Following European media in this time of a supposed "clash of civilizations" can sometimes be amusing, occasionally exhausting and it often leads the half-way intelligent observer unsure whether to laugh or cry. This is especially true when it comes to issues connected to the Middle East, Arabs and Islam. Often the discourse is so openly racist, uninformed and plain stupid that one wonders whether critical and investigative journalism has died out.
One of the most extreme examples of this is graphically illustrated in the whole so-called "head scarf debate". This "head scarf", a small piece of textile, has become one of the main political issues of the day. It is certainly the most heavily politicized garments the world has seen for a long time; I doubt if any piece of clothing has ever given rise to such waves of polemics. What women are supposed to wear, what they are allowed to wear and what is prohibited, has throughout history been an important issue, both politically and socially. But these days, both in Europe and in the Middle East, the head scarf has developed into a potent symbol of the controversies between tradition and progress, secularism and religion, private and public space, Feminism and Islamism, freedom and oppression. Interestingly, it seems the scarf can be instrumentalized by all sides, depending on the context.
The conflicts, misconceptions and misunderstandings of public debates over the issue and the need for academic investigation and visual representation was behind social scientist Nilüfer Göle's decision to initiate an exhibition project to explore the significance of veiling in different contexts. Curator Emre Baykal invited ten artists, nine of them with a Middle Eastern background, and the result, a most surprising, thought-provoking and yes, entertaining, exhibition titled "Mahrem" was shown at the Tanas initiative in Berlin in July 2008.
Ironically, we have to rely on artists from Muslim countries for critical reflections on the habit of veiling women's bodies/hair/faces to "protect" them from the male gaze. It is very unfortunate that the current xenophobic climate in Europe forces all of us (and I include myself) who do not belong to the political extreme right largely to refrain from any critical investigation of veiling as a means to control and limit women's freedom. It is as if we, despite all our intellectuality have agreed to keep quiet for fear of being labelled either as racists or apologists. Therefore, such exhibitions like "Mahrem" are strongly needed with their "notes on veiling" (Anmerkungen zum Verschleiern, so the subtitle of the exhibition) that venture onto ground we Europeans seem to shrink back from. If nothing else, we could just learn to take a slightly more light-hearted approach to the subject.
"Mahrem" succeeded in pointing out some of the many different and often highly ambivalent connotations of veiling. That veiling sometimes has the opposite effect of what it proposes is known. Nothing seems as enticing as what is hidden and hinted at. How luxurious fabrics - used to cover women's bodies - can serve as an erotic promise is the subject of Iranian artist Parastoy Farocher's photographic installation "Friday". In many ways a simplistic work, it plays with contrasts of light skin against black coloured fabric, of holding and letting go, of concealing and revealing, while leaving all questions open for the onlooker to answer for him- or herself.
A shapeless figure, from a distance apparently a person entirely covered by a dark veil, turns out to be a human-size shape made out entirely of hair, the very stuff that is supposed to be covered by the veil. "Chelgis I" - the title refers to an old Persian legend - about a "girl with forty braids" is the work of Iranian born Mandana Moghaddam, who with irony here turns the hidden outside and let what is usually concealed be the cover. Contemporary obsession with selfdispay is turned ad absurdum in Syrian artist/film maker Samir Barkawi's video "Poster", showing three giggling girls taking pictures of each other. What makes this seemingly banal scene so absurd and utterly pointless is that all three girls are completely covered in black veils making it impossible to distinguish one from the other and yet, it seems all important that each of them has her picture taken. In less than a minute, Barkawi, while keeping a light twinkle in the eye, succeeds in pointing out one of contemporary Middle Eastern culture most important paradoxes: How do old traditions, informed by patriarch concepts of female modesty fit into an age of individuality, where visual self-expression holds such a prominent part?
Among these amusing, critical and ironic reflections on the veil, the work of Italian artist Bruna Esposito stood out as the least vociferous. She uses the motif of flowers as a metaphor for the precious, beautiful and needy of protection. Is the veil like a petals of a flower? Does a veil mean protection or exposure? Does it protect what is precious or does it leave it vulnerable and prone to offence? Her black tulips seem at first fragile and poetic objects, only a closer look reveals the flowers to be veiled figures turned head down. Through this visual deception, Esposito wants us to reflect on our own prejudices and to look deeper, beyond the first impression.
It is exactly this critical investigation of our own prejudices that is lacking to such a deplorable degree in European public debates. Contrary to the common notion here, the veil is not a Muslim invention. It is a cultural practice that dates back far beyond Christianity and Islam. Respectable Assyrian women had the privilege to veil in public, a sign of their social ranking, and a prostitute who was caught veiled was harshly punished for displaying a social signifier that was incompatible with her status.
The married, respectable Roman woman covered herself when she left her house and this practice was taken over by Christianity. Byzantine rules on women were quite restrictive and it was when the Muslim troupes conquered the Eastern Mediterranean that they came into massif contact with the habit. Not that the Arabs had not been exposed to Mediterranean culture prior to the conquests. Cultural exchange between the Arab Peninsula and the Eastern Mediterranean was intensive in the centuries before the advent of Islam. The extent and exact character of this contact is still in need of investigation. Only little is actually known about women's lives in Pre-Islamic Arabia. We know that women were free to run their own businesses; they were apparently free to choose their own partners for marriage and kept control over their own property. But much of what is "known" about the "loose morals" of Jahili (i.e. pre-Islamic) women, we will have to put down to later anti-Jahili propaganda, written centuries later with a very clear intention. So the need to cover women with a veil does not belong to the "wild hoards of the desert" as popular understanding wants it, but is in fact deeply rooted in the social tradition of Christian society, brought to Islamic culture via Byzantium.
In other words, we Europeans cannot set ourselves apart from this tradition of covereing women. It would be more fit to consider the veil as a measure of patriarchal control, therefore more as a social and cutural issue than a religious one. And patriarch tradition is, as everyone knows, not an exclusivity of Islamic society. In any patriarch society - also in Europe in the not so distant past - where male honor and understanding of Self is so strongly connected to female subservience, restrictions of women's freedom and control of women's behavior become important as part of the glue that keeps society together. And since rebelling against social rules is always accompanied by heavy personal costs, women are hardly left with any choice than follow the rules. It is actually not so surprising that such male-dominated societies have a tendency to "produce" the "right" sort of women who want te "right" things (for an interesting recent Muslim reformist view, see Muqtedar Khan: Epistemological Hijab, 2005, www.ijtihad.org). Anybody who is familiar with European social history and especially with European fashion history will be able to point out several parallels between certain clothes' restrictions there and Muslim notions of modesty as guaranteed by the hijab.
By stressing this, I do not want to minimalize the controversial character of veiling, only to place the issue in a larger context. Where I am very much for promoting an open debate about the actual religious or social compulsions to wear the veil in our time, I nevertheless consider it an interesting cultural object and as such it offers much insight into female reality in history. Both in the "Muslim East" and the "Christian West", there have been quite substantial differences as to what women were allowed in different ages. And at all times, women have always strived to make the best of their situation and conquer some space for their individuality. Even the traditional Afghani burqa, possibly the strongest symbol of what is seen as Muslim misogynism (with stress on "Muslim") now in the West, often shows astonishingly beautiful colourful embroideries. The differences in traditional women's garments in the Muslim regions bear witness to the inventiveness of women, something that in my opinion shows a great strength and a will to carve out whatever opportunities life has to offer, even in societies where individuality is not seen as an ideal. Incidentally, this is also just a very recent phenomenon in the West.
When we study the history of Western attitudes towards women's garments in Muslim societies, one thing that strikes us is the highly ambiguous and often confused character of the different views. In the 18th and 19th centuries when the first European travellers, both male and female, started to describe their adventures in "the East", the dominating attituude tended to be one of fascinated interest, in some cases distinctly positive rather than negative. Some women viewed the Oriental women with something close to envy, since they could move around "without being subjected to the unashamed stares of men", and one lady even wrote about how "practical" the veil was when pursuing amorous adventures, since no man would dare to force any woman to unveil in public. Even if a husband suspected his wife of being unfaithful, he had no chance of verifying this, the argument went...
Then at the height of European colonialism, the picture began to change.The veil was increasingly seen as a symbol of Muslim backwardness and inferiority. At the same time "Oriental" beauties with seemingly nothing better to do than lie around with as little clothes as possible waiting for who knows whom and what began to people the canvasses of European painters; theatre stages became filled with "harem dancers", whose fanciful costumes showed much flesh, much gold and glitter and often - a face veil. Actually very much in the style of modern cheap carnival belly dancer's costumes. And very far from any reality in the Muslim world.
This would all be very amusing if these images were indeed a thing of the past. Unfortunately they are not. Hardly any human being has been subjected to such humiliating interest as the "Oriental" woman, who was and is perceived as a being unable and even unfit to speak for herself. In the entire "head scarf debate" we hardly ever hear the voices of veiled women from traditional backgrounds. We never hear their reasons for veiling, usually diverse and often very well reflected, sometimes the result of complex compromises and even sometimes fashion-related (I can most warmly recommend Leila Ahmed's "Women and Gender in Islam" for a thorough historical analysis and investigation of contemporary women's reasons for veiling).
The issue is a very complicated one and I do not propose any "solution" (if that is actually what we need). But I would wish for a more intelligent, differentiated and open debate in Europe. A debate that allows (serious) critical voices without defaming them as racist or islamophobic and take the fears of estrangement among immigrants seriously. We need a climate free of extremism on both sides. We could start by stepping down from our pedestal and accepting the other as a competent partner for discussion.