Taming the Barbarians by Henry Brefo

The rise of Islamophobia has coincided with widespread commodification of Muslim culture. Muslim cultural aesthetics, fashion and iconography are taking centre stage in the visual economy.The American street artist Shepard Fairey, in one of his political paintings, turns his gaze on the Muslim woman, reframing the hijab within the searing landscape of New Age feminism, as an exotic signifier of diversity. A Muslim woman wearing a headscarf decorated in the American flag beams at once provocative and, at the same time, smacks of protest overkill. Tenderly preened in a radiant light skin and adorned with seductive red lipstick, she is transformed into a politically decorated femme fatale – absolutely ravishing for the male gaze.
 
Beyond the realm of art, a Nike commercial features the ‘hijabi’ as a common fixture of the mainstream, yet never losing the peculiar sensation of the foreign, to be tamed and normalised into multicultural Britain. The deliberate positioning of the hijabi performing strenuous athletic feats may have been well-intended. Perhaps initially envisaged by the curators as a bold celebration of Muslim women’s liberation. Interestingly, the centrality of the light-skinned Muslim women along with the emphasis on gender in relation to the ‘hijab’ raises several questions.To begin with, do all Muslim women wear hijab? And is the hijab the only measure of one’s religious devotion or the only cultural symbol of true ‘Muslimness’? And wassup with the saturation of light-skinned images? Are all Muslim women light-skinned or are these just the ones that meet Eurocentric norms of beauty?
 
Yes, we have our right to admire these images as positive steps towards diversity and cultural representation. But beware confusing objectification for representation. Indeed, ethnic minorities have desired to see reflections of their diverse  cultures  within  the mainstream  as much as they have spurned essentialist depictions. One does not need to bring any intellectual weight upon these questions to ascertain that, once again, there is an insidious interplay of race and capital at work. At the helm stands the corporate beast, making a mockery of deep social, political and cultural concerns – all for pure financial euphoria. For the past few years, black feminism has bound hip to hip with women of colour and other groups that face intersecting oppressions – especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people – to affirm the heterogeneity of gender struggles.This point goes amiss with the emerging ‘white feminist’ representation  of Muslim women’s liberation in the media today. The Canadian Muslim journalist, Tasbeeh Herwees, in her article, ‘Stop using Muslim women to sell soda’, condemns Pepsi’s recent commercial for using Muslim women as a signifier of ‘diversity’ and ‘vague resistance’ to exploit and defang protest for commercial gain. She maintains, ‘a light- skinned Muslim woman in a pretty headscarf is not threatening to the status quo, especially when she, already perceived as subservient, shares a Pepsi with the police. It would be lot more difficult  to conjure that image if that Muslim was Black.’
 
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