Friday, March 14, 2014

Hijacking Hijab: The West’s Myopic Misrepresentation of Iranian Women

A woman window shops outside a wedding dress store in Tehran, Iran.
(Photo Credit: Nima Shirazi)

In mid-2012, Alex Shams, editor-in-chief of the indispensable Persian and Iranian socio-culture site, Ajam Media Collective, wrote,
It is nearly impossible to read any article about Iranian women and not spend the entire time rolling your eyes. Historically, the Western media has tended to make liberal use of Orientalist and infantilizing depictions of Iranian women as, alternatively, trapped in the harems of their turbaned overseers (a historically pre-1979 trope applied liberally to all Middle Eastern women) or militantly crazed and clad in black “traditional garb” (a post-1979 trope specific to Iranian, and later Islamist, women).
Commenting on the then-recent mangled media coverage of the growing popularity of ninjitsu among women in the Iranian city of Karaj (the female martial arts practitioners were dubbed “ninja assassins” by Britain’s Telegraph), Shams pointed out that the Western stereotype of the Iranian woman has long relied on their portrayal as either “veiled, militant fanatics” or silenced victims of Islamic patriarchy, bubbling under their hijab – if not bursting out from under it - with exotic sexuality.

This latter trope has recently become ubiquitous in Western media.

The individuality, creativity, and personal agency of women in Iran – and Muslim women in general – have all been subordinated, if not completely dismissed or disregarded, to the Western obsession with the Islamic veil. According to the routinely reinforced narrative in the American and European press, academia, and political discourse, the measure of a woman’s freedom and self-determination is directly proportionate to how tight her clothing is and how much of her hair is visible to strangers in public.

Mellat Park, Tehran, Iran.
(Photo Credit: Nima Shirazi)
In the wake of a widely-reported University of Michigan poll earlier this year, which purported to reveal just how covered-up various Muslim societies prefer their women, New York-based communications strategist Arwa Mahdawi wrote in the Guardian of “the west’s bizarre fixation on what Muslim women wear and how they cover their hair,” while pointing out that women in non-majority Muslim countries suffer from similar, though perhaps inverse, societal pressures, personal choices, and inherent patriarchy and misogyny. “In a sense, women’s hair in the west functions as its own sort of veil, one which most of us are unconsciously donning,” Mahdawi noted. “The time and money women spend on their hair isn’t just the free exercise of personal preferences, it’s part of a broader cultural performance of what it means to be a woman; one that has largely been directed by men.”

After noting that “[m]odesty is not uniquely an Islamic requirement,” Daisy Khan, writing in Elle Magazine in late January, explained that “Muslim women wear burkas, nikabs, hijabs, or headscarves for a variety of reasons,” continuing, “Some genuinely do it out of piety, while others are conforming to local customary dress. Some are rebelling against state politics, some are acting like testy teenagers, some are making a statement about religious identity, and some are required by others to live as invisible beings.” Quite simply, she insists that Muslim women “reject the hijab as the sole marker of how we are defined in public.”

Meanwhile, in the Independent, Bina Shah commented:
Muslim women’s fashions have been interpreted and overanalyzed by the Western world as some sort of profound assertion of political identity or religious stance. Yes, there is an element of that in there, but the bigger truth is that Muslim women wear what they do, including what’s on their heads, because of how it makes them look and feel, just like all women around the world, and it takes on the cultural overtones of the milieu in which they live. There’s no need to survey this or pathologize it: there’s certainly no point in turning it into a value judgment.
Nevertheless, the Western media continues to promote the notion that a “fashion revolution” is currently underway in Iran, wherein women deliberately and courageously challenge, defy and subvert the societal prescriptions – and proscriptions – of Islamic authority and government mandate as evidenced by the increasingly prolific image of “young, skinny, upper-class, colorfully-clad and trendy woman” in urban settings and headscarves that rest loosely on bouffant hairdos and tight top buns. Reliably, the folks over at Ajam Media Collective have dissected this media trend in all its Orientalist glory.

Mannequins in a Tehran shop display various styles
of manteau, the long coat popular in Iran.
(Photo Credit: Nima Shirazi)
In an excellent, must-read essay entitled, “A Fashionable Revolution: Veiling, Morality, and Consumer Culture in Iran,” Ajam editors Shima Houshyar and Behzad Sarmadi write, “We see beautiful young women in the streets of Tehran inviting us to reconsider stereotypical images of Iranian women that predominate in mainstream English-language media. These images are juxtaposed against those of women clad in the black chador – the long flowing cloth, usually black – to clarify the extent of this ‘revolution’ and the substantive difference between these bodily surfaces.”

When asked by Muftah what inspired the piece, Houshyar and Sarmadi explain, “What we call the “fashion revolution” genre is simply a way of representing Iranian women for non-Iranian audiences. It celebrates the conspicuous consumption of women’s clothing as a mode of political resistance against state patriarchy and policing. Our article is intended to critique these representations insofar as they function as a popular genre: replicating the same kind of imagery, profiling the desires and politics of Iranian women based on such imagery, removing from view the social and economic hierarchies underpinning such imagery so as not to dilute the argument.”

“This kind of fascination with Iranian women and their sense of dress, however, obscures the complexities surrounding how Iranian women actually practice the mandatory veil,” they write in their essay. “These articles produce simplistic generalizations for the sake of provocative and yet easily digestible reading. They do so by: treating women’s bodily surfaces as a measure of societal progress and morality; romanticizing the notion of resistance; and eliding the significance of class and consumer culture in everyday urban life.”

Elaborating on this point, the authors told Muftah, “We do not dismiss the notion of everyday resistance through acts of clothing and the alternative conceptions of morality and self that they can signify. What we are dismissing is the simplistic caricaturing of such resistance as especially powerful, clearly indicative of political intent, accessible to all, or naturally representative of a how women engage in everyday forms of resistance.”

The Western infatuation with female fashion in foreign lands objectifies and insults women just as much as Islamic laws mandating certain dress codes. Both perceptions, Houshyar and Sarmadi write, simply assume “that the surfaces of women’s bodies reflect the moral state of society at large” and incorrectly correlate “what is happening to female bodies” with “deciphering some widespread zeitgeist.”

Young Iranians relax in Mellat Park in northern Tehran.
(Photo Credit: Nima Shirazi)
Glimpses of female skin are seen in the West as the tea leaves of political intent and resistance to societal, cultural, and government strictures. “The narrative of women’s defiance of state oppression through their style of hijab perpetuates this patriarchal approach of constantly locating either freedom or oppression on their bodies alone,” Houshyar and Sarmadi note, adding that it not only “perpetuates the view that deliberate action is only worth regarding as truly deliberate when it breaks with convention or challenges state prescriptions,” but also presumes “a simple correlation between women’s ‘inner’ beliefs and their ‘outer’ appearances,” thus distorting and even inverting “the complexities informing practices of veiling, but also the potential for resistance itself. It suggests that women who consider themselves religious and practice the veil in ways that happen to be prescribed by the state must therefore support the state.”

The article also delves into how issues of consumerism and class cannot be separated from this so-called ‘fashion revolution.’ In correspondence with Muftah, the authors distilled their argument this way:
An ever-expanding consumer culture in Iran has developed in lock-step with an upper-middle class subjectivity. Explicitly cosmopolitan, and performed through the consumption of global brands (Apple) and ‘Western’ cultural commodities (artisan coffee), it is also often marked through clothing. This subjectivity is not necessarily absent in lower socio-economic classes, and we are not suggesting that the “revolutionary” aesthetic that these articles exhibit is not to be found in lower-income neighborhoods. But class does necessarily determine the capacity to inhabit and express this aesthetic, and is manifested in the universe of such brands and their knock-offs. The embodied practices of fashionable-looking clothing therefore represents a trenchant consumerism that cuts across class lines in Iran, but also highlights them and makes them socially legible in doing so.
Houshyar and Sarmadi aptly conclude in their article that merely reducing the struggle of Iranian women ”to the tightness or length of their clothing in the manner shown by these articles reproduces exactly the kind of sexist logic that elevates women’s appearances as a register of morality inviting intervention, or as an occasion for conspicuous consumption. Iranian and other transnational feminists have been challenging such sexism for decades.”

“Instead of dealing in such binaries and stereotypes,” they insist, “we would do well to acknowledge the complexity of women’s realities and understand how they navigate their lives through the intersecting systems of the state, family, capitalism, religion, and patriarchy.”

Read Houshyar and Sarmadi’s entire article here at Ajam Media Collective.


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