by Chloë Rasier
Last July, I attended SOAS University’s online summer school ‘Media and Gender: Representations, Subjectivities and Power’. A two-week questioning of how we view the world, of pausing at every thought and challenging assumptions.
What stuck to me is not how everything can be challenged—it is not new to me how man-made ‘the truth’ is—but to what extent positionality is as much determining as anything else. How looking in itself, our gaze, is full of meaning; not just an objective thing that happens but something that we do. And in this doing lie choices, a possibility of agency and responsibility.
So let’s pause. I’d like to invite you into a slow-motion experience of a poem by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan. To freeze it, walk around in it, see what this pausing does and how, I would argue, we need to engage in it more often. To pause as resistance, pause for the cause, pause to take back power, pause before we say ‘we’, … pause for change.
A world in -isms
Opening shot: this is Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan. What are the first things you notice?
I’d like to invite you to quickly press pause and take some time to follow what these signifiers point at in the large map of concepts we use to make meaning of the world. Can you entangle and observe, without judgement, the thoughts that these evoke?
Did you notice the hijab? Wondered why she’s in front of a mic? Is that surprising? Maybe you’ve determined where she’s from? What her family looks like? What her education is?
If you’re from the West and not Muslim, if you don’t know any women who cover or are not familiar with why women choose to cover or not, then chances are that you’re reproducing thoughts that, through many media (in every sense of the word), were shaped about Muslim women.
This shaping process dates back to when the West, in its imperial hunger, started ‘discovering’ the East. In 1978, Edward Said coined the word Orientalism to describe how, with a limited experience of the East, an image was constructed of the Orient as uncivilized. A caricature of supine men and subordinated, silent women was created. Of ‘a subject race’ that had to be ruled for their own good. This image filtered (and still filters) the Orient into our Western consciousness.
This is how a paper by Haleh Afshar starts, explaining how women who cover find themselves interpreted as oppressed, exotic, even dangerous. Orientalism, but add 9/11 and other extremist attacks, throw in the ‘War On Terror’ and the mediatized discourse that ensued. Add Western feminists who universalize the hijab as a symbol of oppression instead of considering the wide variety of reasons why Muslim women cover (or not)... And you get a climate of Islamophobia or, as Haleh Afshar describes, a modern-day Orientalism that objectifies and otherizes women who cover. This makes ‘us’ hostile, scared, heightens violence against ‘them’. A ‘them’ that is constructed, essentialist, incorrectly monolithic in meaning… and no longer part of ‘us’.
Consider how, for the most part of a debate on the right to wear the hijab in school (2018), Belgian national television uses this image as a backdrop:
A woman looking down, a gaze that looks preoccupied… Reproducing an image of oppressed women who need to be saved. While this too is a woman who covers, albeit one on the forefront of a revolution in Sudan (2019):
The choice of this image is not an accidental one. And a viewer who doesn't pause on this will be unaware of what meaning is reproduced and what this silently—silenced—confirmes and refutes in the debate.
Until recently I had never heard of Orientalism because I had never had the need to. That’s almost 37 privileged years of not knowing how full of history my gaze was, and not taking the time to discover this. But look at what one pause can shift.
This is not a humanizing poem
Anyway. We’re almost forgetting (we can pause on this as well) that this was about Suhaiymah having something to say:
She offers us an endless list of things to pause at.
A cry that this is not something she wants to write, implying that she is being made to do this. Is it you? Is it me? Is it us? Who is ‘us’?
A list of double standards used to tax Muslims behaving humanly. Do you know how these work? If they’re yours as well? Are their origins traceable? Are they difficult to escape? Do you want to escape them? Why?
A message that it’s not up to Muslims to prove that they’re human and that if they have to, they’re not the inhumane ones. How does that make you feel? Busted? Happy she’s spreading this message? Angry?
What happens when we say ‘we’
Zoomed out from our individual pausing, we see a large system at work. Individuals as coders and decoders of messages, creating meaning on both ends, embedded in a large Western hegemonic discourse. Surrounded by media, embedded in families and friends, in work, in communities, national constructions, etc.
So there are group efforts to be made as well. I firmly believe that humanity can create a better world if we work together. Everyone. To turn around the course we’re on of exhausting planet and people. But today, I feel the need for a pause. When we say ‘we’, is there a ‘them’? Does our ‘we’ imply ‘the West’ (and the Rest will benefit)? Whose better world are we creating then? Whose knowledge counts and whose doesn’t?
So let’s pause. Let’s interrupt user comfort designed to move through life so smoothly and superficially. Pause to wonder whose voice is present and absent, dig deeper, reach out. Insert glitches into the combined story of Instagram stories we tell ourselves. Pause our thoughts to question and educate ourselves on what has been repeated so often that we reproduce it in harmful biases. Change can sound like a daunting task, but let’s start by creating cracks, glitches, questions, thinking twice instead of once... Everyday resistance that we need to engage in. Because I still firmly believe we can change this world for the better. But we first have to create this ‘we’, not the least within our very individual selves.
More about Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan: https://www.suhaiymah.com/.