Gender Jihad and Body Politics

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Daniel Martin Varisco


The Arab Spring that began two years ago is still thawing out after decades of dictatorial rule in the Middle East.  Pundits in the Western media have focused on the political rise of Islamic parties in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria.  Beyond the body politic, however, the human body itself is a more appropriate icon for the sweeping change that was ignited by the self-immolation of a young Tunisian named Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010.  Thousands of bodies have been tortured, mutilated and blown to pieces beyond recognition since then.  Western media, unlike the major cable networks in the Middle East, tend not to show bloody corpses, a notable exception being the battered body of Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi. Of the many images from Egypt’s revolution, perhaps none is more riveting than that of dethroned President Mubarak being wheeled in to a trial and looking like a mummified pharaoh.

Yet it is the female “Arab” body that has most resonated with Western voyeurs since the days when the French painters Ingres and Gerôme orientalized the harem beauty, the naked odalisque’s body.  Such a seductive work of art symbolized not only the latent libido beneath the veneer of European morality but also the feminization of the Orient as a site of conquest, whether in the seraglio or on the battlefield.  The odalisque’s body lacks the innocence of Edenic Eve before the fall; the meaning for the viewer manifests itself only by the removal of her veil.  So it should not be surprising that fear of an Islamic takeover of public morality in North Africa and the Middle East revolves in large part around the gender issue.  The Muslim woman’s “veil” in this sense is tantamount to the “Iron Curtain” that separated the free West from the godless Communists.

It is not for a Western audience to forcibly remove the veil from Muslim women.  Modern Turkey’s Ataturk tried this from within almost a century ago, but no rigorously enforced secular agenda has been able to keep some Turkish women from choosing to wear at least a symbolic veil.  So what about contemporary Muslim women who freely choose not only to reject the traditional trapping of veils, but also militate against the uncompromising morality that demands it?  Two recent examples have captured media attention in the West.  Most recently a Tunisian woman named Amina Tylor posted pictures of herself on her Facebook page: one shows her topless and smoking a cigarette with a protest about who owns her body in Arabic; a second image also bares her breasts with dual finger “f” signs and the English phrase “Fuck your morals.”   The Tunisian Salafi preacher Almi Adel, who heads the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, is quoted as saying “The young lady should be punished according to sharia, with 80 to 100 lashes, but [because of] the severity of the act she has committed, she deserves to be stoned to death.” As a result, an international day of protest has been called for April 4 by FEMEN.  To be provocative it always helps to add meaning beyond the message.  Bare breasts certainly did get a rise out of the extremists, which in turn yields a counter protest of support.

The American censorship frenzy over nipples, even the nanosecond of Janet Jackson’s wardrobe at the Super Bowl, is not one universally shared.  At the Musikverein in Vienna, I once counted a couple dozen bare busted friezes on the wall while listening to Mozart.  In Yemen during the 1970s it was not unusual for a woman to open her dress and breastfeed, even in front of a foreign anthropologist.  The debate about the female body, and the male body as well, in Islamic teaching has always been over the issue of modesty.  It was assumed in the past that believers are likely to come across a member of the opposite sex not fully clothed, as happened to the prophet Muhammad visiting his adopted son’s wife, Zaynab.  The proper response was to divert the eyes, not to throw stones.  Salafi insistence on fully covering every part of a woman has never been the norm in Islamic cultures, nor is it likely to win out in the future.

A second example is a young Egyptian blogger named Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who posed naked online and elicited similar calls for punishment.  Her body was presented as a protest of the duplicity of Egyptian society in which her lover, also a blogger, was jailed for four years by the Mubarak regime. How is her response to the denial of human rights any different than those who took to the streets, even women in hijab, to demand Mubarak’s removal? Is there something about the natural contours of a human body that is more upsetting than the blood stained remains that have been plastered all over the Arab media? The actions of this young blogger are more a virtual variant of Lady Godiva, not a commercial emulation of Lady Gaga.

There is a FEMEN blogspot devoted to Arab and Muslim women protesting with their naked bodies the strictures of both Islamic and dictatorial regimes.  The images on the site include an Egyptian “transwoman” whose gender identity has been denied in Saudi Arabia.  I view the provocative images posted as “wholesome” in the full sense of the word, a reminder that our minds should not be held hostage to those who are blind to natural beauty anymore than our bodies should be torn apart by weapons.  So what is to be made of this bodily oriented rite of the Arab Spring? A question remains as to whether this kind of “up-yours” protest works in the Muslim-majority countries of those who protest.  Individuals outside Islamic countries can bare their breasts in public defiance, especially in Europe, but both laws and public opinion work against such exposure protests in countries like Tunisia and Egypt.  If such protests serve to energize support for Islamic parties which are attempting to restrict women’s rights, such acts may even be counter productive. Public resentment in Europe and the United States is not likely to affect gender policies in the emerging democracies after the Arab Spring.

Welcome to the Gender Jihad, a battle over the body that is hardly unique to Muslims.  We all come naked into this world, but God (almost any God will do here) forbid we should be seen naked in public, except as an object of shame, or lust.  I can only imagine the economic blow to Western society if men lost their interest in internet pornography or failed to respond to sexy Madison Avenue ads.  Do we avoid putting bloodied corpses on our news so we can ignore the cost of human life stemming from our foreign policy decisions?  Just imagine what would happen if we did accept naked human bodies as objects of natural beauty rather than assuming certain parts need to be covered so that inherited moralistic dogma is preserved.  I have no crystal ball to see what the future holds for our species, which has spent much of its existence in a naked state, but I fear that we are far too clothes-minded to engender gender equality in the near future.

Daniel Martin Varisco is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.  Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar.  His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (University of Washington Press, 2007).  He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net), the online journal of the Middle East Section of the AAA. His regular blog is Tabsir: Insight on Islam and the Middle East (www.tabsir.net).

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