Maybe she knew about kashf, the unveiling of light. How veiling and unveiling are part of the same process, the same cycle, how both are necessary; how both light and dark are connected moments in the development of the soul in its darkroom.
Mohja Kahf, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf: A Novel.
In my last post, I talked about Suor Cristina, the singing-dancing nun who won The Voice in Italy in 2014. Suor Cristina attracted some criticism (who doesn’t, really?), but her performances have been usually well received in Italy and France, despite (or, maybe, because) her very-nun appearance: black robe, black head-cover, very visible cross necklace.
What would happen if Suor Cristina wore a Muslim hijab instead of a Catholic nun head-cover?
There are two possible answers to this question, in the form of two stories of women who did, in fact, wear a Muslim headscarf while auditioning for The Voice.
The first is Kimia Ghorbani, who auditioned for The Voice in Italy. She arrives on the stage visibly pregnant, wearing a gray tunic and a green veil on her head that only partially covers her hair. Kimia sings beautifully in Persian while playing a middle-eastern tambourine. The judges of The Voice, who turn their backs to participants during their first audition, express admiration but are also surprised by the unusual and “exotic” style of the song. When they decide to accept Kimia in the show and turn to face her, she smiles beautifully and thanks them in Italian. She explains she lived in Italy for two years and a half. For her, performing is a form of rebellion against the Iranian regime, which forbids women from singing. As a celebration of freedom, she takes off her veil. The judges, and especially popular show woman and singer Raffaella Carrà, praise her not only for her talent but also for her courage in breaking the rules of a country such as Iran, that doesn’t grant freedom to women.
The second is Mennel Ibtissem at The Voice in France. Mennel, for her audition, wears a black blazer with a mini dress and purple stockings, and a head turban that shows only her earlobes and silver earrings. She sings a beautiful version of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluja” in English, which turns to Arabic at a certain point. Also in this case, the judges –which are not the same as in Kimia’s performance, because this is the French version of the show –are fascinated by Mennel’s singing and offer her to participate in the competition. Lebanese-born singer Mika asks her where she is from, and she explains that she is French. He wonders why she can speak Arabic, and only then she says she has Syrian origins. Mennel smiles nervously and shows her joy in being praised by all the judges.
The two performances have some points in common: while both women wear a headscarf, judges never mention religion. Also, the headscarves are somehow made into more neutral symbols: Iranian-Italian Kimia’s headscarf doesn’t completely cover her hair (even before she takes it off), and French Mennel’s turban is a more modern version of the hijab. And their singing is equally well received, with Raffaella Carrà defining Kimia “luminosa” (full of light) and Mika telling Mennel that “tu as ta propre lumière” (you have your own light).
Kimia and Mennel also have something else in common: they never get to participate to The Voice. In case of Kimia, she decides to withdraw from the competition because of her pregnancy. Mannel, however, was forced to quit because of a fierce social media backlash against her. Criticisms were apparently motivated by her pro-Palestinian engagement and support to some pro-Islam groups and thinkers, included controversial intellectual Tariq Ramadan, on Facebook. It seems that she also shared some conspiracy theories saying that terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS were in fact orchestrated by the government. After the backlash, she apologises in a video saying that she didn’t want to hurt anyone, and announces that she is quitting the competition. I do not wish here to discuss her political ideas and beliefs in conspiracies; however, it seems safe to say that this intense public scrutiny of Mennel’s private social media pages may be strongly motivated by her appearance, which clearly identifies her as a Muslim. Various media sources, indeed, did not hesitate to call the backlash against Mennel “Islamophobic.”
Therefore, it seems that, of the two stories, only Kimia’s is positively accepted as she renounces Islam and takes off her veil. In Mennel’s case there’s no direct criticism of her veil, but a criticism of all the veil does (or could) represent.
Why are the veils of Kimia and Mennel so heavily charged with meanings, while that of Suor Cristina is only associated with a positive and joyful faith?
In answering this question, a personal story comes to mind. I was once having lunch with my partner and a colleague of his, a very educated gentleman who works for the government and teaches international law at university level. As often happens when I tell people what I do, he was curious to know “what religion and media have to do with each other.” When I started talking about various religious symbols in public and media spaces, he was surprised to know that I was in favor of Muslim women wearing a veil.
Why would I, a modern and atheist European woman, support this backward practice imposed on Muslim women?
I answered that I believe everybody, women included, should have the right to wear what they please. This applies also to head-covers, as worn Catholic nuns or Muslim women.
The gentlemen, however, was quick in tracing a difference. Catholic nuns freely choose to wear a veil, while Muslim women are forced by their fathers and husbands, he asserted.
He was even more surprised when I told him that, in my research on religion in Europe, I have met and interviewed Muslim women who did not wear the headscarf, and Muslim women who decided to wear it against the will of their parents. I have never met, in fact, a Muslim woman in Europe who was forced to wear a veil. The gentleman was shocked: he would have never imagined that the headscarf could unveil different personal stories.
His reaction did not surprise me, as it comes from a narrative I am very familiar with. Growing up, I have been told several times that wearing a veil was wrong. I didn’t personally know veiled women –as a matter of fact, I saw many of them, but they were all Catholic nuns working as teachers or nurses, because in my Italian town in the nineties there were very few hijabi. However, I was told stories about the veil: Muslim women, poor souls, were forced to cover by evil husbands and fathers. That made sense to me: wasn’t the same story Aladdin was telling us? Poor Jasmine in the Disney movie could wear an exotic and cool dress, but she was constantly told by her father what to do.
While my grandma’s generation wore veils for the Catholic mass, my mother’s generation stopped doing it in a context of protest against what was seen as a patriarchal religion. In the seventies, girls in public high schools were often forced to wear long skirt uniforms and to cover themselves. Raffaella Carrà, the show woman who enthusiastically praised Kimia’s performance, created a scandal by showing her belly button –which even Disney’s Jasmine was allowed to do –on national TV in the early seventies. Some women fought the patriarchy also by claiming that they had the right to wear mini-skirts, wearing make-up, showing belly buttons, and do what they wanted with her body. I am grateful to them and appreciate being free to wear what I want, even if, to tell the truth, I still spent my early teens being scolded by professors that did not want me to show my belly button wearing tank-tops in a poor imitation of Spice Girls.
The stories of women fighting to take control of and show their bodies are important, and we should honor them. We should praise all the brave women in repressive states and abusive families that rebel against forced covering and limited freedom, as the story of Kimia shows.
We should also take into account that in other contexts women are not coerced into wearing a veil but freely choose to do so, as is the case of Mennel or Suor Cristina, and their choices need to be equally respected.
However, it seems that only Suor Cristina can wear a head-cover and win The Voice, while Kimia is almost expected to renounce her veil. Suor Cristina can use The Voice as a platform to talk about her religion, diffuse her ideas, and talk about her total submission to her order, while Muslim Mennel’s Facebook opinions are scrutinized and used to prevent her from participating in the singing contest, even if she never mentioned her personal opinions during the audition.
Why is a religious symbol –a head-covering veil –perceived in ways so different?
The obvious answer would be that the veil is a visible symbol of something that many people, at conscious or unconscious level, consider wrong: Islam.
Many scholars have explored how Islam is considered “other” to Western culture. I particularly like the work of Talal Asad (2003), who talks about how Muslims are excluded from European civilization. We create a sharp distinction between what is European and what is not: democracy, secularism, and Christianity belong to European culture; Islam is seen as something incompatible with democracy and secularism, and therefore non-European. The more we define Islam as “other”, the more we reinforce our identity as Europeans (and/or as Westerners). This perspective considers Islam as something monolithic and unable to adapt to different contexts. This echoes what Edward Said (1979) called “Orientalism,” the idea that the Eastern world is often described as stereotypical and “other” to the West.
Kimia and Mennel can probably both be perceived as some kind of “other.” Kimia speaks Italian with a strong Persian accent and sings a Persian song playing a Persian instrument. The veil she briefly wears exoticize her. She rejects the veil to show her symbolic acceptance of Italian culture, reinforcing the idea that the Muslim symbol is, indeed, non-Italian. From this perspective, she’s arguably the “good other.” Mennel plays with her double identity of French-Syrian: she describes herself as French but sings in Arabic, wears Western-style clothes with a veil, wants to be part of the French entertainment system but supports Arab causes. Despite her modern-looking turban, her pro-Islam ideas seem to be incompatible with European values, and her double identity frames her as a “bad other.” Neither of them is allowed to unveil complex personalities, as they seem to be reduced to the refusal or endorsement of Islam and its values. Islam itself is considered in a monolithic way: the repressive Iranian regime risks not being distinguished from the type of Islam Mennel practices in France. It would be the same as failing to distinguish joyful Suor Cristina from the Spanish Inquisition.
Suor Cristina, on the contrary, is not an “other”: she’s part of European culture and religion, and therefore she isn’t likely to endure any form of serious scrutiny of her ideas. She is granted agency to tell her story and to choose what to wear.
Media are important vehicles to articulate social meanings, and can powerfully influence people’s perception of certain issues. The fact that Suor Cristina, Kimia, and Mennel were all well received by the judges of The Voice could be a positive indicator of the acceptance of women with various appearances and religiosities. However, social media backlash against Mennel shows that European society is still plagued by rampant Islamophobia. What I hope for the future, is to have media performances that grant women agency and space to tell all kinds of story: the brave woman who rebels an oppressive type of Islam, the pious nun who wants to celebrate her faith, and the Muslim European who freely chooses to express her belonging to Islam. And, of course, all women –from Disney’s Jasmine to Raffaella Carrà –that wish to show their belly button.
The pictures in this post are screenshots from the YouTube video of the two The Voice auditions:
These are the works I quoted:
Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, 1 edition Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. 1st Vintage Books ed edition, New York: Vintage.
Feel free to contact me or comment below if you have any question or comment.