Veils, Nudity, and Tattoos:
The New Feminine Aesthetics
Read review in the Journal of Gender Studies
Tattoos are no longer restricted to biker and sailor culture but have been sanctioned by the mainstream of liberal societies. Nudity has become more visible than ever on European beaches or on the internet. The increased use of the veil by women in Muslim and non-Muslim countries has developed in parallel with the aforementioned phenomena and is just as striking. This book shows that tattoos, nudity, and veils can be traced to similar social and psychological patterns.
The cancellation of essentialized notions of nature that were still current during modernity, has inaugurated a new approach towards tattoos and nudity; and veiling needs to be read in precisely this context. In postmodern culture, neither the naked nor the nude can be seen as “pure”; nudity no longer functions as an ideal of civilization (or non-civilization) in the classical sense. The consequence is that within a semantic constellation that no longer recognizes the “absence of signs” as a natural and naked “degree zero” of the body, nudity is not necessarily different from veils.
Just like nudity is no longer an expression only of nature, the veil is no longer only an expression of religious belief but appears as an ambiguous signifier engaging in cultural play instead of criticizing culture and attempting to replace it with religion. Similarly, nudism has become “nude culture” incorporating all mediatized and commercial aspects of nudity. Finally, tattoos have lost their anti-civilizational agenda and have become “tattoo culture,” which, in return, contributes to “nude culture” because the nude body is now more than ever covered with traces of culture and civilization. Any ambiguity contained in this constellation is paralleled by the paradox of “veil culture”: is it in favor or against liberation? Does it work against objectification or does it objectify? Does it eroticize or de-eroticize the body? Does it prevent fantasies or promote fantasies?
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Part I: Veils
1. Veils and Sunglasses
2. Veiling and Third Wave Feminism: Playing with Fire
3. Can the Veil be Cool?
5. "Cool Space:" Segregation and Veiling
Part II: Nudity, Tattoos
6. Tattoos, Nudity, Veils
7. From the Stigmatized Tattoo to the Graffitied Body: Femininity in the Tattoo Renaissance
8. Nudity and Tattoos from Naturism to Suicide Girls
From the book:
At first sight, tattoos, nudity, and veils do not seem to have much in common except for the fact that all three have become more frequent over the last thirty years. Still there are links. This book shows that the veil has become part and parcel of a new script of body culture that also implies nudity and tattoos. Though nudity still decolonizes the body, the nude can no longer be seen as "pure." Tattoos and veils have developed in parallel with this cultural shift.
In 2011, Aliaa El Mahdy posted her nude photo on her blogspot page, arousing the anger of the conservative part of Muslim society. In this photo, El Mahdy, dis-objectifies her body not through the device of decontextualization, but rather through an act of “semantic inversion” by presenting her body precisely in a way that is normally associated with objectification. This she has in common with many tattooed women and “re-veiled” women.
Today, the naked or the nude no longer function as an ideal of civilization or non-civilization. They no longer represent a state of purity. The cancellation of essentialized notions of nature that were still current during modernity also necessitates a new approach towards tattoos and veiling. More than ever it is necessary to think "woman" outside those boxes that attribute her too either conservatism or progressivism. Tattoos, nudity, and veils need to be wrenched from essentialized discourses that look either for the authentic, natural, traditional, and morally correct expression or for its contrary.
Suicide Girls comic
This book reveals many paradoxes revolving around respect, modesty, sexuality, female power, and female non-power. In order to understand the new constellations by which tattoos, nudity and veils are determined, some tropes need to be deconstructed: the trope of Western civilization vs. oriental barbarism, of the Muslim woman as the ultimate victim of an Islamic patriarchy, but also the trope of covering as an advancement of civilization.
The veil is not necessarily a traditional item but worn in a modern environment where it becomes not only a politico-religious statement, but also a fashion statement, which is surprising if one considers that in general, fashion is an ultimate symbol of materialism and secularism. Fashion designers have developed the veil into something trendy. In almost all countries where veiling has become more important in recent years, young peoples’ everyday life experience is constituted by the customs of traditional society as well as by an aggressive consumer culture displaying international fashion, Western lifestyles, or music. How do young Muslim women negotiate the hijab between niqab and Lady Gaga?
To understand the phenomenology of the veil it is interesting to submit the veil to an analysis inspired by McLuhan’s analysis of sunglasses. Both the veil and sunglasses aim to disrupt gazes. Both the veil and sunglasses enact a selective covering of the face, but in the former case only the eyes are uncovered whereas in the latter the face is visible while the eyes are covered. The perceptual mechanics of dark glasses and that of veiling work in opposite directions. In the former, the official part of the face is freely exposed but it loses a part of its attractiveness because the deeper or “real” meaning of the features cannot be fully construed. Further, I compare the veil to the technique of cropping and examine if the veiling of women prevents or fosters fetishzation.
I grasp the transcultural “fashion-identity” aspect by reading it through the vast literature that has been produced on the African American concept of “coolness.” Can the veil be “cool”? Does veiling lead to Cornel West’s “New World Modernity?”
There is no lack of academic works on veiling. However, the veil has become so highly charged with religious, historical and ideological symbolisms that its socio-functional aspects often disappear behind debates on related matters. If the veil is discussed, this often happens in terms of either cultural essentialism or relativism or, as Fatwa El Guindi has criticized, the explanation will be limited to either the “origin type” or the “utilitarian type” (El Guindi 1999: 124). Often these approaches fail to explain the reality of the veil as it is experienced in contemporary societies. To avoid symbolical as well as historical or deterministic shortcuts, I attempt to grasp the function of the veil inside a social game. For example: how can the veil function as an instrument of ‘coolness’ in modern Islamic or non-Islamic societies?
It is wrong to see Third Wave feminism, which sprang very much from a culture of punk-rock and hip-hop, consumerism, and the Internet, as being opposed to a culture of veiling, as if veiling were only current in self-enclosed and backward cultures. Veiled feminists are living in a globalized world that is in many respects similar to that of any feminists. Within this world, both challenge normative gender roles and potentially enrich the range of possibilities that liberated womanhood can obtain. I believe that the complex logic of Third Wave feminism is the only logic with which pro-veiling feminist arguments can be approached. I detect the following parallels between Third Wave feminism and pro-veiling feminism: 1. Both organize their fight by looking for means of empowerment in appearance. 2. Both Third Wave feminism and pro-veiling feminism contradict preceding anti-ideologies, which are anti-sex ideologies of earlier feminist generations for the former and hardline anti-veiling ideologies for the latter. 3. Third Wave feminism and pro-veiling feminism challenge the Second Wave’s unilateral definitions of femininity, which they criticize as being limited to upper-middle-class white women. 4. Both Third Wave and pro-veiling feminisms are in constant danger of succumbing to diverse forms of “false consciousness.”
The Veil in Kuwait: Gender, Fashion, Identity by T. Botz-Bornstein and Noreen Abdullah-Khan (New York: Palgrave, Pivot series, 2014), 96 p.