Tuesday, January 26, 2010
One day while shopping a few blocks from my home, I came across a Muslem family, a couple with a small boy. The woman was dressed in a head-to-toe black chador and a burkha that covered even her eyes. It was summer, and I was dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt. I smiled at the little boy and was rewarded with a menacing look from his Father. He was obviously threatened by my dress and the forwardness of my smile. Life in the United States must be difficult for this Muslem immigrant because he is constantly faced with fashions and symbols he considers improper. For this man, did my fashion illustrate what is wrong with the present, predict changes for his future, or both?
The West has a long history of misunderstanding Middle Eastern fashion. We see the belly dancer as a seductress, but she is an artist who has studied her craft to perfect the motion and symbolism of each move, much as a ballet dancer would. The West sees the draped Muslem woman as repressed, but she may be making a political statement or celebrating an Islamic revival using the symbols of her own culture. Muslem school girls have been expelled for wearing the hijab in France and Sikhs have been prevented from wearing full orthodox clothing in Canadian schools.
After the Shah of Iran was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979, many Iranian women adopted the head-to-toe chador as a symbol of protest against the West. What we either don’t know, or have forgotten, is that the chador was banned by the Shah’s father from 1935 to 1941 because it did not look modern enough. This forced fashion, in the interest of Westernization, was resented by many women in Iran, and when given the opportunity, they voted with their clothes!
Some fundamentalists in the Middle East would like to ban all traditional woman’s dance, and those dancers who want to learn this old art, often must do so in private. The fashion and cultural struggles within the Muslem world demonstrate the conflicts between liberal and fundamentalist views, between forces that value traditional arts and those that would ban them altogether.
The word Harem refers to the private women’s quarters of a Muslem house. My references in this piece are intended to be mixed up and contradictory, like the Western view of the Muslem world. This weaving is shaped like a Middle Eastern dancer’s headpiece with a sheer scarf hanging from the point of the cone, but the face is covered by a knit wire mesh, itself covered with United States pennies except for the location of the eyes. In a Middle Eastern dancer’s costume, coins are usually strung around the hips, where they make a pleasant sound when the woman moves. In Harem, the coins cover the face like the burkha often worn by Muslem women, referencing both the exposure and concealment of the female body. The dancer reveals her body and draws attention to it, the burkha conceals. Our society, represented by the pennies, misunderstands. The pennies also signify unstoppable Western influences such as the internet, and along with it, Western ideas of women’s dress. These influences cannot help but effect cultures everywhere, including those in the Middle East.
The Western financial interests in Middle Eastern oil riches would seem to require us to understand this area of the world, but yet we are confused.
Posted by S E at 9:57 PM