This qualitative research study draws on social representations theory and the concept of social identity to explore dynamics of knowledge and identity in relation to the Muslim practice of veiling. Data was generated from individual and group interviews with mainly second-generation Muslim women in Denmark and the United Kingdom.
Considering Muslim veiling from the perspective of social representations theory draws attention to how values, ideas and practices in relation to veiling are at once collectively elaborated and variously contested and re-presented in the self-other encounter. It sheds light on the impact on Muslim women of the social stigmatisation of veiling and shows how modes of reasoning are developed dialogically in relation to
different aspects of culture and context. Specifically, it shows how the practice of veiling and the meaning of the Islamic virtue of modesty are developed in ways that
both incorporate and resist liberal norms of agency and sexual freedom – norms that inhere in outsiders’ representations of veiling and Muslim women’s identity.
Drawing on analysis of the particularities of these processes in dialogue, this study engages with feminist critiques of prevailing analyses of veiling that reduce Muslim women’s capacity for action to a frame of subordination versus resistance. Reflecting in particular on Mahmood’s (2005) reframing of ideas of agency through an account of Muslim women’s practices of piety, the study conceptualises agency through
processes of social representation that are revelatory of both the constructive influence of cultural forces and the possibilities of transformation. The study
provides an account of the dialectical nature of knowledge and identity in context that offers a way of overcoming the dualism of individual versus social that continues to constrain much research in social psychology and limits feminist theorisation of the
relations between gender, culture and agency.