Saturday, April 26, 2008

So, Who’s the Bimbo? Part Two

I’ve been staring at this swinging Haifa and these floating black swans for weeks on end. Even in private thought I catch myself tiptoeing around these women and the fabrics that clad them. That’s the trouble with our veil: it has become radioactive. On it hang the prospects of a debate that is as contrived and fatuous in certain circles as it is serious and consequential in others. Of all our items of clothing, it carries within it a symbolism that is as political as it is sexual, as chauvinistic as it is emancipatory, as regressive as it is contemporary.

Not for the squeamish, therefore, talk about this precious veil! You have to sew your sentences ever so carefully and stitch your ideas together with such delicacy, although the image you’re finally embroidering deep into the surface of this issue is anything but pretty.
There is no doubt they’re special, these women—iconic, really. For many, they tell tales about dissonance and malaise, about rough endings and radical departures, modishness and piety when they are read backward or worn upside down. In conversations here and elsewhere Haifa and the black swans are often tagged as the human summations of our confused sense of Arab Muslim self, testimonies of our inability or unwillingness to write a meaningful narrative that neither plagiarizes from the West nor seeks inspiration in a distressingly introverted Islam.

Haifa, well, Haifa’s story is plain enough—at least to the eye: bimboism, as a supracultural trend, bimboism by the cookie cutter, if you like, and, inevitably, the female as sex object. Wherever you see her, however sassy or attractive she may be, she is everywhere the same. Of course, in her own backyard—the Arab world—poor Haifa carries even heavier baggage for most of the region’s religiously devout: she is visual proof of our drooling mimicry of the West, our susceptibility to its lasciviousness, our flouting, and with such scandalous nonchalance, the very clear commands of Islam. She is the very reason we need to turn back and inward and (for the most zealous among the faithful) fade our femaleness into black.

Which brings me to the lovely ladies traveling by her side. By looks alone, you would think that they and Haifa are worlds apart, that they pray to clashing deities, live by colliding value systems. The dress code alone would make any arguments to the contrary rather cheeky. They themselves would probably bristle at the suggestion that the one thing that makes them appear so physically different from one another is what actually makes of them the best of sisters: sex. Their sex, to be more precise, and the sheer lure of it which Haifa flaunts with such relish and which they hide with such zeal.

Mind you, there are plenty of us women populating the space between Haifa and the niqabis. We all spend fractions of our mornings and evenings determining how much we want to expose of ourselves. Call it our daily give-and-take with our femaleness. Sexuality, shi’na am abaina (whether we want it or not), is the first hanger we take out from a closet crowded with moods, tastes and identities. And here’s where Islamism pretends to leave the premises, all while installing itself king of the house: contrary to its contention that the veil is the Muslim woman’s path away from such potentially demeaning chitchats, it is a march smack into the heart of them, as screaming a voice for the objectification of female sexuality as Haifa’s zigzagging black rope without which her dress and she can never be one. For in that act that a woman takes to cover up in order to render more bearable her seductiveness, to temper—so to speak--the Eve in her, she is not authoring new rules for this ageless game, she’s playing by the oldest of them: like the famous chanteuse, she is embracing her sexuality’s wicked sway over men but is dutifully opting to switch it off rather than turn it on. And so, after traveling long and hard away from Haifa, she finds herself at the end of the trip right where she started: standing very close to the flaming tigress herself.

But of course, in these nervous times these musings are tantamount to petty rabblerousing, akin to pissing on someone’s party. It would defeat the objective of all this name calling inside and out, wouldn’t it, if these symbols of our cultural waywardness (Haifa) or religious atavisms (the black swans) turn out to be the creative handiwork of the very same mindset? A sharboukeh, we call this quandary in Arabic, a real tangle, because entire civilizations have been mobilized, enough books have been churned out to stack up libraries, intellectual powerhouses have been called in, eyebrows are in permanent mating, mouths are salivating all around their angry rim…You want to laugh at all this, but somehow something about the sorry sight kills the glib in you.

So, I don’t want to be glib about any of it, and I especially don’t want to be glib about the veil. Not the veil! Because here’s a piece of fabric that might well be as old as Gilgamesh himself and yet is forever young and vibrant. It has lived in so many countries and travelled to so many places, no more than a formality in that culture, no less than chastity itself in this one. It’s a chameleon: to some, soft and colorful and ever so light on the face; to others, heavy and immovable, wrapping bodies the way death swallows up life. It is versatile: to that daughter a quiet, even tentative, negotiation with “modernity;” to this one, pitchfork-angry, despotic and sadistic. It can play uncle, protecting its weary women from the incessant harassments of idiotic men, or be the best disguise for naughty girls in need of the perfect cover on illicit outings. It also can be out-and-out political, as the last few decades have shown. Yes, this perennial hallmark of female virtue has entered the political fray, in certain neighborhoods willingly, in others with its feet kicking and dragging. It has become a basic matter of identity--not all of it, to be sure, but enough of it for many of us to wear it as an act of cultural and political rebellion. It is no small irony, of course, that by willfully choosing to make our sexuality so inconspicuous we have rendered it the most conspicuous marker of this supposedly new identity.

Impressive, this remarkable ability of a piece of fabric to straddle so many realms and crown so many heads! How cleverly it mixes sexuality with politics with jingoism with culture with religion, and makes of the female the most valuable currency in this endless haggling over who we are. To talk about the veil today as a mere religious requirement would in fact be a violation of its civil and political rights: it strips it from much of its substance, denies its actual appeal and silences the crowds of motivations that have carried it triumphant out of its religious bounds. In countries that have made of diversity and pluralism umbrellas for feuding lifestyles and conflicting belief systems, the veil can be pretty much whatever it wants to be. However widespread and assertive it is in its own milieu, at its most ambitious it would be only one among many chapters on the challenges of assimilation and tolerance. But in instinctively conservative societies, the more popular it is, the more unnerving it becomes. Just by showing up, it has the capacity to harass women whose sexuality is as irreligious as it is apolitical. Watch it in Turkey become a victim of its resounding success everywhere in the region: no matter how loud or truthful its protestations that it is nothing more than a fulfillment of a scriptural obligation, no one will believe it. And with good reason, because if Islam’s manifest destiny is to colonize every dominion of life—or if it is in fact life itself, as its Islamist champions openly claim
--then the veil is the most vivid demonstration of its irredentist tendencies.

None of us has to spend too much time figuring out the reasons for the veil and its glory. They run around in rowdy packs screaming their way down our history. One is about a frazzled people’s hope that their religion will help them crawl out of their deep well of impotence. One is about how fickle we Middle Easterners always were about our secularism and how little we appreciated the beauty of it. One is about the search for companionship in landscapes emptied from every lover but religion. Yet another is nothing more than misogyny calling itself the word of God. Still others are about the need to believe that Islam can offer its own version of modernity, that there is more than one way to feel liberated and free, even if it means living in tomb-like darkness. That our womanhood should become so hopelessly entangled in an entire region’s convulsive relationship with its faith, its history, its place in the here and now, its political masters, the West, tells you how utterly indispensible we are in this struggle and how confounding our situation is because of it.

But don’t go around mocking those women who think they have set themselves free by covering up. That they have stood emancipation on its head in this day and age is no easy feat. And kid yourself not, most of them are no pushovers—sort of like Haifa herself. Research (see Lara Deeb’s An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shii Lebanon, and Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate) reveals that younger generations of educated women from secular middle and upper middle class families have enthusiastically taken up the veil to create for themselves a life that is self-consciously skeptical about a Westernism that comes in all or nothing packages. They want to pick and choose their way through things contemporary, mix and match PhDs’ and careers and financial independence with a white veil and tight black skirt today, a mauve one and jeans tomorrow. On many an intrepid face, you see lipstick accentuating the color of humility, bright eye liner complimenting it. In marveling at these women, we rarely compute that their rather imaginatively veiled displays are actually far more demanding of Islamism (yes, the ism is deliberate) than they are of the modern life. The latter is happy to indulge them as much as it tolerates all of us, all the way to Haifa’s side of the bargain. It is the former that is being asked to concede much because it is infinitely more particular about what it wants from its women. It is being asked to concede that the veil speaks with more than one tongue, likes having more than one interpretation, enjoys more than one standard, boasts more than one cultural accent, even if it dwells happily within the shifting walls of its faith.

Still, as a woman of this place and of this religion, as someone who, without hesitation, insists on every woman’s right to live with the veil or without it, I cannot but wonder at the astounding cleverness of this piece of cloth. All these twists and turns and layers and upon layers of emotions and thoughts and expectations and disappointments and heartbreaks suffusing it and imbuing it with such meaning, when, in truth, it has always been, by its own admission, about one very crude supposition: the sinful magnetism of the female and the burden we shoulder in physically shielding men from her.

Had I been, strictly speaking, a woman of faith, I might have lingered momentarily, as other woman have before me, at the obvious notion that since God went through all this trouble to create all this attractiveness in the female, the last thing he would want her to do is wrap it up. And since this life presumably is one long test of human will, I would have puzzled over why the onus then is not on the man to get over it and control his ups and downs. Not very rigorous intellectual or theological observations, I admit, and yet somehow they seem more than enough--at least for this female.  


Anonymous said...

The bimbo is the person that wrote the article. When you have faith and submitt yourself to God, wheter in Islam or Christinaity or Judaism or any other religion, covering parts of your body is very important for obvious logical reasons the writer must definitely understand unless he wants his sister, mother, or daughter be seen in such a cheap manner! N.b the picture where the women are totaly covered is not found anywhere in any faith. Only among extremists & these are found unfortunately in all religions!

Thinking Fits said...

You have not even read the piece, have you? It could not have escaped your angry eyes that I am a woman. Here’s some advice from this “bimbo”: take off the dogma, read the article again, drop the name-calling, and get out there and polish up your knowledge. Your oversimplifications and comical ranting cheapen you and your faith.

Wherever you are, you cannot be in the Middle East. The niqabis are very much part of our landscape over here. They do not represent the majority of veiled women, but they occupy respectable space among them. For someone who shows such fury about this subject matter you betray a disturbing level of ignorance about it.