalistically, an interesting connection to explore would be the shift from 1985 portrayals of the mujahideen as freedom fighters, to 2002 portrayals of the Taliban, which sprung from the mujahideen, as cruel tyrants, as the US shifted from ally and financer to enemy and overthrower of the Taliban. Instead, both articles focus on Soviet Russia as the true enemy. In 1985, the mujahideen were consistently portrayed as the brave resistance to the evil Soviet enemy: one caption for a photograph of Afghani people traveling through the snow reads, “Their village destroyed by Soviet aircraft, Afghan mujahidin—‘holy warriors’ fighting for Islam . . . trek across a mountain pass . . . [the] pro-Soviet government . . . has required the support of more than 100,000 Soviet troops” (Denker 775). This demonization of the Soviets is consistent in the 2002 National Geographic article as well: speaking for Sharbat, the article states, “She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of Soviet invasion . . . she was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents” (Newman & McCurry). Newman writes that people in refugee camps “live at the mercy of the politics of other countries. ‘The Russian invasion destroyed our lives,’ her brother said” (Newman & McCurry). Yet the US’s role in Afghanistan is noticeably absent from both analysis and critique in this article. This ultimately contributed to and reinforced the general media’s silence concerning US history in Afghanistan, as well as its uncritical role in dehistoricizing US–Afghani relations in service of garnering public support for the war.

Over the course of my examination of the veil in Western discourse, the enormous power and potential of representation, particularly through manipulation of the image, has become increasingly, overwhelmingly apparent. In Western and transnational systems of expression, representation, and symbolic communication, images house a tremendously powerful potential for the creation of meaning, and the ways in which meanings are and have been engendered, reproduced, constructed, asserted, and imagined are inherently colored by the history of Western imperialism and Western imaginings of the non-West. These meanings are bound to the hierarchical interplay of power that has shaped transnational interconnectivities in the past several centuries such that Western imagery and imagination have been imposed on both transnational interactions and the self-actualizations of non-Western peoples. Within the structural reality of this history of the lasting effects of Western imperial domination, it becomes ever more crucial to deconstruct, unravel, interrogate, and challenge past and current manifestations of the Western imperial imagination, and this critical need is nowhere more urgent than in the transnational symbolic circulation of images of veiled women. 

As I have done with my analysis of US representations of Sharbat Gula and Afghani women in general, it is imperative that the insidious legacy of imperialist, Orientalist, and Western-chauvinist manipulations of the image of the veil be challenged and denatured. At stake are not only the epistemic violences enacted by representational systems and structures that subsume sexual, racial, gendered, ethnic, and classed power inequalities and injustices. Also at stake are the abuses of transnational systems and structures that perpetuate the marginalization, exploitation, and oppression of historically disadvantaged peoples, while claiming the rescue of these “Others” as justification for Western hegemony.

Annotated Bibliography
Ayotte, Kevin and Husain, Mary. “Securing Afghan Women: Neocolonialism, Epistemic Violence, and the Rhetoric of the Veil.” NWSA Journal 17.3 (2005).
    This work introduces the concept of epistemic violence in analyzing the US media and government’s appropriation of Afghan women’s voices, agency, and struggle against oppression in order to justify US military intervention in Afghanistan.
Denker, Debra. Photographs by Steve McCurry. “Along Afghanistan’s War-Torn Frontier.” National Geographic 167.6 (1985): 772–97.
Doane, Mary Ann. “Veiling Over Desire: Close-ups of the Woman.” Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1991.
    This work examines how women are represented in film and media, at an intersection of politics of desire, power, and cinematic pleasure, using veiling as a key metaphor.
Hoodfar, Homa. “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: Veiling Practices and Muslim Women.” The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, eds. Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
    In this piece, Homa Hoodfar offers an account of Western stereotypes and preconceived notions about Muslim women and the veil that reflect racist, colonialist, ethnocentric, and even sexist predispositions based on Orientalist representations of Muslim women.
Newman, Cathy and McCurry, Steve. Photographs by Steve McCurry. “Special Issue: A Life Revealed.” National Geographic 201.4 (2002): np.
Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1978, 1995.
    This excerpt elaborates the concept of “Orientalism” and lays bare the imperial, colonial, Eurocentric history of this category and body of knowledge, explaining how the Orient has been constructed as a symbol of otherness to European/ Western subjectivity.
Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations on Widow Sacrifice.” Wedge Winter/Spring 7–8 (1985): 120–30.
    This is a classic text tracing Western imperial discourse and its continued embeddedness in Western discourse today.
Stabile, Carol and Kumar, Deepa. “Unveiling imperialism: media, gender, and the war on Afghanistan.” Media, Culture & Society 27.5 (2005): 765–82.
    This work complements that of Ayotte and Husain in investigating how representations of Afghani women were distinctly Orientalized, victimized, and colonized by the US media and government to justify their 2002 invasion and to erase their history of intervention.