Tag Archives: burqa

That’s the Joint

Mimi and I have collaborated on a number of academic and creative projects over the last several years, including Threadbared most obviously, and various conference panels as well. But the most formal of these collaborations – we are thrilled to finally announce! – is now available to the public in the form of companion essays, published in the latest issue of the leading international journal of gender and women studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

As part of our feminist commitment to collaboration (and our mutual brain crushes on each other), we wrote these companion essays to offer related points of departure for thinking about fashion and beauty as processes that produce subjects recruited to, and aligned with, the national interests of the United States in the war on terror. The Muslim woman in the veil and her imagined opposite in the fashionably modern –and implicitly Western— woman become convenient metaphors for articulating geopolitical contests of power as a human rights concern and a counterterrorist measure. These essays examine newer iterations of this opposition, post 9/11, in order to demonstrate the critical resonance of a biopolitics on fashion and beauty.

From "Beauty Academy of Kabul" (2004)

In “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in the War on Terror,” Mimi Thi Nguyen asks that we extend our imagination to think about the distribution of beauty, and the attachment to it, within and between empire’s subjects and citizens as a part of imperial statecraft. That is, how hearts and minds are recruited through the appeal to beauty, and how state but also feminist invocations of “women’s rights are human rights” are made meaningful through such an appeal and all that it is imagined to promise. Grappling seriously with the brief life of the non-governmental organization Beauty Without Borders, which established a Kabul Beauty School in the aftermath of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, what is happening when the promise of beauty to educate and to liberate is invoked simultaneously with the urge to war and to destroy? How are women in general, and the burqa-clad bodies of “Afghan women” in particular (an image that condenses and organizes knowledge about Afghanistan and its forms of gender), produced as a population through this traffic in beauty? What notions of beauty engender the measure but also a medium of personhood and rights? How to explain this chain of associations that produces beauty as a prerequisite, a pathway, to good governance? Looking to Beauty Without Borders (with its this deliberate allusion to the transnational social movement organization Médicins sans frontiers), Nguyen traces the disparate but connected forms of liberal and neoliberal power, the production of a subject in relation to rearticulations of feminism and civil society but also empire through these assemblages – new strategies and technologies, deeply embedded notions of beauty and virtue, democratic linkages of self to world. She argues that it is beauty’s invocation in humanitarian imperialisms and global feminisms that requires us to expand what it could mean to foster life in the long shadow of war and neoliberalism.

(As a fascinating footnote, Beauty Without Borders is now the name of a project by Astronomers Without Borders, about the “beauty of celestial events”!)

American Vogue, November 2001 (a.k.a The first issue published after September 11.)

Minh-Ha T. Pham’s essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” examines the configuration and effects of the fashion-as-a-right discourse that emerged in the weeks and months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Pham proceeds by considering the following guiding questions: Why, above all other kinds of consumerism promoted “to get the economy back on track” after 9/11, was fashion consumerism especially significant? How was fashion tied to democratic rights in this historical moment? And how did this association induce enthusiastic consumerism from women who, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, had “no heart for shopping”? This essay suggests that the construction and instrumentalization of a post-9/11 ethical politics of fashion depended on a neoliberal articulation of fashion as the measure of and means to a multiplicity of democratic rights imagined as under threat by anti-capitalist terrorists.

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Much of Western Europe Against the Burqa

I’m still rifling through the hundreds of emails in each of my three inboxes and feeling more than a little overwhelmed about all the things that didn’t get done while I was on vacation and all the things that may not get done before I leave again – this time, back to New York City (which feels less like traveling and more like coming home but with all the annoying chores of traveling nonetheless).

In addition to the email-rifling, there’s the blog perusing and laundry sorting (a tangent, yes, but that’s life). I’ve been doing all this (and more!) at once since 7 AM California time. But I’m going to stop multitasking for now to write a quick post on the recently-passed French bill that criminalizes veiling. Mimi’s been following the politics, rhetoric, problems, and popular and academic commentary regarding this bill since last summer. (These posts are archived under “Hijab Politics.”)

The actual language of the bill, not surprisingly, attempts to neutralize its Islamophobic and civilizationalist implications. Rather than directly prohibiting the wearing of the burqa or the niqab (practiced by about 1,900 French Muslim women or 0.1% of the Muslim population), it bans “the concealment of the face in public.” However, exceptions would be made for motorcyclists, fencers, skiers, and, uh, carnival-goers.

The colorblind language of the bill exemplifies neoracist legal and cultural formations that enables multiculturalism not only to exist alongside racism but to collude with it. Consider, for example, that French Prime Minister François Fillon has argued that the ban would save Muslims from wearers who would “hijack Islam.” And of course President Nicolas Sarkozy has insisted (rather hollowly) that the bill is really against the “enslavement and debasement” of women – which are contrary to French principles of equality. Colorblind racism ignores the history and ongoing fact of racism by resting its logic on a surrogate issue, or what Etienne Balibar calls in his essay “Is There a Neo-Racism?” a “secondary elaboration”, like immigration, national security, human rights, etc. The objectives of neoracist policies are not discriminatory, we are told. Their purpose is to expand and secure freedom, liberty, and democracy. The implication then is that Muslim women (or Latino immigrants or Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, and so on) are culturally rather than biologically (that would be the old racism) contrary to freedom, liberty, and democracy. They are antiliberal, antidemocratic figures who embody threats to the modern state and all the freedoms attached to it. So their containment is not a question of racism or state dominance but of freedom and civilization.

While John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe has condemned such a ban, saying, “A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab in public as an expression of their identity or beliefs,” France’s lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved the ban with a vote of 335 to 1. Yep, there was only one dissenting vote – from Daniel Garrigue of the French Communist Party (PCF). Women found in violation of this bill would face a fine of 150 euros ($194) and/or a citizenship course, underscoring the arrogant civilizing project that frames this bill. Men who are found to have forced women to wear a niqab or a burqa would face a prison term of one year or a 15,000-euro ($19,377) fine.

While the measure won’t go into law until the Senate approves in September, if the Senate goes along with the popular view on veiling, the bill will become law. (Some are predicting that the law will “be struck down, or watered down, by the constitutional watchdog of the French state, the Conseil Constitutionnel.”)

This bill, as a recent post on Jezebel mentions, reflects the popular view across Europe. In France, 80% of the population are for the ban; in Germany, 71%; in Spain, 59%; and in Britain, 62% (though immigration minister Damian Green has already called such a ban “rather un-British”). Belgium has already approved of a similar bill. Italy, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland are also considering bans. (Meanwhile, 65% of U.S. residents polled in a Pew Center study are opposed to such a ban.)

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LINKAGE: Sartorial Politics, Political Follies

(Photo: Getty Images, 16 August 2009)

The sartorial discourse around the Obamas continues to illuminate the treacherous claims shaping and disciplining “American” civic bodies. Over at the National Review, former US assistant attorney general Andy McCarthy disingenuously wonders, “I’ve noticed that President Obama frequently forgoes the necktie — lately, even in public appearances. That reminded me — I have no idea why — that the Iranian regime has shunned the necktie ever since Khomeini pronounced it a symbol of Western decadence.” McCarthy’s gee-golly “I have no idea why,” prefacing the interpretative gap that follows hard on its heels, insidiously feigns an intuitive corollary between Obama’s occasional tielessness with Khomeini’s condemnation of this infernal men’s accessory. This bundle of logical fallacies is all too familiar in contemporary conservative political language, as further evidenced by the outrageous effort to paint Obama as Hitler’s monstrous reincarnation. In parody, a Gawker commentator snarked, “I’ve noticed that President Obama has two legs. That reminded me – I have no idea why – that Voldemort also acquired two legs when he became re-born in the cemetery through evil Satan-magic while murdering people.”

Then there is the handwringing over Michelle Obama’s decision to wear a pair of perfectly boring shorts and, significantly, bare her legs, which made the news rounds as a potentially shocking deviation from propriety (MSNBC.com insists, “First Lady’s fashions pushing the envelope?”). Propriety is, of course, a disciplinary discourse that necessarily indexes a slew of racial fantasies and sexual anxieties about representative –i.e., quintessentially “American”– bodies. We’ve witnessed this anxious convergence before in the controversy about Michelle Obama’s bared arms (although copious photographic evidence of the blue-blooded Jacqueline Kennedy in sleeveless sheathes demonstrates that bared arms are nothing new for a First Lady). Not all sartorial sniffing at Michelle Obama’s wardrobe is necessarily racist, of course. But such small controversies as bared arms or legs do transpire in a nation long-troubled by racial regimes that, in closely scrutinizing feminine black bodies, ascribed to them at worst an uncontrollable carnality, and at best an under-civilized corporeality. Thankfully, Michelle Obama’s bared arms, a.k.a. Thunder and Lightening, a.k.a. the First Guns, have their own blog in which together they ponder the media obsession with themselves. And over at the Kitchen Table, black feminist academics Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Yolanda Pierce also question the not-so-hidden undercurrent of racial fantasy and sexual anxiety that drove the initial discussion about the First Lady’s fitness.

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Meanwhile, Robin Givhan considers the sartorial sensibilities of the townhall shouters as they wage war against health care and the civic obligation to care for the poor or the ailing –surely a socialist Trojan Horse!– and against Barack Obama, the black Muslim foreign communist Nazi infiltrator they fear will bring an resolute end to the white America they know and love so well. (That these two goals are brought together as one and the same is made explicit in many of the posters and protests.) For Givhan, this sartorial spectacle is about authority — the challenge to it by those in the costume of the “Average Guy –or Gal” (“a lot of them look as though they could be attending a sporting event”), and the reiteration of it by those politicians at the receiving end of their vitriol, be-suitted in “full Washington regalia.” Or, as Givhan argues:

The underlying focus of this grudge match is, of course, about power — as concentrated in Congress, the presidency, the special interests, the wealthy. The rage emerges from a feeling of helplessness that some version of reform is going to occur whether these citizens like it or not.

While surely this sartorial dynamic of a “grassroots” movement called forth to challenge unfair government matches the portrait the protesters hope to convey, I’m not convinced that this spectacle as such can be understood apart from its volatile racial dynamics. On the one hand, it seems the “Average Guy –or Gal” as a proxy civic body necessarily implicates what George Lipsitz might call a possessive investment in whiteness, especially in his or her sartorial choices that conjure, as they do for Givhan, the “real America.” On the other hand, the somber-suited politician as another sort of proxy civic body is undermined in his whiteness by proximity to the black Muslim foreign communist Nazi infiltrator. In this racial logic, the suit bespeaks the politician’s demoted status as middle management, an Obama lackey. As such, the politician is duly stripped of his authority to represent the interests of “real America” which, in the racist imaginary, most certainly would not include the black and brown disadvantaged. As Tavia Nyong’o observes, “The spectre of ‘death panels’ is, in a way, as old as post-Civil War hysteria about freed slaves gaining political supremacy and riding roughshod over the master race.” Thus, when Givhan ends her piece, we should be clear about just who the hated “boss” is, and why.

Washington’s power brokers have suited up to underscore their authority and the seriousness of the subject matter. And bully for them. But their attire also says: I am the boss of you. All those howling citizens — in their T-shirts and ball caps and baggy shorts — are saying: No, you’re not.

(Thanks to Fashion for Writers’s Meggy Wang for bringing this article to my attention!)

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In a couple of much briefer notes, Shabana Mir tackles the latest in sartorial Islamophobia — the “burqini ban” controversy. “A swimming pool in the Paris suburb of Emerainville has refused entry to a young Muslim woman wearing a burqini,” and as Mir points out, this most recent ban is about a higher order of hygiene: “But the burqini is dangerous. It is a germ. It might spread. It is a visual sign of the disease – Islam – that right-wingers wish to eliminate from the body politic. It is not an accepted form of minority religion that keeps its head down and tries to look nonchalant. It is a little too loud-mouthed in its visual message. How, then, may it be tolerated in public spaces?”

Also, Fatshionista and Queer Fat Femme take on PETA’s latest wrongheaded campaign in a long history of idiot advocacy. “Turning rage into productivity”, Queer Fat Femme posted a reader’s Photoshop transformation of the original billboard (which originally read: “SAVE THE WHALES. Lose the Blubber: Go Vegetarian.”):

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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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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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