Last week, there was controversy in Copenhagen when someone covered up a national landmark known as the “Little Mermaid” with a hijab–the word comes from the Arabic hijaba which means to hide from view.
Denmark, you’ll remember, was the place where the the Mohammad cartoons were published over a year ago. It pointed to a new reality in the Scandinavian nation and revealed a Western anxiety that was first spotlighted after 9-11.
According to the Associated Press story:
Police removed the clothing after a telephone caller reported it, spokesman Jorgen Thomsen said.
The statue sculpted in tribute to author Hans Christian Andersen draws about 1 million visitors a year and is targeted occasionally by vandals. On Tuesday, the statue’s face, left arm and lap were found doused with red paint.
In 2004, someone put a burqa, the head-to-toe Islamic robe, on the statue, along with a sign questioning Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. (source)
The Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) suggests that the pretty bronze is no stranger to manipulation:
In addition to the paint assaults over the years, Eriksen’s 1.5-metre bronze has been beheaded, toppled from its perch — which can be easily reached from a stone walkway and nearby rocks — pawed by tourists seeking a close-up peek, had one arm sliced off, and been accessorized with sex toys, sashes and other objects. (source)
One reactionary Jewish Israeli blog screamed “Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid forcibly converted to Islam”–umm, that’s constructive, and tells you more about the author rather than the individual who gave the Little Mermaid a makeover.
In Europe, Muslims retained their native customs more pervasively than in America, where Muslims often adopt societal norms–though that is changing.
Soon after the event of 9-11, there was an image that was ubiquitous on the internet and sent all around the world via email, it depicted the Statue of Liberty covered with a burqa–an iconic image of the Taleban’s religious zealotry.
The cultural anxiety goes to the core of the issue for Westerners, namely the ability for clothes to reveal the body, not hide it. As far back as the origins of Greco-Roman civilization, Westerners have had a love/hate relationship with their bodies and the clothes that cover them. It is not a issue that can ever be resolved, but is a core subject that forms one of the foundations of our civilization. It is the reason the image is so powerful and threatening to us. (see Hollander’s seminal book Seeing Through Clothes)
The draping of the Danish statue also pointed to another growing reality, the Muslim participation in Western democracy. Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, a Palestinian-born Dane, sparked recent debate on the Muslim headscarf by declaring that she will wear it in parliament if she is elected…”Abdol-Hamid has a good chance of becoming what could be the first veiled Muslim in Europe to be voted into parliament.” (source)
One Iranian-based photographer, Shadi Ghadirian has a different perspective on the topic and a wonderful knack for portraying Muslim women in traditional garb, but always with an accent of the industrialized West.
She is the flipside of the usual fear we see in the media, she explores the issue from a Muslim woman’s perspective where there seems to be a low-grade anxiety about the unknown change that is looming on the horizon.
Looking like a relic of 19th century Qajar Persia, Ghadirian’s images are charming. They glow with an inner beauty that mystifies the portraits. The women seem empowered by the modern gadgats, or are they simply being commodified like their toys (a blog that discusses her work) (GHADIRIAN’S WEBSITE)?
Through the lens of Iran looking at the West, Ghadirian gives us moments for pause and the realization that fear is pervasive on both sides of the debate. We would be fouls to think that Muslims will not more greatly impacted by the liberalization of their culture than we will. In the West, we will eventually see the hijab as another layer of our diversity, in the Islamic perspective it could shake the foundations of their worldview, since Muslim women in Western nations will be given more choice than ever as to whether they choose to cover up. The ripple effect could shatter cultural mores in socially repressive regions like Saudi Arabia or Yemen.
I have faith in the West, our civilization never gets the credit it deserves in being able to adapt and learn from any challenge it faces.
If you want to know more about Ghadirian’s fascinating images, check these out–a brief CV, an interview with an Iranian Feminist Newsletter, a review in the London Telegram, interview with Solomon Wakeling, her profile on a Dutch art site, her wiki bio, and her brochure at Galerie Kashya Hildebrand.