The Autumn Issue

Has the burqa become a Che Guevara-like symbol: separated from its religious meaning and co-opted into a popular cultural narrative?

01 December 2010
Double take: a series of defacements gives a new dimension to Paris ads.
Double take: a series of defacements gives a new dimension to Paris ads.

I LOVE PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME, I love Paris in the fall… I love Paris when art explodes onto the street and politics spills over into matters of daily life, throwing into turmoil the otherwise carefully compartmentalised areas of state, religion and everyday existence. It was a pleasantly warm October this year in Paris, which was just as well since two young women decided to employ a powerful juxtaposition to protest the nationwide burqa ban that will come into force next year. Draped in burqas from head to waist, leaving exposed hot pants and bare legs, they strutted the busy streets of Paris in strappy heels. The filmed clip, brimming with observers’ looks that range from curious to stunned—including a policewoman who asked to take a picture of them—became an instant viral hit. The women, who call themselves NiqaBitch, explain their protest as a necessary commentary on the French state’s diktat vis-à-vis female apparel.

Through the same glorious autumn, a street artist was changing the face of advertising in Paris’ metro. Often referred to as a French Banksy, Princess Hijab paints veils over the female faces in lavishly designed ads throughout the underground network. Princess Hijab—who may or not be Muslim or, indeed, a woman—deliberately scars the visual landscape, a ‘hijabisation’ that can, as with NiqaBitch, be taken as a political statement. The graffiti veil is at once an explicit questioning of the notion that the state has the right to determine how a woman should dress, as well as a subversive critique of the female form’s exploitation in a hyper-consumerist advertising culture. On both levels, it is a powerful reminder that a woman’s body is a hotly contested battleground.

What is particularly striking about these artistic responses to France’s upcoming burqa ban is the return to the first principle, as it were, of the debate: women themselves. The current discussion rarely engages with the more ponderous aspects of the issue—say the nature of laïcité (the 1905 law separating Church and State that the French government has used in its defence) or a so-called multicultural approach (what the British media famously imagined was their more inclusive manner of functioning with minorities). Instead, these artists are (as I agree) taking the matter back to the female body and are creatively challenging viewers about its very nature and the meanings ascribed to it. Fashioning an artistic discourse that would make the most fervent post-modernist proud, they position the female body as a floating signifier: a form to which meaning is being arbitrarily attached by various stakeholders, a form to which meaning—such as it exists—no longer resides in the form but in its interpretation. Women become a receptacle of expectation: either the burqa-clad top half with all the attendant prejudice that a veiled woman inevitably faces (and here it is worth quoting Obama’s Cairo speech which makes the following succinct distinction: ‘I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal. But I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality’) or the lower half, in hot pants, who fits into a separate and also problematic category of her own.

Ferzina Banaji is a former research fellow in the Department of French at the University of Cambridge. She has completed a book on contemporary French cinema. 

Keywords: France Ferzina Banaji Burqa NiqaBitch hijab Princess Hijab