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Elisha P. Renne, editor, Veiling in Africa.

ELISHA P. RENNE, editor, Veiling in Africa. Bloomington and Indianapolis IN: Indiana University Press (pb $28--978 0 253 00820 6). 2013, 238 pp.

This book grew out of a panel on veiling in Africa that was presented at the African Studies Association annual meeting held in San Francisco in November 2010. It is published in the Indiana University Press series African Expressive Cultures, thus setting the publication as being primarily descriptive (expressive) and within the orientation of area studies. The glossy front cover has an image of an African woman wearing an ornamented head cover of a gauze fabric, suggesting an economically accessible market product. Visual anthropology has revealed the significance of providing context through photo captions in rendering meaning to otherwise vague information, and a caption on the back cover identifies the photographer as Leslie W. Rabine, volume author of the chapter on Senegal, and states: 'Nene Sy in fashionable sequin veil, Dakar, 2010'. On the interior title page there is another image of a single-sheet body cover of a barefoot woman. Sadly, there are few or no captions provided for this and a few other images, which weakens the book's scholarly value because it leaves interpretation to the reader's imagination. Valuable caption texts can, however, be found in the chapter by Renne on Nigeria.

The introduction by the editor, titled 'Veiling/counter-veiling', is followed by chapters grouped into three parts, each having three chapters. Part 1 is called 'Veiling histories and modernities' and consists of chapters entitled 'Veiling, fashion, and social mobility: a century of change in Zanzibar' by Laura Fair; 'Veiling without veils: modesty and reserve in Tuareg cultural encounters' by Susan J. Rasmussen; and 'Intertwined veiling histories in Nigeria' by Elisha P. Renne. Part 2 is called 'Veiling and fashion' and consists of chapters entitled 'Religious modesty, fashionable glamour, and cultural text: veiling in Senegal' by Leslie W. Rabine; 'Modest bodies, stylish selves: fashioning virtue in Niger' by Adeline Masquelier; and "'Should a good Muslim cover her face?" Pilgrimage, veiling, and fundamentalisms in Cameroon' by Jose C. M. van Santen. Part 3 consists of chapters on 'Invoking hijab: the power of politics of spaces and employment in Nigeria' by Hauwa Mahdi; "'We grew up free but here we have to cover our faces": veiling among Oromo refugees in Eastleigh, Kenya' by Peri M. Klemm; and finally 'Vulnerability unveiled: Lubna's pants and humanitarian visibility on the verge of Sudan's secession' by Amal Hassan Fadlalla.

It is remarkable that veiling continues to capture the attention of scholars and lay folk, filling many academic and popular publication pages. In her introduction, Renne recognizes that previous works successfully dismantled 'the dichotomy of free unveiled women and suppressed veiled ones', which she considers to be 'an important analytical advance'. Much more has been dismantled since 1999. In my own work I have suggested that veiling by men, not just women, particularly among non-Tuareg groups, is critical for the very conceptualization of the topic. Moreover, any analysis of the phenomenon must be conceptual as well as descriptive.

This volume on 'veiling practices, contexts, and meanings' (p. 9) has some welcome aspects but leaves some questions unanswered. Its premise is that an understanding of the veiling techniques of the past and its diverse manifestations in the present offers predictive qualities. However, it is questionable that the social dynamics and meanings of a complex of cultural behaviour as large as the technique of veiling can be projected onto the future simply on the basis of albeit detailed historical research of its manifestations.

The carefully researched chapter by Fair can serve as an example here, as it employs a historical approach to discuss a century of changes in veiling in Zanzibar. As most of the chapter focuses on veiling fashions, and as the goal of explaining 'how and why tire veil has changed over time' (p. 15) remains elusive, this approach soon reveals its weaknesses: the rise of 'the new veiling', whereby the niqab replaces the traditional buibui, is consistent with the pattern in other areas, particularly the Arab region. Interestingly, Fair states that: 'None of the women whom I interviewed said that they wore the niqab because they considered themselves "more devout" than those who did not' (p. 16, emphasis in the original). This clearly implies that the recent donning of Islamic dress is not about religion. This is an amazing observation that is left without comparative conceptualization. If that is the case, what are the defining factors distinguishing the African region from its Arab neighbours, and why? The chapter's inability to provide answers to these questions is frustrating, particularly given the uncritical use of the inaccurately adopted term of 'piety' to describe the Islamic phenomenon in the region.

Despite its analytical shortcomings, the value of this volume is in its detailed coverage of veiling manifestations in Africa, which indeed fills a descriptive gap. It also explores diverse meanings of veiling, which are added to our understanding of the phenomenon. However, what the field needs is more accounting for the underlying structures that shape such diversity: it is to be hoped that future research on African veiling will cover this ground.


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doi: 10.1017/S0001972016000176
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Author:Guindi, Fadwa El
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2016
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