The Veil in Islam: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

Daniel Avatar

The political philosopher Charles Taylor made an excellent observation recently when he pointed out that in those instances when multiculturalism fails to in its effort to promote a set of neutral and universal values int eh public sphere, it is often Islam that causesis often the cultural exc. The banning of the veil is an example that troubles Taylor, precisely because it is banned in the name of “pluralism,” “human rights” and “tolerance.”

We don’t often think of multicultural liberal policies as advancing Orwellian double speak, but when looking at the banning of the veil in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights, we find that the court affirmed the ban in the name of pluralism, broadmindedness, and tolerance, effectively rendering these names meaningless.  The court argued that in order to advance these values, and protect democracy, it was legitimate to adopt the ban on the headscarfs as a “proportional means to advance such legitimate aims.” Similarly, the legal decision to ban the headscarf across schools in France, and in Quebec more recently was justified in the name of liberal equality and a “values-based” approach. [1]

The ban on the veil is at least formally presented as a ban on a sign that presents an affront to social order and harmony, but it ends up as a ban on a social subjectivity – on the intimate and particular domain of one’s identity expression.  In this way, the ban on the veil is similar to the attempts to preemptively ban Shariah law in US courts, a project that would ostensibly make practicing Islam illegal and punishable by fine.  Shariah refers to a set of liturgical rights and individual dispensations of the believer to God, and so Muslims perceive the Shariah as a set of “rights.”

What unites the conservative “empowerment” approach to Muslim women advancement of a Laura Bush, to the more radical leftist actions of FEMEN, who recently organized a “topless jihad day” seems to coincide at the level of false consciousness.  There is a tacit assumption that the female voice from within Islam lacks the capacities to formulate their own sense of autonomy, and to articulate therefore their freedom from oppression must be waged by those outside of Islam.  This belies the reality that social scientists have discovered across Muslim majority countries, where the wearing of the veil is being used as an identity statement against western secularism, and is worn out of a sense of religious obligation, and not coercion by Muslim men. 

FEMEN’s “topless jihad day” – a global action against the oppression of women and female genital mutilation involves non-Muslim activists, who curiously insisted on using the language of Islam “jihad” and in forcefully presenting a western conception of radical liberation located at the site of the body.  Does such a notion of liberation indeed resonate with Muslim women themselves?  This question seems to have been discarded as irrelevant.  What FEMEN misses in their hasty effort to liberate Muslim women is a more nuanced and careful look at what Islam and Muslim women have to say about liberation.

The Veil According to Psychoanalysis 

One discourse that presents a view of subjectivity, albeit from a libidinal and affective perspective is psychoanalysis.  Jacques Derrida, in his brilliant essay, “Geopsychoanalysis… and the Rest of the World”  shows that psychoanalysis feeds an imperial drive that knows no borders, and that buried deep within the mission of psychoanalysis — to conquer the symptom, lies a certain tendency towards secularization.  But despite these concerns, there are important interventions that take place from the perspective of religious studies and Islamic studies and psychoanalysis.  The late Mustapha Safouan, an Egyptian disciple of Lacan wrote a famous text, “Why Are the Arabs Not Free” that looks at Arab despotism from the lens of psychoanalysis and deconstruction theory.  

But where the most groundbreaking work on Islam and psychoanalysis is taking place is with the French Muslim psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama.  Benslama has developed a provocative theory about the role of the veil – and women more generally in Islam that helps to re-frame the debate about women and Islam.   Benslama’s influential text, Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam seeks to accomplish what Freud did for Judaism, or might we say what Freud did to Judaism in Moses and Monotheism.  

For Freud, Moses presents the founding myth of Judaism as a non-Jew, and the fact that the truth of the community was made by an outsider set the stage for a new relation to the unruly desire of the paternal father.  In any founding myth Freud claimed that the jouissance of the primal father typically results in the murder of the father.  But the situation is different in monotheism’s, where the situation is reversed and the fathers primal desire is repressed.  In monotheism, it is the father that kills the son, or poses the possibility to do so, whereas in non-monotheistic religions, it is the reverse, the son kills the father.   The intense and unruly jouissance of the primal father (in any mythic model) must be repudiated to allow for libidinal relations to function. 

The Prophet Muhammad was an orphan and for Freud and the tradition of psychoanalysis the role of the father in Islam poses challenges to interpretation.  God in Islam poses a major problem to Freud precisely because he represents an originary withdrawal of the father.  God is located on the side of what is called the Real in psychoanalysis, trans-paternal, occupying a no-place, and an incommensurable withdrawal between relation and non-relation.  The closest we come to a father figure in Islam is through Ishmael, (the Prophet Muhammad, himself an orphan was clear that his followers were not to consider him a father to them) even though he is not the first Muslim, Ishmael is the prophetic source of entry for Muhammad’s revelation.  But like Moses, Ishmael, (a non-Arab) is the paternal founding point of Islam, making Islam’s founding not an imitation as much as it is a translation into Arabic of paternal authority.

The woman’s place in the founding of Islam is also crucial, as it is also founded by an outsider figure, Hagar, the slave to Abraham and Sarah who birthed their son.  Here we encounter another structural necessity in psychoanalytic thought that Benslama latches onto, which is that there must be a disavowal of the truth of the origin.  The reason that we find the question of the origin and what Benslama refers to as the “repudiation of origin” so significant in understanding the libidinal economy and idea of subjectivity in Islam has to do with a theory of desire, what Lacan calls jouissance.  In psychoanalysis, there is a radical asymmetry between man and woman that is located at the level of desire.  Both men and women possess what Lacan called “phallic jouissance,” which is based around possession – men and women either have phallic jouissance or they do not.  Freud referred to women as the “dark continent” and admitted that he could say nothing about femininity, posing the question “what do women want?”  So the overarching point here is that Isalm’s revelation was founded on the Other’s desire, for which a few examples are needed.

Because Islam arose from the female foreigner (Hagar) and she has remained estranged in Islam, her story represents a refusal of origin that leads to a universalized disavowal that presents a source of disavowed truth for the entire religion.  Truth is understood here not simply as an origin that remains static, but as a repressed core that repeats and is open.  The other woman provides the source of a kind of jouissance that is twofold: the knowledge of alterity (Hagar is a clairvoyant) and the desire of Hagar’s body. Hagar inserts herself as a mistress between the desire of Abraham and Sara which prevents Sara from accessing his unruly desire.  Hagar is a seminal figure in this context because she resolves Abraham’s unruly desire and thus prevents the fratricidal event from taking place (78).

The relation that Hagar has with Sara is also crucial.  It is Sara that wants Hagar to give her a child. Sara lends Hagar the gift of bearing her child to overcome the lack of God in her, she was after all a prostitute.  But Hagar’s gift in return to Sara was a gift of the name, which is a gift of an archival nature and of a debt (81). Because Hagar sees God, she provides one of the names of God in “El”, or the God of her vision. The other gift was a symbolic gift to Sarai, who after the birth of Ishmael spells her name with an extra “h” on the end of her name. This gift to Sarah made by Hagar, who gave her a child is one that dispossesses her of herself. Hagar does not have access to the symbolic castration and the universalization that is now “phallic jouissance” – to the extent that it is a conception that is replacing a lack (84).  There thus emerges a master-slave dialectic whereby the master agrees to form his lack into jouissance, while the slave remains in the flesh.

“It is as if every time the pact between father and son occurs, the Hagarian figure emerges that threatens to divide them” (108).

The Veil as a Truth Mechanism

From the repudiation of origin thesis, Benslama goes on to develop a whole series of provocative ideas of this crisis of alterity, and how the Islamic subject responds. While this work is analytically rigorous and important, I would like to suggest that it remains within the paradigm of a subject of fanaticism that as Alberto Toscano points out, “characterized by a destructive and fusional passion, and is to be understood by its negations (the sacred and the secular, the self and other, and so on).

Man’s ability to believe is based on the prohibition of what the woman cannot see, and this is the basis for belief in Islam. The veil therefore separates truth from its negation.  Benslama provides several interesting proofs from Islamic history to ground this thesis.  For example, when the Prophet thinks that Ais’ha is cheating on him with Safwan, it is revelation (the Law) that enters to resolve the issue. What exonerates Ais’ha is the Sura “Light” and what happens following this event is that she is veiled.

In another major scandal that beseeches Muhammad, his adopted son Zaid divorces his wife because he can see that Muhammad is attracted to her after seeing her beauty. The Prophet marries her and what results from this is the prohibition on adoption in Islam – “Muhammad is not a father of any of you” (137). Then God says in the Qur’an, “Oh, Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their wraps a little over them. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them” (Qur’an, 33:59).

Veiling is the operation of the negation of the body of a woman. Through this operation, woman is elevated to a sacred thing, into an ideality which at the same time preserves sensible existence. The veil sheilds her body which emits a multiplicity of signs in order to envelop a unique sign. “The veil is nothing less than a spiritual/mental view of woman that attaches itself to her very body” (Benslama, The Veil of Islam).

According to a
recorded tradition, Ruqayya, a woman of pre-Islamic Mecca, recognized the ‘glow’
that the Prophet’s father Abdullah carried on his forehead, indicating the treasure he
unknowingly bore within him that was to become Muhammad, and proposed sexual
intercourse with him

In Sura 7, a veil of night separated Adam and Eve from their sex. When they ate from the forbidden fruit tree, then the veil of light descended and revealed their sex (138).  There are three stages of revelation in the Islamic tradition: veiling – unveiling – reveiling, and these stages echo the creation of the cosmos: the blinding light, the darkness that allows one to see, and the screen that blinds the seen object (138). To want the truth (for a man) turns out to be incestuous desire, and theological representation proposes to take man outside of this fascination (139 – 40).

Between man and the angel, and issues a power that emanates from the body and not from language.  When the Archangel Gabriel gave revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, it was Khadija who the Prophet sought answers of validity from, that what was happening was indeed something divine and that he was not mad.  Khadijah thus provides the scene of demonstration of prophetic truth, for which Khadijah responds with her body that his vision is indeed authentic.  This site of authentication of prophetic truth as revealed by a woman is not only significant for Islam’s transmission of truth, but also essential to what psychoanalysis calls Other jouissance.

The between two women was also present at Muhammad’s birth. The between two women stages the place, the origin of Islam in the Prophet and the desire the father has for the woman. This other figure for Abdullah is Ruqyya. Ruquya knows that Abdullah will be the bearer of the origin, but she has no need for him as such (114). Ruqya is the sister of Waraqa.

It is still the law of the father that dictates the founding of Islam (115). It is neither knowledge or the possession of the phallus that determines the birth of Muhammad.

Benslama’s most original and provocative idea is around how Islam copes with this crisis of primal jouissance. His answer comes in the figure of Hagar, the prostitute who carried Ishmael for Abraham – she becomes the foreigner who must remain estranged in Islam. Hagar’s story is a refusal of origin that leads to a sort of universalized disavowal that founds the entire religion. The other woman (Hagar) provides the source of a kind of jouissance that is twofold: the knowledge of alterity (Hagar is a clairvoyant) and the jouissance of the body (Hagar inserts herself as a mistress between phallic jouissance and prevents Sara from accessing it).

St. Paul claims that “woman ought to have power on their heads because of the angels” (130).

Hagar and Ruqqiya defy divine alterity and the result is that they have a certain clairvoyance which must be covered – this is what Benslama refers to as “the scandal of the woman in Islam” (131).


Two of the primary zones of the conflicts between the east and the west are fiction and the woman. The truth of the body, and the body of truth – such is the question of the prohibition, and the prohibition of the Other (141).


[1] Beleliu, Christopher, The Headscarf as a Symbolic Enemy of the European Court of Human Rights, Democratic Jurisprudence: Viewing Islam through a European Legal Prism in Light of the Sahin Judgment, 12 Coulm. J. Eur. L. 573 – 584 (2006).

[2] Amara, Fadela, Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from the Ghetto, 2006.  Pgs. 20 – 21.


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