How does the veil serve to simultaneously empower and disempower the woman?
words Helene Selam Kleih
The veil plays a vital role in both demonstrating and measuring the physical and psychological agency women have over their bodies.
Using Why Loiter? (a book written by Samira Khan, Shilpa Ranade and Shilpa Phadke), as a point of departure, comparisons can be made between the varying city scopes of Mumbai, India and Asmara, Eritrea and their societal, cultural, religious and familial expectations of the woman and the female voice. The focus on the concept of the veil transforms the vision of the global city – personal engagement through reading and experiencing the city is now filtered through the skeleton of gender difference and incites the question: Are global cities really as ‘open’ as they relay? Has the female body and mind really been ‘unveiled’ and freed from patriarchal oppression?
Why Loiter? ultimately interrogates gender access to public space and the politics of risk, through the act of ‘loitering’. The basic transformational idea of sitting around enjoying leisure space as a woman and doing nothing is a notion so simple, yet absurd in its controversial reception. Why is the female body so readily attacked by prejudices, stereotypes and constrained to normative modes of femininity and being? ‘Loitering’ is thus the demonstration of ‘unveiling’ the woman – freeing her for an agency that embodies the right to inhabit and be in public space. For the authors of the essay, loitering serves as a ‘strategy of dissent’ against the ‘gendered spatiality in Mumbai’ (2009: 186).
The project of loitering as a pursuit of pleasure draws attention to the politics of space within every spatial parameter of the lives as women. The tension inscribed onto female bodies according to areas and the degree to which women were entitled to access, translated into psychological feelings of unease.
In the occidental bubble of Britain, the act of loitering is rarely explored and taken for granted in an ‘accessible’ space that prescribes to cosmopolitan politically correct and non-gendered discourse. Yet, it must be challenged - how often are women really unconditionally allowed to let their bodies be completely and unapologetically present in space?
‘Loitering’ as ‘Unveiling’
Why Loiter? draws upon an extensive patriarchal history of walking in the city, an act reserved for the male. The figure of Baudelaire’s Europe- an flâneur, a man who experiences pleasure and thrill through the sensory experiences that the city lends him on his walks has been reinterpreted in modern literature such as Ivan Vladevlisic’s Portrait with Keys and Teju Cole’s Open City. These reinterpretations have demonstrated how new sociological timely concerns of global cities like New York and Johannesburg require a ‘reimagining’ of a previous understanding of walking and its relationship with the city both geographically and socially. Yet, the ‘visceral and subjective engagement’ (2009: 194) of the flâneur with the city through walking is denied to women who never have the possibility of ‘making new meanings’ of their spaces.
Modern literature still generally subscribes to the hackneyed ruling of the public sphere relegated for the male, with the female consigned to the private, the unseen. A notion further solidified after the onset of the industrial revolution, walking in the city was largely perceived as a criminal act, the only women seen on the street, as their namesake evokes were ‘streetwalkers’ or prostitutes, the woman ‘is either mad or bad or dangerous to society’ (2011: vii).
‘Loitering’ is thus a heavily loaded term, and rather than trivialising the gender struggles of women, it carries the burden of the violence of language and recuperates the possibility of ‘free’ movement. The Foucauldian movement from identities to acts, allows women a real participation society, not without but within. As asserted, loitering, unlike even the ‘flanerie and tapori-giri’, bears no attachment to an identity or sense of purpose. In the process of loitering, you are only ‘temporally present’ (2009: 192). It is through this purposeless wandering with no visible productivity or markers that a real ‘organic and visceral’ (2009: 192) engagement with the city can be achieved. Partaking rather than observing, the loiterer is not a surveyor but an actor in her environment, and thus can finally achieve a subjective rather than objective scope on reality.
Asmara: 1977 / 2018
By referencing Asmara, the backwards ‘progressiveness’ of a country that was previously more liberal than the current dictatorship is depicted. Taking heed from Peromita Vohra’s visual essay, No Man’s Land, an original photo journal imposing the veil into various scenarios to reveal the psychological burden of weight that women felt in seemingly ‘free’ scenarios. Influenced by Vohra’s imagined bourgeois life living alone as a wine-sipping single woman and the altogether real stark struggle of PMGP, the low-income housing she was forced to; this photo series aims to translate how ‘fantasy collides with reality’ when women in Asmara dare to dream of a ‘liberated life’ of free movement. Through speaking to the real women featured in the photos, the correlation between the original sentiments within the photographed situations and whether they correspond to more recent female accounts of subjugation is gaged. The photos represent a medium between a perpetual visceral constraint imposed on women and the more positive attempts of Indian women to claim unconditional agency.
The inclusion of photographs by Poulomi Basu in Why Loiter? visually demonstrate the contrast between the act of waiting for a bus (2009: 190) and hanging out at the marina (2009: 193), a movement from purpose to pleasure. Whilst in public and in the company of males, female body language remains upright, reserved and restricted to the norm, compared to the more relaxed seated posture, women in conversation leaning on and into each other with feet dangling towards the water. Alike, the photos taken in Asmara, Eritrea from 1961-1977 visually chart the assertion of female agency in respect to their surrounding environment at the time. The photos of mothers, cousins and friends in adolescence and early-twenties show a female solidarity and sisterhood based on pleasure: going out and enjoying life without the burden of familial responsibility. The women come from affluent families, where money, whilst not taken for granted, was rarely a great worry. The groups pictured represent a younger model of the middle-class educated professional that Why Loiter? focuses on. However, the pictures also represent the prevailing constrictions of ‘normative femininity’ despite the increased right to pleasure that Asmara held. The photos of women ‘loitering’ in parks and on city-centre streets or camping in the countryside were overshadowed by male counterparts, providing the groups with ‘respectability.’ The superimposing of veils onto these images where women were without their male chaperones signifies the burden that women carry to ‘perform’ the subdued femininity that is asked of them. The golden mesh signifies the ‘cloak of respectability’ that allows women to be seen in public, seemingly free but altogether abiding by societies patriarchal ruling.
Eritrea’s capital Asmara has been largely perceived as a liberal environment in regards to gender politics. Yet, although space is not as obviously gendered as in India’s Mumbai, the changing roles of women during Eritrea’s War of Independence (1961 – 1991) and then the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000) encouraged misogyny and a regress to stereotypical ideas of the woman belonging to interior space - to the home as a mother, carer and wife. The patriarchal ruling of women tightened as women fought alongside men on the front line as soldiers rather than the more traditionally received nurse. During the armed struggle for independence, women comprised 25% of the fighters and played ‘a pivotal role’; today they are marginalized and ‘like all Eritreans, became victims of the dictatorial regime.’
Do actual spaces in cities need to change or the people in it? The fraught relationship of citizens with space continues to be based on exclusion and the priorities of emerging global cities rest in economics rather than social politics and thus loitering comes at a price. Pleasure achieved through the acts of loitering do certainly assert a feminine physical agency that translates into a psychological agency over female body and voice. Yet, the intersectional problematic of the global city attempting to accommodate and fuse the old and new politics of religion, caste, class and economics infringes on women really partaking in a true ‘unveiling’ of male subjugation. In the emerging global South, an incessant ‘fight’ in open spaces resonates, a struggle in the city for every intersectional material and intangible question alike to be raised, voiced and heard. Similarly, in Eritrea, the preoccupation with maintaining a dictatorship and eliminating opposition overrides all concerns of women’s rights and the subsequent violations taking place.
Read the full essay in POSTSCRIPT Issue 1.