Beneath the streets of Paris a woman roams the tunnels by night. Beside the rumble of subway cars she stalks the tiled halls with a dripping black marker for a weapon. Clad in a club kid hoodie and leather vest, she barely sees through a long black wig she has turned backwards to cover her face. Coming upon an advertisement for luxury lingerie she pops open the glass door to the billboard and quickly outlines the woman’s seductive eyes. The artist fills in a black face veil covering everything but those eyes, letting the paint slide down onto the skin in the image. Eyeing her work she might have that single breath of satisfaction that belongs to jewel thieves and graffiti artists before she must run.
The Paris metro system is her canvas but her realm of influence extends beyond these echoing walls. Although the women’s real name is unknown, as an artist she goes by the persona “Princess Hijab.” In a video interview with Arabic newspaper al-Jazeera she says, “What’s interesting about the niqab is that it isolates the person wearing it while at the same time, here in the western world, especially here in France, it puts you in the spotlight … I’m creating an artistic universe by giving my models a new visibility, a different point of view which can be disturbing.”
Princess Hijab asserts that she is not religious and is not making a religious statement, but she is commenting on public bodies and the tyranny of advertising. The images she chooses to “hijab-ize” advertise luxury goods that she considers “more protected than the human body” in their polished vitrines. In its jarring juxtaposition the work stands as a testament to the power of the niqab as a visual and political symbol.
Above ground in Paris, this past Sept. 14 the French senate confirmed a bill banning niqab in public spaces with a landslide vote of 246 to 1. President Sarkozy has referred to the niqab as “not welcome” in France and likened it to a cage for the body. While France has been the most outspoken on the subject there are various national and local bans on niqab across Europe, like in Belgium and the Netherlands. But moving beyond Europe the issue becomes even more complex in areas caught between the East and West, such as Turkey.
Turkey, like France in a way, is a country with a modern history of powerful secularism. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey, rejected headscarves and the fez hat as symbols of a backward period. But recently, public opinion is not in agreement with these laws that date back to the 1930s, when the concept of “laicite” was introduced. The debate in Turkey has heated up recently with the renewed international popularity of the headscarf.
Turkey amended its constitution in 2008, easing a ban on headscarves in universities, but this amendment didn’t even pass the Constitutional Court because of secular parties’ opposition. After massive public protests, however, a referendum was held last month in which voters approved the possibility to lift the ban.
The Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, has expressed agreement with public sentiment to lift the ban and allow headscarves. Last week he commented, “We do not want to disappoint our youth. There is no sense in being so interventionist in freedom of belief and education anymore.” Here we see the almost century-old impulse towards firm secularism butting up against a new interest in this religious expression in a country that is 99 percent Muslim. Moving south, the debate has even touched Israel.
Last spring one Israeli parliament member, Kadima Solodkin, inspired by the French law, proposed a niqab ban to the government. Solodkin compared the Islamic practice to other repressive “traditional” modes of behavior such as foot binding in China and burning widows in India. This reference to the niqab as “traditionally Islamic” is misinformed, considering veiling began in pre-Islamic times and has permutated throughout Islamic history. Solodkin also invoked the feminist rhetoric of France’s leaders in her argument.
This proposal has not gained much ground in Israel, but interestingly, if it were to apply it would also affect the small sect of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women who veil. Naturally some Muslims who veil in Israel have contrasted the situation with France’s law, saying that in France the majority of Muslims are immigrants and whereas in Israel they consider the Israelis themselves to be immigrants. Parliament member Solodkin herself came to Israel from Russia in the 1990s.
Of course the point is moot considering what matters is who holds the power, not who has inhabited the soil longer. And this is the crux of the hijab issue — who holds power. In Turkey the secularist parties hold power technically but the masses that veil have the power to make the president give a mea culpa. In France, conformity with a single national identity is the powerful stance and thus the Muslim minorities are subjugated. This is why Princess Hijab is a compelling figure — she herself has created insurgent power from below by marking these public spaces.
As an artist, she takes the issue beyond a merely political power play. She is probing the hypocrisies in the interstices of French culture and also challenging the way in which we swallow all symbols unchewed. For her the hijab is a symbol. And so is the vocabulary of advertising. She takes the edge off both of these things by combining them, sometimes with comic effect. At the end of the video interview with the artist, she emerges from the Paris metro at daybreak and walks towards the Arc de Triomphe, the national symbol of French unity through victory. But after watching her question these axes of power, it is as if the sturdy arch is just another monument to imposition, and the morning shudders.