continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 1.4 / 2011:

Burqas in Back Alleys: Street Art, hijab, and the Reterritorialization of Public Space

John A. Sweeney

continent. 1.4 (2011): 253—278.

A Sense of French Politics

Politics itself is not the exercise of power or struggle for power. Politics is first of all the configuration of a space as political, the framing of a specific sphere of experience, the setting of objects posed as "common" and of subjects to whom the capacity is recognized to designate these objects and discuss about them.(1)

On April 14, 2011, France implemented its controversial ban of the niqab and burqa, commonly referred to as the Islamic veil, in public places.

On the coattails of the 2004 prohibition of religious artifacts, including the less concealing hijab or Islamic headscarves, in schools, the veil ban sparked equal outrage across both political and theological spectra, and many on both sides of the debate were quick to inquire about enforcement. As Steven Erlanger reports, “The police do not have the authority under the law to remove full veils, only to fine or require citizenship lessons for those who violate the new law.”(2) While the legal and social implications of this interdiction are ripe for study, the reprisals for breaking the law, notably compulsory citizenship classes, illuminate the strategic governmentality underlying the French government's targeting of the Muslim community, particularly those elements it considers affiliated with fundamentalist factions and/or terrorist organizations, if only through fashion—an integral component of French citizenship. Indeed, in allowing the (fashion) police to mandate instructional courses in citizenship for offenders, France implies that any Muslim choosing to wear the niqab or burqa, perhaps even for those who are already citizens, must not be aware of the subtle nuances of dress indicative of the French citizenry within public space.

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Furthermore, the degree of instruction requisite to citizenship, which clearly can and must be updated as the state sees fit, cements the imagined relation between citizens and states within the discourses on the veil ban. As Sharma contends, “Concepts of citizenship are the ideological glue that bonds the nation to the state. Citizenship provides the legal framework through which the state performs its role as ruler for the nation.”(3) Speaking for/as the state, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in a 2009 presentation before members of the government and other citizens that the burqa “is not welcome on the territory of France.”(4)

Although there is nothing unique, especially recently, about a nation-state taking extreme measures to guard itself against what it deems to be threats to its sovereignty, the way in which the ongoing discourses on hijab have (d)evolved, which coincide with recent pronouncements by governmental leaders in Germany, Britain, and France that policies of multiculturalism have “failed,”(5) points toward nationalist reterritorializations, which is also to say physical and ideological re-appropriations, of public space within democratic milieux, which remain predicated upon the mediation of spaces.

As Panagia deduces from Rancière, “Democracy […] is not an institutional form of government […], but an appearance whose visibilities and audibilites arise out of the dissonant blur of the everyday.”(6) Ultimately, the veil ban represents a calculated move to regulate the every day, which is to say the micropolitics of, that which is visible and invisible within French society, which makes it nothing short of a struggle to manage (the sensation of) bodies. Re-situating the political within the context of sense, Rancière argues that the fundamental essence of politics lies within the distinction between consensus and dissensus, and whereas most consider politics proper as fundamentally concerned with the fluid operations of the state—consensus, Rancière actually locates the political within events that disrupt the normative sensory order of things—dissensus. He explains, “Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.”(7)

This reformulation of politics centers on agency and, albeit perhaps unintended, representationality and offers a useful formulation for spatializing the discourses surrounding the Islamic veil, which are mired within seemingly senseless policies and practices of objectification. Instituting a normative “regime of visibility,” the French veil ban encapsulates the political economy of agency, now both mediated and representational, under the rule of nationalist governmentalities in increasingly transnational contexts.(8) Adjudicating presence within public space signals a concern with the sensory aspects of agency itself—what Rancière terms the “distribution of the sensible,” which is “a matrix that defines a set of relations between sense and sense: that is, between a form of sensory experience and an interpretation which makes sense of it.”(9) To be concerned with sense is to focus upon the body, and this somatic repositioning of the (fashionable) citizen within the territory of the state augurs the resurgence of nationalist bio-politics within Europe, since, as Hage explicates, “Nationalism, before being an explicit practice or a mode of classification, is a state of the body. It is a way of imagining one's position within the nation and what one can aspire to as a national.”(10)

FRANCE BURQA

The French government's attempt to make (bodily) sense of public space for its citizens by and through policies aimed against a burqa-clad Muslim minority, which might only apply to “less then 400 to fewer than 2,000” women(11), reveals the necessary, yet mercurial, transmutation of public space into national space through bio-political strategies of sense-making, which, as Hage observes, denotes that “nationalists perceive themselves as spatial managers.”(12) At the center of this concern over public space is the equally contentious dimension of governing female Islamic identity, which has become one of the main critiques levied against Islam from outsiders who view the veil in its various forms as a clear sign of the religion's actual and symbolic violence against women, even if such critiques remain ensconced within nationalist discourses. As Halim and Meyers argue, “Although Western news media may focus their coverage of Muslim women on the debate over whether and the extent to which the veil may by oppressive to the women who wear it, they have exhibited little interest in the physical oppression of violence against women in Islamic countries.”(13) While it falls outside of the scope of this analysis to arbitrate all of the dimensions of this debate, understanding some of the issues related to female identity and hijab within public space are crucial to this study. As these topics are extraordinarily complex, even and perhaps especially within the Muslim community, it is necessary to provide some context concerning the value, purpose, and meaning of the Islamic veil, which has a rich and arduous history.

The Art of the Veil

At present, there are only two countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia, that require women to wear hijab, which is a decidedly problematic term and concept whose locus is itself caught within a struggle of sensation. Noting the strategic reterritorialization of the term, Berger explains:

The choice of the name, hijab, now widely adopted to designate the “Islamic veil,” it itself interesting, although the semantic shift it operates is not directly commented upon by its users. Although the design (both the cut and the symbolic function) of the hijab and the Iranian chador are indeed the same, as opposed, for instance, to the traditional Algerian haik, the word hijab has come to replace the term chador popularized by the Iranian revolution, as a properly Arabic (hence Koranic) designation. This discursive shift points to the successful reclaiming of the national revolution in Iran by a transnational pan-Islamic movement, whose language of reference can only be Koranic Arabic.(14)

While the hijab is certainly a point of contention within various countries dealing with immigrant Islamic populations (of which France has the largest in Europe as part of its colonial legacy in Algeria), it is clear that the veil is a historically contextualized artifact of Muslim identity with a variety of manifestations, even as forces outside of and within Islam seek to codify its actual and symbolic value. Ultimately, the varieties of hijab, including the full-faced burqa and niqab, are complex assemblages of meaning that speak to the multitudinous flows of Islamic identities over time and space. As Gökariksel and McLarney observe, “Wearing a certain style of veil may simultaneously be a disciplinary practice crucial to the cultivation of piety (Mahmood 2005; Gokariksel 2009) and a gendered performance of social distinction in terms of class, taste, and urbanity (White 1999; Navaro-Yashin 2002; Gokariksel and Secor 2009) or of ethnicity and race (Dwyer 1999).”(15) The ideological marketplace from which the varieties of hijab ebb and flow serves both as a reflection of the ever-present materiality and dynamic functionality of spiritual economies, which are derivative of the equally ubiquitous flows of transnational capital driving agency and representationality within our historical moment. Keeping these dual, yet deeply interconnected, capital ecologies as the site of exploration for how the veil is represented within public space, one might begin to sense what lurks behind such veiled agendas.

Examining the symbolic and representational nature of the Islamic “veil” in its various forms, this project situates the decidedly political contestations of public space at stake in the French ban alongside recent condemnations of multiculturalism as calculated efforts to re-distribute the sensible so as to valorize national identity within increasingly transnational and globalized socio-economic spaces, which collapse exchange values between distinct, yet interwoven, economies of (cultural/material/spiritual) capital. As the discourses on the veil rely upon representational imag(in)ings, it seems fitting to explore the political economy and art of the veil through the phenomenon of street art, which, much like hijab, is a complex assemblage of meaning of sensation mired in representationality and capital exchange. As street artists have taken up hijab in various forms, the movement offers a lens with which to situate critical responses to the veil debate across both spiritual and material economies. Situating this street art both aesthetically and historically, Lewisohn explains, “'Street art' is a sub-genre of graffiti writing and owes much to its predecessor. Though there is a good deal of crossover between the genres, they are distinct and separate in their own right.”(16) Evolving out of the graffiti explosion of the late 1970's and 1980's, street art broke the unspoken rules of the artistic underground by challenging and re-examining one's sensory experience of art in public space by experimenting with both content and form in ways that harken back to the Situationist International, which as a collective challenged one's experience of urban space through various media and experiential phenomena. Again, Lewisohn observes, “It's important to note street art's break with the tradition of the tag, and its focus on visual symbols that embrace a much wider range of media than graffiti writers would use.”(17) From stencils to prints and murals to one-liners, street artists developed a reputation for critical social and political commentary, and while it is certainly the case that not all street art is intentionally political, in challenging the normative “regime of visibility,” as Rancière puts it, of public space, street artists—even if unconsciously—call into question the common sensory experience of the politics underlying the formation of (nationalist) space.(18) Indeed, Rancière refers to the partisan sensory managers as “police,” who ultimately forge “the rules governing the circulation of appearances, of their visibility and audibility, and the proper distribution of bodies therein.”(19) As such, one can sense that street art's relationship with the police is tenous for a variety of reasons. Writing about his own experience as a street artist, Shepard Fairey observes, “With street art, there's no committee deciding whether I can put my work up on the street, there's no censorship, and I have total freedom of expression, and that concept of freedom is expressed just by using the street as a medium.”(20)

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As Fairey and other street artists demonstrate, the medium, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, is the most glaring aspect of street art's message, and even as it now finds itself in galleries and usurped by private collectors, the ethos of the movement remains relavent to politics as it is, first and foremost, concerned with the configuration and experience of space.

Just as examining the punishments for breaking the veil ban can map the terrain of French politics, a representational genealogy of street artist's deployment of hijab and female Muslim identity can assist in mining the depths of public space as a site of bio-political control and contestation in light of recent events in France and the rising tide of anti-multiculturalist rhetoric across Europe, even though the Islamic presence there is radically heterogenous. Using the work of Shepard Fairey, Princess Hijab, br1, and Banksy, this paper sets out to answer a number of key questions concerning the deployment of hijab, and female Islamic identity in particular, within street art as a movement now integral to and critical of the economies of exchange underlying global capitalism, which as a force of influence cannot be underestimated as a driver in the resurgence of nationalist biopolitical governmentalities. Although there exists a litany of artists to choose from, the aforementioned quartet of designers integrate hijab into their work in a seminal and critical fashion, and all have been working with the veil in some way prior to the French ban, which grants some additional context to their usage of it as a symbol in regards to the breakdown of multiculturalism across Europe, even if unconsciously. Although each artist depicts various amalgamations of hijab in their respective corpus, they share common tropes that raise significant questions concerning the veil debate, namely: what are the conditions of possibility for hijab to become a marker of Islamic identity within public space? How can we make sense of the representational topologies within street art's utilization of the hijab and female Islamic identity in light of the French ban? How might these aesthetic imag(in)ings simultaneously inhabit and combat normative discourses concerning hijab, multiculturalism, female Islamic identity, and public space? With these considerations as a backdrop, it is first necessary to outline more fully the hijab as a representative marker of female Islamic identity.

The (Veiled) Writing on the Wall

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