In March of 2010, two popular blogs featured articles concerning a body of particular concern these days: the female Muslim body. Although the subject of discussion was “Islamic Erotica,” it was nevertheless the Muslim body that was speaking. Writing in The Daily Beast, for example, Betwa Sharma described how Muslim women’s bodies are talking about resistance. Exploring the prohibition of nudity in Muslim art, Sharma introduced her readers to a few aspiring artists whose representations of naked bodies have been branded as artistic acts of defiance against religious restrictions.
For Sharma, these young and daring Muslim artists are breaking ground with the loud voice of nude, specifically Muslim, bodies. Menachem Wecker takes a similar (albeit less researched) tack in Houston Belief highlighting the work of Islamic Erotica’s creator, Makan Emadi. In his piece, Wecker celebrates Emadi’s artistic representations of popular American actresses including Angelina Jolie and Marilyn Monroe wearing long black veils. In an interview with the Irani-American artist, Wecker provides a polemical pulpit from which Emadi lays siege on the “civilizational” divide between a freer, monolithic “West” and an oppressive “East.” Wecker describes Islamic Erotica as “an aesthetic representation of religious reductio ad absurdum – of extending aggressive censorship and modesty to absurd conclusions.”
The birth and apparent celebration of Islamic Erotica underscores a broad pattern in which the Muslim female body is doing an awful lot of talking. Immediately after 9/11, for example, Afghan women’s fully-covered bodies spoke loudly to the American public via Laura Bush, who attempted to justify her husband’s invasion of Afghanistan on their behalf. In this case, the burqa-covered bodies of Afghani Muslims represented all that was wrong with Afghanistan and all that was right with America. Since then, there has been no shortage of tasteless and dubious critiques of Islam and Muslims that use Muslim women’s bodies as their soap box.
But all of this body-talk relies on one basic dichotomy: freedom and oppression. Whether Laura Bush, Bill Maher, or Makan Emadi, all agree on the central idea that Muslim women’s bodies tell us a great story about who’s truly oppressed and who’s truly free. Indeed, it seems that the female Muslim body has almost come to stand for oppression: scarcely an image exists in which a veil says anything but women’s inferiority. Islamic Erotica is no exception in this regard; central to all the artists discussed is the basic tension between freedom/nudity and oppression/veil. Tempting as it may be (Muslims included), reliance on this age-old approach fails to account for the complexity of women’s lives and severely limits our understanding of the experience of freedom.
If one takes the artists behind Islamic Erotica and their fans seriously, the answer appears to be “yes.” In their world, one sharply divided along Oriental/Occidental lines, the veiled female Muslim body speaks oppression. Conversely, where women are permitted to expose their bodies, the language expressed is one of freedom. According to this logic, Islamic Erotica represents a critical challenge to the veiled body in which freedom is the privilege of the exposed.
One of the basic problems with such a narrow reading of Islamic Erotica is that it is grossly ethnocentric. According to the dichotomous interpretation of writers like Wecker, everything “good” with the art reflects all that is “good” in the West. Indeed, the only contribution provided by the East is its distinctively oppressive culture depicted by the veiled portion of Western women’s bodies. Islamic Erotica thus offers a unique opportunity for Western spectators to applaud their own civilizational values and engage in inconspicuous acts of cultural narcissism. Western audiences have few reasons not to support it given that it allows them to both condemn the injustice of the East (represented by the oppressive veil) and celebrate the freedom of the West (represented by all that is unveiled).
Then there’s the problem of audience. Assuming that these artistic acts of rebellion are speaking to Muslims about religious prohibitions, many supporters fail to appreciate the fact that the bodies of Islamic Erotica are also speaking to them. Given women’s long and difficult struggle in the U.S. for equality (voting rights, economic rights, etc.), it seems cheapening to celebrate Angelina Jolie’s exposed leg as a symbol of freedom. Even if we stick to the idea that Islamic Erotica concerns freedom of expression, are the bare bodies of pop stars and models – women who hardly represent the experience of most women in the U.S. – our best representatives? This, to me, suggests an interpretive blind spot in which the logical flipside of the veiled body – the unveiled body—goes under-analyzed. Freedom is taken for granted.
There is another interpretive lapse among Islamic Erotica’s supporters – despite their focus on the veil as an object of oppression, writers like Sharma and Wecker fail to recognize that in the creation of the “erotic,” the veil is still in the picture. Throughout Emadi’s gallery, the veil provides its own unique sensuality and is constitutive of a voyeuristic experience in which women’s bodies speak the language of erotica. By ignoring the role of the veiled body in the production of eroticism, Islamic Erotica’s supporters are failing to see the complexity of an experience that ironically defies the freedom/oppression dichotomy they suppose it promotes. Veiling is oppressive. Veiling is liberating. Veiling is sexy. Veiling, in short, is much more than we think it is.
Michael Vicente Perez is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Michigan State University. His research concerns questions of displacement, nationalism, and human rights among Palestinian refugees. Michael is the former senior editor for Islamica Magazine and is currently teaching at Lansing Community College in Michigan. This article was originally featured on altmuslimah.com on May 7, 2010.