‘Islam’ defines a relatively small proportion of what actually takes place in the Islamic world, which numbers a billion of people, and includes dozens of countries, societies, traditions, languages, and, of course, an infinite number of different experiences.Edward Said
|Credits: Shirin Neshat|
This essay intends to focus on the issue of Islam in contemporary media, the conventional media images of the Muslim world, politics of gender and the impact it has on everyday life and the ongoing ‘War on Terror’. This work is hugely inspired by Shirin Neshat’s artistic interpretations of the role of women in the world of Islam and her figure will be central to my deliberations. It aims to incorporate her works in my examination of the common perceptions and stereotypes popularised by the media. Neshat makes explicit the ambiguities of the stereotype of Muslim women in particular - for the covered women have different meanings, according to context and the way it is presented. Her work is challenging - especially for the Western observer, whose image of the Muslim world is generally based not on experience but on media clichés. Neshat does not replace existing Orientalist stereotypes with more "accurate" representations; instead, she uncovers the multiplicity of possible meanings embedded in them. Her aim is not to dispose of media clichés, but to recompose and reorganize them in ways that produce more flexible and complex readings.” In her artistic work she addresses the issues of securitisation of Islam in media, its often-biased approach to Muslims and perhaps even ‘structurally racist’ Orientalist perceptions of Muslim minorities in the West.
|Credits: Shirin Neshat, Untitled: Embrace|
Since the very days of the prophet, the role of women and their societal status have been a matter of principal theological debate in Islam. Indeed, it was the detestable position of tribal Arab women that Prophet Mohammed so fiercely opposed and numerously acted against. Islamic history of the early umma, it is arued, proves that Mohammed strived to enhance the position of women in the society. The message of Qur’an, if examined from a comparative approach well rooted in the history of the seventh century Arabia, sends some positive signs and calls for political and social equality between the sexes. Application of that equality is however, more ambiguous. One would, however, find a number of obscurity in the prescribed Islamic treatment of women. Nonetheless, let us not forget that some of the core Qur’anic rights of women, such as the right to inheritance, the right to owe a property, or the right to file for divorce – all introduced by the prophet Mohammed – were incredibly revolutionary for the seventh century Arabia, in particular, and the whole world, in general. Indeed, some of these rights only came to be at disposal of the European women in the late nineteenth century. Katerina Dalacoura follows that argument and states that, “Nowhere does the Qur’an clearly say that women must be veiled; that stoning is the punishment for adultery; or that women must be secluded or circumcised”. It is essential to draw a distinction between the teachings of the Qur’an and its shameful, yet notorious application and the practice of ‘Muslim’ discrimination against women.
|Credits: Shirin Neshat, Untitled: Mother and son|
During the Abbasid period, when Islam’s foundations were developed, leading scholars and thinkers were male. … they moved away from the Qur’an’s ethical codes for female autonomy to advocate instead women’s subservience, silence, and seclusion. If women’s agency was taken into consideration, it was with regard to service to men, family, and community. Women came to be discussed in law in the sane terms as material objects and possessions. (This is today reflected in Pakistan’s rape laws, which treat the offense as one of theft of male private property with no consideration for the women’s rights.)
Unfortunately, the Islamic shari’ah – assembled in this pre-modern period, yet still incredibly important for contemporary Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia or Iran – quite apparently epitomises this shift. Geraldine Brooks indicates, that the shari’ah maintains “women are expected to sacrifice their comfort and freedom to service the requirements of male sexuality”. There seems to be a common consensus, even among the most vehement Islamist ‘human rights’ scholars, that “A man [according to some interpretations of the shari’ah] is allowed to use physical violence against his wife; he can divorce her without explanation; he can be polygamous if he so chooses; he has exclusive rights of custody over the children in case of separation; and testimony of one male witness is equal to that of two women”. The status of women, as prescribed in the Qur’an, was quite clearly depreciated with the introduction of the shari’ah law.
This rather unfortunate shift in the fate of Muslim women; unnecessarily directly related to original Islamic theology but rather influenced by local cultures and patriarchal traditions of some Muslim communities; has since been used to legitimise several colonial and imperialistic interventions within the Middle East. Haideh Moghissi claims, “the European male establishment … appropriated feminism and used it against other cultures. The ‘colonial feminism’ … was to legitimise Europe’s ‘civilising mission’”. This situation became most apparent during the late days of the Ottoman Empire, when the popular images of the repressed Muslim women were utilised to create common support for the colonial advances of Britain and France. “The role and status of Muslim women would become a stick with which the West could beat the East.” And indeed, it was during this time that women came to appear as signifiers of the ‘Muslim’ identity for the first time.
Some of the hitherto typically traditional and customary practises and clothing, such as hijab, chador or burkah, suddenly became highly politicised and securitised. Forthwith the hijab took to the centre stage of the West-East relations and the ‘Muslim woman’ came to be associated with the whole of the society. Shirin Neshat wonderfully recognises this dynamic and examines our relations with the Muslim world through our perceptions of the identity of a Muslim woman. It clearly indicates the importance of politics of gender in our assessment of both the Islamic identity and our perceptions and/or constructions of it.
|Credits: Shirin Neshat, Untitled: Woman with a gun|
“Pornographic images of unveiled Muslim women were circulated in the form of postcards during the European colonisation of the Middle East and North Africa in the nineteenth century, rendering the bodies of these women, otherwise covered and obscured from view by their veils, open to the imperial male gaze. Muslim women who were cloistered in the inaccessible inner sanctums of the eroticised ‘harem’ were now laid bare and open to the otherwise forbidden visual access of European men. Ella Shorat writes that ‘it is this process of exposing the female Other, literally denuding her, which comes to allegorize the western masculinist power of possession, that she as a metaphor for the land, becomes available for Western penetration and knowledge’.”
This loss becomes even more striking when we realise that “women are the centre of a family’s sacred identity, for they embody the central values prized by the family that are key to theirreputation and their status”. Therefore, the issues of women always take the centre stage in the local political discourse, where it is the community as an extended family that always prevails and dominates in importance over the individual. Shirin Neshat recognises the importance of this characteristic and includes in her artwork an image of a woman - a ‘mother’. This woman is often perceived as the ‘mother of the entire nation’.
One may claim that these historical experiences do not have any relevance for the current situation in the Middle East or our deliberations on the women of Islam. Yet, “the war on terror” – waged against the ‘barbaric’ and religiously fanatic Muslim world (typically a neo-Orientalist rhetoric) – “like previous imperialist campaigns is inscribed with the politics of race and gender.” The nineteenth century colonisers and the current day ‘liberators’, both share one specific characteristic. They both use the Western feminist idiom to raise needed support and legitimise their actions. The recent US report on the situation in Afghanistan claimed “Millions of Afghan women are experiencing freedom for the first time”. Sunera Thobani rightly notes that this statement clearly “echoes colonial constructs of the native as barbaric and dangerous, whose colonisation was not only justifiable but also welcome, bringing them into civilisation and democracy”, that effectively would provide freedom for women.
|Credits: Shirin Neshat, Untitled: Tulip|
It is clearly an oversimplification to draw borders between misogynously violent and non-violent communities along the confessional lines. This simplification however, resembles well the Orientalist rhetoric commonly used in the Western world. Syed Farid Alatas indicates, “What make the headlines are not so much the realities concerning the Muslim world but rather the Orientalist stereotypes and misconceptions of Islam”. The Western media seems to have successfully created a common understanding among Westerners that misogyny and unequal treatment of women is somehow the second most characteristic feature of the Muslim world, after terrorism. The images of veiled Muslim women; especially in Western countries where Muslim communities are small or inexistent, and Islam still commonly unknown; almost immediately come to represent the oppression of women. Here, I could even draw from my personal experience of living in the Middle East. A relatively large number of my European and American friends, when exposed to my photography of fully veiled Muslim women from all around the Persian Gulf, tend to get almost immediately repelled by them or at least experience some unease with those images. That is precisely this biased Western perception of Muslim women and the “well-known media clichés of Oriental culture” that Neshat decides to unravel.
The Muslim veil, the hijab, came to be perceived as one of the most characteristic signs of Islam. It certainly provokes a variety of responses and is at the very centre of media’s debate on Muslim identity in the West. Yet, most importantly and unfortunately, the hijab appears to have very negative connotations in the Western world. Western media often chooses it to be a representation of women’s subjection and their lack of freedom. It is constructed to represent violence and Muslim ‘misogyny’. However, as Nina Cichocki notices in her essay on Shirin Neshat’s art, “veiling does not necessarily imply the notion of female inferiority and subordination”.Nonetheless, a relatively long history of very persistent portraying the veil as “a ‘must’ forced upon her, and not a matter of individual choice” made a lot of Western media viewers believe that “it is an obstacle that bars [Muslim women] from social interaction and individual expression”. This image, as indicated above, is often created to prove Muslims’ ‘otherness’ and ‘alienness’.
Neshat does not deny this unique ‘otherness’ but instead attempts to stimulate it, thus making us aware of “its constructed, artificial nature”. She attempts to make us realise the variety of possible meanings and perceptions of hijab – women indeed wear hijab for a large variety of reasons ranging from typically religious to even revolutionary and emancipatory ones, or simply as a matter of mundane day-to-day convenience and fashion. Fadwa El Guindi states:
“Few items of clothing have been as disputed and as charged with political meaning as the veil worn by Muslim women. It is a complex symbol: female emancipation can be denoted by either wearing it or removing it; the veil can acquire both secular and religious meaning in that it either denotes resistance to colonization, or ties with the Islamic tradition.”
|Credits: Shirin Neshat, Untitled: Muslim and Jewish Hands|
Stereotyping Muslim women has been so strong and persistent that even our Western literature has often represented the typical Orientalist idiom. Indeed, literature was a direct predecessor of the contemporary media in creating the negative image of Muslim women. Zine notes that “the archetypal Oriental woman; the Egyptian courtesan who never spoke of herself or represented her emotions, presence or history … [was] constructed in the Western literary imagination as objects of desire, sensual, elusive harem girls and yet they were disavowed in the same breath as backward victims of their heathen and misogynistic cultures”. Edward Said appears to agree with this statement and reiterates that “too often [our] literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent”. These images have also permeated the Hollywood film industry. This becomes very apparent for Alatas, who notes:
“Consider the song from ‘Aladdin’ which refers to Aladdin’s birthplace as a ‘place where the camels roam … where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home’. There was also the depiction of two ‘stupid Arab couples’ trying to read an ‘Exit’ sign on the Titanic, when more than 300 Lebanese lost their lives on that ill-fated journey. In ‘The Siege’, Arab jihadists actually came to New York, blew up Times Square and kidnapped school children.”
The ‘poornographic’ images of Muslims can even be recognised in some of the artwork of emigrant Iranian or Middle Eastern artists. Azimi notes that this emerging art has this one slogan in common: “Cry for us because our fates are so bad.” Shirin Neshat, on the other hand, opposes these notions and strives to show more than just a poor, oppressed and worth-our-sympathy woman. She does not deny them, nor does she live in a romanticised Middle Eastern vacuum. She does not shut her eyes for the struggle some women have to perform in their every day life. Sometimes even the veil becomes portrayed as something negative in her imagery. Shirin Neshat, while discussing one of her images Untitled: Mother and Child, 1996 (see previous page), betrays her own dissatisfaction with the veil and states that “the woman, forced to hide behind the veil, has no way of expressing her thoughts and feelings”.
|Credits: Shirin Neshat, Untitled: Speechless|
This aspect of female’s identity can only be recognised in Neshat’s artwork when taking a closer look. In order to understand her art properly, one needs to overcome some obvious cultural divides, such as the linguistic barrier preventing many Westerners from understanding the Persian calligraphy used by Neshat. “By including Farsi calligraphy written over the images”, as noted by Igor Zabel, “Neshat creates a pure, sensual, visual presence, and a material ornament that indicates meaning but hides it from most Western audiences who will, in most cases, be unable to read or understand it. It is the emptiness of meaning that makes room for stereotypes.” Neshat strives both to indicate and subsequently fill this emptiness with a multitude of meanings. She recognises that this cultural gap is often the main reason for misunderstandings and misperceptions regarding Islam.
Ironically, the most oppressive Islamic regimes, like that of Iran, give birth to the most prominent feminist movements in the Muslim world which Neshat so unambiguously relate to in her artwork. In an interview with Lila Azam Zanganeh she claims that:
“Westerners have this sense that Iranian women are submissive victims. But they’re not victims, and they’re certainly not submissive. … through their resistance and strength, Iranian women have had a voice in Iranian society, and they continue to have a voice, perhaps more so today than ever before. … Because women are under so much pressure, they end up being more innovative about dealing with crises and devising ways out. They become more subversive.”
And indeed, it is a subversion of the Orientalist image of a woman that Neshat exercises in her artwork. Persian calligraphy becomes her means of subversion. The Western viewers unable to understand Farsi would normally miss the fact that Neshat uses feminist poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad to indicate this other side of the female Muslim. In this way Neshat utilises poetry as “the literal and symbolic voice of women whose sexuality and individualism have been obliterated by the chador or the veil”. Iranian women, such as Neshat herself, deny being simplified to an image of an oppressed woman who has no control over her being. Instead, they often took on the role of prominent activists in both the Iranian revolution and the feminist movements that opposed many non-liberal policies of the Islamic Republic.
Here again the most ‘everyday’ object of the Iranian culture – the veil – appears to be at the very centre of the national conflict. “In 1936”, as noted by Sheybani, “Shah Reza enacted a law that banned women from wearing a veil or a chador. … The ban of the veil as well as the promotion of Western customs became increasingly perceived as destruction of indigenous Persian culture.” From this perspective hijab took a whole new meaning. Many women objected that ban and joined Ayatollah Khomeini in his fight to ‘liberate’ Iran of the Western dominance. No longer was the veil perceived as a sign of weakness and fatalism. As Leila Ahmed claims:
“The veil came to symbolize in the resistance narrative, not the inferiority of the culture and the need to cast aside its customs in favour of those of the West, but, on the contrary, the dignity and validity of all native customs, and in particular those customs coming under fiercer colonial attack - the customs relating to women - and the need to tenaciously affirm them as a means of resistance to Western domination.”
Credits: Shirin Neshat, Allegiance with Wakefulness.
Black-and-White resin-coated print and ink. 1994
Quite unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, Khomeini’s brand of liberty that was soon implemented as a result of the Islamic revolution, took the form of oppression. It certainly did not liberate women, nor did it give them the right to choose their dress. “The imposition of the chador caused many women, who had previously worn the veil as an emblem of resistance, to now demonstrate against it”, notes Cichocki. Nonetheless, Iranian women continuously prove to be extremely active in the Iranian political culture and reject to be perceived as helpless, passive subjects of the male dominance. Moreover, Iran has a long tradition of women’s movements, of which the revolutionary and militant ones are the most prominent.
Politics of sexuality, together with the way media affects our conceptions of Muslims; have important implications for the ongoing ‘War on Terror’. 9/11 and the subsequent anti-terrorist operations only strengthened our preconceptions of Muslims as dangerous and threatening-our-Western-civilisation. In Neshat’s artwork they become those that carry the ‘guns’. It is however, very ignorant, indeed, to generalise this threat and claim that we should rid our world of whatsoever Muslim. Nonetheless, it becomes increasingly apparent that Islamophobia gains much strength in the West. Moreover, it often fixates quite clearly on the everyday of Muslim women.
|Credits: Shirin Neshat, Untitled: Aim|
It would be, however, completely mistaken to think that Neshat excuses terrorism for the horrible and shameful fruits it bears. She does not romanticise acts of terror. She only portrays another possible characteristics of Muslim woman – the fanatic. Her artwork also indicates the other side of violence, one that is hidden from the Western viewer. This becomes very clear when examining Neshat’s Seeking Martyrdom #2, 1995. Women’s hands fully covered in blood, yet still tightly holding the rifle are the focal point of this portrait. Western viewer might subsequently associate this image with the blood of an innocent person that was killed by a female terrorist or a suicide bomber. Yet, in Iranian culture this image can take on a completely different meaning. It refers to the “Shi’ite belief that Allah accepts as pure the prayers of someone who has washed in martyrs’ blood”. This belief originates in very popular Shi’a lore in which “Zaynab on the battlefield of Karbala could not find water [to purify herself for the prayer and, instead] … washed herself in the blood of her martyred brother Hussayn”. This reference to the Shi’a culture does not serve as either an explanation for terrorism, or its excuse. Neshat only attempts to indicate that violence can often take much deeper religious meaning and as such becomes, for some at least, less morally wrong or unacceptable. She does not even attempt to explain terrorism; she only uncovers another of its layers, thus proving the constructed nature of identities and our reasoning behind various actions, including violence and terror.
|Credits: Shirin Neshat, Seeking Martyrdom #2.|
1995 Resin-coated print and ink.
Muslim women are often perceived in the media as passive and oppressed by their misogynist cultures, yet dangerous and potentially violent. Media images of Islam often show a very biased and one-sided image, thus disabling the viewer to realise all the other layers of its character and nature. Shirin Neshat decides to fight that reality and allows the viewer to realise the multiplicity of Islam. As quoted above: “‘Islam’ defines a relatively small proportion of what actually takes place in the Islamic world”. Neshat gives us a taste of the often-hidden layers of Muslim realities and attempts to open up that ‘Islam’. In the West she may be charged with romanticising terrorism. In the East, on the other hand, she might be accused of critiquing the ‘true Islamic’ way of living. But above all she uncovers the multitude of meanings without giving them any moral value. And by doing so she critiques the popular tactic of the media and various lobbies or governments to allow us to see just one side of the coin. Quite certainly her artwork will be numerously misread. It won’t give us the answers to how to improve the situation of women in the Muslim world, nor will it ever change the long-lasting and deeply embedded Western xenophobia. But it will certainly open our eyes to what is hidden behind the ‘veil’.
 E. W. Said, Covering Islam: How The Media and The Experts Determine How We See The Rest of The World (London: Vintage, 1997), p. xvi.
 S. P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993), p. 22.
 see O. Weaver, B. Buzan, M. Kelstrup and P. Lemaintre, Identity, Migration and the New Security Order in Europe (London: Pinter, 1993), p. 67 and p. 76; and B. Tibi, Political Islam, World Politics, and Europe (London: Routledge, 2007), p.21.
 Huntington, op. cit., p. 22.
 I. Zabel, “Women in Black,” Art Journal (College Art Association) 60, no. 4 (Winter 2001): p. 18.
 Compare N. J. Dawood, trans., The Koran, trans. N. J. Dawood (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), Sura 4:34, p. 370 - “Man have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the others, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because Allah has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey take no further action against them.”; and Sura 4:124, p. 379 – “But the believers who do good works, whether men or women, shall enter the gardens of the Paradise.”; and Sura 49:13, p. 275 – “Men, We have created you from a male and a female and divided you into nations and tribes that you might get to know one another. The noblest of you in Allah’s sight is he who fears Him most.”
 K. Dalacoura, Islam, Liberalism and Human Rights: Implications for International Relations (London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1998), p. 46
 A. Wadud, “Aishah's Legacy: The Struggle for Women's Rights within Islam,” in The New Voices of Islam: Reforming Politics and Modernity, A Reader, ed. M. Kamrava, 201-204 (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006), p. 203
 Geraldine Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire: The HIdden World of Islamic Women (London: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 24.
 Dalacoura, op. cit., p. 46
 H. Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis (London and New York: Zed Books, 1999), p. 16
 It is imperative for this examination to realise that the tradition of covering head by women is neither Muslim by nature nor does it exist as a necessary religious Qur’anic requirement. For further details see N. Cichocki, “Veils, Poems, Guns, And Martyrs: Four Themes of Muslim Women's Experiences in S. Neshat's Photographic Work,” 4, no. 1 (November 2004): 47-65; where she discusses cultural backgrounds of the veil. Moreover, for explanation of Qur’anic veiling requirements, see Dawood, op.cit., surah 24:31, p. 216 – “Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; to cover their adornments (except such as are normally displayed); to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to reveal their finery except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their step-sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women-servants, and their slave girls ….”
 J. Zine, “Between Orientalism and Fundamentalism: Muslim Women and Feminist Engagement,” in (En)Gendering the War on Terror: War Stories and Camouflaged Politics, ed. K. Hunt and K. Rygiel, 27-49 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), p. 32
 F. El Guindi, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1999), p. 88
 Zine, op. cit., p. 29
 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “White House Release on Progress in the War on Terror,” Federation of American Scientists, 22 January 2004, http://www.fas.org/irp/news/2004/01/wh012204.html (accessed April 25, 2009).
 S. Thobani, “War and The Politics of Truth-Making in Canada,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16, no. 3 (2003), p. 404.
 Moghissi, op. cit., p. 2.
 S. F. Alatas, “Is Objective Reporting on Islam Possible? Contextualizing the "Demon",” in Covering Islam: Challenges and Opportunities for Media in the Global Village, ed. S. F. Alatas, 41-52 (Singapore: RIMA & KAF, 2005), p. 43.
 These reactions would clearly vary depending on the level of people’s exposure to and understanding of the world of Islam.
 Zabel, op. cit., p. 17.
 Cichocki, op. cit., p. 4.
 ibid., p. 6.
 Zabel, op. cit., p. 17.
 El Guindi, op. cit., p. 172.
 Cichocki, op. cit., p. 9
 Zine, op. cit., p. 30
 E, W. Said, “Introduction to Orientalism,” in Imperialism: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies, ed. Peter J Cain and Mark Harrison, 30-52 (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 27
 Alatas, op. cit., p. 43
 N. Azimi, “Don't Cry For Me, America,” in My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes, ed. L. A. Zanganeh, 104-111 (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), p. 105
 J. Goodman, “Poetic Justice,” World Art, no. 16 (1998), p. 52
 Zine, op. cit., p. 34
 Zabel, op. cit., p. 22
 L. A. Zanganeh, ed., My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes: Uncensored Iranian Voices, ed. L. A. Zanganeh (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), p. 47.
 S. Sheybani, “Women Of Allah: A Conversation With Shirin Neshat,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 1999: 204-224, p. 207.
 Cichocki, op. cit., p. 4.
 L. Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 164
 Cichocki. op. cit., p. 5.
 Zine, op. cit., p. 35
 Zanganeh, op. cit., p. 44
 Cichocki, op. cit., p. 25
 ibid., p. 11
 Said 1997, op. cit., p. xvi