Posts Tagged ‘sexualization’


Refugee Camp Fashion

May 14, 2009

“Are you wearing contact lenses today?” one of my students pipes up in the front row, interrupting me in the middle of a doubtlessly fascinating tirade on the difference between subject and object pronouns.

“No,” I reply, “I just forgot my glasses at home”.

“Well you look better without them,” she says decisively.

“Perhaps, but I can’t actually see very well without them either. So which is better, fuzzy vision or looking good?”

She smiles, as do the other two girls in the classroom; I think that by now they are accustomed to my cynicism.

These sort of incidents have been a recurring template during my days volunteering at the centre of the Palestinian NGO Najde in Shatila refugee camp, Beirut. Whether it’s suggestions that I should pluck my unruly eyebrows or straighten my unbrushed hair, or comments that my blue rubber flipflops are too boyish and should be exchanged for pink or yellow sandals with glistening fake diamonds, both young girls and adult women are quick to question my fashion sense (or apparent lack thereof).

But I’m not offended by these comments. Mostly, they make me laugh because I realize that, in the context of the camp and specifically considering the values that inform gender roles there, I must come across as more of a nihilistic androgynous hobo than the quirky post-hippie that I otherwise seem to come across as.

It is true that when stood next to many of the young women who are involved in the Najde centre, both students and employees, I look like a bit of a scruff. These are chics that have a selection of shoes and matching belts in every colour of the rainbow, wear tight-fitting jeans and gaze at you from beneath thick, immaculate eye make-up. Some get around in short sleeves and skimpy skirts while other, more conservative ones sport tank-tops over tight long-sleeved shirts and top the outfit off with an elaborate array of layered and patterned material for a hijab.

One of my students, 17 year-old Razan, is like a chameleon. Tall and willowy but with a shy smile, she loves drawing and dreams of one day becoming a fashion designer (luckily for her, not one of the 32 proffessions that the Lebanese government bans from Palestinians). Every day she breezes into class in an intricate outfit based around one colour and complemented with either black or white. One day it is crimson red, the next a daffodil yellow, and the next lush grass green, each item of each outfit picked to complement the shade of the day and always perfected with a white or black lace hijab. And she looks fabulous!

Just last week, we went on an outing for all the employees of the Najde centres in Beirut, Saida and Sour. In three busses we were taken to a stunning, hidden part of the Litani valley near Nabatiyeh, to a restaurant whose seating area was nestled on the bank of the river, amongst orange and lemon groves.

Some 200 of us sat from morning till evening smoking shisha, eating mezze and dancing dabke, but amongst us, there was a hard-core few who never left the dancefloor. They boogied for hours and hours, twisting their butts in super tight skinny jeans, gyrating their hips accentuated by thick sparkling belts and shaking their shoulders laden with string after string of costumer jewellery. They looked like their could have just stepped out of Top Shop on Oxford street. Except, contrary to the trend of many of their Muslim sisters in the UK who are increasingly turning towards traditional Islamic dress to manifest their piety, these demons on the dancefloor simply wore matching white lace hijabs alongside their revived retro accessories.

Increasingly, I admit that I am perplexed by the apparent contradiction of these young girls who dress in a trendy, flattering, even sexy way, and then don the hijab as an outwards sign of piety or even modesty. Obviously, some would be encouraged to wear it but I also think many do out of choice.

I wonder if, perhaps, for some of these young women, complementing their fashionista desires with a variant of Islamic dress is a conscious means of trying to express their integrity within a tight-knit society where a woman’s virtue is still defined in conservative terms (virginity, purity, loyalty, motherhood etc). Maybe it is their way of negotiating a middle ground through social gender expectations and contemporary popular culture.

Similarly, my own conscious fashion choices are equally motivated by my ideological (read feminist) leanings: a desire to not fall into what I often see as the mainstreaming of sexual objectification of women in popular culture and media. Or not bowing to partiarchally-defined standards of beauty, like removing body hair.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to making oneself feel good and confident by looking pretty, but I feel that we should explore what ‘prettiness’, or even beauty, means to us creatively, and not just cut-and-paste ready-consumable models of beauty.

But particularly, in the camp, I’m also keen to dress ‘modestly’ so as not to draw too much attention to myself as an outsider, especially wary of not feeding into the stereotype of western women as sexy, or even loose. Where some of my students wear tanks tops, for example, I would never.

So within the context of the camp, set against these negotiated femininities, when pressed about my appearance (unshaven, bespectacled, dressed in loose long silk skirts and baggy tops) I obviously do not launch into a full-length feminist tirade. I do not think that would be relevant to the girls and women there.

Amongst all of the other battles that everyone is fighting in that camp, is the notion of the sexualisation/objectification of women one that they would feel was relevant to them? Is their beauty, their sexuality (often played out within the confines of their religious traditions) not being deployed as a source of feminine power, as it is often in Western societies?

Nevertheless, I do try to respond with inklings of critical thinking about what it means to dress in certain ways. A couple days ago, I told one of my students that I didn’t care about fashion, that it was more important for me to focus on personal interactions. Interestingly, I find myself echoing the argument given by some Muslim women about the veil: that they prefer to spend their energies working on perfecting their insides rather than embellishing their outsides. Slowly, I have been realising that I am articulating my own secular reasons for modesty within a quasi-religious discourse, perhaps because I think it will resound more deeply within my interlocutors.

When Fatmeh, the woman who makes tea and coffee at the centre, tried to pluck my eyebrows, I resisted, initially laughing, but then saying that I was very grateful for the body that nature (not God, but maybe same idea) had given me. That Alhamdulillah, my body functioned well, and I was satisfied with it as a whole, despite its imperfections, even sometimes despite my own insecurities.

I do not seek to be a role model, which is probably realistic because my relative strangeness in terms of appearance might foreclose that. I am also wary of coming across as some eco-feminist warrior missionary, for such dogmatism is surely never useful either. But I do consider my work in the camp, with the children and adolescents, as one of encouraging self-confidence in all its different forms, not just academically, and nurturing notions of critical thinking.

I will just seek to be true to my own ethics, as they morph and fuse with others, and try to articulate what I feel is interesting and valuable about such explorations.


Bodies that matter

October 12, 2008

11/10/08, Tehran

In the village of Gazor Khan, at the foot of Alamut rock, I was beckoned over by two young girls, Miriam and Sara. Following the usual exchange of queries concerning origin, age and work, and after learning that I lived in Lebanon, the girls were eager to see some of my photographs. The two things they knew about Lebanon were Hizbullah and Nancy Ajram (Lebanese pop star), and it struck me as amusing that two such diverse images could come to represent Lebanon in their eyes… Lebanon: the land of the Islamic resistance and sex-kittens.

Initially, I was reluctant to show them the photos on my digital camera, mainly because most of them were of beaches and parties, which meant there was a lot of skin being bared. There was even a whole sequence of photos from a holiday with J’s family in Cyprus, which has three generations of his family lolling around pools drinking cocktails. But then I though, no; it’s alright if they see people enjoying themselves in ways that are socially acceptable outside the dogmatism of the Islamic Republic.

They were fascinated by the photos, intrigued by arms, legs, and other exposed body parts. They were particularly surprised when I told them who these people were: this lady with the long blond hair and short dress is my mother; those men in the swimming shorts are my husband, his father and his grandfather. Those adolescents are my husband and his brothers and sisters. They alternated between semi-embarrassed giggling and voicing their admiration of the white skin glistening in the sunlight.

‘Are there Christians in Lebanon?’, Miriam asked. Yes, I replied, quite a lot.


Then Sara expressed curiosity about the clothes people wear there, and asked if women had to wear the hijab. No, I said. ‘In other countries of the world’, she continued, ‘do you have to wear it?’ No, I said again. Actually, there are only a few countries where you must wear it: Iran, Saudi Arabia, some Gulf countries. I went on in my broken Farsi, explaining that in other Muslim countries, like Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, you don’t have to wear it. If you’re a Christian, you don’t have to. And if you’re a Muslim, you have a choice: ‘it is possible yes, it is possible no’.

The girls digested my comments slowly, and I thought about the implications that my words, my photographs, would have on them. I figured that their exposure to other ways of living and interacting shouldn’t be conceived of as irresponsible. Indeed, I have always found the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ to be patronizing, because it assumes that certain types of knowledge should be restricted certain people.

And even after I left them, I began to think that it was in fact a positive thing for them to be able to see the ways in which ordinary people, families, can show their bodies publicly and banally without them being either sexual or shameful. Seeing pasty, middle-aged, beer-bellied English people sat benignly in their swimmers sort of smashes the interpretation that exposing skin is inherently indecent or immoral. If anything, it shows that in some contexts, the body can be released from weighty moral judgments and allowed to just ‘be’.

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that showing Sara and Miriam my photographs of women with exposed bodies and hair in an explicitly de-sexualised context was healthy, because it contradicted the sorts of exposed bodies that they had obviously already had access to: images of Lebanon’s pop princesses. Those images probably constitute their idea of what non-veiled women are, which is exactly the line that the strict religious authorities wish to push: non-veiled women in revealing clothing are shameful whores. Women of the noble Islamic Republic, show your dignity and pride by hiding your bodies and rejecting such vileness! But if the internet contained as many photographs of grannies on beach holidays; nudist beaches; naked, bearded Hindu ascetics; hairy-arm-pitted feminists (loud and proud!); and other images of bodies in non-sexualised contexts as it did of digitally enhanced pornographic vixens, then the image of the non-veiled Other as intrinsically immoral that is pushed by Iran’s clergy would crumble.

I realise that it would be dangerous to assume the role of ‘opener of people’s eyes and broadener of horizons’, because that would inevitably imply some sort of neocolonial agenda. I do not intend to go round showing 22-year-old girls from remote Iranian villages photographs that are potentially subversive because they challenge the dominant discourse of the religious authorities. I do, however, think that responsibly responding to the curiosity of adults regarding their cultural Others can be a positive exchange. I have learned so much from so many people during my three weeks here in Iran, about individual’s perceptions of their culture, government, food, bodies, facial hair… And as with all cultural encounters as dialogical experiences, I have also shared my opinions. I can only hope that doing so has encouraged individuals to continue to quench their curiosities by seeking insight from sources other than mainstream representations by media or government, by challenging whatever dominant paradigm exists in that context.

These are ideals which I hold myself to. I believe that they are sources of growth and inspiration… Not the only sources, because growth and inspiration spring from infinite and often unexpected locations. But somewhere, somewhere inside this constant grappling with Self and Other, there are some valuable inklings, some fleeting illuminations; and we just have to keep scratching into the depths of those exchanges to discover them.