Body-talk and the limits of Islamic erotica (Part 2: The artist)

Praise for Islamic Erotica is spreading throughout the blogosphere. Whether on liberal news sites or trash-talking hate blogs, the photographic and painted images of veiled U.S. icons and undisclosed Muslim women are circulating rapidly. Although the object of their discussions concern a variety of artists who, together, make up the phenomenon called “Islamic Erotica,” the central figure is Makan Emadi. Intrigued by his work, I visited the artist’s website to read more about his vision of Islamic Erotica.  
In his view, “strict Islamic tradition” forbids representations of the female body. Conversely, imagining “Western art without the nude,” he explains, “is impossible.” According to Emadi, both traditions are sexist but they differ in style; while Western sexism offers a more “loving” form of sexism in which objectification of the female body occurs through “overexposure,” Eastern sexism is “more direct” in its “mandated repressive female clothing and legal and cultural restrictions on women’s freedom.”

Despite Emadi’s concern with the oppressive forces of East and West, neither he nor his fans do a very good job of addressing the latter. Indeed, despite the fact that Emadi unequivocally states that the images in Islamic Erotica bring together two forms of sexism, his interviews and his supporters clearly suggest a greater fear of the East; the veil is everything.

As the chief protagonist of Islamic Erotica, I think it’s important to consider Emadi’s work in light of what he says about it, not what others want it to say. Having given his words and art considerable thought, here are few comments on what I see as an irreconcilable problem within his work and its aims.

First, Emadi’s conspicuously silent on what is sexist about the “overexposed” women of American pin-up art. On his website, he describes Islamic Erotica as a combination of contradictory images that present a “nightmarish vision of a possible future in the Middle East.” On the eastern side of that nightmare, Emadi identifies the “fundamentalist traditions” represented by the veil. Strangely, however, he describes the western side of the nightmare as “American and European democracy.” Do the semi-nude bodies of American pin-ups represent democracy? Is that sexist? One would hope that Emadi could articulate a more precise statement about what exactly is oppressive in the overexposed women he so lovingly depicts.

Second, if the bodies of Islamic Erotica are truly talking about sexist oppression from both the East and West, where do women have to go? Following Emadi’s logic, the middle ground offers no comfort for the viewer; a partially covered, partially exposed woman would only leave you with a doubly-oppressed body talking hybrid oppression. Put another way, Emadi’s work relies on an absolute view of the body in which veiling and nudity can be nothing but oppression. If that’s the goal of his work, it’s difficult to see what’s so liberating about it. While the “traditionalists” will surely point to the sexism of overexposure to state their case, the “westerners” will point to the veil to state theirs.

Third, what happens when the borders of oppression no longer fit into the East/West divide? In a fit of liberal rage, for example, French politicians are currently pushing for a total ban on the veil; evidently, they want the veiled Muslim body to stop talking. Like the laws of his birth-place, Iran, France is legally mandating practices that restrict the language that some Muslim women want their bodies to speak. Unlike Iran, however, the French ban defies the dichotomous logic of Eastern/Western oppression. In this context, France wants to force Muslim bodies into overexposure. Thus the fact that women are choosing to wear the veil in public against the mandate that they don’t suggests that Emadi’s images are deeper than he originally described; the veil is freedom.

Finally, there is the issue of choice. In Emadi’s work, Islamic Erotica challenges the imposed restrictions on the exposed body. Central to this issue is the idea of choice, namely that mandates concerning women’s bodies rob them of choice and thus freedom. Yet Emadi acknowledges that choice is not enough; how else can we see the choice of artists like Marilyn Monroe and Brittany Spears to reveal themselves in particular ways as oppressive? Put another way, if Monroe and Spears chose to expose themselves, how can their bodies speak the language of oppression?

The answer lies in the implicit idea that women in the West are oppressed despite the freedom to choose. But the “loving” oppression of overexposure can only be sexist if Emadi acknowledges that choice is not the answer to freedom. If it were, then he would have little claim to representing the oppression of Western women. The problem for Emadi, then, is figuring out how an Eastern woman who chooses to veil is free and a Western woman who chooses to overexpose is oppressed.

Whatever the future of Islamic Erotica is, we would all do well to think a bit more critically about what it represents. Whether as a supporter or opponent, the one lesson I’ve learned is that progressive thinking on issues of the body require that we start thinking beyond the walls of a single box. Neither freedom nor oppression can fully explain or describe the veiled body. More importantly, whatever the veiled body says, we (in the U.S. in particular) would do well to start greater paying attention to what other bodies are saying too.
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 published on AltMuslimah on May 10, 2010.


  • emaanwahaj says:

    What i find most disturbing, when criticizing any aspect of Islam, is the need to make comparisons with our Western counterparts. The east and the West are two absolutely separate entities, with separate ideologies, lifestyles, cultures, everything. So to prove an Islamic point correct, we shouldn’t first go ahead negating the non-Islamic.

    The problem is. Where is Islam? All I see are cultures of Islam; some with bigger and some with even bigger distortions of it. How I see the East and West are 2 extreme opposites. I am not talking of Islam here as the divine religion, but as the practiced majority. The nude woman is wrong – the overexposed. The draped in miles of fabric is wrong – the underexposed. I support the median.

  • ghina says:

    Yes the East and West are not extreme opposites, our characterization of the East and West are extreme opposites.  In “eastern” culture there will be those that are not totally cloaked and in western culture you will see modestly dressed women.

  • living3d says:

    Despite ideas that I disagree with in these articles, what really bothered me about reading them was:

    1.) There was no definition of what Islamic Erotica was.  This required research on the reader’s behalf (and then I had to go back and re-read the article to put it in context).

    2.) The author is both approaching art as though it were verbal discourse, and then using their own opinion (unstated as being their own opinion) of the artwork to define what the artist is trying to say.  Part of the beauty of visual art is that it can be interpreted as many different things.  Statements from the artist are then used to try to give this opinion validity – but not many statements are given and what was UNSAID is what is emphasized.  This seems unfair and ridiculous to me.

  • tlen says:

    Based on circumstances that I’ve seen in my own country(USA)—many Muslim women living in the West wear the veil as a political statement.
    The Western pin-up girl makes a CHOICE to objectify her body(Democracy aka Freedom)
    whereas in the East many Muslim coutries mandate the veil, so Muslim women have no choice.

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