06 December 2008

Haleh Anvari

From the Series Chadornama © Haleh Anvari

In The Guardian there is this interesting interview with Iranian photographer Haleh Anvari. She has a project - actually a hybrid exhibition/performance - entitled "Power of a Cliché" that sounds quite provocative. In it she objects, among other things, to the convention in the West of representing Iran reductively via photographs of women in black chador. On some points I think she is spot on:
"One of the things I felt I needed to do this for was because both in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans used the pretext of women and their plight to justify attacking these two countries against international law. [. . .] But I'd rather wear the hijab and live a quiet life without nuclear fallout. I don't want to be bombed. It's a difficult thing to explain … How many revolutions can a people have in 30 years?"
Actually, I think that Anvari makes things quite plain and easy to understand. I'm sure our outgoing neo-cons who fancy themselves exporters of democracy and chivalrous defenders of feminism, will take note of her assessment. That goes for the Obama-ites who are replacing them (Clinton, Lieberman, et. al.) too.

I also think Anvari correctly identifies our reductionist representations of Iran specifically and Islamic nations more generally. She is right to contest them. But Anvari is also challenging religious and political authorities at home. Here is some notation from her web page: “Colour Sound Movement. Three elements not associated with The Iranian woman, three elements which she has in abundance. The chador wasn't always black, where did the colour go?” So she is quite aware that the authorities have arbitrarily darkened the Iranian landscape. Her complaint is just that we outsiders seem to see only that and proceed accordingly.

So far, so good. I have to say, though, that I'm not entirely persuaded that wearing colorful version of officially mandated uniforms counts as resistance to political and/or religious orthodoxy, let alone effective resistance. Do 'dress down' days at the office represent freedom in the law firms and corporate campuses across America? Is buying this or that morally sanctioned product (say, free trade coffee or cosmetics free of animal testing) a political act? No. Perhaps, one could make the case that the chador and architectural practices embody a distinction between public and private that Iranians can use to fend off the authorities. In general, though, it seems like a stretch to me. Even if the color of one's chador is more than a simple fashion statement, thumbing one's nose at authorities is not resistance if it has no impact. It's thumbing one's nose. Maybe the impact is diffuse, delayed, indirect, even unintended, and so difficult or, at this juncture, impossible to discern. We'll see.

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