Islam, Women & the Veil

Part 3 of the Media Debate on Muslim Women Dress:
Greater Diversity or Entrenched Stereotypes?

Attempts at a greater diversity of imagery of Muslim women and the defeat of stereotypes have been, and still are being made by many artists, academics and photographers.

For example, in Looking Beyond the Veil, a photoessay, Polaris photographer Kate Brooks invites us to look at the veil in a larger context.

She does this through photographs covering fashion and the choices with which modern women in different countries are faced.

Brooks' work includes photographs of women in varied situations wearing different attire. These range from a girl wearing a tartan mini-skirt chatting with guards at the site where the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated last year; to a hip-hop dancer in a nightclub in Beirut; to a model strutting on the catwalk in a fashion show held at the Grand Hyatt in Cairo.

Included in the photo-essay is a reproduction of a 19th century painting called Arabian Landscape by the French painter Leon Joly de Saint François which shows a veiled woman as "a figure of mystery". By inserting this image in the middle of a photo-essay about young, modern Muslim women, Brooks effectively links her work to the stereotypes created by painters in the past while presenting alternative views from a more impartial and modern standpoint.

She also shows photographs of Saudi women wearing the traditional Arab abaya that covers women from head to toe, and which they must wear in public, alongside photographs of Egyptian Muslim models who wear fashionable hijab clothing on the catwalk but choose to remain uncovered in their own lives. The focus of the photo-essay, however, remains fixed on women's clothing, but it is perhaps not wide enough in scope to inform her audience of the depth and authenticity of the women's lives beyond considerations of vanity.

Above: Cover of Unveiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan by Harriet Logan

Other photographers such as award-winning Harriet Logan take an overtly political angle. In her work, Logan draws attention to the plight of Muslim women under Taliban rule and the problems they still face today, and the quality of her photographs cannot be denied. However, she has been severely criticised for her misrepresentation of Afghanistan as being a wonderful country before the Taliban arrived.

One reviewer did not like the cover and title of her 2002 book Unveiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan (see above) which she felt had "too much focus on the burqa and not enough on real issues". She thought that everything written in the book was predictable and simplistic - before the Taliban era things were good, during they were bad, and after they were again good. She felt it was better not to have a book like this, than to have it.

Many of Logan's images from the book are available for purchase, thereby elevating them to fine art status. One wonders if her subjects have agreed to their images being sold in this way. Moreover, the sale of photographs such as these has the effect of reinforcing stereotypical attitudes toward the veil as it draws upon art history and the view of Muslim women as the exotic, mysterious and unavailable 'other' and, inevitably, as victims of their culture.

One example is this beautiful silver gelatine print (see above) entitled Kabul, 1997, Marina which is also the cover photograph for her book. The print-process contributes to the look of the heavy burqa as chain-mail, and the veil barely conceals the fear and vulnerability in the woman’s averted eye.

But many people are fed up with yet another 'veiled' book and feel that photojournalists arrive in a country for 'five minutes' to make some money out of the bizarre and the exotic. However, this may be the last we shall see of Logan's work on Islam as she has now switched to "the challenge of advertising" which she finds "far more stimulating and creative than the current editorial market", and presumably more lucrative.

Another photographer whose aim has been to draw attention to the plight of Muslim women is photographer Yuri Kozyrev. His photo-essay created for Time, shows photographs of Muslim women incarcerated in Iraq's only female prison, Khadamiya Women's Prison in Bhagdad. The implied message in the essay is that the Muslim women inside the prison are almost certainly innocent of their supposed crimes; they are suffering, their children and families are suffering, and his photographs elicit a deep empathy in the viewer.

The leading image shows about ten Muslim women standing together behind bars. The women in the foreground are wearing head scarves, not the full burqa, but they clutch their scarves across their faces when confronted with the gaze of the male photographer.

Throughout the rest of the essay many images show Muslim women half veiled, either by an arm or other body part or by the scarf being pulled across the face which sends out the message that these women are in a state of fear and therefore oppressed, and they serve to reinforce the scarf as the symbol of that oppression. The photographer's intentions are good, we sympathise strongly with the Muslim women, but in doing so he has tapped into Western stereotypes which as the effect in the long run of reinforcing them.

In the Shade of the Tree

More recently, Sanders has produced a book: In the Shade of the Tree: a Photographic Odyssey through the Muslim World, history of Islam's entrance to China, researched by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd'Allah, the well-known Islamic scholar.

Some of his images of China can be viewed on his website. However, it is disappointing that none of the images have captions and therefore it is not possible to fully understand their meaning. In fact, without captions it is possible to be misled.

For example, there are two photographs of a group of young Muslim children with their hands clasped in front of them and their mouths open, presumably singing. Children often make endearing subjects for photography and this is no exception, however, in Chinese schools much learning is still by rote (a method of teaching the West phased out long ago) and it is very likely that these photographs are examples of rote learning not singing. In the light of concrete information to accompany a photograph it is easy to misconstrue the meaning.

Another photographer who explicitly states that his intention is to show that Islam is not the stereotypical image that the West so often presents is Robin Laurance. His coffee-table book Portrait of Islam: A Journey Through the Muslim World is a record of his journey through Muslim countries, and contains many strong and beautiful pictures.

In the book, Laurance has attempted a comprehensive view of Islam. He has journeyed throughout North and West Africa, the near and Middle East, South and Southeast Asia. Regrettably, he did not go to China so there is no record in his book of Chinese Muslim women.

The synopsis given by Amazon describes the "wonderful and positive images "...from the desolate open spaces of the mid-Atlas mountains in Morocco to the lush green paddy fields of Southeast", and claims that the book "will do much to dispel ignorance of the realities of the Muslim world".

Indeed, Laurance has covered a great deal of ground and there are many images of the beautiful lands through which he has passed. But Islam is not a country it is a culture, and the geography of a land does not tell us very much about that culture, even if the culture has been shaped by it. And in spite of his attempts to find a universal theme, one feels that he has not really gone beneath the surface of Islam or his subjects' lives, in particular the women.

As a male photographer this is perhaps not always easy but, with few exceptions, most of his photographs of Muslim women conform to western stereotypes of passive, veiled, mysterious creatures standing, sitting or strolling around. Of course, for male photographers there maybe issues of trust and access to deal with when making photographs of Muslim women, challenges which some fail to meet or just avoid altogether.

Working in a similar vein to Laurence is Peter Sanders, a professional photographer born in London in 1946 and widely acknowledged as one of the world's leading photographers of the Islamic world. The difference with Sanders is that he was not born a Muslim but converted to Islam towards the end of the 1970s and was given the Arabic name Abd al-Adheem.

In 1971 he photographed the rituals of the hajj pilgrimage which all Muslims hope to make at least once in their lifetime, and began to travel extensively throughout the Muslim world. In particular he has visited and photographed Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Spain, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, India and the USA, Sudan, Jordan, Jerusalem and China. In 1986, he set up and still runs a photographic library dedicated to travel photography and Islam in particular.

His aim, as a Muslim, is "to present Islam to the general public in a very beautiful and positive way". He hopes that by doing so he can show a face of Islam that will draw people to it. And the photographs of Islam are beautiful: blue skies, sunsets and sunrises, exquisite calligraphy, smiling faces, sumptuous architecture, pristine deserts, all in gorgeous colour. But for those in the West who believe that Islam is the enemy at the door, perhaps already gaining houseroom, Sanders pictures present a view of a culture that is just too good to be true.

His desire to promote his beloved religion is understandable in the light of his conversion and of the West's reaction to the 9/11 attacks, and clearly he strives to do his part to awaken the hearts and minds of people to the beauty and wonder of the peoples and cultures he has visited in his travels through Muslim countries. But people are not fooled by one-sided monologues.

Where is the poverty, the dirt, the struggle to transcend circumstances, to triumph over hardship? Where are the real people? Photographs of elderly gentlemen with long, white beards smiling up at the camera will not go very far in convincing the West that Islam is benign if they are not balanced with more realistic imagery.

› Islam, Women and the Veil

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