There is a photographer around town, maybe you have seen him. Strutting on the rugged cobblestones of Market Street on one of those sunny afternoons long gone, I ran into a tall guy clutching a camera. He asked me to pose for a couple of pictures- if I did not mind. Persuasive as he was, I conceded. What could possibly be the catch if it is purely for the purposes of art?
But there was a trick to it. He suggested I covered my head in a scarf that I wore wrapped around my neck. It created a sense of mystery, he reckoned. Slightly taken aback, I ended up adopting the role of a model. The cards were laid out clearly: I was the medium, he was the artist. He took several portraits with my headscarf, but also photographed my dress that he liked the look of. Just a fashion photographer, I told myself. No space for serious messages on this occasion.
The coincidence in this random encounter was that it followed my first visit ever to an Islamic Society meeting earlier that day. My inspiration of seeing veiled-up girls praying must have somehow translated into him being inspired by my scarf. The geographies of inspiration are truly complex.
As strange as it seemed, I put it at the back of my head until a couple of weeks later, when I finally found my picture on his website. I stared at it for a couple of seconds, since what I saw definitely did not look like a fashion photograph. It was a cropped picture of just the eye area of a person wearing a headscarf. I could not find myself in the picture; it was a wholly different person on it.
Above all, the photographer’s achievement was ascribing me another identity. I do not usually wear a headscarf, not for purposes of religion, nor reasons of style. It is striking how much this one piece of clothing is loaded with meaning; it conveys the idea of women’s subordination, as well as being an indispensable part of the cultures of many countries. Across the world, it is worn both with pride as well as an obligation.
For me, the headscarf is a symbol of negotiation, since women are not always at their disposition to opt for it or not. The recent case of a Saudi woman who got sentenced for driving a car without a headscarf is one example. The issue attracted protests, which saw even more women driving cars without headscarves and lead to the charge eventually being dropped. Nevertheless, women are still not expected to drive in Saudi, especially not without headscarves. As much as Saudi Arabia is a particular example of a strongly religious presence, Saudi women’s struggles are part of the feminist endeavours in the Islamic world and beyond. From the recent Tunisian elections to France’s discussion over veiled schoolgirls, the headscarf remains central part of the debate.
The photograph is challenging, insisting on an explanation. You may choose to focus on its artistic value, yet it is difficult to disregard the political undertone. The only transparent thing seems to be the fact that it presents an objectification- a picture taken by a British, supposedly non-Muslim photographer, of a European, non-Muslim person clearly must be biased. It depicts our own, white, European idea of women’s struggle, conveyed through the use of a simple prop. Playing around with such a powerful prop delivers a blurred message- slightly ironic but also hinting on solidarity.
On this occasion, I did not get to decide what my statement was, since I acted as a prop myself. Next time though, when life gives me a headscarf, I will negotiate.