Joint conference looks at history, contemporary society and the veil

Over 40 scholars from around the world will discuss the idea of the veil, veiling and the Islamic hijab at an upcoming joint York and University of Toronto conference next month.

Veiled Constellations: The Veil, Critical Theory, Politics and Contemporary Society will take place from June 3 to 5. It starts at York on June 3 in Vari Hall B, Vari Hall, Keele campus, then continues at the University of Toronto on June 4 and 5 at KP108 Koffler House, 569 Spadina Ave., St. George campus.

Slated primarily as a philosophical exploration of the veil from novel angles, the conference will address contemporary crises surrounding the place of the Islamic hijab in western society. It will include a discussion regarding the recently proposed Bill 94 under debate in the National Assembly of Quebec, which would restrict government services, public employment, educational opportunities, and healthcare to women wearing a face veil (niqab).

Organizers seek to investigate the role of academic research in challenging views that see the veil and Islamic hijab as either inherently oppressive or liberating. The conference is designed to address counter-intuitive thinking and to see if the grounds for dialogue on the issue exist in the small areas of thought where public discussion is silent. The conference exposes these silences by charting a veil that is neither entirely oppressive, liberating, Eastern or Western, specifically, but rather a highly exploited symbol, and as such, socially important.

English Professor Ellie Ragland (left) of the University of Missouri-Columbia will deliver the keynote presentation, “The Masquerade, the Veil and the Phallic Mask”. Ragland, who teaches critical and psychoanalytic theory, as well as comparative and world literature, says, “I shall argue that, not only is the veil a semblant of the phallus, but the veil is also a symptom of the question: What is Woman?” She has authored over 100 articles, lectured internationally and received the Gold Chalk Award from the University of Missouri for teaching excellence.

There will also be two plenary speakers. Cultural studies Professor Reina Lewis of the University of East London will present “Between Conscience and Commodity: Young Women, Hijab and the Fashion Industry” and Jennifer Heath, an independent scholar, curator, activist and award-winning cultural journalist, will discuss “Visible and Invisible Spaces: History, Lore and Politics of the Veil”. Lewis’s paper will analyze the relationship between modest dress and the fashion industry, using interviews with veiled United Kingdom shop workers to evaluate how young women combine conscience and commodity. She will also examine the potential challenges this poses for company merchandising and human resource strategies. Lewis is co-editor of Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (Edinburgh University Press, Routledge, 2003).

Health says her talk “will put veiling into universal context by reviewing various practices – among them male veiling, veiling in pre-Abrahamic periods, in Judaism and Christianity, purdah in India, the politics of hair and the veil in popular culture – and reflecting on the great ubiquity, importance and profundity of the veil throughout human history and imagination.” She will also discuss how “current issues of the veil are related to and also distract from deeply urgent feminist concerns of poverty, disease, hunger, maternal and infant death rates, environmental degradation and war.” Heath is the author and editor of eight books of fiction and non-fiction, including The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics and The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam. Her edited Land of the Unconquerable: Women of Afghanistan in the Post-9/11 Era is forthcoming later this year.

Panels over the three-day conference will look at topics including post-colonial interventions, the study of Muslim female artists, philosophical interventions and the paradox that is liberalism.

In addition to presenting current academic research, a theatre performance by a local Kitchener theatrical company, MT Space, called Across the Veil will take place June 5 at 6pm. Across the Veil was commissioned by the Centre for Community Based Research (CCBR) in partnership with MT Space and the Somali-Muslim Canadian Association of Etobicoke in response to hate crimes and social injustices in Canada, and deals sensitively with social intolerance in a non-intimidating and humorous fashion.

The conference is organized primarily by graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Toronto, York University, Ryerson University, McMaster University and the University of Western Ontario. It is funded through the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, along with 18 Toronto-based sponsors.

For more information and ticket prices, visit the Veiled Constellations Web site, or e-mail Arshavez Mozafari, a PhD candidate in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto, at