Tag Archives: Minoo Moallem

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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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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Textiles in a Time of War, and After

On one of the many episodes on Threadbanger, Corrine and Rob mentioned visiting the exhibition called Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory. A collection of contemporary textiles by textile artists, mostly women, featuring images of war and strife, Weavings of War is (according to the synopsis) a project of bearing witness to death and dispossession, as well as survival and strength. (The site also includes a photo gallery. Here is another of the Afghan war rugs in particular, and a an article titled “Carpet Bombing” about the exhibit.)

This is a semi-roundabout way to mention two sites of particular interest for questions about textual and textile analysis in transnational circuits of consumption and capital. The first is (d)urban(a), the blog of Martha Webber, a doctoral candidate (who also happens to be certified in Power Sewing/Operating Industrial Garment Machinery and holds a degree in Fashion Design) writing about her ethnographic research in Durban, South Africa, with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Create Africa South, a organization that, among other activities (including HIV/AIDS education and prevention), encourages craft and textile production as both a creative exercise and an entreprenuerial practice. In her own words, her research “examines the contemporary craft literacy relationships formed between nongovernmental organizations and citizens of the ‘global South’ over questions of development and participatory democracy. My dissertation focuses on Black South African women from the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces who engage in sewing and embroidery craft projects.”

In a time and place far, far away, I wrote a position paper on handicrafts, NGOs, and globalization for my qualifying exams, so I’m thrilled to be able to catch up on some of the latest scholarship. Martha writes about the Weavings of War exhibition catalog here in order to explain her intellectual and political interests in textile arts:

In November of 2006 while writing a review essay on “material rhetoric,” I included a catalog from the exhibition “Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory” in my consideration of “material” engagements with the public sphere. In that essay I argued that a rhetoric of material insists textiles and clothing possess materialized agency, like Alfred Gell’s notion of a secondary agent in Art and Agency or the notion of an actant in actor-network-theory. In positing a rhetoric of material, we can challenge the Western depth ontology that devalues surface and expand the possibility of what may count as rhetorical engagement, as well as the types of cultures and actors who can produce rhetoric.

Her blog is a fascinating (and funny) account working with one of the many handicraft NGOs in the “global South,” which stock the shelves of such stores as 10,000 Villages in the “global North,” full of tales of technologies gone awry, bureaucratic wrangling with donors, and details from the workshops on creating and producing the Amazwi Abesifazane cloth. Another excerpt from the latter:

Hand embroidery is a time-intensive medium. It allows the producer time to make decisions and to add and subtract items relatively easily (provided the selection of fabric, needle, and thread are compatible and you’re not using a large needle with a delicate fabric, for example, and rending holes in the fabric if you decide to remove any stitching). What has continued to interest me about the embroidery for these particular cloths, is that the images that are slowly and carefully embroidered are meant to represent past histories and living conditions of the producers sewing them. What thoughts does the producer consider, in this case Thandi, when she is embroidering a small, irregular rectangle that is meant to stand in and represent someone she has known that died? How does it feel to embroider personal and representative subject matter, especially if you know it is intended for a larger audience?

Martha has also found some amazing archival materials supporting a connection between colonial authorities and missionaries encouraging “native” craft industries as civilizing projects. Martha’s done some great work at the blog, and I cannot wait to read her dissertation, including footnotes!

The second piece I want to note here is Minoo Moallem’s collaborative multimedia essay at the e-journal Vectors, called “Nation on the Move.” It’s a breathtakingly nuanced work that I can’t begin to describe (which is really enhanced by the digital technologies used to illustrate and interact with her words), so here is an excerpt from her author statement:

In this essay, I focus on the Persian carpet as a borderline object between art, craft, and commodity. I interrogate the politics of demand and desire that derive from the modern notions and imaginaries of home and homeland as well as consumer pleasures arising from the conveniences and commodiousness of a repetitious consumer activity. The Nation-on the-Move involves a multidimensional, multilocational, and polyvocal approach by way of digital technologies. It recognizes the unevenness of time (time of production, advertisement, online auctions, and consumption); the mingling of the old, the new, and the emergent; spatial proximity or distance (here, there, and elsewhere); and the relation of nonvalue to use value and exchange value in a “scopic economy” that subsidizes the flow of representations for the history of material objects by producing audiences/spectators with a scattered and disconnected sense of attention. To challenge the shattering effects of consumerism, the designer and programmer, Erik Loyer has created what could be similar to a panel-design carpet that brings into the same frame of reference different times, spaces, and locations—real, fictional, and virtual—including ethnographic photography, TV auctions, movies, Orientalist painting, advertisement, museums, and art galleries.

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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)