“What is a veil but a kind of
light as gossamer
or dark as the River Styx.”
– Moniza Alvi
Historically, the question of appropriate clothing for Muslim women, particularly the importance and necessity of the veil, has been a subject of heavy debate and controversy – in religious, political and social circuits. Though Islamic states have long wrested with the position of the burqa within state policy, legislation banning the burqa (and other forms of hijab, or covering) in Europe (and some parts of Asia) more recently, have raised new questions on the nature of majority and minority rights, the status of immigrants, Islamophobia, and the definitions of secularism and liberty in diverse democratic societies.
The point of origin of this increasing trend in Western Europe was the passing in France of a religion-neutral ban on the wearing of the headscarfs in places of education (2004), followed in 2010 by the law criminalising the wearing of the face-veil (usually but inaccurately referred to as the burqa) in public spaces. A student at the National School of Photography in Arles at the time, Ampannee Satoh, decided to use her lens to explore questions of religion, multiculturalism and personal freedom that the proposed ban raised. Thus was born, her Burqa series.
Detractors of the burqa view it as a form of discrimination against women and argue that the garment should be banned in order to achieve gender equality and ensure women’s dignity; others view the burqa as a public interest concern, arguing that its prohibition, at least in some instances, is necessary to ensure public safety, security, health and order. The primary counter-view in the debate surrounding public burqa-bans is the belief that such bans violate human rights by eliminating the rights to individual liberty and freedom of religion. An additional concern is the fact that such bans may serve bigoted and discriminatory interests, tailored to target Muslims and reflective of anti-Islamic sentiments. The recent bans against burkinis on beaches on the international front; and more locally, a brief ban against female students sporting burqas and male students sporting beards in a pharmacy college in Mangalore – both support this point of view, since they have little to do with public safety, dealing instead with public morals.
Easily the most representative visual marker of Islam, the burqa became central in Western media narratives post 9/11 as the “veil of terror”. Extensive exposure slowly familiarised the burqa as the sign of absolute difference; symbolic of female oppression and therefore, Eastern backwardness and barbarianism. Such assumptions were endlessly reproduced in media analyses and accounts of the Taliban, where the presumed repression of women’s bodies symbolised Islam’s supposed systematic repression (of free speech, human rights, individual liberties, sexual freedoms).
Women’s bodies have however, long borne the burden of symbolically signifying culture and tradition, community and nation – particularly in moments of conflict, or in the face of perceived threats. The policing of female bodies by the Taliban therefore, may be more easily seen as a means of resistance against the flow of external foreign influence in the region – revealing political, rather than religious motives. In support of this argument is the fact that traditions of the veil were neither initiated by the Taliban, nor made redundant by their defeat.
The power of the burqa lies precisely between this dialectic, as an emblem of the clash of civilisations and a symbolic border between oppositional worlds. The image of a veiled woman, within this context, becomes a highly potent sign – encoded with concurrent, conflicting meanings that reflect those imposed upon the site of the veiled female body.
If the image functions as a sign, the camera plays witness. Ampannee’s self-portraits, in burqas made in her hometown of Pattani in Thailand with her mother’s support and posing in front of iconic French monuments and seascapes, perform her protest of the ban by making visible the fear of the vouchsafed ‘other’ within a familiar idiom. The ‘othering’ that these images reference is not limited to being a Muslim woman in France, but speak of being a Muslim woman anywhere. Satoh’s burqas, with their vivid colours and contours shaped by the wind, alongside the absence of other people in these tightly framed photographs also present, in a certain sense, an interrogation of the landscape of the self. Through its dissonances, the Burqa series emphasises the divisions at the centre of this debate: the self and the other, the political and the personal.
Before the shoot, Ampannee had never worn a burqa in public. She writes, “I took a hijab [head covering] when I went to France. If I don’t wear a hijab, I would feel bad. Maybe in the future I will wear a burqa. I can choose.” This question of choice and its relationship to empowerment and opportunity lies at the root of those who defend the burqa. And it is important to comprehend that alongside religious dictates, social conventions and family pressures, personal comprehensions of piety and comfort play a role in governing women’s donning of the veil. Since the ban in France, in fact, the veil has even been embraced as a form of protest.
Highlighting the irony that a ban meant to prevent social differentiation in fact engenders discrimination, Satoh’s photographs function as a space within which the burqa is neither an exotic, nor a terrifying ‘other’. She remphasises the necessity for this recognition — of varying individual choices and ways of being in the world — when she writes that she sees her work as a call for the diversity of rights.
Appreciating the power of images that can confront, provoke and shake the viewer and his/her assumptions, Satoh writes, “The image of a veiled woman, even in niqab, has the power to disturb people. And even scare them. I appreciate that, and I know that some practices of some Muslims – who are far from Islam’s lessons of tolerance and freedom – reinforce this negative feeling. But I think it is also the media, associating Islam with terrorism and oppression, that put these ideas in people’s heads…I once saw a picture of a woman doing jetski and niqab in the space of a second, and was annoyed because this is not what is expected of a woman in a niqab. Then I realised that I had to accept this picture and the idea behind it. This is the only way to accept diversity.”