Essay: Dissonant Voices

How does the veil serve to simultaneously empower and disempower the woman?

words Helene Selam Kleih

Dissonant Voices: Loitering

The veil plays in both demonstrating and measuring the physical and psychological agency women have over their bodies.

Using Why Loiter? (written by Samira Khan, Shilpa Ranade and Shilpa Phadke) as a point of departure, comparisons can be made between the varying city scopes of Mumbra and 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 global city - personal engagement through reading and experiencing the city is filtered through the skeleton of gender difference. Are global cities really as ‘open’ as they relay? Has the female body and mind really been ‘unveiled’ and freed from patriarchal oppression?

‘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 European 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 ‘re-imagining’ of a previous understanding of walking and its relationship with the city both geographically and socially. Yet, the ‘visceral and subjective engagement’ 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. 

Asmara, Eritrea 1961 - 1977

Asmara, Eritrea 1961 - 1977

‘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.

It is through this purposeless wandering with no visible productivity or markers that a real ‘organic and visceral’ engagement with the city can be achieved.

The inclusion of photographs by Poulomi Basu in Why Loiter? visually demonstrate the contrast between the act of waiting for a bus and hanging out at the marina, 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.

The photos of my mother with 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 family responsibility. The women come from affluent families, where money whilst not taken for granted, was rarely a great worry. The girl 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’. The superimposing of veils onto these images signifies the burden that women carry to ‘perform’ the subdued feminity that is asked of them. The golden mesh signifies the ‘cloak of responsibility’ that allows women to be seen in public, seemingly free but altogether abiding by societies patriarchal ruling.

Eritrea, in particular the 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 and Mumbra, 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 marginalised and ‘like all Eritreans, became victims of the dictatorial regime.’

Now, Loiter?

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. 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, 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.

Read the full essay in POSTSCRIPT Issue 1.