Category Archives: HIJAB POLITICS

LINKAGE: Emma Tarlo, Lahore Fashion Week, Fashion (Blogging) Matters

Muslimah Media Watch published an interview with Emma Tarlo upon the release of her new book Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith. I was lucky enough to sit next to Emma Tarlo (and Reina Lewis) about a year ago on a panel at UC Irvine about our separate projects on veiling discourses and practices. I promptly gushed about how much I love to teach her first book Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India in my Politics of Fashion course. Blowing students’ minds with Gandhi’s carefully calibrated clothing practices against British empire is the best.


S: At MMW, we struggle with not wanting to see hijab as central to Muslim women’s issues, is this something you came across in women?

ET: I was extremely aware of this issue, and didn’t want to perpetuate the idea that the key to understanding Muslim women is “the veil”. I was also very aware that many young Muslim women feel that outsiders are obsessed with the veil. But what interested me was not so much the outsider obsession with covering as the complex internal debates taking place about dress amongst Muslims in Britain and Europe and the USA. With the polarisation of the veiling issue in the media, particularly in the post 9/11 environment, there has been very little space for acknowledgement of the diversity of Muslim perspectives on dress. Instead Muslims are all too frequently blanketed together as if they all think and act alike with the most extreme forms of covering becoming the major point of focus even though face veiling is very much a minority practice which many Muslims oppose. I wanted to bring out this diversity and to show that contemporary Muslim dress practices are not just about religion and politics but also about ethics, aesthetics, identity, fashion, globalisation, community, belonging and so forth. In a way this was also part of larger project for showing how Muslim women, like all women, are juggling with the complexities of what to wear in a context where others project interpretations on them. What is particular in the case of hijabi women is the degree of expectations and potential interpretations and misinterpretations with which they have to engage as they go about their ordinary lives. So I wanted to bring out lived experiences of visibly Muslim women without suggesting the hijab is the most important aspect of their lives or even their appearances.

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Also via Muslimah Media Watch, Cafe Pyala deconstructs the myriad cliches in Western coverage of the Lahore (Pakistan) Fashion Week:

Oh, shoot. Here we go again with coverage of Fashion Week in Pakistan. Can we do anything in Pakistan without it being linked in some way to either appeasing the Taliban or kicking sand in their faces?

I refer of course to the latest “I-spit-on-the-runway-the-Taliban-sashay-down” type of pieces in the American Christian Science Monitor (titled predictably “Lahore Fashion Week Takes on Talibanization in Pakistan”) and in Britain’s The Times about the just concluded Lahore Fashion Week. The latter may be headlined a bit more soberly (”Pakistan Fashion Week Pushes Back Boundaries”), but the prose is nothing less than a deep shade of purple.

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I am terribly impressed with the new spate of fashion/style blogs that are both fun to look at and good to read. A woman after my own punk rock heart, Good Morning Midnight wears a lot of black and bunches of chains and waxes eloquent on why fashion is worth blogging about. This is the tiniest excerpt of a long but immensely readable piece.

Why do we take the costumes and makeup and tattoos of other cultures seriously and consider them interesting (or at least fetishize them as novelties or put them in museums) while dismissing the fact that such things exist within our own society? Why don’t we bother to think about what is going on in the minds of girls wearing Uggs, because let me tell you my combat boots are just as comfortable, so why are they wearing those things on their feet? What statements does it convey within their social groups, what references does it evoke and what does it imply about their economic and social class? There are serious and fascinating social psychology and sociology things going on here — and they deserve to be talked about too. This isn’t “kid stuff” or “stuff for dumb girls” or even “art” (which is equally dismissive in its own way.) This is society, and self-presentation, and economy, and patriarchy, and sociology, and billions and billions of dollars.

Fashion, like music and art and many many more, seems to be a double industry: there’s a lot of old white guys with money taking advantage of oversexed naive teenagers who are thrust into the mainstream as props, chewed up alive and spit back out and cast aside before they hit 20. There are crazed consumers obsessed with owning the latest trends and epic amounts of marketing dollars and energy devoted to turning 12 year olds (and their parents) into little consumption machines. There’s corruption and a glaring wage disparity and sweatshops and eating disorders and probably rape and murder too; everything is about power and sex and aesthetics. But what industry isn’t like that? And furthermore, why is the existence of these problems (and their heightened visibility in fashion due to its focus on the link between appearances and money) continually used as reasoning for a.) ignoring fashion and b.) dismissing it as worthless? We don’t do that with music, film, art, real estate, or finance and I think we’d all agree they are just as messed up — just in more subtle ways.

Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably. Are there are lot of morons out there talking about fashion, and are there are lot of desperate consumption-driven miserable humans out there doing horrifying things in the name of fashion, and are there a lot of women making absurd sacrifices and dedicating themselves blindly to stereotypes and standards promoted by fashion and fashion media without thinking about why or how? Undoubtedly. Is fashion deeply fucked up, corrupt, riddled with problems, linked to systems of oppression and some of our most problematic social issues? Yes. Which is why it’s stupid to dismiss it. If it’s so messed up and shallow and bad, why push it aside? Why not cut it to pieces and sew it back together in new ways, talk about it and analyze it and get involved and have an opinion and do something about it? (And possibly even have fun and make some friends while we’re at it?)

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Fashionable Securities

In few days ago All Things Considered suggested that the presence of fashion (narrowly and problematically defined as “Western” clothes) might act as a political barometer in the report “In Baghdad, Hemlines Rise as Violence Falls.” Here NPR follows a path well-trod by other American news media in the initial aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan, and by The New York Times earlier this year in “What Not To Wear, Badghad-Style,” which featured “before invasion” and “after invasion” photographs side by side, like a makeover show might, to create a story of progress as the gift of fashion.

As I said elsewhere about the political claims invested and invoked through clothing the civic body, and particularly the Muslim feminine civic body, “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.”

But in this brief report there is a telling refusal to examine other possible causes and consequences. Consider this seemingly simple statement: “Since the 2003 invasion, the classic look for Baghdad ladies — at least on the street — has been hijab, the Islamic expression of modesty that requires a woman to cover her shape and her hair.”

Does this opening scene-setter inadvertently admit that the most recent wave of reveiling was a consequence of the American invasion that toppled the pragmatically secular regime of Saddam Hussein, therebyupending a precarious balancing act and sparking a counterinsurgency as well as an internal struggle for governance? Oddly, though “since the 2003 invasion” would seem to suggest as much, the rest of this sentence –and the sentiment of the report itself– would lay the impetus of this loss of freedom at the feet of “Islamic expression,” as if this were a stable or coherent category of being apart from the violent occasion of unlawful invasion.

It is so strange to read this report from Baghdad that nowhere names the United States as an occupying presence. Reading between the lines, it is clear thatthe American war in Iraq is not the solution to insecuritybut at least one of its origins.

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On “Burqa Tourism”


Just a quick note — The Daily Mail‘s Liz Jones dons a burqa for a week to register her “expert” opinion on “what it’s like to wear a burqa,” which both Muslimah Media Watch’s Krista and Jezebel’s Sadie promptly tear to bits. Of course, “identity tourism” and the resulting “revelations” constitute a familiar documentary genre, from John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me to Tyra Bank’s fat suit on her reality show, in which a marginalized population’s structured silence (having been denied access or capacity for “voice” in its multiple permutations, including the often racial or civilizational ascription of partial, and therefore disabled, selfhood) becomes the occasion for another’s speech. From MMW:

All I can say to this is, no. No, you don’t know how they feel (or at the very least, you can’t say for certain that you do.) You don’t know why they’re wearing what they’re wearing, or what meaning it has for them. Yes, some Muslim women feel marginalized and objectified, and sometimes this even relates to their clothing. Other women might wear exactly the same clothing and feel entirely different, or might even feel more marginalized and objectified by non-Muslims than by their “male relatives.” Spending a week in a burqa (especially when this experience is entered into already with fear and disgust towards the burqa) does not make someone an expert on how women who wear these things feel, or on how they should react to racism and abuse.

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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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