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Woah. When I first read this, it took me several tries before I could even start to get my head around what it’s trying to say. Go read it, take a minute to roll your eyes, shake your head, look quizzically at the computer screen, or whatever else you need to do, then come back and let’s talk.
This latest source of mind-bogglement comes from an art project that was part of a course involving technology and the body. We are told that:
“The CharmingBurka sends a self-defined picture of the wearing person to every mobile phone next to it. The project researches about clothes with a digital layer that is different to their first optical impression. […] The CharmingBurka deals with Freud’s idea that all clothes can be positioned between appeal and shame. The Burka was chosen, because it is often perceived in the west as a symbol of repression. A digital layer was added so that women can decide for themselves where they want to position themselves virtually. The Burka sends an image, chosen by the wearer, via Bluetooth technology. Every person next to her can receive her picture via mobile phone and see the women’s self-determined identity. In the artist’s interpretation the virtual appeals can not be gathered by the laws of the Koran and so the Charming Burka fulfills the desire of living a more western life, which some Muslim women have today.”
Oh my goodness, where to start? It’s the going-beyond-the-veil fantasy for the age of wireless communications. The assumption, as always, is that the clothing that a woman may choose to wear while out in public says much less about her identity than what we find when we see what’s underneath. That under this burqa we will find a pretty woman with a stylish haircut and v-necked top, which is how she truly would like others to see her.
What bothers me most about this assumption is that any agency that a burqa-wearing woman may have to choose to present herself to society as a burqa-wearing woman, for whatever religions and/or cultural reasons she may have, is totally ignored. We are led to believe that “the woman’s self-determined identity” is necessarily other than what is conveyed by the burqa, and that if she had her way, the woman under the veil would be showing a lot more skin. There is little space for the woman to be wearing the burqa as a religious practice, or as a way of articulating her identity as a Muslim. This technology acts, apparently, as a way to circumvent Qur’anic guidelines (we’ll leave the artist’s understanding of fiqh for another discussion), since although those are the rules that the woman is bound to follow, it is a “more western life” that she truly desires.
That western life, of course, is taken as synonymous with unveiling, which is in turn synonymous with liberation. It’s the same old story… though at least we can give the artist points for a creative new way of articulating it.
The focus on visuals is really interesting as well. We are not being asked to look beyond the burqa to see the human being underneath; we are simply being given an alternate visual image to replace the one we saw first, with little additional information about the person herself. The images that are shown here are very generic-looking, hardly indicative of who she is as a person.
Although she is able to provide an image that supposedly illustrates her identity, the woman still seems to be rendered passive in many ways. The photo of a couple people standing around her with their cell phones out was somehow disturbing; this burqa makes its wearer an increasing object of curiosity, but her identity remains rather limited, since the onlookers’ engagement with her is confined to the novelty of seeing an alternate visual image. But could it be possible that her “self-determined identity” might be more complex than either the burqa or the selected photo could convey?
Of course, this isn’t the first time that representations of Muslim women’s clothing have come up on this site (this isn’t even my first time writing about it, and it’s only my third post!) I’m sure MMW readers can do a lot of these critiques yourselves, and I probably owe you more than just yet another deconstruction of some representation of the veil. So, stay tuned for my post next week, when I want to have more of a conversation about these images and what it means that we come up against them so often.
Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this “Charming Burka”…