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The other day in class, we were having a very exciting discussion about this:

In The Playroom

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.

A Jihad* For Pluralism

A few weeks ago, as the Park51 Islamic community centre debate was reaching its (first) zenith, a respected friend of mine posted a comment on Facebook arguing that praying in an Islamic centre so deeply contentious to fellow citizens would violate the humble spirit encouraged in Islamic worship.  Because I think highly of the woman who expressed the opinion, I thought about it hard.  She is, I feel, a more spiritually oriented person than me, and I considered the possibility that I had been overlooking a greater moral question.  No matter how I’ve tried to spin it in my mind, however, I haven’t been able to conclude that conceding to unjustified emotions  rooted in prejudicial beliefs about Muslims, can be the morally superior direction.  I’m not going to rehash all the reasons that feeling offended by the construction of this community centre is bigoted and wrong because I’ve read at least 100 articles that have made just this case.  The arguments are obvious and are everywhere.

This brings me to my response to Tariq Ramadan’s piece from this weekend’s Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/10/AR2010091005366.html).  In it, Ramadan argues that Muslims should be sensitive to America’s “understandable fears” of Islam and should work to build bridges with non-Muslim Americans by, among other things, not building the Park51 centre.  I heard him debate Moustafa Bayoumi on Democracy Now the other day and his basic argument, it seemed, stemmed from a belief that the battle over the community centre puts Muslims in a defensive position.  He argued that it would be better for American Muslims to proactively overcome ignorance by letting non-Muslim Americans get to know them better. 

And here is why he is wrong.

Immediately after 9-11 the number of Americans who expressed fear or mistrust of Muslims was lower than it is today.  Are Americans becoming more ignorant about Islam and Muslims?  Although it’s not hard to imagine that many people still know nothing or next to nothing about Islam, if you listen to the people who attended the Glenn Beck rally, or the people who comment on any YouTube video, or the people who oppose the Park51 construction, they can all spout off things about jihad, Sharia, and the Koran.  Of course, most of what they say is desperately wrong.  Maybe they aren’t “average” Americans, and maybe they get all their information from Fox News, but it still leads me to the conclusion that simply putting out more information will not help.  In fact, many groups have been doing exactly what Ramadan suggests since 9-11 and this is where it has led us.

Ramadan and others have argued that 50% of Americans can’t be xenophobic and racist.  Can’t they?  Western societies are built on colonial exploitation, imperialist civilizing missions, and racial ordering, to name but a few ways that racism is embedded in Western cultures.  Ramadan acknowledges the long history of anti-Islamic thinking in the West and still persists with the argument that American sentiment in understandable.  He distinguishes between xenophobia and what he calls “understandable concerns” or an “identity crisis” caused by changing demographics in the West.  So people are afraid that their countries are becoming less white and that’s not racist?  Or they’re scapegoating immigrants for war and economic instability and that’s not racist?

Ramadan ends his piece by warning against isolationism.  You get this vague idea that there Muslims hiding out in mosques somewhere not talking to anyone except each other.  I don’t know what ghettoized Muslim communities in Europe are like, but right now I’m confident that if there are isolated Muslims in North America they comprise the tiniest fraction of the overall Muslim population.  For  now, that is, until they are pushed out of Manhattan or prevented from wearing the clothes they want in Quebec.

I reject the framing of the issue as petty rights-grubbing versus gracious compromise.  It’s about the struggle for pluralism and equality.  If we want to pray humbly, we can do that in our homes.  If we want to keep participating in civil society, that we have to do by publicly agitating against the surging forces of bigotry. It’s a crucial moral battle.


*I know it’s lame, but I couldn’t resist. :)

Qur'an Burning Nonsense
Like many of my friends, I often use Facebook to share articles about issues that preoccupy me.  I've been very careful, however, not to post anything about the Qur'an burning that is scheduled for this Saturday, September 11.

Even though I've been consumed all summer by the obvious anti-Muslim racism that seems to be growing and erupting throughout North America and Europe, I've refused to bite on the Qur'an burning because it seems so stupid and I'm reluctant to give it more attention than it deserves.  And yet I can't resist paying attention long enough to discuss why I think the event doesn't deserve attention. 

Although declaring "International Burn a Quran Day" is pretty hideous to me, particularly in light of the Fox News fueled hate-fest going on in the U.S. these days, I'm actually not overly troubled the act of Qur'an burning.  While many Muslims hold the Qur'an as sacred and treat it with the utmost respect - including washing before touching it, shelving it on the highest shelf, avoiding placing it on the floor, etc., I don't expect other people to share our perspective on the sanctity of a book.  Book burning, of course, is a symbolic act of dogmatic hostility and censorship. It's hard not to get swept up by the hints of Inquisition-type intolerance, but maybe that's my point. When a 50-member church that has gained infamy exclusively through petty acts of bigotry plans an event like this, its followers come across looking like querulous adolescents - at best - and certainly not like dangerous Inquisitors. 

It's hard not to think about the Danish cartoon fiasco. Although I am sympathetic to the free speech issues involved, I still find the decision to publish those cartoons troublesome.  My objection had nothing to do with perceived Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of the Prophet or any such sensitivities, but had to do with the responsibility of the press.  National newspapers wield a social power in no way comparable to that of the ironically-named Dove Outreach Church, and Jyllands-Posten's decision to propagate racist attacks against a minority group was legitimately met with alarm, criticism, and opposition.  (The form of the demonstrations, of course, is another matter.)

Unfortunately, the wrong-headed protests over the Qur'an burning event have already begun. It is my genuine hope that any Muslim groups planning opposition to the attention-seeking antics of a few wingnuts focus their energies on something else.  The Qur'an, as a physical book, doesn't need defending.  In the digital age it becomes almost silly to worry about the destruction of mass-produced texts.  If racism is the real issue, we have to remember that racism is about power.  Terry Jones and his followers only have as much power as we're collectively willing to afford them.

glee (not the TV show)
Last night I experienced a massive surge of exhilaration, comparable to what I felt when I submitted my report cards on June 25.  In June the emotions were easy to identify. Relief was primary, because I had just put an end to 10 months of stress.  Second was excitement at the anticipation of fun that summer always brings.  I also felt satisfaction, as one typically feels at the conclusion of hard work.  Giddiness was in there too because it was a spectacular, perfectly warm, sunny day.  I emailed the file with my marks and set off on what was supposed to be a leisurely morning stroll.  Instead, I bounced down the street and back, much quicker than planned, unable to control the kick of adrenaline that propelled my steps.

My emotions last night were more unexpected, if only because it was a gloomy Labour Day evening and I'd been fasting all day and was tired.  But my emotional progression started with this little thought: "Cool, I don't have to prep for tomorrow (and the rest of the year) like all the other teachers I know."  Then, I started imagining how I would normally be feeling on the Monday night right before school - in short, unprepared, anxious, and stressed.  I'm usually scurrying about my condo trying to organize folders and to print out course outlines and the first couple of days' handouts.  I'm the worst kind of procrastinator so these tasks never get done before the last minute.  I'm sometimes already feeling a little defeated even before the first day because, as interesting as my courses are, I don't have time to develop them as I want to. I even entertain, ever so fleetingly, the idea of calling in sick.  (Okay, that doesn't usually happen before the very first day of school, but it happens almost every other day of the school year.)

As I measured my current sense of freedom and anticipation against the pressures that seem unending during the school year, I was filled with complete elation.  That feeling alone validated any doubts I've had about whether taking a year off was the right choice.