Why do Western publishers have a veil fetish?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 7 2006 12:47 PM

Veiled Babes

Why are Western publishers so keen on shrouded cover models?

(Continued from Page 1)

I didn't like my veiled image for aesthetic and ideological reasons—I looked scary, and the theology behind the veiling of women is scary to me. I explained to my gracious editor at HarperSanFrancisco that while women from Afghanistan to Egypt cover their faces in the name of Islam, the most puritanical interpreter of Islamic law in the world—the Wahhabist government of Saudi Arabia—says women cannot do the pilgrimage to Mecca with their faces covered. In a crowd headed to the sacred mosque one afternoon during the hajj, I had been struck by a woman scurrying beside a man who was wearing the black turban that's become a symbol of the Taliban. She looked like so many of the women I had met in the North-west Frontier region of Pakistan, but with a marked difference: Her face was bare. At home, the women of that part of the world fully veil their faces in public.

Standing Alone in Mecca.

"For Westerners, the veiled woman is mysterious. We don't know what to do with her. We were trying to re-create the mystery," explained my publisher, Mark Tauber (who I hope will still be my publisher after this story runs). My publishing house relented, designed an interim cover with the image of a veiled babe from Getty Images' stock files, but then, after the typical author whining, settled on an image of me with my white scarf over my hair (but not my face) for the final hardback cover. The photograph captured me just as I had looked on the pilgrimage to Mecca, but as I traveled around on my book tour, my publishing house and I came to realize that it didn't represent me as I am in the world.

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Except for a few experimental runs and prayer at the mosque, I've never covered my hair. My mother grew up in India in the 1950s and early '60s wearing a traditional black burqa. In fact, her family wouldn't allow girls to go to college after she dared to remove it in her Mumbai women's college. (The driver ratted her out.) After graduating, she was quickly set up in an arranged marriage. When she arrived in Hyderabad with my father, her new mother-in-law greeted her at the train station. My sassy grandmother wrenched off my mother's veil right there on the platform. "I felt naked," says my mother, but she never chose to return to the veil.

Standing Alone in Mecca.

To my publisher's credit, the paperback edition of my book used a photo that resembles me as I appear on the streets: unveiled, my hair flying in the wind. It was shot at the corner of Amsterdam and 111th Street in New York by a fashion photographer. Just as Tony Blair called the veil "a mark of separation," Tauber says, "We decided for the paperback that the scarf was a barrier to the true reader for the book." For future titles, he keeps his options open, saying, "It depends on the book." But one thing is clear about the veil, he says: "It's a tired device."

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