Lifting the veil: How the West present ‘the other’ in media

Lifting the veil is a program’s name in Channel 4 with Carla Garapedian as producer/director. It is a sequence of the previous documentary film titled Beneath the veil. What make me interested in writing out this time is because I also have a book titled Lifting the veil by Linda Shepherd. The book was trying to unveil the reality of science as part of women’s lives.

Veil is a word that has some meanings in English. In many writings and events, veil could refer to the cloth used to cover someone’s head.

Veil in Islam come with many meanings, functionally and culturally. Some may see it as a symbol to control women’s sexuality thus it is seen oppressive. Women’s dressing is part of expression and women in Islam are told to have many aurat (fissures) than men. No wonder it becomes complex issue.

I am a 28-year-old Indonesian women wearing hijab or veil. I was born and grow up in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia. I wore hijab as my decision after six months joining liqo (a group in my campus, University of Indonesia that study Qur’an). The reason to wear hijab was vary and changing overtime.

With my growing understanding (and it still is growing), I feel troubled when I read some idiom which says “lifting the veil”. It seems the essence is still the same. It is about the ruling who tries to determine and force certain dressing code to women. It is my concern that the term “lifting the veil” if not apply carefully, will lead to stigmatization of women who wear veil. Not only that, the idiom seems to define “veiling” as something bad from a superior point of view.

Veiling could be part of culture and part of religion. Veiling could be interpreted as creating distance to the ruling social system. Veiling could be oppressive system to control one’s behaviour. With its diverse meaning, I still curious why the idiom, more often used in cynical manner, is lasting to these days. I do wonder sometimes, when at an event to launch a product, it was veiled first so then the leader of the company or government could unveil it. Afterward, people would clap their hands and smile in joy. What is it about unveiling? Where did it come from? I believe “unveil” also a custom. So is it about replacing one custom to another?

If Channel 4 intends to show the realities of Afghan women then I think they could come up with another way of stating it. Women in all part of the world are in constant survival in battling the hegemonic culture of patriarchy. Using idiom like lifting the veil only shows unfriendly manner to someone stranger. Respect from men and society at large are hard to win. At times, veiling (as a cultural practice) is a way to gain preliminary respect in order to be heard.

In case of Afghan women, it still is important first to respect this mode of culture (using burqa) as part of their survival strategy and cultural identity in a patriarchal land. I am proposing for people in other culture to be creative in exploit the idiom like lifting the veil because it is counterproductive.

“Unveiling” the Afghan women’s realities is one noble effort. It carries women’s voices’ to the large public but more often it also shows “the producer” of the show as the better side. Some documentary films put the-narrator-know-all attitude. For instance, I feel bothered when Oprah in her shows sometimes told the audience that she feels lucky to be born a woman in America. What’s the whole lucky thing got to do with becoming a woman?

Hijab, burqa, or veil, whatever their names, always bring physical limitation for women in public space. But it is the similar case as the long and mini skirt. If you were a motorcycle driver and user of public transport in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, wearing long or mini skirt could bear many problems. So, it is more about valuing women’s dressing issue rather than clothing the women.

It is important to understand unveil as a concept. Unveil/veil must not related in idea to transform one culture and civilization into one’s defined by other culture. The dichotomy serves as a reflection of bias that one part is better and higher than the other.

I understand that as a metaphor, “lifting the veil” could serve many situations like in Shepherd’s book. Yet, many muslim see veil in the idiom as veil the cloth that they’re (their wives’) wearing. I want to bring out awareness of different way people in some muslim communities seeing hijab/burqa/veil. Hopefully, it will be useful.

Yogyakarta, June 17, 2007


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