Sartorial Politics (ContCult)

Here’s the website I referenced in today’s semi-coherent class. It’s called Pictures of Muslims Wearing Things:

Also, a photo gallery of works by Princess Hijab, a Parisian graffiti artist:

The issue of hijab (Ebadi uses the spelling “hejab”) is complicated, particularly in contemporary culture where image often predominates over text. Niqabitch understands this situation, and actively works to subvert the icon of the niqab as an instrument of subjection while challenging political liberalism’s claims to universality.

The status of women and the role of dress play out in parallel ways in an Islamic Republic such as Iran and an ostensibly secular society such as the United States. If, in the former, women are compelled to veil, in the latter they are expected to dress in a fashion that flatters and accentuates their bodies. (Granted, there are plenty of exceptions which prove the rule. We could think about “butch fashion” and the ways it unravels the gender politics of dress.) But one issue here is the way that hijabi (women who wear hijab) are ascribed an excess of signification (they represent gender inequality, a “medieval” view of the world, a whole ideology, etc.) while their western counterparts are seen to be simply wearing clothes. If the “meaning” of women’s clothing in the west is limited to the language of fashion, then the veil is always fraught. Sure, that $125 “slutty pirate” costume may provoke feminist scorn (though likely a few post-feminists will argue that self-objectification is actually a form of “empowerment”) but its political dimensions are domesticated by the liberal stance that women are free to dress as they please.

Below: players for the Iranian team at the Youth Olympics in uniforms that were banned by FIFA:

One way to grapple with this controversy– and this is ultimately what Hamid Dabashi’s article suggests– is to consider the Orientalist tradition of the representation of Middle Eastern and Muslim women in European painting. Portraits such as Harem by Théodore Chassériau speak to a kind of cultural voyeurism, an erotics of the cultural Other, which seeks to visually penetrate to the innermost recesses of private space: the seraglio. The veil in this context solicits an explicitly masculine gaze that attempts to reveal the Muslim woman and by extension comprehend the mystery of the feminized Orient.

In the realm of imperial politics, the veiled woman comes to stand in for an entire set of values which are held to be in opposition to “universal” (i.e., western) values. That process of substitution effectively obliterates not only the complexity of Islamic culture, but– in the context of Iran, Dabashi argues– a history of anti-colonial resistance as well. The woman in the veil becomes a justification for empire, for the “imperialism of human rights,” because she is ultimately a victim, a victim– as Dabashi notes, invoking the work of Gayatri Spivak– who can be acknowledged only as the “brown woman” who must be saved from “brown men” by “white men.”

In addition, I think, the emphasis on the veil diverts attention from the question of what an adequate metric of the status of women might be. How are we to accurately measure the life chances and well-being of women? By their dress? Their political rights? Their access to health care? Their relative safety from violence? Once we begin to ask those questions, it becomes less apparent that women in the west occupy an absolutely privileged position with regard to their “3rd world” sisters.