Friday, November 7, 2014

On hijabs/niqabs and the 5 minute masquerade


#DamnILookGood is a collaborative performance art piece by Bolo, an artist duo consisting of Qinza Najm and Saks Afridi. Qinza Najm wore a niqab/hijab/abaya for two days in Brooklyn New York and proceeded to snap selfies with people in an attempt to promote tolerance.

The story has been making rounds on social media. Upworthy describes it as a "collaborative performance art project is changing perceptions, promoting tolerance, and encouraging self-confidence one snapshot at a time".

Stories of women donning a hijab or a niqab and facing an incident or two at the very most of racist attacks and then writing about it from the safety of one's home is entirely problematic. My issue first begins with the idea of using the hijab as a costume for a limited period of time. Taking selfies in this borrowed attire with random people promotes tolerance how? How is the psyche of a woman who wears this day in and day out the same to a woman who wears it for 5 minutes? They are not equal. You cannot pretend to behave the same, or act in the same manner. The looks you get whilst wearing it, don't stay with you. You don't have to go through the repeated hostility. So when you pick up a cell phone, and strike a pose, you are a. in an entirely different behavioral space b. you are acting. A hijab is not an outer layer of fabric, it becomes you, you become it. Your personality gets shaped by it, for the worse or for the better. 
The artists behind this hijab/selfie taking project state that "During this moment [of selfie taking] a hijab, seemingly a barrier, becomes entirely invisible to her". I entirely disagree with this totalizing statement. First of all, how does these artists, a man and a non hijabi woman, know what it feels like to be fully covered on a daily basis? It is never invisible, it is the marker of visibility. 

Another problematic aspect of their statement: 

When a woman covers herself this way, she can’t be judged on attractiveness, her jewellery or makeup. She isn’t ‘sized up’ and can’t be advertised to. This very barrier is her superpower. With it, she is in complete control of her sexuality, and ultimately, that’s what makes her so beautiful. By snapping selfies, she makes a point that she is much more than her sexuality. This performance art piece is about tolerance over anything else. At the same time, it questions several issues: Islamophobia, over-sexualization of women in media, the duality of modernity and tradition and longing for self expression.

Claiming that attractiveness and sexuality is downplayed because a woman is covered only perpetuates the misogynistic ideal of judging a woman on these very attributes. How is she in complete control of her sexuality because of her clothes? The statement indirectly claims that a woman who is not entirely covered is not control of her sexuality. Again, highly problematic. But back to the woman in hijab. So can't be 'sized up' or 'advertised'. Why is this language even used in a piece tackling over sexualization of women in the media? Negating sexuality does not mean that a woman is not being judged on it. Why aren't her brains or personality being mentioned here? "By snapping selfies, she makes a point that is she much more than her sexuality." The point is entirely lost, in my opinion, especially since the name of the performance piece is #damnILookGood.


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