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December 16, 2005

Cracking The Veil

Sistani-Girl-Clapping

Purple-Finger

Womanholdingsistani2

What it is about Middle and Near East elections that cause photographers to suddenly get woman crazy on or right before election day?

We saw it previously in Iraq (Girls of the Constitutionlink) and Iran (The Moin Girls vs. Rafsanjani’s Babeslink), as well as during the democracy demonstrations in Beirut (In Love With Lebanonlink).  As opposed to Iran and Lebanon, however, the Iraq election eve images focused primarily on religious women (in many examples, showing the love for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani).

I’ve been thinking the prevelance has to do with Islamic women being
more emotionally demonstrative on such occasions. (The photographers,
many of whom are local stringers, probably know to anticipate the
novelty.) With all the concerns
regarding woman’s rights under Islamic law, however, I wonder if these
images are also popular in the West because (most of) the audience
simply cannot relate to the fact a women would really adhere to such
prescribed modesty.

Perhaps the expression of personality serves as reassurance to those who couldn’t believe it otherwise.

(image 1: Hadi Mizban/A.P. December 14,
2005. Baghdad, Iraq. Via YahooNews. image 2: Ali Jerikji/Reuters.
December 15, 2005. Amman, Jordan. WAPO.com. image 3: Ali Jasim/Reuters.
December 14, 2005. Sadr City, Iraq. Via YahooNews.)

  • ummabdulla

    Hmmmm… I have so many reactions to this.
    For one thing, I often see photos in my newspaper of Muslim women doing normal things, or attending demonstrations in various countries, etc., and when I try to find them online, I can’t. So you make a good point that the Western (or U.S.?) media isn’t interested in Muslim women usually. (In fact, the only Muslim women they care to hear from are those who pretty much reject Islam.)And this means that the audience has the idea that Muslim women are never seen – because they don’t see them.
    It may also be that these more traditional Iraqi women aren’t normally so easy for a photographer (especially a man) to photograph, but on this day, they’re out in public and covered so that they can be photographed. A woman could sit with the women and see them as they normally dress, but they’d have to cover themselves for a photograph anyway.
    In any case, I’m glad that people are seeing that this is what most Iraqi women actually look like. And it would be nice for people to realize that modest dress isn’t a sign of oppression.
    I know that we often hear from Iraqi women who don’t want Islamic law, but I doubt that those women are the majority of the Muslim women in Iraq. We’ll see when the votes are counted.
    In Kuwait, it’s widely expected that the women’s vote will favor the “Islamists” – even more than the men’s vote does. And that’s not because the women are ignorant; in fact, they’re highly educated and assertive, but many of them are serious about their religion and want to live according to authentic Islamic teachings.

  • ummabdulla

    I searched Yahoo news photos (with “Iraqi women vote”) and looked at more than 100 photos. It was great to see all of these ordinary Iraqi women, including women voting in places like Copenhagen and Los Angeles. The “Show us your purple finger” routine is a little tired, though..
    This picture was interesting – it’s a woman carrying a gas heater given to her by Ahmad Chalabi’s campaign. The box has the same doctored photo of him that was posted here recently.

  • lytom

    Somehow all the vocal press excitement about the elections in an occupied country – Iraq – by the US “democratic forces”, sounds so hypocritical and self serving for the cause of the US!
    For those Iraqi families, who had grief brought to them with the pre war, war and occupation, the purple finger can in no way errase the harvest of tears, blood and suffering. The effects of the continued bombings and repression are felt more than the celebrational words of voter ballots!
    I find it extremely ironic how the US, the superpower, can arrange elections, and I wonder what the real cost in $$$ is – top secret of course… And why the elections in Louisiana were postponed until Spring – Summer next year, because of Katrina. The voting extended to Iraqi in US has been extremely well supportive, while the people displaced by Katrina have to wait, because it it “impossible” for the US government to give a helping hand in carrying out the democratic elections for them!
    Hypocrisy and lack of importance and caring is quite clear, yet not sounded out in the main press nor by any politicians!

  • ummabdulla

    I was also wondering about how all of this got organized. Before, we used to hear that there was no way they could register all of the voters in the country; it would be a gargantuan task (although many people said that they could use the ration cards), etc… I don’t remember hearing about any huge effort to do that, so how did they come up with the voters’ lists? Even for expatriate Iraqis in many countries around the world?

  • readytoblowagasket

    I don’t think we can gauge what the photographers are shooting, but we *can* gauge what images the *editors* are selecting for these “election stories.” We can tell from the profusion of certain images that editors have biases, in this case toward pictures of religous women taking part in the political process. I personally think we can make an assumption that the editors are not very creative or thoughtful (or possibly even themselves intellectually curious), especially when their choices are the same every time an election comes around in a non-Western, non-Christian culture. They aren’t giving us, their audience, much credit for wanting to know/see more than that, either.
    And frankly, I’m being charitable here. Tis the season, after all.

  • Marysz

    The three photographs shown show childhood, young adulthood and middle (or old) age. In both the upper and lower photos, we see a girl and an older woman–both of them surrounded by men.
    I’ve been thinking about Edward Said’s book Orientalism lately. To western eyes, do these women represent something “timeless” and “unchanging” about the middle east? The photograph in the center is particularly objectified–it looks like it could be in a Vogue magazine or National Geographic–two publications whose primary purpose is to celebrate the exotic.
    Said wrote: “How does one represent other cultures? What is another culture? The real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambiance of the representor. If the latter alternative is the correct one, (as I believe it is), then we must be prepared to realize the fact that a representation is eo ipso implicated, intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many other things besides the ‘truth’, which is itself a representation.”

  • http://scorpio.typepad.com/eccentricity/ Scorpio

    I noticed the same thing several days ago. Notice that all of them wear at least hijabs, in once-free Iraq. What the pictures say is that women are not disenfranchised — but they also point out that the regional religion has them subdued and afraid to go anywhere without going under scarves and veils.
    And I am sure that the images did not intend to convey the second thing.

  • ummabdulla

    Why do you automatically associate hijab with “subdued” and “afraid”? You may not mean it that way, but it’s very condescending.
    You’d feel more comfortable if they were wearing miniskirts and halter tops and lots of makeup, as if that were some sign of being “free”? Strippers and prostitutes (sorry – “sex workers”) being at the top of the “freedom” scale, then?

  • http://asterism.blogspot.com Salam Adil

    It is interesting the image of the veil in photography of the Middle East. The veil carries very strong visual connections. Perhaps because it is something that hides the very thing that the viewer wants to see to understand an image – the expression on the face. Or maybe it is that it makes the viewer concentrate on the eyes – something which makes him more intimate with the subject of the photo yet more unconfortable.
    Umabdalla is right – you ought to question your own beliefs if you automatically associate hijab with “subdued” and “afraid”. But I also can understand how someone can. If you grow up with people all around you open and uncovered, the image of women so severely covered in public is deeply discomforting. Something that even logical argument would not shake off.
    The controversy of image of veiled women varies not only by region but also by time. I was told during my father’s youth in Iraq, young women who was the full face veil and black robes were associated in some places with prostitutes as that is how the prostitutes used to dress to advertise their status and keep the police away from them.

  • readytoblowagasket

    ummabdulla asked Scorpio: “Why do you automatically associate hijab with ’subdued’ and ‘afraid’? You may not mean it that way, but it’s very condescending.”
    I didn’t read Scorpio as personally holding the view that hijab automatically demonstrates fearfulness and supression; I thought Scorpio meant that the media encouraged those associations. But perhaps I misread.
    I’m curious, however, about your own associations of markers for sexual wantonness in Western women: miniskirts and halter tops and lots of makeup. I mean, beyond the obvious “hooker” stereotype. I know you are upset, but yours is an association that reminds me of the kind of thinking that feminists in the U.S. have fought against since the 1970s, particularly as it has impeded a woman’s ability to successfully prosecute in a rape or abuse case (because of the she-deserved-it-because-of-what-she-was-wearing defense). What is your own definition of “freedom” for women, and can it apply to women worldwide?
    Outside of major urban areas in the U.S., hijab is rarely or never seen on the streets. The estimated number of practicing Muslims in the U.S. is a subject of some controversy, in fact, but the distribution of those numbers is rather limited. Something as visible as hijab *is* a novelty for most Americans. And I think subtlety of its meaning is not immediately apparent because of its color and uniformity — which reads as “severe” or “extreme” to American eyes. The black veil is especially off-putting, and in a way, isn’t it supposed to be? It hardly goes with the word “modest,” even as adherents to other religions — including some sects of Christianity — define “modest dress,” in the U.S. at least.

  • ummabdulla

    My point about the miniskirts and halter tops is that a lot of people (and media people) seem to associate covering with oppression; on the other had, the more skin is uncovered, the more a woman is free. I don’t know how many articles I’ve read about how the Iraqi women used to be free because you could see miniskirts in Baghdad (and the same for Kabul), and they’re not now, because more of them dress more modestly.
    I just find it a ridiculous argument, and if you follow it to its logical conclusion, then the woman who wears the least clothes is the most “free” or empowered. That’s all I meant, and I didn’t mention “sexual wantonness” or women being blamed for rape.
    I’m not upset – sorry if I came across that way… But if I were upset, it would be more obvious, I think. ;)
    I found, to my surprise, that wearing Islamic dress was very liberating. And I was one of those feminists in the 70s that you talked about.
    As for the color black, that’s just a custom in the Gulf area and is not actually any Islamic requirement. (Although many women here don’t wear black; many don’t even wear hijab.) Men wear white dishdashas, and I don’t hear anyone complaining that they’re oppressed because they all have to wear the same thing, or because they also wear long, loose clothes. (Muslim men also have modesty requirements.)
    But you’re right; the color black is off-putting to people who are unfamiliar with the region, I guess. And I guess it’s true that it’s meant to be off-putting to men, but I wouldn’t necessarily attribute that to the color itself. But certainly when a woman wears hijab, and moreso when she wears the abaya and face veil, she’s saying that she’s not putting herself out there to be evaluated by men based on her looks. And in this region, at least, men know that a woman who is dressed very strictly is not someone that they should try to chat with or shake hands with, etc. – which is what she wants them to know. (There are a lot of subtle variations in dress which help to determine whether the woman is actually dressed strictly for religious reasons or cultural reasons, etc.)
    The point that I would like for people to understand is just that wearing a hijab doesn’t make a woman ignorant or oppressed. Most of the woman I know wear hijab, and many wear niqab (the face veil), and they’re normal, happy women, who are often highly educated and professional people, not to mention wives and mothers. You don’t have to pity them because of the way they dress.
    This is long… I know you asked about the “freedom” issue, but that wll be a long post, so I’ll stop for now.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Thanks for those clarifications, ummabdulla. Yes, articles can be very facile and frustrating because they don’t explore deeply enough, usually for lack of space. Maybe that’s why the book Reading Lolita in Tehran — which, among other things, presents complexities about clothing and wearing the veil — was a surprise NYT bestseller for more than a year in the U.S. Maybe Westerners *do* want to know more about Muslim women than the articles or Oprah have presented so far.

  • fotonique

    The eyes and finger also brings to mind the strikingly similar image in the BAG’s March 13, 2005 post, Eye Foreign Eye. Those comments dovetail nicely with the observations made here.
    Ummabdulla said:

    I found, to my surprise, that wearing Islamic dress was very liberating. And I was one of those feminists in the 70s that you talked about.

    Please tell us more. Why did you find it liberating, and why were you surprised?

  • ummabdulla

    Ewwww… Oprah! Sometime after 9/11, when many Muslim (hijab-wearing) women were afraid to go out, a Muslim woman in the audience mentioned that to Oprah, probably expecting some support from a woman who is known for standing up for women and minorities. Oprah’s response was a cold, “Well, can’t you just take it off?” The hijab is not like wearing a political sign; it’s covering a part of the body that we believe needs to be covered.
    Then a while ago, Oprah got very popular among Arab women when her show started running on a Saudi-owned satellite station (with Arabic subtitles, I think – I don’t really watch it). But she caused a huge uproar later… There are a couple of posts about this here, but I can’t figure out how to link to them specifically, so if you’re interested, just go there and search for Oprah.

  • ummabdulla

    I hadn’t seen that March post, Fotonique; it and the comments were quite interesting.
    Well, I keep thinking that I’m not going to go on about this anymore, but since you asked… The thing about wearing hijab is that when you want to go out, you just throw on a hijab and abaya, and you go. You don’t really worry about what you’re wearing or how you look. I was never one for spending time on clothes and makeup and hair anyway, but I have to admit that even if I was just running to the 7-11 for something, I would have to put on a little mascara and maybe change out of whatever clothes I was wearing to lounge around the house… it is a very different attitude, and some that takes some getting used to, to think that you don’t have any obligation to look nice for complete strangers.
    The hijab and abaya are very comfortable, and you don’t have to worry about what might be showing when you bend over or get in and out of a car, etc. Long, loose dresses are comfortable, too, but when I started wearing them, one of my friends warned me that it was easy to gain weight without feeling it – and she was right about that, unfortunately.
    I live in a Muslim country, but even in the West, women say that when they put on the hijab, men treat them differently – with more respect.
    I normally wear black, so I basically need a comfortable pair of black shoes and a black purse. Very simple! Of course, many women still like shopping and fashions, and makeup and hairdos, and you can see all that at a typical wedding, for example, where the bride’s party is only for women.
    By the way, a Muslim woman shouldn’t wear makeup out in public, although women and men in the Middle East do wear kohl, which is fine because it’s considered to be good for the eyes. Some women take that permission and think that it extends it to heavy eye makeup, which makes them look very attractive sometimes (and which is not actually allowed), especially when all you can see are their eyes.
    Other women do wear makeup, tight clothes and perfume with hijab, but it’s really going against the whole purpose of hijab.

  • readytoblowagasket

    ummabdulla (and anyone else): I didn’t see this Oprah show myself, but here’s an article about Oprah’s attempt to explore the subject of hijab.
    http://www.mwlusa.org/publications/others/hijab_oprah.htm

  • momly

    Ummabdulla said: “…it is a very different attitude, and some that takes some getting used to, to think that you don’t have any obligation to look nice for complete strangers. ”
    Funny, I’ve never felt that obligation! I guess that’s the freedom of growing up in mid America in the mid 70’s.
    I find it an imposition to “dress up” to go to 7-11. My sister, who lives in Midland TX, was flabbergasted to find that the women there do their hair and makeup to go to the grocery store.
    I figure when I want to look good, I’ll take the trouble. Usually, I am not looking for attention and am more concerned with comfort and getting my errands accomplished. But then, I am also no longer in my twenties.
    Maybe the issue of comfort and not needing to attract attention is a function of a woman’s age and sense of self….? Interesting discussion

  • fotonique

    ummabdulla,
    Good conversation, thanks for your POV.
    The Middle East Media Guide has a list of Arabic women’s and fashion magazines. Not all of them have working Web sites, but some look very Western, such as Aljeel.
    Which of these are popular in Kuwait? Are any American fashion magazines on the newsstands?

  • jt in B.C.

    The more I read about ‘the veil’ the more I feel like an ant on the Mobius strip I’m still moving along but slowly.
    A daring two-dimensional traveler embedded in a Mobius strip would not only have to abandon the concepts of “in” and “out” but also left and right.
    http://www.geocities.com/sunjara/mobiusstrip.html

  • fotonique

    As long as we’re on the Mobius strip, let’s open one more dimension:

    Veiled4allah: When Men Veil

  • ummabdulla

    Fotonique, I see the women in my husband’s family (young women mostly, but also older some) looking at women’s magazines, but not like the one you linked to. But they are full of women with about a ton of makeup, which is how the women like to wear makeup when they go to parties and weddings (and some wear makeup with hijab, usually not that much, but sometimes – and some women don’t wear hijab anyway).
    To me, these women look hideous, and I sometimes put them in my sons’ faces and say, “You want me to find you a woman like this to marry?”, and they scream like it’s a horror movie…
    I don’t ever see anyone looking at American fashion magazines. Many women are very up-to-date with what’s in fashion, but I think they look more at Paris or Italy or London, maybe. Or Lebanon. I’ve had shopkeepers try to sell me stuff by saying, “but it’s new from France”, and I keep saying, “but I don’t like it”, and they keep saying, “but it’s new from France”, and I kept saying, “but it’s ugly!…”
    (Women typically buy fabric and take it to tailors to have them make whatever style the woman asks for – it’s very cheap. They just draw what they want, or describe it, or show them something in a magazine, and the tailors do it.)
    Anyway, there are some famous singers (mostly Lebanese) who are popular in the Arab world (thanks to Lebanese TV, like the Hariri stations), although personally I don’t see them as any kind of good role models. You can look at their websites – women like Nancy Ajram, Elissa, Ruby, and maybe the sleaziest, Haifa Wehbe.
    Unfortunately, many young people get caught up in all of this celebrity culture. Not surprisingly, the U.S. propaganda machine pushes it, too, through their radio station Sawa and their “Hi” magazine; the website actually seems more serious, but the last one I saw had Nancy on the cover. Needless to say, all this is not at all Islamic, and I guess that’s why the American taxpayer pays to support these women’s careers…

  • ummabdulla

    Fotonique, that “When Men Veil” post refers to the Tuareg, who have a very interesting society, but they’re unique.
    I don’t know what she means when she refers to other men veiling, except that men in many Arab countries (especially where there are deserts) typically wear a long headdress which they do wrap around their face when there’s a sandstorm.

  • http://scorpio.typepad.com/eccentricity/ Scorpio

    ‘Scuse me, but how did we go from scarves to mini skirts? Did I suggest that they should wear bikinis? Tube tops>
    I would be satisfied if they had turtleneck sweaters on and skirts to the floor. The fact is that in Saddam’s Iraq women’s hair showed in photos — the hijab was absent.
    Women have been interviewed who stated that marauding gangs would beat women who came out without hijabs now. I suppose that would encourage their presence.
    I was not commenting on modesty or its lack, but on the fact that there are almost no photos of Iraqui women any more who are not wearing a scarf, and sometimes a veil. One can dress very modestly without them. Really.

  • ummabdulla

    The hijab may not have been as prevalent in Saddam’s time (in some areas, at least), but it certainly wasn’t absent. It’s not as if it just showed up in the past two years. One can dress modestly without a hijab, but a woman doesn’t meet Islamic dress requirements without one.

  • readytoblowagasket

    ummabdulla: Forgive me if this is a typically ignorant Western question, but what *exactly* does the word “hijab” refer to? Is the term ever used as an adjective to describe a particular “way” of dressing (or is it always just a noun)? Sometimes I can’t quite tell how it’s being referred to within an article I’m reading. (But maybe I’m stuck on the Mobius strip too.)

  • ummabdulla

    Good question… Literally, the term means something like a screen, but we use it to mean a whole way of dressing (long, loose clothes that cover everything but the hands and face, no makeup or perfume) and behavior (not flirting, etc.). But usually when people say it, they’re referring to the headscarf in particular. Inside, with women or close male relatives, the woman doesn’t dress like this, of course.
    In the West, Muslims often refer to a woman who wears hijab as a “hijabi”, although I never hear that here; in Arabic, it’s “muhajaba”.
    The one that confuses me is “veil”. I think it’s used interchangeably, sometimes to mean headscarf and sometimes to mean face veil (niqab), so I never know what’s meant by that when I read it.
    And let me just clarify – I’m not trying to make anyone else accept the hijab. I’m just challenging the assumption that if a women is wearing hijab, she’s been forced to wear it, and she’s oppressed. In Kuwait, for example, women who wear hijab and even niqab might be professors, engineers, Cabinet Ministers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, and just about anything you can think of. And I know many women who want to wear hijab, or niqab, or abaya, but don’t because of pressure from their husbands or families.

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