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March 13, 2005

Eye Foreign Eye

Islamiceyes-1

I picked out this image inspired by the many fine comments posted to my last couple Beirut entries. 

Specifically, I was thinking about the factors in play when we see more “westernized” images of women wearing the hijab. As BAG readers quentin and aethorian point out, this style of dress not only calls up stereotypes as to who is underneath, it also stimulates an urge to make them more like us.

In those instances where they actually do look more like us, however, to what extent is this a factor of Islamic liberalization, western glamorization, commercial exploitation or just plain voyeurism? 

Before fleshing this out a bit more (…wow, now that’s a weird pun), I also wanted to put this on the table. 

07Arab-2

This image appeared in last Monday’s NYT Business section (Ads for Saudi Bank Focus on Women – link).  It’s part of a new ad campaign by the Saudi Arabian bank, Saudi Fransi, targeted at Saudi women. 

As I understand it, there are also four different t.v. commercials featuring the same Saudi woman in her hijab.  They show her attending a business meeting with other women, working on a computer, attending her wedding and playing with her children.  Although specialized banking services for women are not new, the visibility of these ads and the increased focus on the well being of Saudi women is apparently ground breaking. 

I’ll leave it to you to interpret the image, if you like.  I offer it, though, because it seems to touch on those four characteristics I mentioned: liberalization, glamorization, commercialization and voyeurism.  (I realize the image is intended for a Saudi audience, but I consider it fair game since it was designed by a western agency, and showed up in the Times for western consumption.)

So, what’s up with our two sets of eyes?

The top image comes from the MSNBC “Pictures of the Week” gallery from the period of February 24- March 3.  They titled it: Eye to eye.  Here’s the caption: 

Supporters of terror suspect Babar Ahmad, who is facing extradition to the United States, protest outside a court in London on March 2.  Britain began extradition hearing for Ahmad, who is wanted in the United States for allegedly running terrorist Web sites, but Muslim groups said he should be tried at home.

So, should we start with the positive space, or the negative?

I assume there are standard ways the western eye (or guy) tends to glamorize these cloaked women — starting with the “eye window” as some kind of teaser.  What really tilts this photo to the west, however, is the fact these eyes and lashes (like those in the bank ad) are so made up.  You can almost hear the sigh of assurance that these women are more educated and middle class.

Or, you could start with one blue pair of eyes and one brown pair.  Because the blue associates more with white culture while the brown associates more to, well… brown, one could say the image sets up an East-West dichotomy. 

If you subscribe to the East-West argument, you could also say that the blue or west-leaning eyes are “good,” while the brown represent those followers of Islam we have to look out for.  The picture also reinforces this interpretation through facial gesture.  The “good” blue eyes, for example, bear a decidedly more benign expression.  The other figure, however, has a look that could almost be read as scheming.

You can also get a conspiratorial sense from how the figures interact.  It looks like they are literally “putting their heads together.”  The impression is that the one on the right is discretely whispering something, while the one on the left is playing it low key.

If you think I am overplaying the association to threat, it’s easy to say that I’ve been set up by the caption.  But then, this caption is guilty of a lot of things.  By linking the photo to a court proceeding, it implies the picture is newsworthy.  So, are these women protesters?  Or, more libelously, are they supporters of the suspect, or even “supporters of terror?”  Before answering that, however, perhaps one needs to consider the virtue of associating such a suggestive photo (politically, and otherwise) to a provocative news event few readers have ever heard of.  (If you ask me, I’d say it puts us back in the neighborhood of exploitation and voyeurism again.)

Oh, I almost forgot about the negative space.  On my very first glance, I saw the Empire State building in that white field.  I can no longer reconstruct it, but my deepest, darkest split second reaction might have started off something like:  “First the Trade Centers, and now …. “  Frankly, I’m shocked that came out of me.  I thought I was more enlightened. 

Still, I should know better than to underestimate a caption, let alone the years between the New York attack and the Iraq invasion when the fear was pounded into our collective roots.

(image 1: Toby Melville/Reuters in MSNBC.msn.com; image 2: Targets/Leo Burnett for Saudi Fransi Bank in the New York Times)

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