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On October 28, 2001, William Safire, wrote an interesting article in The New York Times.

Within a week of the terrorist attack, George W. Bush went to the Islamic Center in Washington and said, ''Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes.'' In remarks to State Department employees on Oct. 4, President Bush spoke warmly of ''stories of Christian and Jewish women alike helping women of cover, Arab-American women, go shop because they're afraid to leave their home.''

At a televised news conference a week later, he reprised this ecumenical theme: ''In many cities when Christian and Jewish women learned that Muslim women, women of cover, were afraid of going out of their homes alone . . . they went shopping with them . . . an act that shows the world the true nature of America.'' He repeated that phrase, women of cover, calling ''such an outpouring of compassion . . . such a wonderful example.''

The cover is a veil that expresses Muslim piety. The hijab, meaning ''cover, curtain,'' can range from a floral kerchief that leaves the face exposed, to the niqab, abbaya or in Persian, chador, which covers the whole body except the face, to the burka, as worn in Afghanistan, which covers everything. ''To have good hijab'' is a general term meaning ''to be properly covered.'' Some Muslim women believe that the cover need not be worn outside the mosque. The linguistic question: in describing the wearers of the veil, is it women who cover, as the president first used it, or women of cover?

Sue Obeidi, at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, uses women who cover, women who wear the scarf and women who wear hijab. She is unfamiliar with women of cover, and I cannot find it on databases.

It's possible that the president coined the phrase; if so, it was on the analogy of women of color, a description adopted by many nonwhites. (Though colored people is dated and almost a slur, people of color is not in the least offensive.) The substitution of who with of in the cover category introduces a nice parallel to the woman of color phrase; we'll see if it takes.

The article ends with the phrase 'we'll see if it takes'.

Now, after more than ten years, what can a native speaker, living in the U.S., say about that expression 'women of cover'? Paraphrasing Mr Safire's words, did it take?

Google Search shows more than 18,000 hits for "women of cover", but for those who live outside of the U.S. that number says nothing at all but simply leads to this question.

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    It looks to me like a play on words derived from the dated/offensive women/men of colour (a weaselly reference to non-white-skinned people). Personally, I'd be inclined to think Safire is kidding himself when he says people of color isn't offensive. – FumbleFingers Sep 21 '13 at 15:26
  • @FumbleFinge, I don't know. I can't tell. – user51029 Sep 21 '13 at 15:35
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    I think if a British politician, for example, were to refer to women of cover within the context of our current national debate over whether the hijab should be banned in certain contexts (hospital nurse, trial witness, etc.), at best he'd be accused of trivialising the issue with a lame pun. – FumbleFingers Sep 21 '13 at 15:48
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    @FumbleFingers: At least in the US, "woman/man/person of color" is not considered offensive. The term was introduced several decades ago specifically as a replacement for older and more offensive terms. I see you're from the UK; is it generally considered offensive there? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Person_of_color – Keith Thompson Sep 21 '13 at 19:13
  • @Keith: Like I said, "I think" it generally would be. In the UK it's increasingly considered offensive for anyone in public life to even mention colour, religious affiliation, etc., let alone indulge in transparent "euphemisms". – FumbleFingers Sep 21 '13 at 19:50
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"Women of cover" did not take. If "bush" and "bushism" are excluded from the internet search, results don't even amount to a hundred. Also, it appears to me that the prospects of it taking in the future are slim to none.

Women of cover, it seems, is a euphemism for widely used women who cover (+ their hair / head / themselves / etc.) fashioned after the widely accepted one, people of color, which in turn used to be a euphemism for "colored people." So, if people of color successfully entered the vernacular, why doesn't women of cover as well? Here's my take on it.

First, there's the fact that it looks like and smells like a euphemism, an expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or unpleasant. Euphemisms are created out of social need. That women of cover didn't take, evinces the lack of such need in the case of women who cover. (And I think we can all be glad for that.)

Secondly, even if there had been the need for such a euphemism, the syntagmatic strength of this particular one, women of cover, is so low that it could never really have harbored the expectations of succeeding. A glance at the American corpus helps to understand the underlying logic of the construction [noun denoting a person or persons] + of + [[+intensifier] noun]. For example,

"people of" is followed the most by these nouns (geographical terms excluded):

faith, god, goodwill, means, interest, wealth, conscience, integrity, power

"man of":

action, letters, god, peace, integrity, steel, science, law, principle, sorrows, faith, honor, mystery, color, courage, means, vision, europe, genius, parts, wealth, character, culture, conviction, contradictions, power, words, business, ideas, war, taste, conscience, substance, learning, reason, compassion, honesty, numbers, sense, importance, iron, knowledge, leisure

"man of many":

parts, words, hats, moods, interests, gifts, faces, contradictions, skills, voices, passions, worlds, ways, turns, turnings, trades, tensions, secrets, pitches, permutations, particulars, moves, masks, instruments, identities, guises, colors, channels, enthusiasms, dimensions, contrasts

All those nouns have something in common. They all speak either of personality traits (of merit or of demerit) or personal achievement, or of something less individual but positive (e.g. means). Also, in all of these cases, the preposition of can be replaced with have/has, has been to, has seen and such. Of cover, simply, doesn't fit the formula. That's why it sounds artificial. On the other hand, color does fit, because aside from being a physical property, it happens to have an ulterior, positive metaphorical reading (as opposed to pale blandness or black wickedness). On that note, cover too has a metaphorical reading: that of subordinance or even cowardice ("taking cover"). Another point: whenever someone speaks of values, they are referring to a value system, which means that they are familiar with that value system. That, in turn, connotes not only their knowledge of that system, but also their partaking in it. By saying that someone is of action sends a hidden message that the speaker himself values action, and by extension, might personally be or intends to be of action. Even if that happens to be obviously untrue, the message has been sent. By saying something negative about someone, the speaker avows he personally is not like that. Of cover fails miserably in this avenue as well.

These are only a few reasons why it didn't take, and why it's unlikely to. I'm sure more can be surmised.


Edit: It looks like this phrase is more than just neutrally scarce. Some actually have a problem with it:

... we would do well to heed W. J. T. Mitchell’s warning of the fallibility of pictures. Perhaps an appropriate question to ask would be, What kind of [visual] objects does the new empire produce, depend on, and desire? Given the West’s historical obsession with gender issues in Middle Eastern societies, it is no surprise that Iraqi women and their “image” have taken center stage in contemporary rhetorical battles. Seen by all as signifiers of cultural progress, Muslim women and their changing roles are often challenged and contested by their countries of origin and the West alike. They are “women of cover.” The manner in which they appear and dress in public is seen by the West as problematic and a sure sign of oppression. Their representation in Western media has been conditioned from the beginning by preconceived political ideologies and is disputed and resented by the women themselves.

Muslim Women in War and Crisis: Representation and Reality, ed. Faegheh Shirazi, ch. VIII, "Images and status. Visualizing Iraqi Women", Nada Shabout, p. 149. Unversity of Texas Press, Austin, 2010

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    Thank you, Talia, and +1. Just a curiosity, can one say a 'woman of size' in reference to a woman whose weigh is very big? Or, is there the danger of being misunderstood? – user51029 Sep 21 '13 at 18:15
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    Yes, one can say that. And that's because the default marking of size is positive - that shows, e.g., in the adjective sizeable, which means "fairly large" even though the word size, technically, says nothing about the size, but rather just helps to measure something, whether large or small. Human beings prefer MORE to LESS, because if they have too much they can always get rid of it, whereas if they don't have enough, they're left without choices. Size connotes MORE, so it's positive, and that makes that whole phrase sound positive. – Talia Ford Sep 21 '13 at 18:26
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There seem to be very few uses of this phrase other than by George W. Bush, other than to talk about the phrase. As a native speaker living in the New York City area, I can report that it has not taken here.

For what it's worth, one of the other very few uses:

News & Events:

“Women of Cover” presents perspective on Islam

The Diversity Forum will present Women of Cover: The Veil and the African-American Experience by Dr. Tiffenia Archie on Wednesday, April 6, 2011, from 1:00–2:15 p.m. in the Perkins Student Center Auditorium. Archie will discuss her research and present a different perspective on Islam, followed by a question-and-answer session. This event is free and open to the public.

(from http://www.bk.psu.edu/32652.htm)

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I grant that Bush and his advisors may have been attempting to find a generic, inoffensive term to refer to a cultural phenomenon unfamiliar to many in the U.S., and one which was unjustly stigmatized at the time. Women of cover, however, rings of artificiality, and seems unsuccessful to me. For what it's worth, I have never, ever, even heard the term before it was brought up by this question. So as one who has been pretty well in touch with this society all along, I would have to say, no, it didn't take.

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Dividing women into two groups covered women and uncovered women is uncommon but not unheard of. Women of cover means the same thing as covered women.

It comes from people who have a literal interpretation of verses like this:

For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

It's a difficult phrase to google but there are instances of women naming their group Covering Women based on their belief system.1

  1. The content has gone downhill and I'm not going to link to the google group that had this name.

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