Few pieces of women’s clothing are as contentious, politically charged, and divisive, as the burqa, or as invested with a multitude of religious and cultural meanings related to gender identity and roles. Denounced as a symbol of Islamic radicalism and oppression of women, it can also be seen as a sign of proper modesty, a means to preempt women’s objectification, or a deeply entrenched cultural staple, among myriad conceptions.
Jabre Jureidini’s paintings are less about feminism than about a reflection of the relationships between the burqa and the archetypes that she paints underneath it. At the geopolitical level, the burqa serves as a metaphor for the global conflict between the West and radical islamism, an antagonism evoked through the juxtaposition of the burqa and a woman wearing a “je suis Charlie” t-shirt, and that of the burqa and a portrait of Donald Trump (although the former peacefully sides with the victims of fundamentalism, while the latter directs its military might against it.) Elsewhere, there is a burqa hiding a suicide bomber: an automatic link unfortunately often drawn. And at the level of female identities/stereotypes, the burqa conceals, by turns, a glamorous, sexy, Jessica rabbit type, a sex slave, wonder woman, and a battered woman, three types that could coexist with a burqa, exist in spite of it, or because of it. A burkini could be liberating, whereas the macho man / burqa antinomy directly points a finger at man-dominated culture. The issue has too many dimensions to count, and if Jureidini’s intensions are laudable, and the paintings’ optical illusion effect is smart, the execution falters somehow.
Until photographs and film clarify the discourse. Alongside the paintings more explicitly denunciatory works were on display: a series of photographs taken as if one were seeing the world through the whole of the eyes of a burqa, intimating a rather limited view of the world, and videos where Muslim women talked about gender relationships courageously. Throughout the show, burqa-clad individuals (men? women? neither?) tried to upend our preconceptions about what hid behind it.
Jureidini is brave to talk about issues related to religion in the Lebanese context. Had she more directly tackled the veil in all its incarnations, instead of only the burqa, which is not indigenous to this country, her show would surely have taken on another magnitude. But while the show makes one reflect on the significance of the burqa, and on women’s oppression, it doesn’t suggest avenues for change. Furthermore, it still reduces women to types: ones who does not have choice as to how to present themselves, and others that embody stereotypes, with no other possibility offered, despite the intentions stated in the curatorial text to not pigeonhole the women into categories. The curatorial text addresses the difficulty women face when choosing how to present themselves lest they be reduced to stereotypes (virgin/whore), and the question of the continued objectification of women, but fails to go beyond basic dichotomies and eludes the question of women’s rights. When stating, “the only fair label to a woman is “woman” ,” it is also blind to the fact that there are as many fair labels to women as there are women on earth.
Who, really, are the freedom fighters here? Are they the women who dare denounce patriarchy in their islamic context? Those who support victims of terrorist acts or those who act as superwomen despite their burqa? Those who grant access to their restricted perspective on the outside world? Or the artist herself, which seems to be the most pertinent answer? In this case, what shape would the freedom she advocates take?
Leila Jabre Jureidini’s Freedom Fighters is on show at D Beirut until 27 March 2019.