The other day in class, we were having a very exciting discussion about this:
If you don’t want to click on it, I’ll explain briefly that it’s a link to a photo exhibit called In the Playroom, in which the artist took photos of children playing within installations made to reproduce tragedies that so many of us have witnessed through the media. The exhibit was considered controversial because of its use of children. Anyway, I thought it was all interesting, particularly our discussion of the Abu Ghraib images.
Somehow, this discussion moved to the niqab/burqa, which had me fidgeting with excitement for the rest of the class. I love the prof and the material and the links to things I’m already very interested in. Ok, I’ll stop saying “excited” – you get it, I love school. Anyway, after class our prof sent us a powerpoint she’d received about the burqa in Afghanistan that was probably just a more thorough and graphic depiction of all of the ways I’d ever heard or seen the burqa used to represent those who defend it or wear it as: primitive, oppressed (actually, imprisoned), isolated, worthless, and lacking an identity. Of course all of that suggests that those who don’t wear or defend it are modern, free, integrated, valuable, complete people.
Which is why it was with great fascination that I watched this:
Slight aside: I actually heard about this video while walking down the street on Saturday night. I ran into some acquaintances and one of them brought it up. I mention this for two reasons – one is that I love that my new student world includes more and more people who can have conversations about controversial, political things I care about during accidental five minute conversations. Two is that before watching it, after hearing it only described, I said, “That’s kind of cool.”
So, now, after watching it, I’ll be honest, I still kind of think it’s interesting and maybe cool but I’m critical of my response. And I shall explain why.
If you didn’t watch it, you really should. But just in case the video doesn’t work or you’re very lazy, it is a video of two women in high heels, short shorts, three-quarter sleeved black tops, and long veils covering their heads and faces (but not their eyes) walking along Paris streets. I think it is worth noting that the women are fair-skinned.
The film is called “Niqabitch” and includes images of these two women strutting, posing to have their photo taken, and stopping in front of government buildings. In the background is a rap song with a chorus that says “If you don’t like it then hey fuck you.” Much of the video focuses on the onlookers who stop and stare at the “niqabitches”. Many smile and take pictures. The women often wave enthusiastically and pose with bent legs like models. One of the most interesting elements of the video for me is that they black out the eyes of the spectators with small rectangles. The “niqabitches” appear to flirt with some of the men and, also, notably, most of the people shown looking at (and looking quite pleased about) these women are, in fact, men.
Obviously the people who made the video are critiquing the country’s niqab ban, which is one of the reasons I said it was cool when I first heard about it. The other aspect that appeals to me is the way it plays with our conceptions of who wears clothes associated with Islam. As someone who often feels that people misread the meaning of my clothing, I like the idea of playing with symbolism.
At the same time, I think the video actually reinscribes notions about who can be what kind of subject. The whole video aims to be transgressive – from the use of “bitch” to the music (rap, “fuck you”), to the strutting, to the bare legs. This type of transgression for women is very much associated with “freedom” against which, of course, the niqab is always contrasted. The fact that the women appear white makes it difficult to see them as representing the racialized niqabi, the immigrant that France so fears. So what does it mean for the significance of the anti-niqab law to have sexy, white, veiled women swaggering through the street? I’m not sure, but I am sure that the video is reminding us that men like it.
I remember when I was in high school, a male Pakistani friend of mine told me that he, a few years earlier as a young teen, had travelled to Pakistan and had come across a woman in a niqab. He said that he found his curiosity of what lay beneath that veil so unbearable that he pulled it off the woman. He said he was right, she was beautiful, and that to this day he finds women in niqab sexy. This was instructive for me because at the age of 16 or whatever, I had given very little thought to the niqab and none to the idea of its allure.
I also very recently re-read Frantz Fanon’s essay “Algeria Unveiled” in which he talks about the role of Algerian women in the war of independence and the representations of the veil within that battle. One of the things I found most fascinating was Fanon’s contention that French men were frustrated by their inability to see (veiled) Algerian women. Fanon's idea is that the woman's ability to see her colonizer without reciprocity gives her a power that the colonizer wanted to interrupt.
I raise these two stories to point out the power dynamics at work. In the first story the veil stands in for female sexual attractiveness. The veil becomes an obstacle to the completion of a heterosexual male fantasy and, when present, an enticing reminder of the possibility of the satisfaction of his consuming gaze. In the second story, the veil represents the obstacle to the colonizer’s ownership over his subjects through his gaze.
What is interesting about the video is that it raises (and perhaps answers) the question of which part of a woman makes her a person. Many, many people have argued that one loses one’s identity when the face is covered. I think most of us see our faces as our selves. And yet these women, with their bare legs, are smiled at, photographed excitedly, checked out, bantered with, etc. The video does not show the hostility that I know firsthand is consistently meted upon a niqabi who is entirely covered. This suggests to me that a woman comes to personhood not when her face is visible but when (edit: some other highly sexualized part of) her body is visible. This disturbing point is something I’m not sure the video makers really question. Essentially they are throwing their own bodies into an ongoing ideological battle that I find concerning because it appropriates women’s bodies.
Lastly, I mentioned that I found the blocked out eyes interesting. I read it as your ‘gaze is your problem, not mine’. I like the statement. And yet, so much of the video involves the women posing for photographs which signifies a more permanent gaze. It makes me think more about the way women get objectified through photography and the way that we attain our status as modern subjects by turning ourselves into commodities in the form of photos.
I’m wary of my own initial response because I think I’m seduced by the discourse that being rebellious automatically makes you clever, progressive, cool, and therefore, somehow, right. The truth is, I think the video participates in producing the fully covered niqabi as the primitive other and the clever ladies who made this video as badass. I’m not sure it does anything to make us rethink the racist anti-immigrant rhetoric that brought about the law in France in the first place.
Friends (all three of you): please feel free to critique my arguments or share your interpretations of the video.