Category Archives: HIJAB POLITICS

LINKAGE: Burqas, Gay Taxes, Fatshion, and More

In a guest column at Muslimah Media Watch, Alison McCarthy examines former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown’s recent claims that Obama sequesters Secretary of State Hilary Clinton under an imaginary burqa.

Also from Muslimah Media Watch, Reuters found just 367 women in France in full veil; Farah at Nuseiba examines the mini-explosion of Australian op-eds on the burqa (using Roland Barthes’ Mythologies!); and Global Voices rounds up more opinions from the Interwebs about the notion of a ban.

8Asians lets us know about a short documentary video called Beautiful Sisters, written and directed by Connie Chung for an undergraduate filmmaking course, on the infamous eyelid surgeries that some consider “whitewashing” or “self-hatred” when Asian women (or men) undergo these procedures. (On this issue, I enjoy teach Katherine Zane’s nuanced discussion from the wonderful collection Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, edited by Ella Shohat.)

Marc Jacobs jumps into the same-sex marriage fray with two limited-edition political t-shirts, both proclaiming, “I pay my taxes, I want my rights.” Between the floating dollar sign and American flag in one design, and stylish lesbian couple with equally stylish child in the other, there is too much “civic duty = taxes = access to rights” to untangle here.

Citing the work of Lila Abu-Lughod, a critique of Sarkozy’s proposed burqa ban dubs it “what-not-to-wear imperialism.”

Having recently discovered Fashion Projects (both a print journal and a blog), I was particularly impressed by this essay about George Amponsah and Cosima Spender’s documentary, The Importance of Being Elegant, which examines the Congolese subculture centered around the worship of clothes (kitende) known as la Société des ambianceurs et personnes élégantes (the Society of Revelers and Elegant People), or in short, la Sape. The documentary can be see on Vimeo.

The Los Angeles Times visits the Paris’ Musée de la Contrefaçon (Museum of Counterfeiting), “a fascinating five-room short course in the history of knock-offs, counterfeits and blatant infringements.”

Lesley at Fatshionista responds to the responses to Beth Ditto’s designer collaboration with British “plus-size” department store Evans.

Finally, reading through the abstracts for the recent academic conference FASHIONS: Business Practices in Historical Perspective turns out to be quite fascinating. There are lots of intriguing paper titles (Albert Churella, “The Clothes Make the Women: Skirts, Pants, and Railway Labor during World War II;” J. Malia McAndrew, “Feminized Diplomacy: Japanese Fashion Magazines and U.S. Censorship in Occupied Japan;” Shakila Yocob, “Branding Beauty: Indigenous Knowledge to the Forefront”) but especially timely is Efrat Tseeon’s “In Search of the ‘Ethics’ of Ethical Fashion,” which points out some significant blindspots in the rhetoric and practice.

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Couture Coincidence


We’re still mulling the implications of the Givenchy couture runway show at the recent Paris Fashion Week, with its perhaps lucky, maybe deliberate, coincidence with French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s condemnation of the burqa (a specific garment that in this instance seems to stand in for any face-obscuring garment with a Muslim-y connotation) as a “walking prison.”

The blogosphere certainly recognizes the coincidence, if not quite sure what to do with it. Going for the morbid commentary, Fashionologie calls them “couture corpse brides.” At the Lux Style File, they note that, “[Givenchy's] creative director, Riccardo Tisci, definitely struck design genius and political controversy by showing two burqas in the famed houses’ [sic] line. Givenchy’s Modern Arabian Nights theme paired well with the landscape of current political events in France.” Meanwhile, the lone comment ups the ante by assigning value to the artistic efforts of the couture house (including, presumably this latest couture collection) while denying it to the sartorial practices of Muslim others. “The house of Givenchy is excellent. I agree with French President Nicholas Sarkozay to ban the burquas [sic].”

There is also confusion about the direction and meaning of influence. Style Guru finds that Givenchy’s runway suggests the “Middle East [is] catching up with Western fashion,” an odd statement considering that influence would seem to flow in the reverse. Could the colonial divide between the “(modern) West and the (premodern) Rest” be organizing this appraisal — what Johannes Fabian calls “a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referents of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse”? Meanwhile, New York Magazine’s fashion blog The Cut argues that “Just because it looks like a burka doesn’t mean it was inspired by a burka,” citing the Luxist’s “Middle Eastern-inspired Fashion Pushes Buttons:”

Were designers stating they were for or against the ban? Do they endorse freedom of religious expression or were they speaking out against the oppression of women? Besotted with so many images of the controversial garment in the news recently, perhaps they were simply inspired to put a piece or two on the catwalks. Or, were they out to get press?

“When I ask designers questions like these, they always look confused,” says David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, whose job is to predict trends for fashion professionals. “They operate so much from their gut. Whatever the media focuses on, the sensitive designers pick up the vibe, whether consciously or subconsciously. Fashion is an endless drug and designers look for the new high-anything that hasn’t been seen or worked to death.”

Cutting through the obfuscating hand-waving, why should we interpret any particular designer’s confusion as borne of a lofty mind, rather than shallow waters? Why insist that the garments on the Givenchy runway are not “inspired” by the burqa (besides the fact that it is the abaya, and not the burqa, obviously referenced by these garments), just because a designer might be inarticulate or uninformed, or otherwise denies the influence? Whatever the “controversial” garment or pattern in question –harem pants, kimonos, Indonesian batik– it circulates throughout political, social and cultural discourses that precedes the designer, that the designer does not author and is not their point of origin. We would do well to recall here art critic Rosalind Krauss’s critique of the originality of the avant-garde as a modernist myth. And, with this critique in mind, what does it mean to argue that the abaya or the burqa “hasn’t been seen or worked to death” before, by whom? (And, in any case, Hussein Chalayan already did it.)

Others are sure there must be a purposeful connection, even a deliberate intervention, at work. Glam Damn It New York applauds Givenchy, in an ode to the unifying power of beauty: “Leave it up to the fashion world to take something that is so politically controversial and turn it into something chic enough to inspire people of all faiths to wear it. This seems to be a trend in Paris fashion as designers such as John Galliano and Carolina Herrera have designed abayas, similar to burqas minus the face covering, and plan to sell them in Saudi Arabia.” Meanwhile, Starworks calls it a brilliant move by Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy’s greative director, and, referencing the French debate, opines, “Personally, I feel you shouldn’t dictate what people wear. But when Riccardo makes them look this good… Monsieur Sarkozy, will you re-consider?”

Some commentators have taken note of histories of Orientalism with regard to these collection. Streamline Moderne raises an eyebrow at some of the runway’s aesthetic details: “This new collection was shown in Paris, but the girls all had their hair dyed black, everything was reminiscent of Morocco and the Odalisques in harems which were so popular during the colonial period. The musical accompaniment consisted of musicians playing karkabou.” Meanwhile, Quizilbash ponders Givenchy’s collection in light of Sarkozy’s statements to spin out their potential for disciplining moredifference:

To be fair, a lot of people throughout the world, Muslims included, don’t particularly fancy the Burqa, or the Abaya (which is more commonly seen in France.) But what many protest is the idea that it is an impossibility for a woman to want to wear one. It smacks of the Orientalist idea of the submissive Eastern woman without a thought of her own. France is a great place because a woman or a man, can walk down the street completely covered or half-naked. Why change that by picking on one religion? If Sarko is successful how long until Sikhs can’t walk down the street in turbans, and Hasidic Jews have to shave off their beards and cut their hair?

There seems to be considerable category confusion about the burqa and the abaya — put simply, but certainly not comprehensively, are they religious garments, or garments adapted for religious purposes? (This, on top of the erroneous interchangeability of the terms for distinct garments.) In an article for Reuters about the French export of couture abayas to wealthy clientele, Sophie Hardach captures the “border trouble” of these distinctions and the uses to which such slipperiness might lend itself. Here, a designer claims the abaya is “just” a garment in order to decline comment on veiling controversies. Hardach quite deliberately juxtaposes his statements with those of a young, presumably Muslim, girl who finds it less easy to escape the political consequences.

“If someone tells me, ‘design an abaya,’ why not, I’m proud of that. It’s just a garment,” haute couture designer Stephane Rolland, who has made many abayas for Middle Eastern clients, told Reuters backstage after his fashion show in Paris.

When asked about the broader debate whether veils are a sign of subservience and should be outlawed, his confidence wavered.”I don’t want to speak about religion, that’s a different subject. But I don’t want to cover the woman — alas, I don’t want to think about that,” he said before turning away.

While French designers are wooing Saudi clients in airy showrooms, across town in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville the picture is very different.

“If you wear the veil, you get insulted and attacked all the time, you get called a terrorist,” said Ikram Es-Salhi, a 20-year-old student standing outside the Zeina Pret-A-Porter shop that sells mass-produced headscarves, tunics and abayas.

Finally, Karl Lagerfield breezes past all the debate with an airy bon mot: “‘It might be quite nice to wear it, you don’t need to go to the hairdresser and you can see everything without being seen, I find that quite comfortable,’ he remarked after the Chanel haute couture show last week. ‘Veils, tunics, I’m not against all that, I find it picturesque. Live and let live!’” Picturesque? Oh, Karl, you never change!

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Picturing Protest: Iran in 1953, 1979, 2009

There is a really wonderful interview with Negar Mottahedeh with Goldbarg Bashi at Tehran Bureau reflecting upon the stunning photographs emerging from recent Iranian protests in a longer historical frame. (Thanks for the tip, Ken!) An associate professor of literature and women’s studies at Duke University, Mottahedeh is the author of Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran (2008) and Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema (2008). Bringing together photos from three successive uprisings –”1953, on the heels of the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry by Prime Minister Mossadeq, which resulted in the CIA-engineered coup that ousted him; massive street protests from 1977 to 1979, which resulted in the Islamic revolution; and finally the June 2009 presidential election”– the resulting conversation was incredibly insightful. You should read the whole interview, but this particular exchange is especially useful for this blog’s purpose:

[TB] I want now to turn your attention to the element of militancy. Compare the “proper manners”, the pretty dresses that women are wearing, sporting nice sunglasses, etc in 1953 with the young woman about to throw a stone in 2009. This is not to disregard the extraordinary evidence of festivity in the 2009 pictures, but the undeniable elements of raised fists, coming face-to-face with the security forces, and even throwing stones. What seems to me happening here is a bodily defiance in the public space that is quite new. Here of course we need to remember the presence of young women in such militant guerrilla movements as Cherikha-ye Fada’i Khalaq or Mujahedyn-e Khalq in the 1970s and 1980s. But nevertheless, here we are watching ordinary young women who are throwing stones with manicured hands. Your thoughts?

[NM] The Islamic Republic gained its distinction and identity by addressing itself to the senses. In Displaced Allegories I try to show how Khomeini’s revolution was a revolution under the skin. Khomeini’s regime sought to create a new national body and it did so by aiming its regulations, its system of modesty, on the body of women. The manicured nails, the threaded eyebrows, the strands of hair, are all markers of bodily defiance in public space and these acts of physical defiance have been practiced, regulated, and reinvented over and over again since 1981 when the system of modesty and veiling finally became mandatory for everyone. So, a stone in a manicured hand is certainly a violent response, but in terms of bodily defiance to a regime that inscribes itself minute by minute on women’s bodies — to cover up your arms, to lower your gaze, to move through public space unnoticed — the physicality of the response of a generation brought up under laws that address themselves to the senses, to eyes, ears, mouths, voices, to hands and bodies, is far from surprising. Part of the function of restrictions is that they make us acutely aware of the tools we possess, don’t you think?

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LINKAGE: More Responses to Sarkozy & Co.

In “Feminist Theory: The Dos and Don’ts of Defending Muslim Women” at altmuslimah, Fatemah Fakhraie writes: “While I personally believe that women should be able to wear what they themselves want and face no cultural, religious, or other repercussions for it, assuming that changing clothing brings liberation is misguided. Clothing is a symbol of repression for a reason: it is not the cloth itself that oppresses, but the complex legal, social, and economic issues that enforce the cloth. Campaigning for Afghan women to have the right to remove their burqas will not change the issues that stand in their way and enforce a dress code.”

In “How Do You Soak Yours,” Safiya responds to a Guardian essay asserting that the “burqa is a cloth soaked in blood:” “I have to admit, that my initial response to such a statement was to think, ‘Only if you’re not wearing enough sanitary protection and that could apply to any item of clothing.’ Sadly the article did not go on to tackle laundry issues, instead it focused on the not just tired, but narcoleptic topic of Muslim Women are Suffering in Their Scarves and I Care About Them More Then You Do.”

Shabana Mir in “Take It Off, Or We’ll Make You,” satirizes the Enlightenment directive to Muslim women: “Be bold. Make your own decisions. How do you know when you are making your own decisions? Your decisions can be recognized as peculiarly yours when they are strikingly different from the will of those other guys. At that point, they will also be strikingly similar to ours. If you would only choose to step out of the mold that your little community enclaves create for you, and step into the mold that the greater community of the state creates for everyone, you’d be in a safe place. A free place. Your own place.”

Keven Tillman says “Enough Psuedo-Feminist War-Mongering in the Name of Islamic Women.” “When it comes to neoconservative claims that we have to occupy far-flung lands in order to defend Islamic women from their sons, brothers and husbands, it’s nothing short of striking. After all, any mention of the ‘plight’ of women in Christendom is dismissed by the very same conservative bobble-heads as the incoherent rantings of hairy-legged ‘feminazis.’”

Nuseiba in “The ‘Enemy’ Within: Muslims in France” offers some historical notes to the French commitment to secularism: “French philosopher Alain Badiou writes that it is fear that drives such criticism of ‘foreign’ (Muslim) dress. The justification for protecting a secular identity is a front to undermine Islam in France, and this is closely tied with another part of France’s history: the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. The country suffers from a pathological fear of a ‘Muslim threat’ born in the Algerian revolutionary struggle against French colonialism. The hijab in its haik form was used as a form of national assertion and a reclaiming of a Muslim and cultural identity. Thus, the same French mission to civilise Muslim women persists today. French Muslim women are being ‘unveiled’ as part of a contemporary French colonial mission civilisatrice, in order to ‘teach’ the Muslim Other the superiority of Western knowledge and culture.”

In “Banning the Burqa Isn’t the Answer,” Rushda Majeed argues that the politicization of the hijab by “modernizers” has consequences: “Secular governments of Turkey have banned the headscarf (a garment that in no way minimizes or erases the identity of a woman) on university campuses and in the public sector. It has had the opposite effect: an increasing number of Turkish women wear headscarves in defiance of a political system which they believe treads on religious turf. Tunisia is another example, if a less publicized one. Three years ago, its government, fearing resurgent Islamism, began going after headscarf-wearing women with particular ferocity. Many women consequently began to cover their heads as a dissenting gesture.”

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LINKAGE: Veiling On My Mind

Creepy photograph of Mavis Leno with presumably Afghan women in burqas whom she’s hoping to rescue from Jezebel.

Recent comments from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and responses from Western feminist blogs on his support for a burqa ban, have led to an explosion of reading materials about the myriad of concerns attached to the politics of hijab, and specifically those forms that cover the face, including the increased traction of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments in the states of the European Union; the continued revamping of the “civilizing mission” by Western politicians and the imperialist feminist support for that mission; the analytic but also political failures of an adherence to liberalism’s measures of the good and the true, including its beloved self-governing subject and her “freedom of choice;” the political but also affective attachments to the face as the seat of interpretive transparency (i.e., that uncovered face tells us something “real” about the individual); and in the digital arena, how the problematic rhetorical forms through which we engage in dialogue –or “dialogue”– are illuminated by sheer ubiquity and repetition.

For instance, this helpful (and satirical) guide to “Telling Other People Exactly What You Think: A Tip Sheet to Make Your Online Commentary Really Count,” from the same people who brought us the etiquette guide to “Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf,” outlines the rhetorical tactics most often used to decry the complex personhood of Muslim persons who seem to refuse to accept the knowledge of their necessarily inferior and pitiable status.

These are scary times. Without asking your permission, Muslims are daring to write articles, create films, develop radio programs, and produce art that unabashedly celebrates the complex and textured role Islam plays in their lives. They say Islamic feminism is alive and well; that they’re perfectly capable of saving themselves thank you very much, that they aren’t a monolithic lot, and their identity as Muslims isn’t their only influencer. Concerned? Enjoy the tip sheet below and tell those people exactly what you think. After all, who needs thoughtful, community building dialogue anyway?

8): Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Make the conversation about yourself. Talk about how scarves make you feel uncomfortable, how beards are scary, how much you care about women’s rights, and get offended when your ideas are deconstructed. If anyone asks you to do something hard like take steps towards real issues like stopping war, improving things like education, health and employment, or helping the 3 million internally displaced people in Swat right now, move to tip nine:

9): Obsess on dress: And specifically, obsess about the hijab, the niqab, the jilbab and the fact that people find your hang-ups a little weird. Make lots of veiled references about how maybe ‘excessive’ clothing interferes with one’s ability to think. (and just like the sentence above try and use the word ‘veil’ as much as possible. Muslims love that.)

In this great post on Muslimah Media Watch, Krista addresses this recent controversy in “Sarkozy to the Rescue! France, Burqas, and the Question of ‘Choice.’” One of the analytic rubrics that introduces my fashion course is a challenge to the language of choice and the question of coercion. I found this immensely useful as a potential course reading for next semester because “choice” versus “coercion” are so often the go-to answers for how we evaluate sartorial or corporeal practices, and I want to move students beyond this narrow dichotomy.

The thing is, the whole idea of any “choice” being completely free of any social constraints is a bit of a myth. I think we need to complicate this issue of “choice,” for two reasons.

First, choice is always socially contextual. Even if I might “choose” what I want to wear every day (and for me personally, that choice has yet to include a burqa), there’s a reason I don’t walk around outside in my pyjamas, or attend classes wearing fancy dresses. We don’t ever make choices that are entirely independent of social expectations. So when I see people express the idea that women are oppressed by their crazy Muslim communities that make them believe that they want to wear a burqa, and that because this “choice” is made in order to conform to social expectations, we should ignore it, because it’s not a free choice, it just makes me wonder: what choice is ever independent of the expectations that are imposed on us by our societies? And how can we decide which “choices” are legitimate and free, and worthy of being respected?

Second, the assumption made by many people is that the “choice” is being made between either wearing the burqa or living a life that’s completely free of sexual oppression. The problems that are supposedly inherent to the burqa are assumed not to exist once the burqa is removed.

So when Sarkozy talks about women in burqas as “prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” and about the burqas themselves as markers of “subservience,” he’s implying that it’s the burqa, and the burqa alone, that holds women captive (and that it, apparently, deprives them of identity, a claim that might say more about the way that Sarkozy conceptualises identity than it does about the women he’s attempting to rescue.)

I found this New York Times op-ed, “My Burqa Is None of Your Business,” by practicing lawyer Ronald Sokol, interesting for its reiteration of the right to privacy to include anonymity, since so much of the French state’s disapproval of the burqa is about improved visibility and potential surveillance, and so much of the imperial feminist’s disgust for the burqa is about the liberal recognition of individuality which is also about visibility and surveillance. Both the French state and the imperial feminist determine that the face is a crucial component to distinguishing among persons, granting the face a kind of interpretive transparency. Both demand the right to survey, evaluate, and correct what we might call (borrowing from Minoo Moallem) the civic face of the Muslim woman –whether or not she observes hijab, and how ever much she might cover– according to their specific measures of liberal modernity.

Covering one’s face from the view of others is a way of protecting one’s anonymity. The right to anonymity, if there is such a right, is closely linked to the right of privacy that is guaranteed by the French civil code and by the European Convention on Human Rights. On public streets or in an outdoor market, one’s anonymity enjoys legal protection from photographers. Other than permitting identification, there would appear to be no legitimate public interest in compelling people to expose their faces.

The analogy that the president seemed to have in mind is that of a sect whose members are so brainwashed that they have lost all power to free themselves from exploitation. But there is no evidence that women in France who wear burqas are victims of a sect or are exploited.

Many wish to see the burqa as a badge of feminine oppression. They seem to feel that by removing the dress the purported oppression will vanish and the person’s true voice will be found. Yet no evidence shows that women in France who wear burqas are forced to wear them, or have low self-esteem, or are unable to exercise their legal rights.

The political clamor to ban the burqa is not an evidence-based policy. It is a misguided effort to enhance the status of women grounded in speculation about what a woman hidden in a burqa must feel. Yet whatever she feels will certainly not be changed by a law telling her what not to wear. And were there a law, how would it be enforced? Would there be a fine for wearing a burqa? Would there be clothes police?

And finally, Krista from Muslim Lookout “sets the record straight” on the Canadian effort to introduce legislation that would force women who wear niqab to show their faces when voting. Noting that the proposed legislation would not have required all voters to submit to some form of visual identification –just the hypothetical voter in a face-covering veil– Krista concludes,

I followed a lot of the media hype around it in the fall, and much of it seemed to be from people worried that Muslims were taking over Canada’s political systems and forcing Elections Canada to allow them to vote with faces covered, despite a total lack of evidence that any of this was coming from Muslims, as well as the fact that the absence of a requirement of photo identification was part of the existing laws and not some concession being made to Muslim communities (who, again, had not even asked for any such concession.) The comments on some of the news articles were even worse; women in niqab were portrayed as dangerous and untrustworthy, and as a foreign threat, despite the fact that, as voters, the women in question are necessarily Canadian citizens.

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FotC’s Biggest Fan and the Burqa Ban

I love Kristen Schaal as Mel on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. Pure genius. Here, she comments on Sarkozy’s statements on the potential for a burqa ban to “free” Muslim women. There’s not much room to get too complex in a short comedy segment –and I’m not a fan of the familiar overreliance on comparisons between “their” sartorial foibles and “ours”– but the part when she eats a jar of mayonaise, slowly, is some kind of wonderful.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Burka Ban
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran

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Frenchness, to the Exclusion of the Burqa

“Sarkozy’s whole thing has been to capture votes from the National Front, the far-right French party,” Scott says. “Anti-immigrant politics is a huge part of that. Sarkozy has taken this position all along that he is the champion of Frenchness. It plays well politically for him to find issues where he can declare himself the protector of French national identity.”

From Michelle Goldberg, “Burqa Politics in France,” from American Prospect, on French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s statements to Parliament about a potential ban on the burqa

Other statistics might also help us understand why Sarkozy’s words about Muslim women in burqas might be about something other than Muslim women’s best interest. For example, although in France only 12% of the population is Muslim (due largely to migration from Muslim majority countries formerly colonized by France) 60-70% of those in prison are Muslim.

So now we have a bigger picture: Muslims as a “misbehaving” minority group, an ongoing war on terror and related distaste for all things Muslim, wide-spread discrimination against Muslims (1 in 3 Muslims in Europe have reported discrimination), desire to maintain a culturally homogeneous society, and, finally, a fascination with another man’s progress. Put together, the something else is revealed: by highlighting the oppression of Muslim women Sarkozy is giving people in France more reasons to do what France is already doing pretty well-marginalizing its large Muslim minority.

From Aziza Ahmed, “White Head of State Seeks Muslim Women to…Save?” from Reality Check

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LINKAGE: Death Fat, Beth Ditto, and All Manner of Hijab

Fatshionista’s Lesley expands upon her concept of death fat, her wry take on the “But what about your health?” hand-wringing that accompanies condemnations of fat (see the comments at any Fashionista post about Beth Ditto): “Ultimately, I employ death fat as a means of gently poking fun at strangers who would get all wrought up over their manufactured concerns about my health. If I had my choice, I’d much rather folks just pretend I don’t need them to instruct me on how unhealthy they think I must be.”

And speaking of Beth Ditto, recent publicity about her collaboration with British department store Evan’s –including a doll!– has spawned some deep thoughts, including some worries about the potentially predatory circulation of her image-body as “fashion’s magical fatty:” “My point is that the fashion world and its related media are trying to appropriate Beth but they don’t really know what to do with her. They’re trying to fit her into stale formats (crappy plus-size fashion) and, as Carrie Brownstein points out, they cannot get over their own projections of fatphobia.”

Counterfeit Chic reports on the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority and its controversial policy on religious headgear: “Imagine being permitted to wear a religious symbol to work at your government job — but only if your employer’s logo were incorporated into it.” Sikh men and Muslim women would be made to wear the MTA logo on their headgear in order to better identify them, according to the MTA, to customers. But as Counterfeit Chic asks, “Isn’t the rest of the required uniform sufficient to convey the information that an individual is an MTA employee? Or is MTA really saying that the message sent by certain religious headwear is so loud (and scary) that it drowns out other sartorial signals and must be partially obscured by a governmental symbol?”

France, after banning headscarves in schools, considers banning any form of full hijab in the name of secularism. “If it were determined that wearing the burka is a submissive act, and that it is contrary to republican principles,” government spokesman Luc Chatel said, “naturally parliament would have to drawn the necessary conclusions.” State violence for your own good, seems to be the argument. President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an address to Parliament, called the burqa a “sign of subjugation, of the submission of women,” and indicated that he would support a ban on the wearing of the garment. Will France once again shoulder this “white man’s burden,” and forcibly unveil women in an effort to mold them into a “appropriate” French feminine civic body? How might this be continuous with those historical statutes and sumptuary laws by European imperial powers that also legislated –and punished!– the sartorial decisions of colonized populations, populations who (in the language of imperialism) required “civilizing” and “moral uplift”? Meanwhile, comments at Jezebel and Feministing are flying fast and furious with condemnations of the burqa and cheers for Sarkozy and, implicitly, for the state violence that would necessarily accompany a ban.

Meanwhile, France has also banned face masks at demonstrations and protests in order to deny protesters anonymity in their “threats to public order.” Of course, this comes at a moment in which protesting Iranians are covering their faces to protect themselves from tear gas but also other forms of state retaliation. Sometimes being uncovered, being forced into visibility by the state and for state purposes (identification, surveillance, and discipline), is the real danger.

The communications studies group blog Cac.ophony muses upon the imaginative possibilities of hijab punk: “Ultimate Hijab Punk story to read: “Misli Midhib, Punk Rock Hijabi” by Cihan Kaan about a girl named Misli who is dropped down to the earth via a meteor and who covers her cosmic skin with a full hijab and performs Sufi whirls to disrupt the narratives of Muslim women.”

On a related note, how about a flashback to Muslimah Media Watch on the French guerilla street artist and provocateur Princess Hijab, “who began her ‘noble cause’ of ‘hijab-ising’ advertisements in 2006. She does this by using spray paint and a black marker to cover women’s faces and bodies in ads, or by pasting ‘hijab ad’ posters everywhere she goes.”

And finally, a bit of hijab humor (via Racialicious)– “Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf: An Etiquette Guide. I like, “Attempt Assistance. Make sure you ask whether she was forced to wear the scarf. Don’t believe her if she says no, and make sure to tell her not to fear her older brother or the men in her family. If she mentions wearing the hijab is her own choice, do make sure you tell her she is still oppressed, even if she isn’t aware of it just yet. Offer to keep in touch if she ever needs support.”

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TEACHING: Dress Codes and Modes

Bringing over some bookmarked resources from my stunted fashion blog from before I began to collaborate with the lovely Minh-Ha, I want to make a note of this extensive Powerpoint presentation on veiling practices at Women Living Under Muslim Laws. This Powerpoint will probably make an appearance in my politics of fashion course next semester.


Photograph by Christoph Bangert for the New York Times, 6 June 2009

CAPTION: BEFORE AND AFTER Riam Salaam Sabri, 16, wore more conservative clothing while security in Baghdad was poor, but now she feels safe in Western clothes.

Also, the “before American invasion” and “after American invasion” photographs accompanying this article about “What Not to Wear, Baghdad-Style” make especially relevant the arguments Minoo Moallem forwards about the political claims invested and invoked through clothing the civic body (which I discuss briefly here in an entry about the ubiquitous image of the Iranian woman in the loose headscarf during the Iranian election season).

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You Say You Want A Revolution (In a Loose Headscarf)

Because this is a fashion plus politics blog, I want to post some very brief thoughts about the protests rocking Iran after what some observers are calling a fraudulent election, reinstalling President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against his main opposition, moderate reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi.

A glance at the Western media coverage from before and after the election reveals an overwhelming visual trope — the color photograph of a young and often beautiful Iranian woman wearing a colorful headscarf, usually pinned far back from her forehead to frame a sweep of dark (or highlighted) hair. Such an arresting image condenses a wealth of historical references, political struggles, and aesthetic judgments, because the hijab does. As Minoo Moallem argues in her book Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, both pre- and postrevolutionary discourses commemorate specific bodies –whose clothing practices play a large part— to create forms and norms of gendered citizenship, both national and transnational. What Moallem calls the civic body becomes the site of political performances in the particular contexts of modern nationalist and fundamentalist movements.

Source: Huffington Post

This particular image being disseminated throughout the Western press right now is no exception. In this moment of civil unrest, we are meant to understand these sartorial and somatic signs –the looseness of the scarf and the amount of hair she shows, but also the French manicure displayed by her v-sign or raised fist, her plucked eyebrows arching above Gucci sunglasses or balaclava mask– as cultivated political acts that manifest a defiant desire for Western-style democracy. But this shorthand is too simplistic, too easy. As Moallem argues, Islamic nationalism and fundamentalism are not premodern remnants but themselves “by-products of modernity.” As such, the image of the Iranian woman in her loose headscarf is not a straightforward arrow from Islamic backwardness to liberal progress, but a nuanced and multi-dimensional map of political discourse and struggle.

In her book, Moallem writes, “while I am interested in the production of the civic body, I want to show its instability over time in Iran.” We can see this instability in the histories of forced unveiling and forced veiling that mark particular historical and political moments in Iran. Very briefly, and no doubt simplistically, the pro-Western Reza Shah banned the veil in 1936 in a broad modernization effort, authorizing police to forcibly unveil women in the street. Women donned the veil during the lead-up to the revolution as a visible act of defiance against the Shah’s corrupt and brutal rule. After 1979, the broad coalition that had briefly united against the Shah was destroyed by the conservative Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, resulting in a fundamentalist regime that, among other things, enforced veiling for women. As such, Moallem argues, forced unveiling and forced veiling are not dissimilar disciplinary practices that regulate the feminine body as a civic body subjected to the order of the visible. Moallem observes, “My grandmother’s body –like my own later– was marked by corporeal inscriptions of citizenship. Both of us shared an incorporated traumatic memory of citizenship in the modern nation-state. She was forced to unveil; I was forced to veil. Living in different times, we were obliged by our fellow countrymen respectively to reject and adopt veiling. Our bodies were othered by civic necessity.” (Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister, 69)

This is the barest intimation of the complicated history of the civic body we are seeing in photographs from Tehran now — in which the young woman with the scarf tied loosely, the lock of hair curling against her cheek or forehead, is made to stand for both this history and also for so much more. What is often lost in translation here is that unveiling does not always signal freedom, democracy, modernity, women’s rights, whatever — even if it might gesture toward these things in this particular moment. And there is no reason to believe that “freedom” and “democracy” should necessarily –or even ideally– look identical to Western discourses or practices of them. (Especially considering the American wars waged in the name of these concepts in Iraq, or the antiimmigration edicts sweeping the European Union.) Further, it’s important to situate this moment, in which we must recognize how both forced veiling and forced unveiling operated as disciplinary state edicts –often enacted violently on female bodies by male soldiers or police– at discrete political times to instrumentally shape a feminine civic body. As such I would issue two cautions. The first, we cannot necessarily know from how a woman ties her headscarf what the shape of her politics might be, even though clothing clearly does matter politically. And second, we might commit further violence (refusing her complex personhood, for instance) in assuming that we can.

Because the hijab is so often made to stand as a visual shorthand for Islamic oppression in the West, I wanted to reference its specificity as a political performance of a particular feminine civic body in Iran (which would be different than its history in, say, Turkey, where some female Muslim university students are demanding their rights to education against the state ban on headscarves in public schools and government buildings) in order to render these photographs that much more complex, and the emerging political situation that much more nuanced, in this moment.

An Iranian woman shows the ink on her finger after voting at a polling station in Tehran on June 12, 2009. Hundreds of voters were standing outside one of the biggest polling stations in uptown Tehran, an indication of a high voter turnout in the early hours of the presidential election in Iran. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

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