Tag Archives: war

Clothing the “Terrifying Muslim:” Q&A with Junaid Rana

Last Thursday, Reuters released photographs from the United States’ extra-territorial raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan, which show “three dead men lying in pools of blood, but no weapons.” (Reuters purchased these photographs from a Pakistani security official, who entered the compound about an hour after the US assault.) Reuters described the three deceased men as “dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.”

On Twitter, Pakistan-based journalist Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) pointedly asks, “Why are Muslims always in ‘garb’ and never in ‘clothes’?” In a related inquiry, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi (@southsouth) has been critical of The Daily Show’s graphics following Osama bin Laden’s extra-judicial killing, featuring photographs of bin Laden’s head imposed upon a mosque, and another of bin Laden caption, “Bye Bye Beardie.”

Daily Show host John Stewart looks at the news graphic of Osama bin Laden above the caption, "Bye Bye Beardie," an allusion to the Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie."

Screen capture from South/South.

Our theoretical and historical provocation (for this blog, at least) is thus to engage the question of clothing the “terrifying Muslim.” For example, we could easily observe that terms such as “garb” emphasize a civilizational distancing or confusion (one involving both temporal and spatial dimensions). Where naming these clothes as “garb” seems to act as “merely” an empirical description, the assessment of subjects and their clothing practices may coincide with, or become complicit with, colonial schema. ( Mirza (@mirza9) and Gharavi (@southsouth) had an amazing, satirical exchange about the usage of “garb” that underlined so well its civilizational thinking. Highlights include Mirza’s “American business-casual garb for me today!” and South/South’s “Clothes might make the man, but garb makes the Muslim man.”) Related to this set of concerns, I’ve written here about the epidermalization of clothing and sartorial classification as a weapon of war.

This time, I thought I would turn to my brilliant colleague Junaid Rana. Rana is an associate professor in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, whose scholarship addresses the confluence of racism with concepts of “illegality,” especially through transnational movements of labor and war. He is also the author of the new (and sure to be important) book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, out on Duke University Press in the next few weeks. You can find out more about the book (and become a fan) here!

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Prof. Junaid Rana, autumnal!

MIMI: In your new book Terrifying Muslims, you argue that racism and the criminalization of the Muslim body enacts the global war on terror in everyday life. You also incorporate a sartorial dimension into your analyses about the use of surveillance and racial boundary-making in relation to the Muslim body (drawing upon feminist theorists such as Sara Ahmed, one of my intellectual crushes). Can you tell us about your arguments about how clothing does matter?


JUNAID:  It’s a fairly straightforward argument, although I’m sure it will be received with some controversy. The basic argument is about connecting Islamophobia to racism. Islamophobia is often seen as religious discrimination. And racism is usually thought of in terms of the body and particular kinds of genetic traits and phenotypic difference – that is, skin color, hair, eyes, etc. But as the scholarship on racism has shown, such biological determinism is almost always tied to culture. In the second chapter of the book I have an extensive argument about how racism and the genealogy of the race-concept is intimately tied to Islam and Muslims.

Terrifying Muslims book cover!

As for the sartorial elements, it’s an extension of the general approach in the book that combines material and cultural analysis. I look for my theoretical inspiration from a wide variety of intellectual approaches. I am without a doubt deeply indebted to the work of feminist theorists, who have in my mind always been at the cutting edge of critical race analysis. For example, many of my arguments in the book draw from a number of feminist theorists, including Sara Ahmed and Linda Alcoff, who for some time have talked about how clothes are a material register for the intersection of race and gender. The surface of the body is read by its accoutrements. It’s a certain kind of object analysis that is always already happening. How the body is fashioned with coverings provides for a particular cultural reading based on meanings attributed and related back to the body. Without a doubt, we size up people all the time by how they dress. We make judgments by what we infer from clothing – and this has much to do with a process of racializing and gendering, meaning we take cultural artifacts such as customs and costumes to have a particular naturalized and essentialized meaning that is centered on the body as a material and cultural archive. But this is also a choice and a political stance.

A screen capture of Rachael Ray in her Dunkin' Donuts commercial.

Not all clothing will have as much meaning as others. For some this choice is a mistake, and others a risk. (Remember when it was dangerous for Rachael Ray to wear a kefiyyah?) Culture and clothing, then, is a way to racialize and establish social boundaries of who belongs here and who doesn’t. Race in the context of Islam and the Muslim body is understood as a religious belief in which its adherents are thought of as inherently different. So I’m not saying this always happens, it’s a very specific process of racialization that imagines a group of people as essentialized in particular ways. You can find this in what people say and do all of the time. And that’s what I try to unravel in depth in the book.

In this particular moment Islamic clothing and bodily fashioning along with comportment imputes all kinds of meaning to Muslim bodies. Research has shown that veiled women [and girls] in the US are disproportionately endangered as threats to what I would call the white supremacist social order. Men are also targeted because of Islamic dress and facial hair as appearing Muslim-like. Louise Cainker’s study in post-9/11 Chicago with Arab Americans called Homeland Insecurity showed that veiled Muslim women were often targeted for harassment and racial violence. What she calls cultural sniping is a response to a gendered nationalism in which women are considered the bearers and reproducers of culture. So an attack on Islam in the publics of the US, is more easily a violent attack on Muslim women. Others have shown similar things in New York and San Francisco. In my book, I talk about how Islamic dress becomes a material register to discipline bodies into an imperial racial order. In the last chapter of the book I talk about how this comes together particularly in two vignettes of women who face forms of racial boundary making used to oppress them, and as a source of refusal of such dominance through the defiance of racialized and gendered stereotypes.

As for the pictures just released by Reuters, first it should be acknowledged what the three men are actually wearing. The website states the pictures “show two men dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a t-shirt, with blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.” Two sentences later the report says: “none of the men looked like bin Laden.” What on earth does this mean? They didn’t look Arab? They weren’t Muslim enough? Terrorist? Evil? It’s not clear. The man apparently in a t-shirt is wearing an undershirt commonly worn under the “traditional Pakistani garb” referred to more commonly known as shalwar kameez. A unisex dress, the shalwar refers to the loose pants, and the kameez is a long shirt some of your readers might recognize as related to the chemise. Given that the photos crop the bodies of the dead mean from the waist up I’m not entirely sure how Reuters knows what they are wearing. You can more or less tell, though, from the details of the clothing.

Khalid Sheikh Muhammad after his capture.

What is more striking is the second comment of the men not appearing like Osama. Banal as it may seem, the comparison is astounding. What makes it necessary? If anything, I would point to the variety in facial hair. One has a short beard and the other two have moustaches, commonly worn in Pakistan. Beards in Islam, are considered a sunnah or Prophetic example of religious practice. Wearing them is an example of piety but not required. Many considered to be religious leaders are often judged by their pious dress.  Yet, the Reuters treatment of their bodies and their relationship to Osama reveals the kind of racialization I’m talking about. Either as adherents of al-Qaeda that are fictive kin, or as relatives that might look like Osama, the report is making judgments based on kinship and a distinct biopolitical logic of racism. That their deaths are commented on as blood streaming from their bodies only adds to the agenda of racism that ends in annihilation. In the third chapter of my book I talk about how photographs and terror alerts are used to incite racial panics and control them through the policing apparatus of the security state. In specific, I looked at the images circulated about al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his capture, also in Pakistan. Some of the readers of this blog will recall the heavily manufactured image circulating about KSM with him looking disheveled and in an undershirt (If not, it’s in the book!). These images matter because they import so much meaning and are able to convey a message without needing to say it explicitly. More often that not, that’s how racism can hide without being explicit, and justify death without needing to say so.

MIMI: Hijab describes a set of clothing practices that “adheres” a sense of alien being to the feminine Muslim body in North American and European visual cultures. Its criminalization is spreading, as you know, throughout West Europe in particular, even though hijab is of course much more complicated than such racial and civilizational discourses allow. What does this sense of criminalization tell you about the politics of Islamic clothing?

JUNAID: It’s ironic that many well-meaning folks with liberal, left, or progressive views can absolutely not understand how veiling in any of its forms from hijab to full niqab can be a choice and a radical critique of the contradictions of humanist values. They will say: “those women are so oppressed,” and chalk it up to patriarchy, a sort of passivity that requires a rescue narrative. As many postcolonial scholars and feminists have argued Muslim women veil for many reasons, despite the imperial hubris many have in thinking they need saving. The reality is we live in a patriarchal world in which the veil is a source of adhering to religious beliefs of piety and humility while also finding avenues of participation, and in the context of the US it is a source of protection in a general society that is Islamophobic. In the US, the increasing movement to veil comes in the context of the rise of anti-Muslim racism since the early 1970s. The hijab, in fact, has empowered many women in the US public sphere to deal with racism and the double standards of sexism that are structural and place them within the history in the US of dominating women and communities of color.  Although Europe and France in particular, have their own histories of colonialism and context of anti-immigrant racism that has led to growing discontent of the vast social disparities many of these communities face, Islam is seen as having too much culture in contrast to the demands of a liberated monocultural nationalism. The situation in European national publics is far worse for Muslims but there are similar logics that connect all of these places in terms of Islamophobia and racism – and the failure to adequately address these issues.

 MIMIWhat are your thoughts on the blog, “Muslims Wearing Things,” (subtitled “Muslims and Their Garb”) which is one activist’s response to the ways in which the Muslim body is always already rendered “alien” through certain sartorial signs? 

 JUNAID: I think what the website is about out is pretty self-evident, so I don’t have much to say. Instead I would point your readers to the work of Wafaa Bilal who has engaged in some amazing art practices regarding the body, geopolitical mapping, and death. In his performance art piece entitled “…And Counting,” he makes his body a site of the memory of war, killing, and art as activism. It’s some really heavy stuff that is surprisingly straightforward as an aesthetic practice. Ronak Kapadia, a graduate student at NYU, has been writing some brilliant things about this. He should be the next tie to this thread.

Wafaa Bilal's "...And Counting."

Many thanks to Junaid Rana for answering these questions! Again, Check out information about his book Terrifying Muslims here.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, HIJAB POLITICS, INTERVIEWS, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS, THEORY TO THINK WITH

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

War, And The Clothes Brought “Here” From “There” (Punk Rock Flashback)

I wrote this excerpt for one of my Punk Planet columns (PP 36, March/April 2000) over ten years ago. Apparently, I’ve been writing about the politics of fashion and beauty for a long time. I’m leaving town for several weeks, so updates will be sporadic at best. Meanwhile, check Thread & Circuits for the continuously updated archive of my wayward youth as a pissed-off punk rock feminist zinester.

A photograph of author Ann Caddell Crawford in Saigon, 1963, in a bun and an ao dai.

Photograph of author Ann Caddell Crawford in Saigon, 1963, wearing an ao dai.

Browsing through cardboard boxes, I bought a library discard called Customs and Culture of Vietnam by Ann Caddell Crawford, published some time in the early 1960s, a sort-of guidebook. (I always buy this stuff, old LIFE magazines with “exposes” on Viet Nam and garishly colored desserts, Third World travelogues with “tips” for dealing with “the locals.”)

Apparently “comprehensive and authoritative,” the book is typically full of pastoral descriptions and shoddy pseudo-anthropological observations, snippets like, “The first things that newcomers usually notice in Vietnam are the smiling faces of countless children, and the lovely fragile-looking women in their flowing dresses reminiscent of butterflies. The people are a gentle type who are shy, yet can be outgoing with foreigners, especially Americans.” The Vietnamese are thus described as docile and submissive, never mind the lengthy history of native Vietnamese struggles to oust the Chinese, French, and Americans from the region, of course. (I roll my eyes.)

I flip to another chapter, the section on “costume,” in which Crawford writes at length,

“The women of Vietnam have, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful national costumes in the world. It is called the ‘ao-dai’. The over-dress is form-fitting to the waist, with long tight dresses. At the waist, two panels extend front and back to cover the long satin trousers underneath. Correct fit dictates that the pants reach the sole of the foot, and are always slightly longer than the dress panels. Occasionally lace is sewn around the bottom of each leg. Tradition has kept the color of the pants of the ao-dai to black or white.

“When a woman sits down, she takes the back panel, pulls it up and around into her lap. When riding a bicycle, they often tie the back panel down to the back fender to keep it from getting tangled in the wheels. Often, girls can be seen riding along the streets of Saigon on motor bikes with the back of their ao-dai flying loose, causing foreigners to comment that they look like butterflies, and beautiful ones at that.

“Many Americans have become so fond of the dress that they have some specially made to send home to their families. They make excellent hostess gowns.”

It bears mentioning again (or more explicitly) that this book was written at the height of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and that the author’s husband was a U.S. Army officer assigned to the Military Assistance Command in Viet Nam. The appendices include “Useful Phrases in Vietnamese,” some of which are too obvious: “Show me some identification,” “The wound is infected,” and “They are surrounded.” These are, after all, the material and historical conditions that made it possible for suburban American housewives to sport the next new “exotic” look at their dinner parties, “reminiscent of butterflies” while serving casseroles and blood-red meatloaf.

Fashion has politics and (sometimes-bloody) histories, you know.

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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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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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History and the Harem Pant

Whether deemed a “must have,” as some contestants on The Fashion Show insisted, or a hideous mistake, the so-called harem pant is back in a big, billowy way. But the resurgence of the harem pant in the long shadow of war in the Middle East –specifically, those conflicts being pursued by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan– should prompt a raised eyebrow for more than its unconventional shape.*

While I enjoy the intellectual and artistic transformation of the shape of the body through clothing (see Issey Miyake’s Pleats, Please!), I also find it useful to be skeptical of the ways that geopolitical rubrics of race, nation, gender and sexuality are mapped through such transformations (think bullshit Orientalisms perpetrated by hostile fashion journalists about the so-called “Hiroshima bag lady” of 1980s Japanese designers). The most obvious yet often unasked question –why the term harem to qualify this pant?– requires a history lesson.

At the turn of the 20th century, Western imperial forces were busily carving up the rest of the world into territories, colonies, and protectorates. In between the 1880s and the First World War, the “race for Africa” and Western Asia proliferated claims among the European powers for political influence and direct rule in Egypt, Turkey, Persia (now known as Iran), and Morocco. In 1911, the same year that Morocco was named a protectorate of France, famed Parisian fashion designer Paul Poiret “introduced” the harem pant to avant-garde aesthetes alongside caftans, headdresses, turbans and tunics in an Orientalist collection. Those items deemed “traditional” and “backward” when worn on a native body were thus transformed as “fashion forward” when worn on a Western one, in what amounted to the blatantly uneven, and undeniably geopolitical, distribution of aesthetic value and modern personhood. In a Pop Matters column on bohemian fashion (or what she hilariously calls “a competition for Best Dressed Peasant”), Jane Santos details how Poiret both drew from the imperial fashion for Orientalism** as well as contributed to it:

In Raiding the Icebox, UCLA film professor Peter Wollen argues that Poiret’s designs embodied the rampant Orientalism dominating French culture at the time. Wollen describes the lavish “Thousand and Second Night” party Poiret threw to celebrate his new line. He says, “The whole party revolved around this pantomime of slavery and liberation set in a phantasmagoric fabled East.” According to Wollen, Parisian culture was in awe of the Orient, seduced by the Russian ballet’s performance of Shéhérazade and ecstatic over the publication of the new translation of The Thousand and One Nights; and Poiret’s fashions further whetted the public’s appetite for Orientalism. In addition, Poiret’s designs greatly impacted haute couture, and set the precedent for Orientalism in avant-garde fashion. 

The harem, as an Orientalist fantasy of sexual excess and perversity (bearing no relation to actual practices of seclusion), depended upon imperial tropes of Muslim women’s sexuality as alternately available and licentious, or naive and repressed. In either instance, the Muslim woman was understood as a patriarchal property and an “undeveloped” personality. But as numerous feminist scholars note, Orientalist fantasies about the sexual proclivities –and possibilities– assigned to the “loose” clothing of the harem’s imagined denizens were often received as liberating for the corseted Western woman. For her, donning the harem pant (or the beaded veil or the fringed “Chinese” shawl) powerfully enacted a series of resonant fantasies about the ostensible transgression of bourgeois domestic life for a more spectacular and sensuous one, defined by shocking indulgence and theatrical intensity.

But in her essay “On Vision, Veiling, and Voyage,” about “cross-cultural dressing” by different groups of women (in this instance, European and Turkish women) at the turn of the century, Reina Lewis argues that the “thrill” of such cross-dressing for Western women was “predicated on an implicit reinvestment in the very boundaries they cross. Clothes operate as visible gatekeepers of those divisions and, even when worn against the grain, serve always to re-emphasize the existence of the dividing line.” About the European woman who indulges in sartorial tourism, “she can enjoy the pleasures of cultural transgression without having to give up the racial privilege that underpins her authority to represent her version of Oriental reality.”


TOP: LaRedoute’s much derided “harem pant.” BOTTOM: Marc Jacobs S/S 07.

What these histories might mean for the contemporary appearance of the harem pant is unpredictable. We can easily observe that we are in the midst of wars waged by competing world powers seeking to carve out influence and rule in the Middle East, and that recent runways reflect certain fears and fantasies about what this might mean.***

But there is also significant categorical confusion with regard to the harem pant, which seems to have become a catch-all term for almost any pant that is loose around the crotch, with seemingly endless variations on the amount of fabric swathing the hips and thighs, as well as the cut and cuff of the leg. Some look like jersey jodhpurs, others like roomier yoga or sweatpants (which often already come with elastic at the ankle). Still others are likened to MC Hammer’s infamously billowy parachute pants. There is no clear referent, no one “authentic” garment, to which the harem pant necessarily gestures.

It seems these garments are tied to one another less through form or fabric and instead through a concept, but the content of this concept seems confused and incoherent. Runway shows or magazine editorials might still pair the harem pant with other Orientalist signifiers conjuring an exotic sensuality or imperial aesthetic (with a pair of leather lace-up sandal wedges dubbed “Mecca,” for example, from Diane von Furstenberg), but this semiotic coherence is often (but not always!) absent from other iterations of this pant form. For example, consider that there doesn’t seem to be much reference to sexual transgression with this loose fit. In fact, the contemporary harem pant seems to be read as supremely unerotic, prompting fashion blogger Footpath Zeitgeist to wonder if the contemporary harem pant deliberately refuses overt sexuality or sexual availability.

This begs the question: Why call it a harem pant? Why not simply call them drop-crotch or low-crotch trousers, which is both more descriptive and much less vexed? Even though retailers high and low are in this game, is there still something specific about the qualifier harem that signals an avant-garde or nonconformist fashion sensibility? Perhaps the dividing line Reina Lewis discusses is a mutable one — it shifts to accommodate transformation and change, but continues to distinguish hierarchies of status and position. Maybe, the harem pant continues to conjure an artistic or cerebral aesthetic against a sartorial norm that decries this silhouette as “weird” and “ugly.” That is, the harem pant references not the exoticism of the Muslim woman, but the non-Muslim woman “brave” or “daring” enough to wear them. Such that even in the near absence of an overt Orientalism, we might still detect a subtle reiteration of its “worldliness,” a cosmopolitan self-image of adventuresome aesthetes, in the enduring usage of harem to qualify this pant. (This aura is again available only to those who are not, say, Turkish peasant women wearing the shalvar to clean the house or work the field). If so, we might do well to remember that the originality of the avant-garde, as art critic Rosalind Krauss observes, is itself a modernist myth.

Here are just a few of the discussions I found about the “harem pant” in a brief Google search. Some time when I’m not supposed to be finishing my other book manuscript, I may attempt a more coherent critique.

In a long and detailed entry called Orientalism, Culture, and Appropriation, Part 3, Farah at Nuseiba calls the Western fascination with the harem pant a form of ethnomasquerade, writing, “It is through ethnomasquerade that mass culture simultaneously exercises and hides its hegemony over the colonised Other.”

An “old school Hejabi” contemplates the laughter of her “Turkish sisters” as a peasant pant sweeps the Western fashion landscape, posting some images of the shalvar (related versions, and terms, include the salwar and sherwal) as worn by conservative Turkish women for house cleaning or field work and detailing her own adventure in purchasing a pair from H&M.

In fact, a number of the hijabi style blogs find that the newest rage for the harem pant means more options in shopping for “modest” items from mainstream stores like LaRedoute, Urban Outfitters and Forever 21. This transforms the terrain for comprehending the harem pant in the contemporary present. Even while some Muslim women might observe hijab more casually (and often defiantly) in skinny jeans and tight manteaus (and some observe not at all), others are glad for an accessible fashionable alternative that allows for looser definition. Hijabulous, for instance, cracks a playful Aladdin joke before adding, “Hey, I rocked ’em last eid and they were super comfy!” Trendy Hijab Fashionista puts together some outfit collages with these new offerings on the non-Muslim market. Still more others decry them as resembling “an adult diaper” (probably the most common denunciation of these pants).

“When a hijab-friendly trend does come along, I stock up in case it doesn’t stick around,” writes Jana Kossaibati, a Muslim woman who takes the Guardian reader on a tour as she shops the mainstream stores for long tunics and harem pants (verdict: comfortable, but not as cute on short people).

And finally, Diwan (“Your Gateway to Middle East Chic”) opens their review of the recent London and New York Fashion Weeks with a throw-away Edward Said citation and interviews Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, “one of the few Middle Eastern voices to be heard on fashion’s front lines,” about how a Middle Eastern buyer (such as herself) might interpret the harem pant for the region’s cosmopolitan elite.

* As should the proliferation of YouTube instructional videos on creating what is baldly called “the Arabic eye,” in conjunction with sartorial fascination and social fear about the hijabi, the veiled woman, and all the likely Orientalist connotations of an exotic, because “forbidden,” female sexuality.

** Edward Said famously argued that far from simply reflecting what the countries of the “East” were actually like, the “Orient” was created in the European imaginary as its opposite. As an array of images, ideas, and practices, Orientalism thus produces, through different forms of representation (for instance, scholarship, literature, and painting), forms of racialized knowledge of the Other that are deeply implicated in operations of power (e.g., imperialism).

*** For instance, Ellen McLarney charts the burqa’s post-9/11 evolution from”shock to chic” in her essay, “The Burqa in Vogue: Fashioning Afghanistan” in The Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Winter 2009).

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