The veil functions in relation to all three mediums in Aristotle’s triad of melos (music), opsis (image), and lexis (text). In music, the term “veil” refers to “a slight obscuration or want of clearness in the voice,” [1] and a “veiled” sound or voice is one that is “indistinct, muffled, [or] obscure.” [2] In the visual realm, the veil is “something which conceals, covers, or hides; a disguising or obscuring medium or influence; a cloak or mask” [3]; thus, a “veiled” photographic image is one that is “dim” or “lacking clearness or distinctness.” [4] Finally, by means of “veiled” language or speech, one can “refrain from discussing or dealing with” something or “hush up [something] or keep [it] from public knowledge.” [5]

In Marshall McLuhan’s terms, the veil functions as both an “extension” and an “amputation” [6] of the human body; furthermore, the veil provides the body with protection from the outside world, and it serves “as a means of defining the self socially.” [7] Like all forms of clothing, the veil functions as a “direct extension of the outer surface of the body.” [8] In addition to extending and buffering the human face, however, the veil also cuts off the face and insulates it from the outside world. As Fanon states of the function that the veil serves for the Algerian woman, “The veil covers [her] body and disciplines it, tempers it…The veil protects, reassures, isolates.” [9] While serving to “conceal or protect the face,” [10] the veil also serves as an “immediately perceptible” cultural marker. [11] Indeed, Fanon identifies the veil as the marker of Algerian society that tourists and foreigners first observe; for tourists and foreigners, the veil “demarcates both Algerian society and its feminine component.” [12] By referring to the veil as the most “immediately perceptible” marker of Algerian society, Fanon suggests that the veil is a medium that seems to im-mediately convey the message of its wearer’s national identity.

In addition to serving as an item of clothing and as a cultural marker, the veil can function as a weapon. For McLuhan, just as “clothing is an extension of our individual skins, “weapons proper are extensions of hands, nails, and teeth.” [13] As “a disguising or obscuring medium or influence,” or “something which conceals, covers, or hides,” [14] the veil can be instrumental in times of conflict. As Fanon states in “Algeria Unveiled,” the veil assumed an instrumental role in the French-Algerian conflict; it was used as a means of concealing weapons. According to Fanon, the veil was “transformed into a technique of camouflage, into a means of struggle.” [15] Since “any person carrying a package could be required to open it and show its contents” to the French patrols, the Algerian woman used her veil to “conceal the package from the eyes of the occupier.” [16]

The veil is able to serve as an effective weapon because of the manner in which it limits others’ perception. As “a cloak or mask” and “something which conceals, covers, or hides,” [17] the veil allows (or forces) its wearer to be anonymous and invisible. In “The Forethought” to The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois writes of “leaving…the world of the white man” and stepping “within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,–the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls.” [18] In this passage, DuBois suggests that the veil renders African-American experiences invisible to “the white man,” and DuBois identifies the polemic of his text as that of “raising” the veil in order to lend readers a sense of what lies “within” it. In Fanon’s essay, the Algerian woman’s veil troubles European norms of exhibition. According to Fanon, by hiding her face behind a veil, the Algerian woman seems to be “disguising a secret” and “creating a world of mystery, of the hidden.” [19] The European man senses that the veil “hides a beauty” that should be shown and exhibited." [20] Furthermore, the European woman discerns in the veil “an ‘altogether feminine’ intention of disguising imperfections,” and she compares her strategy, “which is intended to correct, to embellish, to bring out…with that of the Algerian woman, who prefers to veil, to conceal, to cultivate the man’s doubt and desire.” [21]

By rendering individuals anonymous and invisible, and by violating European norms of exhibition , the veil becomes a fetish object; it has particular effects on the European man’s psyche, and it allows the European man to project his fantasies onto women marked by differences in race, nationality, and religion. Fanon follows “the multiple reactions provoked by the existence of the veil” in the European man. [22] According to Fanon, the European man associates the veiled Algerian woman with a “romantic exoticism, strongly tinged with sensuality.” [23] Because the European man lacks visual access to the Algerian woman’s face, he maintains an “irrational conviction that the Algerian woman is the queen of all woman.” [24] However, the European man also has an aggressive or violent reaction to the veil. Whereas the Algerian man has a “permanent intention not to perceive the feminine profile, not to pay attention to women” – an intention that the veil renders feasible –, the European man “wants to see” and “reacts in an aggressive way before this limitation of his perception.” [25] Just as Jean-Paul Sartre, in Réflections Sur la Question Juive, notes the “aura of rape” that the European man associates with the Jewish woman on an unconscious level, Fanon writes of “the rape of the Algerian woman in the dream of the European,” which is “always preceded by a rending of the veil.” [26] According to Fanon, the European man’s rape fantasy manifests “the specific features of his relations with the colonized society”; thus, the rape of the Algerian woman represents an “unveiling” and “deflowering” not only of the woman, but also of Algeria itself. [27]

The veil provokes such erotic and violent reactions in the European man because of the power dynamics that it facilitates around, in Lacan’s terms, “the eye and the gaze”. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan writes, “The eye and the gaze – this is for us the split in which the drive is manifested at the level of the scopic field.” [28] In interpersonal interactions, the veil occupies the position of the screen between the “eye” (of the subject) and the “gaze” (of the Other); it can serve as a partial or total obstruction of the subject’s line of vision, and it can thus facilitate a certain power dynamic between subject and object. In Fanon’s text, wherein the veiled Algerian woman is the object of the European man’s gaze, the veil “frustrates the colonizer” because “there is no reciprocity”; the Algerian woman “sees without being seen.” [29] DuBois also writes of the scopic relations and power dynamics that the veil facilitates in interactions across racial lines; he writes that the “Negro is...born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world.” [30] This “second-sight” is a “double-consciousness,” a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” [31]

In addition to partially or totally obstructing the subject’s line of vision, the veil can also serve as an opaque screen on which the subject can project images and fantasies. As a medium “between” people (rather than one “in” which something appears or “through” which something is transmitted), the veil is embedded in the realm of exchange, dialogue, and reciprocity. Within this realm, the veil can promote misrecognition by way of prejudices and stereotypes. Indeed, W.J.T. Mitchell places the veil in the context of stereotypes, which are “invisible (or semivisible) and ordinary, insinuating themselves into everyday life and constituting the social screens that make encounters with other people possible—and, in a very real sense, impossible.” [32] According to Mitchell, stereotypes “circulate across sensory registers…and they typically conceal themselves as transparent, hyperlegible, inaudible, and invisible templates of prejudice.” [33] By functioning in this way, stereotypes ensure that “the face-to-face encounter…never really takes place” and that it “is never unmediated, but is fraught with the anxiety of misrecognition and riddled with narcissistic and aggressive fantasy” – much like the fantasy that the European man has upon encountering the veiled Algerian woman in Fanon’s text. [34] The veil thus literally and/or figuratively mediates interpersonal interactions – and particularly those interactions occurring between individuals differentiated along lines of gender, religion, culture, and race.

As a medium “between” people, the veil can serve not only to mediate interpersonal interactions, but also to segregate individuals. In a religious context, the veil can segregate man from God, and “this world” from “the next.” For example, within Judaism, the veil is “the piece of precious cloth separating the sanctuary from the body of the Temple or the Tabernacle.” [35] Similarly, within ecclesiasticism, the veil is “a curtain hung between the altar and the choir.” [36] This type of veil is implied in figurative prepositional phrases such as “behind, beyond, or within the veil,” which often reference “the next world.” [37] The veil can also function to separate individuals along lines of race and gender. As Donald Gibson notes, DuBois uses the metaphor of the veil in The Souls of Black Folk to suggest both the literal and psychological segregation of whites and blacks in American society at the time of his writing; in this instance, the veil serves as an “iron curtain” segregating the races. [38] Fanon states that before the French-Algerian conflict, “The veil was worn because tradition demanded a rigid separation of the sexes.” [39] In “The ‘True Lie’ of the Nation: Fanon and Feminism,” Madhu Dubey identifies the tendency to associate the veil with a “simplistic polarization of traditional versus modern orderings of interior and exterior, familial and political realms” – realms which are articulated along lines of gender. [40]

While the veil can thus be linked to traditional systems mandating separation between individuals along lines of race and gender, it is highly susceptible to shifts in both meaning and function. As Gibson notes of DuBois’ metaphorical use of the veil in his text, “It is not always entirely clear just exactly what the veil means or where DuBois stands in relation to it…The metaphor appears even more complex when DuBois tells us that in addition to being able to move on either side of the veil, to lift it when he desires, he can also exist in a region on neither side… [and] also… he may exist above it.” [41] Thus, while the veil serves as a “unifying thread” in The Souls of Black Folk, it is a versatile metaphor; it assumes various meanings and functions throughout the book. [42] Likewise, Fanon emphasizes that the veil had a “historic dynamism,” shifting in meaning and in function at multiple points during the French-Algerian conflict. [43] While contemplating the manner in which Fanon conceptualizes the veil in his essay, Dubey writes, “In this account of the veil’s multiple political valences, Fanon is clearly unwilling to confer any necessary or fixed traditional value on the veil.” [44] Dubey emphasizes that Fanon does not essentialize the veil, but rather celebrates its “historical dynamism” and the manner in which was instrumentalized in a political struggle.

Nicholas Baer
Winter 2007