Veils and Sunglasses

In trolling my university’s online library database looking for articles on the gaze, I came across an interesting journal article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture written by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein on Veils and sunglasses. Briefly the article examines the mechanics of the veiled gaze and the “cool” sunglasses, as well as looking at whether the veiling of women promotes or prevents fetishisation and compared the veil to the technique of cropping. My brief notes follow:

The Face Veil and Sunglasses
  • Both the veil and sunglasses serve to disrupt the gaze, especially true in case of the eye-covering veil which is similar to that of sunglasses.
  • The subject cannot be gazed at –> becomes a spectator.
  • The veil allows women to look out without being seen (compared to mashrabiyya, Arabian lattice work on windows).
  • To see without being seen is empowering and liberating to the women. (I think this must be part of a cultural identity in order to feel empowered by wearing a veil. Personally I would feel quite subjugated).
  • There is no reciprocity or returned gaze.
  • “The problem is that the person who is completely veiled is too invisible for others as a person and cannot always fully participate in the social game played”.
Kabul, Afghanistan by Steve McCurry
Kabul, Afghanistan by Steve McCurry


  • A comparison of sunglasses and veil revealing the eyes (like the niqab) reveals more interesting analysis.
  • Both veil and sunglasses provide a selective covering of the face.  With the veil the eyes are uncovered, with sunglasses the rest of the face, bar the eyes, is uncovered.
  • Communication with a woman wearing a face-covering veil is difficult. She is less audible through the folds of material and also her hearing is impaired by the covering over her ears. Similarly it is equally difficult to communicate with someone wearing very dark sunglasses.
  • Research done by Marshal McLuhan shows that African-Americans aspire to a “cool” semi-presence which can be traced back to the time of slavery where the men would adopt a “cool mask” as “an extension of the instinct to survive”.
  • The wearing of sunglasses on the bandstand evolved as a method of self-expression. The use of sunglasses is a “mask to deflect the gaze of others without causing conflict”.
  • “It seems that since then the cool pose of supreme indifference has become “eyes hidden behind shades” able to symbolize habits of transgression and irreverence as a world view.”
Photograph by Hassan Hajjaj, Morocco
Photograph by Hassan Hajjaj, Morocco


  • “Hot” is any kind of information that is very defined and does not require much to be added. Here McLuhan argues that hot media is that which is more mathematically orientated or linear and logical – every thing is cut and dried. Cool media, on the other hand, leaves information open to interpretation. Speech would be cooler than images.
  • A cool person wearing dark sunglasses lacks data because the glasses “create the inscrutable and inaccessible image that invites a great deal of participation and completion.”
  • The face defines one’s identity. It is an “intimate and legally responsible part of the body”.
  • Botz-Bornstein states that the eyes are the “most private and most “unofficial” part of the face” because they are directly connected to the brain and our thoughts are revealed more closely through the eyes than through any other part of the face. It is extremely difficult to disguise or control the expression of the eyes.
  • The use of sunglasses only became more widespread in the 1920’s.
  • Two differing views: Huxley’s view: wearing of sunglasses is a weakness “addition has its origin in the fear of light” . Virilio’s view: interprets it as “coolness” because the wearer of dark glasses becomes stronger. “The wearer of dark glasses knows that the protectors-propagators of bodies and images are loaded weapons”.
  • In Latin America dark sunglasses are symbols of prestige, or those aspiring to better status. Represent aloofness and distance that is present in those statuses.
  • Sunglasses protect the wearer from light, even at night. No disturbing gazes can penetrate the dark shields and thus make the wearer more powerful. The wearer of sunglasses appears cool – doesn’t frown, grimace or show signs of stress.
  • Sunglasses and veils both have combination of presence and non-presence, create mystery. But the mysteries are resolved in different ways.
  • The person wearing sunglasses while revealing important parts of the face to us, forces us to reserve any final judgement because the gaze is missing. We are unable to decipher the real intentions which are conveyed by the eyes, thus the “meaning can never be construed.”
  • The veil has been symbol of “inscrutability of the East” for centuries.
  • “The face of the woman who is wearing the face veil is like being put on a psychological operation table exposing only the most important parts of her psyche, which remain analysable, hypnotisable, and vulnerable. The eyes give us access to “hot” information because as long as we see the eyes, we can decipher her state of mind (is she afraid, shy, defiant, etc.)”.
A woman is showing wearing a niqab in this 2011 file photo. (AP / Shakil Adil)
A woman is showing wearing a niqab in this 2011 file photo. (AP / Shakil Adil)


  • The concealment of the mouth also has strong symbolic connotations. Documentation by Freud –> “female symbolism of the mouth, its vulnerability to penetration, and to the unconscious association between the eyes and the male generative powers”. But the covering of orifices for fear of penetration is not a sign of coolness, but “the hiding of information as well as the disruption of one’s own stare definitely is”. According to Botz-Bornstein the hot exposure of the woman’s eyes doesn’t permit the expression of real coolness. While she can communicate her emotions through her eyes, she has no official means to formulate her message through other facial expressions. This contradicts the concept of the veil as a vehicle of coolness.
  • The mouth is symbolically also the official communicator. The mystery of the face veil is in the hiding of the official information (the mouth) that is supposed to complement the intimate one (the eyes). “The veil has so often been evoked in the context of erotic intentions because here the intimate message is sent out without being complemented by any official confirmation.”
  • The eyes generate an attraction which in turn leads to a desire to scrutinize the rest of the face.
  • The mechanics of the dark sunglasses works in opposition to this. The official part of the face is exposed, but it loses its “attractiveness” because the real meaning of the features cannot be construed. “The result is mystery but not primary eroticism”. The sunglasses divert the gaze instead of encouraging further inspection. This is why they are “cool”. They create interest, arouse intrigue occasionally, but do not attract.
  • What if a face veiled woman wears sunglasses – how would that be construed? The veiled gaze is active, the cool gaze is detached, expressing indifference “that challenges the other to attempt to attract its interest”. In order to be cool is “the interplay of official messages with more or less construable unofficial messages”. Sunglasses worn by face veiled women cannot have any strong erotic connotations because the male gaze will not be supported by desire.
  • Lacanian scheme of the paradox of desire:  “desire is sparked when something embodies or gives positive existence to its nothing — its void”. Desire wants confirmation that the “object (rest of the face) is really there and possibly desires us”.
The Veil as a Fetish
  • The pattern of “hotness” becomes evident when the “feminine attraction is suppressed in a way that the subject will definitely refuse to discover what is underneath the veil Then the veil itself becomes “hot.” When the veil’s hotness becomes extreme this turns into a fetish.
  • Fetishism plays an important part in Freudian psychoanalysis where the fetish represents a substitute of a phallus which the woman lacks. Both Freud and Baudrillard concurred that fetishism is mainly a male proclivity. Apart from the phallus, the other most classical fetish is that of the doll. “The process of fetishisation turns the woman into a phallic doll in the sense of a smooth and blank effigy on which male desire can be projected”.
  • The question is posed whether the veiling of women contribute or prevent this kind fetishisation.
  • According to Sarah Kofman there is a strong parallel between veiling and fetishisation. She states the reasons women have for veiling themselves would join up with a man’s need for a fetishism, and with her interests at stake, would make her an accomplice. “The surface of the fetish-woman is smooth and nothing is supposed to disrupt the creation of male desire that is sparked when looking at a blank body screen”. In a quote by Christine Braunberger the point was made that tattoos on a female body are supposed to disrupt the male perception of the female body and thereby prevent fetishisation – the tattoos disrupting the smoothness of the female skin.
  • Similarities/dissimilarities of the veil and the tattoo are: the veil can be taken off, the tattoo is permanent; the veil has an ‘underneath’ (the woman). Both work within the elements of desire, smoothness and male gaze.
  • When a male tattoos a woman he will exercise control and turn her into “a desiring subject whose focus he can control”. When the woman applies the tattoo herself the male loss of control over the inscriptions on the woman’s skin are akin to impotence. The man can no longer project his desires  on the female skin and he has to accept that other men might be attracted by the tattoo. This loss of control prevents the fetishisation of the woman. (I have to wonder how many young girls would have their bodies tattooed if they were aware of this bit of psychoanalysis).
  • Botz-Bornstein asks the question – does veiling disrupt the process of female fetishisation in a similar fashion or does it work in service of fetishisation? There is a big difference between a man forcing a woman to wear a veil and a woman who chooses to do it on her own (possible self-feishisaton). Baudrillard states “women can either be turned into fetishes or they can decide to “perform this labor of continual fetishization on themselves”. When a woman chooses to fetishize herself, she will do so in such a way that she still appears appealing to the male. A man who puts a veil over a woman is able to control her desires.
  • “The woman who decides to get a tattoo … clearly disrupts the process of her own phallicisation because she destroys her skin’s blank surface. … The veil emphasizes smoothness and combines a phallic shape with doll-like attributes”.
  • The mystery created by sunglasses disrupts fetishisation categorically more so than the veil because “it does not re-enact the person in the form of the blank screen”. There is no direct correlation between the sunglasses to the control of the wearer’s desire, where there is with the veil.
Conclusion: Concealing, Cropping, Cutting
  • Sunglasses are “cooler” –> covering of the eyes mystifies the person in cooler way than the covering of the mouth. Covering of the eyes does not invite fetishisation, where veils can become fetishes.
  • One might argue that veils are cool in a similar fashion as Facebook profile photos are sometimes cropped. These are cool because they make the subject look mysterious. But the cropping function was designed for the alteration of pictures and not real faces. The cropped photo appears more stable and enigmatic than in real life and can also function as a cool mask. “A cropped/veiled face in real life is not necessarily as cool and mysterious as a cropped face on a photo”.
  • Cutting is a gesture in which one can transform any subject into an aesthetic subject. It is an act of stylization.
  • Sunglasses follow the logic of cutting, the veil conceals. Sunglasses and tattoos “attempt to disrupt the gaze by disturbing existent structures; they do not merely hide the body’s surface, but involve parts of the body in a playful act of stylization”.
  • Not impossible to put the veil towards cutting and cropping mechanisms –> headscarf –> an act of stylization that does not conceal. It is more an accessory. The veil as religious symbol is incompatible with fashion because fashion is playful by nature and one can always step out of the game (take the veil off).
Antony Jones/James Whatling/Getty Images. Dogs. Dogs. DOGS ARE EVERYWHERE
Antony Jones/James Whatling/Getty Images. Dogs. Dogs. DOGS ARE EVERYWHERE


  • The headscarf adds value to the appearance of the woman because like sunglasses and tattoos, “it disrupts the gaze by weaving it into an aesthetic game that the wearer engages in to explore diverse stylistic possibilities.
  • Another example of cutting the veil is the hijab bo tafkha (“puffy hijab”) where women fix a large decorative flower on to the back of their heads with a hairclip under the hijab. This gives the impression of having a beehive under the veil. This device allows women to play with the shape of their head.
  • The hijab is limited to hiding and is not an item of stylization, often rendering the wearer’s face as artificial and rigid or expressionless.

Certainly a lot of fascinating arguments to consider. Once it has all sunk in, I’m sure I’ll come back and add a few more comments and questions.

Reference List

Botz-Bornstein, T (2013) ‘Veils and sunglasses’ in Journal of Aesthetics & Culture Vol 5 Issue 1, 2013.


Adil, Shakil (2011) A woman is showing wearing a niqab in this 2011 file photo [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 February, 2017]

McCurry, Steve (n.d.) Kabul. Afghanistan [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 February, 2017]

Antony Jones/James Whatling/Getty Images (n.d.). Dogs Dogs. DOGS ARE EVERYWHERE [online] Vanity Fair. Available at: [Accessed 3 February, 2017]


7 thoughts on “Veils and Sunglasses”

  1. That’s a really interesting post. In the Jungke we were asked by a regular volunteer not to wear sunglasses when speaking with people there for these reasons. I am a big sunglasses wearer and panic when I can’t find them


  2. Such an interesting read, thank you. Where (and how) do people in helmets (motorbike, police etc) fit into this, I wonder…


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