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Burkha as Metaphorical Mirror for Imperious Culture?

Annex C of Facism as Superficial Intercultural Extremism: burkha, toplessness, sunglasses, beards, and flu masks (2009)
Published in abridged version as Scared of our own shadow? The Burkha as a Metaphorical Mirror for Imperious Culture
(Journal of Futures Studies, 15, December 2010, 2, pp. 101-114)

Mirroring facelessness of citizens in governance of democratic societies
Mirroring covert strategies, cover-up and denial
Mirroring constraints on choice in a consumer society
Mirroring full-body cognitive imprisonment
Mirroring uncertainty, the unknown and the unconscious
Mirroring the threat of confrontation with death
Mirroring capacity of future response to extraterrestrials and otherness

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The arguments in the main paper (Facism as Superficial Intercultural Extremism: burkha, toplessness, sunglasses, beards, and flu masks, 2009) question capacity to associate identity meaningfully with the face -- effectively assuming the validity of its projection onto an essentially flat surface, as with any photograph.

As declared by the President of France (2009):

The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement.

From a psychological perspective it might be asked whether the antipathy in the West to the burkha does not signal the possibility that this derives in some measure from its function as a mirror for a particular western mindset. Is the West much challenged by what it sees in that mirror -- its own unintegrated shadow in psychoanalytical terms?

What might the burkha mirror in western society -- rightly to be considered unacceptable and a challenge to liberty and dignity? Is contemporary society in some way avoiding the extent which is has been debased and become subservient? What might be usefully understood as the "shadow of humanity"?

Such mirrorings can usefully be seen within a context of relative lack of understanding of how the burkha comes to be worn -- in comparison with the relatively simplistic assumptions made about it. This might be contrasted with western tolerance of unusual practices and behaviours and failure to question the extent to which they were voluntarily assumed rather than a consequence of community constraint: Catholic self-flagellation or use of a hair-shirt, sado-masochism (bondage and discipline, domination and submission). Curiously a more sensitive insight is offered from a gay perspective, given the sartorial challenges and misunderstandings experienced by that community (Eric Heinze, In Defense of the Burqa: a gay perspective, 2009).

With respect to veiling for example, as noted by Eli Sanders (Interpreting Veils, Seattle Times, 5 October 2001):

  • it is poorly understood how its history dates from before Islam; the origin of veiling is unknown, but scholars agree it existed long before Islam. Some 4,000 years ago, in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, women wore veils. More than two millennia later, when Islam arose, that religion absorbed local veiling practices into its culture.
  • it is impossible to say exactly what the veil means. Its many forms and styles are as diverse as the myriad peoples and cultures that have adopted Islam (or other religions that use the veil). And its significance has never been static or monolithic. The veil and its meanings are constantly evolving and changing, often the subject of intense debate and political agendas, and always buffeted by the tides of history and individual preference.
  • the anger directed at its wearers has left them feeling saddened and misunderstood. They are being defined, they feel, by a piece of clothing they proudly wear but whose meaning to others they cannot control -- whose meaning, in fact, they don't even agree on among themselves.

It is curious that the opposition by the Christian and secular worlds to such clothing styles should be so intimately related to iconic dress celebrated as characteristic of the birth of western civilization. Christian women may imitate the veil supposedly worn by Mary (The Veil of the Virgin Mary); the most wanted person on the planet, blamed for Al-Qaida, is regularly presented in the media in a form of dress indistinguishable from representations of Jesus in churches around the world. Together are these to be considered indicative of a profound confusion of values?

In the case of the burkha, Ellen McLarney (The Burqa in Vogue: Fashioning Afghanistan, Journal of Middle East Women's Studies, 5, 1, Winter 2009, pp. 1-20) notes that in the months leading up to 9/11 and in its immediate aftermath, the media demonized the burkha as 'Afghanistan's veil of terror,' a tool of extremists and the epitome of political and sexual repression. However, around the time of Afghanistan's presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2005, she charts the noticeable shifts in apprehensions of the burkha in the western media. In Fall 2006, burkha images even appeared on the Paris catwalks and in Vogue fashion spreads. She notes an evolution of the burkha from 'shock to chic' with a process of commodification in the Western media, specifically through its appropriation as haute couture. The latter corresponds to its original status amongst the elite long before Islam.

The following exploration of the possible metaphorical significance of the burkha for western culture is partly inspired by its use as a leading example in a radically new approach to the generation and use of metaphor -- with the burkha as its leading example. Tony Veale and Yanfen Hao (A Fluid Knowledge Representation for Understanding and Generating Creative Metaphors, School of Computer Science University College Dublin, 2008) argue:

For instance, one might describe makeup as 'the Western burqa', to communicate not just the idea that each involves a covering of the female form, but that each reflects a society-imposed expectation on the public presentation of women. Each of these roles is a manifestation of the same underlying mechanism for combining concepts, for understanding how they interact... and for determining how they are connected..., even if those connections are tenuous, hidden or not always obvious.

The following sections discuss the insights that might be drawn from metaphorical mirroring of the burkha.

ng sections discuss the insights that might be drawn from metaphorical mirroring of the burkha.

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