Mobile media meets Orientalism

I wrote this post ages ago and had totally forgotten about it until something in one of our classes recently reminded me of it.  Definitely one of the weirdest uses of mobile media that I’ve come across.


This latest source of mind-bogglement comes from an art project that was part of a course involving technology and the body. We are told that:

“The CharmingBurka sends a self-defined picture of the wearing person to every mobile phone next to it. The project researches about clothes with a digital layer that is different to their first optical impression. […] The CharmingBurka deals with Freud’s idea that all clothes can be positioned between appeal and shame. The Burka was chosen, because it is often perceived in the west as a symbol of repression. A digital layer was added so that women can decide for themselves where they want to position themselves virtually. The Burka sends an image, chosen by the wearer, via Bluetooth technology. Every person next to her can receive her picture via mobile phone and see the women’s self-determined identity. In the artist’s interpretation the virtual appeals can not be gathered by the laws of the Koran and so the Charming Burka fulfills the desire of living a more western life, which some Muslim women have today.”

Oh my goodness, where to start? It’s the going-beyond-the-veil fantasy for the age of wireless communications. The assumption, as always, is that the clothing that a woman may choose to wear while out in public says much less about her identity than what we find when we see what’s underneath. That under this burqa we will find a pretty woman with a stylish haircut and v-necked top, which is how she truly would like others to see her.

What bothers me most about this assumption is that any agency that a burqa-wearing woman may have to choose to present herself to society as a burqa-wearing woman, for whatever religions and/or cultural reasons she may have, is totally ignored. We are led to believe that “the woman’s self-determined identity” is necessarily other than what is conveyed by the burqa, and that if she had her way, the woman under the veil would be showing a lot more skin. There is little space for the woman to be wearing the burqa as a religious practice, or as a way of articulating her identity as a Muslim. This technology acts, apparently, as a way to circumvent Qur’anic guidelines (we’ll leave the artist’s understanding of fiqh for another discussion), since although those are the rules that the woman is bound to follow, it is a “more western life” that she truly desires.

That western life, of course, is taken as synonymous with unveiling, which is in turn synonymous with liberation. It’s the same old story… though at least we can give the artist points for a creative new way of articulating it.


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