As a symbol of exoticism, it has been used to sell cigarettes, tennis shoes and pornographic picture postcards. As a symbol of oppressive patriarchy, it has been used to justify decades of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East. But above all, the familiar symbol of the veil has served as a representation of U.S. concerns and anxieties about power and tradition, according to Amira Jarmakani, an assistant professor of women’s studies at Georgia State University, who spoke at UC Irvine on Thursday, Jan. 26 in Humanities Instructional Building 135.
As part of her research, Jarmakani collected images of Arab womanhood in the United States, which fell into three basic categories: the veil, the harem and the belly dancer. She wished to understand why these images remained so salient in American culture.
Early examples of these images ranged from French orientalist paintings to photographs of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (the debut of belly dancing in the United States) to early 20th century advertisements for Turkish tobacco blends.
‘Contemporary U.S. images of Arab and Muslim women are largely determined by the seemingly static symbol of the veil, which is interpreted as evidence or example of the way in which these women are made invisible and rendered powerless by their own culture,’ Jarmakani said. ‘This type of image … has emptied Arab womanhood of its contingency on any particular time or place and created what I call ‘the mythology of the veil.”
Annie Leibovitz’s book, ‘Women,’ contains photographs of women from all different walks of life. The sole image of an Arab-American is of a Dearborn, Mich. schoolteacher who, with the exception of her eyes, is covered entirely in black cloth.
An accompanying essay by Susan Sontag says, ‘We assume a world with a boundless appetite for images, in which people, women and men, are eager to surrender themselves to the camera. But it is worth recalling that there are parts of the world where to be photographed is something off-limits to women. In a few countries, where men have been mobilized for a veritable war against women, women scarcely appear at all. The imperial rights of the camera to gaze at, to record, to exhibit anyone, anything, are an exemplary feature of modern life, as is the emancipation of women.’
Jarmakani said that this image and Sontag’s message are indicative of the type of stereotyping that is so common in the United States.
‘Her eyes, because they appear to be her only means of expression, therefore communicate that which a U.S. audience assumes it knows about her: she does not wish to be imprisoned behind the limiting veneer of the veil, but she accepts her fate with quiet and resigned strength,’ Jarmakani said. ‘This type of knowledge about Middle Eastern culture, as Leila Ahmed [a professor of women’s studies and religion at Harvard Divinity School] points out, is derived from a long tradition of orientalist thought in U.S. culture.’
Jarmakani quoted Ahmed: ‘Just as Americans ‘know’ that Arabs are backward, they know also with the same flawless certainty that Muslim women are terribly oppressed and degraded, and they know this not because they know that women everywhere in the world are oppressed, but because they believe that specifically Islam monstrously oppresses women.’
Jarmakani also showed a 2001 Reebok advertisement portraying a woman covered head-to-toe in black cloth except for her exposed eyes and her white Reebok shoes.
‘The image of the veil in the ad functions as a potent signifier of hiddenness,’ Jarmakani said. ‘The representation seems to focus on the garment as covering, rather than on the woman herself, a perspective that depends on an American interpretation of the practice of veiling, which understands the custom as about seclusion.’
Although American readings of such images assume the veil as an unwanted restriction on the woman, this is not necessarily the case.
‘The practice seems to be about the forced enclosure and restriction of women, rather than about sacred privacy and sanctity,’ Jarmakani said. ‘Furthermore, the interpretation of the veil as an absolute boundary for women and as a barrier for the colonial or imperial gaze ignores its function in many Muslim societies as a garment that enables, rather than restricts women from movement between and among a variety of public institutions and contexts.’
Jarmakani criticized the ‘simplistic equation of being uncovered, unveiled or revealed with being modern or emancipated,’ which demands that Arab women expose themselves to Western eyes.
Similar to how French orientalist paintings provided a means for access to the private space of the harem, ‘the contemporary U.S. obsession with the veil is … concerned with penetrating the pristine barrier of the symbolic cloth covering.’
‘The ad is sexy, chic and most importantly effective because it commodifies those qualities of Arab womanhood that make her alluring,’ Jarmakani said. ‘She is simultaneously untouched, exotic and timeless.’
The veil also serves an important purpose in the context of militarism by ‘demonstrat[ing] the supposed inferiority of the Arab male’s excessive patriarchy, and function[ing] as justification for U.S. military action.’
‘During both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 military action against Afghanistan, mainstream U.S. feminist organizations … demonstrated seemingly unknowing collusion with the hegemonic project of U.S. imperialism,’ Jarmakani said. ‘The National Organization for Women acted in cooperation with the military … by demanding that Arab women in the region align themselves against their ‘overly oppressive’ male relatives in the midst of a crushingly aggressive U.S. offensive. Similarly, the Feminist Majority rallied around the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan … in the interest of advancing its long-waged cause of liberating Afghan women from the brutal oppression of the Taliban.’
Jarmakani suggested an alternate form of action that such organizations could have taken.
‘In formulating a feminist antiwar agenda, NOW might have more effectively attacked the U.S. military for posing as liberators of Arab women and for their treatment of U.S. military women,’ Jarmakani said. ‘Likewise, the Feminist Majority might have more effectively worked toward the liberation of women in Afghanistan by developing a critical consciousness about the U.S. goal in over 25 years of devastating conflicts throughout the region which utilized Afghanistan as a literal battleground for its own power struggles.’