by Maniza Naqvi
The inclusion of a hijabi, her photo somewhat snarling, in between the covers of this October's issue of the Playboy magazine is a delicious illustration of our times. Playboy, much defended by men for the heft of its ‘articles', is not known for its penchant for contraptions of modesty and demure unless they heighten the libido of individuals engaged with themselves in their solitary pursuit of release. So, I am impressed that Playboy has settled the issue, of what the hijab is in the west. What is it about? The titillation of having dominated and crushed and won. Sex. And packaging it just right, fresh, clean, just a bit dirty, oh yeah. The symbol of the crushed, inviting domination.
The French, of course had figured this out way before everyone else did, after all, the French are known for their superior sense of all things au contraire and colonized. The French should know a thing or two about the turn-on of a veiled Muslim. Ah the colonies of Algiers, Tangier, and so forth. Alexandria. The Levant. After all French artists led the pack (Henri Adrien Tanoux, Georges Jules Victor Clairin, Auguste Adolphe, Eugene Delacroix and so many more) in Europe who imagined the harem and and committed their imaginary inmates to paintings.
The nikab'd and the naked. Naked and unnaked can they serve the same purpose? To provoke? It is interesting that it is in France that Muslim women are being forced to take off their cover. The country which prides itself on its wardrobes, is forcing Muslim women to disrobe. Well not surprising this, since it has always imagined Muslim women as naked.
France demand's this of Muslim women because it is the country where cultural consciousness has imagined them only as naked and as sex objects. And as this imagination of naked sex objects it demands they remain as culturally French as France has imagined them to be: In harems and in them, naked. So they must be forever inside the impenetrable ‘harem', or within a covering that makes them unseen by the public but naked within. The niqab ensures that this culturally French vision of Muslim women in harems, remains intact.
And it is equally interesting that it is in France that women in niqab, fancy themselves as proclaiming themselves Muslim in the public space. But by doing so they are in fact, in the very French cultural context insisting on remaining naked, in that very French fetish and fantasy of its own creation ‘the Orient'. In a world now quite outwardly naked, these women are keeping themselves intact in the French imagination, staying exactly as the Frenchmen had imagined them to be three centuries ago, and in doing so placed them, tagged them as the titillating tool for sexual fantasy. Women in France and the rest of Europe walking around in a Niqab are imagining themselves, presenting themselves exactly how France's savants imagined the Orient to be—the other, that must be unveiled and dominated.
Think about that!
Sometimes I would leave the office late in Addis Ababa after 11.00 p.m. The office was on the main Bole Avenue–a main artery of the city. By 11.00 p.m. the road I walked on was lined by sex workers—waiting for guys in cars to drive by, stop and pick them up. I noticed a few of the women getting ready for the night–putting on their costumes and make up while waiting for their clients A few put on hijabs. I stopped and asked one woman why she had put on the hijab. “It is the latest thing —Our fereng–(i.e. white foreigners) customers prefer it.” What about the Arab customers I asked. “Yes they do too.” I asked a few more questions which led me to the conclusion that in an enviroment where there is a perception of sexually transmitted diseases–a hijab clad sex worker was packaging herself to a customer as a clean, unused, dependable product. They reminded me of hotels in Pakistan preferred by the foreigners where late at night, a burka clad woman or two were a fixture round about 11.00 p.m.
Edward Said, discusses in great detail in his seminal book Orientalism and in his book Culture and Imperialism, Napoleon's invasion of Egypt on July 1, 1798. Napoleon landed his fleet in Alexandria and brought with him not only invading soldiers but also 167 ‘savants' as the key to conquest. These 167 savants or intellectuals and scholars who became the Egyptologists who collected and recorded ancient Egypt and defined its history as well as the present time that they encountered. They occupied not only the present, but also the past and the future based on their perspective. This included defining Muslim Egypt and its practices through their political ambition, imperative, objectives and lens. These Egyptologists, in the importance they placed on religion, emphasized public importance to religion when in fact is was an aspect which had remained private. The French recorded Egypt and its religions and people as they perceived them or wanted to perceive it. Napoleon created the Institut d'Egypte whose work resulted in the twenty-three volume Description de I 'Egypte which redefined the study of Egypt and Egyptology.
France in its conquest of North Africa and in particular Egypt, Morocco or Tunis and Lebanon brought in anthropologists and scholars who then presented in their scholarship of this region as the “other” as a place that never existed called the “Orient” and presented these cultures to themselves and to the citizens of France and Europe as caricatures of themselves, or cartoons if you will.
“The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity ‘a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”—– ——–“The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”—– “Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.”—–“Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”—–“My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage-and even produce-the Orient politically , sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.” Edward Said, Orientalism.
And so now here it is. This sums up that orientation from 1798 onwards: That same France which created the “Orient' as the ‘other' orientation unmasked itself—not on the sands of Libya which it bombed, cheered on by the philosopher charlatan Bernard Levy, not in the villages and forests of Brazzaville, or Congo, or Benin or Burundi—Not in Iraq or from the skies of Syria with its weaponry or in Afghanistan, not in Algiers, or Tunis, or Lebanon or Morocco of the last century, but right there in France in 2016, in the summer holidays of idyllic innocence in front of its complicit colonizing citizenry, on its own beaches—of Nice, Corsica and so forth, by playing out its orientalist fetish. The State armed to the teeth, makes a woman disrobe exposes her against her will. Robes which she perceives as her defense. Because she is forced by armed police to take off clothing that she considers covers her modesty, the State makes her naked. The state using armed force, to remove her clothing is in fact tearing it off of her, making her naked. Because it can. Because it wants to. Because it is its culture to do so, because it is its culture to fantasize about this. Because it is France's cultural heritage to have dreamt up the niqabed and the naked in the first place, in the salons of Paris and the art studios of its artists.
The arm of the State, heavily armed, forcing a woman to bare her arms, making a woman naked against her will. What's next? This is what misogyny looks like. This is what war looks like. This is what colonialism looks like and now it is on the French beaches instead of in France's colonies of a century ago. This is what authoritarianism looks like. This is what 'isms' look like. This is what injustice looks like. And this is what democracy does not look like.
It is indeed grotesque and criminal that the police forced a woman on the beach in France to take off any part of her garments. In doing so the State sent her the message that it has the right at any time whatsoever, without any provocation, it has the right to make her naked. What next? Is it the Mayor of Nice and his cohorts who decide how much flesh a woman should expose? Or is it the right of the whole society collectively to do this? No. Neither's. It is only, and only a woman's personal choice. A ban is horrible enough. To enforce it this way? Misogyny remains central to violence and its by-products of racism, war, control and authoritarianism, colonialism. Name your isms.
France should ask itself how it views a woman. And why is it the symbol of a woman that is used for subjugation and occupation. France has portrayed its colonies as weak and as women. And as exotic. It is so even when France uses a woman to symbolize liberty. She must be bare breasted. Made naked. By the State. Why does France insist on humiliating women?
The State, does violence, makes the victim the threat. Makes her defense, an offence. Makes her humiliation its art, its culture its way of life. Makes her subjugation the purpose of its industry, its economy, its politics, its every ‘ism'. Makes her subjugations, its liberty and its freedom and its feminism.
Covering of hair is not a symbol of Islam. Sikh men do it. So do Jewish women. Hindu widows shave off their hair, others do it because they believe it appeases and pleases many gods or just the one. Some orthodox Jewish married women shave off their hair and wear a wig instead while others cover their own hair with a wig. The wigs are made of hair, cut and shaved off of the heads of poor Indian women—who sell it to exporters who make the wigs for the women who are told that they should shave off their hair. The poor women's abundance of hair is also sold as extensions to create the illusion of long silky tresses, for those unhappy with their own hair and lack of its length. And who dictates all of this? What does it symbolize?
Native informant is the term used for the one who confirms the colonizer's narrative. I'll coin a new term: native conformant, the one who imitates the caricature created by that narrative. A caricature of the caricature, the native conformant. That narrative is first and foremost subjugating, violent and misogynist. These are key components for occupation. Those who are born imbibing this narrative, the progeny of the colonized and the colonizers are steeped in these notions. And we must beware of them and aware of them for how they are manipulated, exploited and used today and to what end.
Winter is coming to the Northern Hemisphere and soon we will all cover ourselves from head to toe. In the West, where there will be artic temperatures, the State will not ban us from covering our heads, to keep in the heat when we step out. We, men, women and children will be encouraged to cover our heads, our faces. The weather will demand it of us. Just as it does in the sands of the deserts, cover every orifice in a desert storm. It keeps the sand out, keeps it from getting into all our orifices including our nostrils, into our lungs, our eyes, our ears. And yes from ruining our hair and our constitutions. Even on the beaches of Normandy, then, fascism will take a pause from forcing a woman (equally fascistic) to uncover herself, in the name of France.
Who really wears a burka in Europe? Andrew Brown of the Guardian tells us that it's actually quite hard to find one in western Europe. He wrote back in 2010:
“One of the joys of online journalism is that you can include links to your sources, and this pleasure is never keener than when the source is a 75 page PDF of an academic report in Danish. This one contains some very useful perspective on the debate about banning burkas, to be precise, Niqabs. The Danish government thought to ask how many people such a ban would affect: the answer was something between 100 and 200. An article on the interesting Swedish site islamologi.se picks the story up: In France, where there is an inflamed debate on the matter right now, the first investigation carried out by the police last year found that there were 367 women in France who wore burka or Niqab – 0.015% of the population. This was so low that the secret service was told to count again, and came up with a figure of 2,000; in Holland there seem to be about 400, and in Sweden a respectable guess suggests 100. The most fascinating figure of all, though, came from the Danish researchers, who actually interviewed some of the covered women. Most were young, or at least under forty, and half of them were white converts. I think this makes it entirely clear that in modern Europe the burka is not an atavistic hangover, but a very modern gesture of disaffection from and rejection of society, which appeals to a certain kind of extreme temperament. This isn't to say that nutters can't cause society real problems. The arrest of seven people in Ireland yesterday, charged with a conspiracy to murder a Swedish cartoonist for drawing a cartoon of Muhammed, should be proof enough of that. But the burka debate is not so much about religious obligation, as about the public rejection of the surrounding society, and society's tolerance for that.”
Uff Allah! Ya Allah! Ohhalla, Oh la la. All equally employable for ecstasy when beauty or its opposite is beheld. Or fact. Same words? Probably. Brought from North Africa to Spain and France. Oh Allah! Yallah, Ya Allah. Centuries ago. Wouldn't some French just explode if they were to learn that Oh la la comes from Uff Allah? By way of North Africa–inshallah and moving north to becoming ohala to further north oh la la. You know what? I'm going to follow the 18th Century French tradition of Egyptologists and just imagine that it is so. I submit it is and so it is.