Tag Archives: politics

Sartorial Classification as a Weapon of War

"AUTHENTIC David Tabbert at Islam Fashion Inc. in Brooklyn, buying clothing for simulated war zones." Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times

ONE afternoon earlier this month, David Tabbert, wearing Ray-Bans and glinting metal earrings, headed out on a shopping trip to one of his usual Brooklyn haunts: Islam Fashion Inc. on Atlantic Avenue.

Though Mr. Tabbert, 28, personally prefers G-star denim and concert tees, he was on the hunt for 150 dishdashas, the ankle-length garments worn by men in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. In July, actors will wear them in a simulated Iraqi village, posing as townspeople, clerics and insurgents at a National Guard training ground in the Midwest.

Mr. Tabbert is a costumer for a company that outfits mock battles and simulated Arab villages that the military organizes around the country.

“I was certainly not pro-war,” he said. “I looked at what we were doing as a positive way to train the soldiers, in light of the fact that they are being deployed anyway.”

Through his work, soldiers learn how to differentiate between villagers and opposition forces, he said, adding, “It’s teaching the people how to not kill people.”

As in New York, where the denizens of Bedford Avenue are clad in American Apparel, as if in uniforms, while Park Avenue wears Pucci, each Afghan or Iraqi social stratum has its own particular dress. Mr. Tabbert studies images on the Internet to determine, for example, the exact embroidery on the epaulet of an opposition leader’s military uniform, and provides some actors with wristwatches to signify the wealthier townspeople.

Aicha Agouzoul, a saleswoman at the store who is from Morocco, only recently learned the nature of Mr. Tabbert’s profession and was, at first, taken aback. Standing near a rack of DVDs with titles such as “The Ideal Muslim” and “The Truth About Jesus,” she said in halting English, “He shows the army what Arab men wear, who is the bad, who is the good.”

–Sarah Maslin Nir, June 23, 2010, “The War Is Fake, The Clothing Is Real,” New York Times

The first thing that strikes me is the appearance of what former student and favorite performer Stephanie Murphy dubbed, “gay fashion patriotz,” or what Jasbir Puar calls homonationalism (Tabbert discusses being a gay man who doesn’t tell when he’s on-base), those normalizing but also differentiating measures distinguishing between good gay patriots and bad “monster terrorist fags,” and also recruiting the former to aid in efforts to regulate and even war upon the Others who make up the latter. Published in the midst of rigorous critiques of homonationalism during the 2010 Pride season (with Judith Butler’s refusal of the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award in protest of Pride’s commercialism but also its complacency towards, and even complicity with, racism in matters of immigration control and military occupation, and with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid facing and eventually overturning their expulsion from Toronto Pride), this profile about stylist Tabbert, who puts his “gay fashion patriotz” skills toward aiding US war-making, cannot be coincidental (the second half of June sees most of the Pride events in New York City). It is as such an imminently useful example of exactly the forms of homonationalism that came under such concentrated critical fire this year.

I’ve known about these “practice” camps for some time, but I hadn’t thought to consider until now the function of the “costuming” of the “insurgents” for these war games. But it absolutely makes sense that sartorial classification –and I’m curious how distinctions between “good” and “bad” Arabs are being collected and codified through differing clothing practices here– would be a part of such training. As I have said elsewhere about Arizona’s SB 1070, “The cognition of race has never been a simple matter of skin or bones. Especially for racialized others, their clothes are often epidermalized — that is, they are understood as contiguous with the body that wears them, a sort of second skin, as we see with hijab or turbans.”

(Just as “Muslim-looking” persons were targeted for extra surveillance of both the state-sponsored and vigilante sort after 9/11, “Mexican-looking” persons have long been similarly targeted as dangerous “foreign” agents — growing up in San Diego, I heard many horrible stories about both border patrol agents and vigilantes harassing and assaulting “Mexican-looking” persons as likely “illegals” or “criminals” available for such violence. In the perfect mash-up that demonstrates the ever increasingly blurred distinction between police powers and security concerns, as well as the racial-sartorial profiling that here links these distinct but not disconnected state operations to control the movements of bodies, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-North Carolina) frets that Hezbollah might be sneaking across the US border disguised as Mexicans. )

Such a culture of danger as that we have lived with for far longer than this most recent iteration as “the war on terror” –warning against the Others whose presence near us, among us, “out there,” “lurking,” is understood to threaten “our” freedoms– draws upon a politics of comparison that is also practices of classification, about the world and its populations with differential access to freedom and security, and thus civilization and humanity. In this regard, the “war game,” and its extensive behind-the-scenes machinations, involves a series of measures for a certain kind of knowledge production about the alien body, producing knowledge for the calculation of danger, in the service of a broader imperative of liberal war. Liberal war, we can understand in the most basic conceptual shorthand, is conceived of as a “good war,” a rational war, a “war for humanity,” even if its violence is horrific, devastating, and otherwise completely fucked up. It is as such that sartorial “accuracy” –Tabbert studies images on the Internet, he teaches soldiers to distinguish between “bad” and “good” Arabs by their clothes– is just one of many procedures understood as a piece of a rational (and thus liberal and “good”) system of racial differentiation, contiguous with other identification-and-classification projects, such as developing biometrics systems for mobile forensics labs, scanning the irises and fingerprints of Iraqis in order to catalogue persons in an enormous database and determine their degrees of danger.

But in the collection and production of data, details, and descriptions –problematically rendered light-hearted activities with the profile’s invocation of Bedford and Park Avenues as more familiar locales for distinct “tribal” styles–  the war’s wardrobe stylist renders populations as knowable, and measurable objects, but also divides them into actionable categories for “taking life and letting live.” Or, as Tabbert says, ““It’s teaching the people how to not kill people,” with the unspoken corollary of teaching soldiers how to kill the right people, who might be wearing the wrong clothes.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS, THEORY TO THINK WITH

On The Politics of Vintage, Starting With a Series of Thoughtful Epigraphs Before I Begin My Own Ruminations on The Topic

The following paragraphs are excerpts, authored by others, which might offer us (a collective us) an initial entry point into weighing the politics of vintage. The first comes to us from Catherine and her blog Renegade Bean, from a post called “Surrogate Memories From A Time Long Ago:”

I recently discovered a couple shops here in Taipei that sell vintage found photos. This topic really deserves a longer blog entry (and hopefully I’ll have time to write one soon), but I find it very moving to see people who look like me doing normal things in time periods that I enjoy from a historical and aesthetic standpoint.

It’s a rare thing. For example, I only recall Asian Americans being featured three times on as many seasons of “Mad Men”: the “Oriental family” in Pete’s office when he returned from his honeymoon, the waitress in a tight qipao and the (off-screen) Chinese driver that made Sally giggle. The series is one of my favorite TV shows, but it also reminds me that Asian Americans were marginalized (or worse) during the era it depicts. And, of course, depictions of Asians and Asian Americans in actual vintage US films are also problematic, to say the least.

I often find myself feeling very conflicted about my interest in vintage style. How can I enjoy things from an era when Asian Americans were repressed, socially and legally (as with the Japanese internment camps and the Chinese Exclusion Act), and when many Asian countries suffered sociopolitical violence that traumatized millions of people, including members of my family? But secondhand and vintage items have had an emotional resonance for me since I was very young and, though it’s hard to explain, I can’t imagine my life without them. This is more than a hobby for me — it’s part of my identity.

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These questions and comments come from Gertie’s New Blog For Better Vintage Sewing, on “Vintage Sewing and Gender Politics:”
I am a modern feminist gal who likes fashions from the fifties, a time period which […] is not exactly known for being woman-friendly. How do I reconcile these contradictions?

Well, thinking this over brought up more questions than answers for me. For example:

  • Is wearing a fashion from an oppressive time period indeed a symbol of that oppression?
  • Is there such a thing as “reclaiming” these fashions so that they are symbols of power rather than domination?
  • Should we only make patterns from the eras that were the least oppressive to women?
  • If wiggle skirts and the like are offensive to those with feminist sensibilities, what is the alternative? I mean, what could we possibly wear that would establish us as feminists to those who view us?
  • Are 50’s wiggle skirts really that different from modern pencil skirts?
  • What about current fashions that are restrictive? Stilettos, Spanx, etc? Skinny jeans? Are these symbols of oppression towards women?

So, to try to answer these questions, I thought about my relationship with vintage patterns. First of all, I like to sew 50’s fashions so that I can make them wearable for me, in 2009. I shorten hemlines so they’re more practical and modern. I make the waists wider so that they don’t have to be worn with a girdle. I lower the bust darts so an unpadded bra can be worn. I mix current ready-to-wear blouses and shoes with vintage-style skirts. In other words, I don’t dress as though I’m wearing a happy housewife costume. I think to most people, I look like a woman who is inspired by vintage fashion, but does not feel the need to look like Dita Von Teese or Betty Draper every day.

But why do I like these looks? I hope it’s not some sort of self-loathing that makes me want to wear a symbol of women’s oppression. I simply prefer the silhouette of vintage fashions as opposed to the current styles offered by pattern companies. I think the design is better and the lines are more flattering. If you want to oppress me, try to make me wear a pair of skinny jeans!

I should also note that I like vintage patterns because I’m interested in the historical and archival aspect of it. I think that sewing my way through Vogue’s New Book for Better Sewing is connecting me to women of the past. Doing this project, and researching the evolution of home sewing (women’s work, no doubt), is a way for me to honor the lives of women past (however painful) rather than pretending they didn’t exist.

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Footpath Zeitgeist is a rigorously critical fashion blog with a particular focus on hipsters and the phenomenon of what Mel calls stylism, “the belief that having a coherent and identifiable ‘personal style’ is the yardstick of chic.” Mel doesn’t hold back here as she deconstructs vintage as a practice of individuation and as a category of specialized consumption:

But within mainstream fashion systems, “vintage” styles are re-worked and brought back in a way that highlights their retro-styling and general ‘old-schoolness’; according to this logic, there’s no point wearing second-hand clothing if it could pass for something you bought new. (There are “designer recycle boutiques” that do specialise in second-hand clothing that looks new, but they tend to privilege ‘designer labels’ and ‘pristine condition’ rather than an overtly anachronistic look.) And ‘vintage’ transmutes the rituals and skills of personalisation that surround clothing in the second-hand fashion system into a hazier idea of “personal creativity.” This happens both in the retail environment and in fashion journalism.

We all know that “vintage” is a much-abused term because it enables shops to ask large amounts of money for garments that are simply pre-worn – or even merely retro-styled. Owners of “vintage stores” openly buy up bulk clothing from flea markets, op-shops, garage sales and estate sales, carefully curating them and then marking the prices up vastly. These are the people who rock up at your Camberwell Market stall at 7am and go through your car boot with a torch before you’ve even unpacked. You’ll also see them at Savers with shopping trolleys piled high.

This is starting to happen in high-street retailers too as they realise the market for ‘vintage’. For instance, Sportsgirl is currently selling second-hand cowboy boots for something like $150, but rather than the motley collection of items you fossick through at a second-hand store, they’ve been carefully picked to look similar. What’s more, they’re displayed alongside a rack of dresses that are marked “vintage” but, similarly, have a look of extreme curatorship in order to make them ‘match’ both each other and the new goods elsewhere in the store.

It’s easy to scorn people as dumb bunnies for buying their clothes this way, but while it’s definitely a move away from the skill set that’s required to fossick through heaps of old clothes and choose the right garments (the vintage clothing dealer has done all the hard sifting for you), there is still a certain feeling of pride and creativity that comes from saying, “It’s vintage” when someone asks you where you got something. Here, “vintage” means, “I’m too individual to settle for mass-produced new clothes”, even though the ‘vintage’ garment was almost certainly worn on a mass scale whenever it was new. More subtly, it also means, “I’m sophisticated enough to redeploy the styles of the past, not just wear whatever’s new” and of course, “No, you cannot buy this item yourself, it’s all mine.”

I guess for me the question right now is: “How do we make clothing our own?”

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PICTURING POLITICS: T-Shirt Imperatives


There is just so much wrong with American Apparel issuing a t-shirt imperative to “Free Iran.” I am powerfully reminded of Michel Foucault’s thesis that the discourse of freedom is constantly produced through the practice of security, and of Inderpal Grewal’s remark that humanitarianism is the name of American empire’s condition of possibility. (Thanks, Golnar, for the creepy image.)

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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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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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EXHIBIT: Fashion & Politics


This is just straight lifted from the museum’s description:

Fashion & Politics
July 7, 2009 – November 7, 2009

The Museum at FIT presents Fashion & Politics, a chronological exploration of over 200 years of politics as expressed through fashion. The term politics not only refers to the maneuverings of government, but also encompasses cultural change, sexual codes, and social progress. Throughout history, fashion has been a medium for conveying political ideologies and related social values. Fashion has addressed such important themes as nationalism, feminism and ethnic identity, as well as significant events and subcultural movements.

Featuring over one hundred costumes, textiles and accessories, Fashion & Politics examines the rich history of politics in fashion. The exhibition’s introductory gallery will explore the theme of American nationalism and will feature a woman’s costume, circa 1889, printed with an American flag motif, as well as Catherine Malandrino’s iconic Flag Dress, worn by numerous celebrities and socialites to express patriotism after 9/11, and then again in response to the 2008 elections. Also featured will be an “IKE” dress from the 1956 Eisenhower Campaign, a “NIXON” paper dress, and memorabilia from the historic 2008 presidential elections.

Image from the Museum at FIT: “American Flag” costume, USA, circa 1889, Printed cotton, Gift of Stephen de Pietri, 88.125.1

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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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