Du Bois’ work provides invaluable insights into the nature of reflexivity and self for the racialised 'other', which traditional, classic sociology has often overlooked. Whilst efforts to decolonise sociology continue, such as by including theorists such as Du Bois, there still has not been a sustained effort to dismantle and reconfigure an overwhelmingly white sociological canon still prevalent in European sociology (Meer 2019).
In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903 ), Du Bois centres discussion of belonging, identity and self-awareness for racialised minorities through concepts of the ‘Veil’ and ‘double consciousness’. Du Bois’ analogy of the Veil is that of a racial barrier which is made of material in the divided experiences and inequality between the white majority and African-American minorities in the USA. For Du Bois, the Veil’s semi-transparency lends itself to the duality experienced by the racialised ‘other’: a double consciousness or a ‘two-ness’ which incorporates a ‘sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’ (p.8).
In my Identities article, 'Examining BSA Muslim women’s everyday experiences of veiling through concepts of ‘the veil’ and ‘double consciousness’, the focus is on a reflective aspect of living behind the V/veil and the effects of double consciousness on gendered and racialised bodies. Here the capitalisation of the Veil is used to denote Du Bois’ descriptions of a divided world, whilst the non-capitalised use of veil (along with discussion on veiling, veiled) refers to the wearing of the hijab or niqab, as well as ways women discuss veiling practices.
My article's discussion of hegemonic discourses of the veil as ‘other’ contribute to an erasure of personhood for British South Asian (BSA) Muslim women, and makes them hypervisibly invisible; in being ‘seen’, veiled bodies are ‘read’ as radically ‘other’ and thus potentially extremist (Saeed 2016), or as victims of religious and cultural patriarchy. Stereotypical discourses about the veil ensure understandings of Muslim women are constructed for rather than from them as hypervisible bodies, and are only understood through their social and cultural otherness, thus marginalising them (hooks 1989).
This leads to discordant interactions in public spaces, such as the experience of a niqab-wearing woman in the supermarket, whose presence is dismissed to the degree where she is made to feel invisible when cashiers do not acknowledge her existence and speak to her husband instead. The article discusses the effect of this erasure on women’s subjective sense of self, and how a sense of personhood is strongly connected to the extent to which differences are accepted or rejected by the majority.
Given current medical advice on wearing a mask in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic affecting much of the world, one has to wonder, to what extent will this recategorise the meaning of the veil, and attitudes towards women who veil? Given the fact that political discourse across Europe and Western democracies have, to varying degrees, vilified the veil as subjugation and oppression, could the reluctance to make face masks mandatory in countries such as the UK (Mueller 2020) be attributed to these negative messages around the veil? (Ahmed 2020).
My article also discusses multiple levels of veiling and situates the practice within the socio-cultural context of an ethnically homogenous ‘Muslim community’ in Oldham. As an embodied practice, the association between the veil and acceptable respectability is read on Muslim women’s bodies, both veiling and non-veiling. As participants discussed, travelling through everyday spaces within an ethnically homogenous community also requires studied reflexivity, where double consciousness manifests in careful monitoring and management of the body.
The article notes that whereas in Islamophobic spaces the veil symbolises a problematic 'other', in spaces associated with ethnic religious or cultural minorities, ‘seeing the veil’ can result in Muslim women policing their own behaviour in accordance with perceived social and cultural norms.
Ahmed, L. 2020. About-face: politicians switch from vilifying burqas to mandating masks. The Conversation.
hooks, b. 1989. Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking Black. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Meer, N. 2019. W. E. B. Du Bois, double consciousness and the ‘spirit’ of recognition. The Sociological Review 67(1): 47–62.
Mueller, B. 2020. After months of debate, England requires face masks for shoppers. The New York Times.
Saeed, T. 2016. Islamophobia and Securitization: Religion, Ethnicity and the Female Voice. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Blog post by Rashida Bibi, University of Manchester, UK
Read the full article: Bibi, Rashida. Examining BSA Muslim women’s everyday experiences of veiling through concepts of ‘the veil’ and ‘double consciousness’. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1845492