Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Polyphemus' Gaze - Burqas, Superheroes, and the Postmodern Identity


Not my usual choice of topic, but I just walked out of a fourth-year Art History dealing with gender roles and representation in the Islamic world, and I'm a little fired up. Not in a controversial, I'm-gonna-make-a-big-deal-out-of-this sort of way. Don't worry. I just made a superhero-greek-mythology-CBC-radio-burqa connection, and I am going to share it with you. This post has been in the works in my head for a month or two, and it all clicked today. Bear with me.

So, the burqa. And the hijab, niqab, and various other forms of traditional Islamic head covering. The wearing of these items in public has been a hot topic in European and North American countries for years. The governments of France, Belgium, Quebec, and other regions have been in talks over the last decade discussing the legal banning of head coverings. Some say they are a symbol of oppression, and that it is the country's duty to liberate these women. Other parties claim they are a security risk, and that no individual should be able to look at someone without the other being able to see them. No matter whose platform you're looking at, the issue is a matter of gaze. It's a matter of the power afforded to people both when they look at someone and when they are looked at. The Western world, we in Canada and the States and our close cultural counterparts in Europe, has a balance. We have an established visual culture, and our status quo is upset by the relatively new integration of Eastern modes of dress into that culture. I read the intro to Katherine Bullock's book Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil in which she asserts that, far from being a tool of oppression, the burqa can be liberating. It shields the wearer from the gaze of those around her, and in Western culture that affords a woman a measure of protection from the societal pressure on self-image and vanity. It is, Bullock assures the reader, a welcome relief. That in itself upsets the North American balance. A woman is no longer available to be gazed upon, but can gaze at you. The status is no longer quo.

Allow me to jump backwards a couple of months. I was working for the summer mowing lawns and pulling weeds, and my best friend through long, hot work days was an iPod loaded with CBC radio podcasts. I was listening to a past episode of Writers and Company from Sunday, May 5th of this year. The featured writer was Gazmend Kapllani, an Albanian-Greek immigrant who was talking about how growing up under a totalitarian regime affected his worldview and his career as a writer. He speaks at length about the importance of media, television and radio shows that could be pulled from the airwaves with hidden aerials. There was always a double aerial system; there was the antenna on the roof that the authorities could see and restrict, and then there was the hidden aerial, channeling truth in from the outside world. The gaze of the regime promoted the development of such duality, even in one's own identity. There was a face that you showed in the public spaces, your face for the regime to know and accept you by, and another self that challenged the regime in private, struggling to escape "the lie of the regime, which sometimes looks very much like the eye of the cyclops Polyphemus." (found at 23 min 5 sec in the cited interview) 

That reference struck me. I had listened to Homer's The Odyssey just the past semester as an audiobook read by Sir Ian McKellen, so I was more familiar with Polyphemus than I might have been otherwise. This is the gist of the story, for those of you unfamiliar with it:

Polyphemus is a cyclops who traps Odysseus and his men inside an island cave with a herd of sheep and proceeds to eat them two at a time. Odysseus tricks the monster into drinking wine later that evening, and when prompted to give his name he tells the cyclops that his name is "Nobody", thus creating for himself a dual identity. Tired and drunk, Polyphemus falls asleep. Odysseus is ready with a fire-hardened wooden spear that he spent the day preparing, and he leaps upon the sleeping giant and plunges the spear into its single eye. Polyphemus cries out for help, drawing his kinsmen to the scene and trying to persuade them that "Nobody" has grievously harmed him. They take this for a joke, and leave. In the morning, the blind cyclops opens the cave to let his herd out to graze, feeling the hide of each animal that passes to ensure that his prisoners are not escaping. Odysseus and his remaining men, however, have tied themselves to the undersides of the sheep and thus escape unnoticed...until Odysseus calls out from their departing boat to taunt the giant and reveal his true name.
As I listened to Gazmend Kapllani talk about oppressive regimes in terms of the Polyphemus, everything seemed to fall into place. I began to think of superheroes in terms of Odysseus. Take Batman as an example. When he first appeared around Gotham City, people scoffed at the description of "a guy dressed like a bat" or "dressed like Dracula", an incredulity shared by the other cyclops listening to Polyphemus' claims that "Nobody did this to me." A second identity was created to guard against the gaze of the authority, and then a physical disguise. Odysseus hides under a sheep the way Bruce Wayne dons the cowl. In that guise, the oppressed can pass under the probing inspection of the regime. The individual has split; a duality has been born while a perceived singularity is maintained, and thus the authority's balance is disrupted. The status is no longer quo.

Duality of identity is generally identified as a symptom of Postmodernism. Ask a student of critical studies to identify whether or not a given text is postmodern, and dual identity is one of the first identifiers they will look for. It is a theme that serves as the very foundation of the superhero genre, and has for some 75 years since the creation of Superman and his alter-ego, Clark Kent, in 1938. Always (with a few exceptions) the hero wears a mask and a suit that conceal and change their outward appearance. Sometimes the concealment is so great that another person altogether can use the disguise and pass as the hero (example: Tony Stark is Iron Man; but his friend Jim Rhodes wearing the Iron Man armour is still Iron Man to those who encounter him without the knowledge that it isn't Tony in the suit). Another common theme is the idea that this public heroic identity is a shield. If an enemy were to learn that Spider-man was actually Peter Parker, then Peter's personal life would become exposed to that villain. That personal life is every hero's weak point; destroy his family, his loved ones, his homes, and you effectively kill the hero from the inside. The mask is all that stands between the destructive powers of the outside world and the delicate internals of the individual's life. 

Oppression...or Liberation?

Let's return to Katherine Bullock. She writes in her book that she finds covering, even in a lesser degree like the hijab (headscarf), liberating. Digging into some of the history of veiling and the East-West clash over the matter, she writes this:

"Colonialists, missionaries, Orientalists and secular feminists attacked veiling as a backward tradition, but it is now known that veiling became more widespread in the Middle East after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, and increased during European occupation of the Middle East (1830–1956). Cole writes:
In an Orientalist corollary to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the intrusive presence of Westerners appears to have helped produce the phenomenon [widespread veiling] that they observed. In short, thenotion of tradition as a stable foil for the dynamism of modernity has been demolished, as the diversity and volatility of premodern extra-European societies has come to be better appreciated." (pg. XXI)
I find this fascinating. Every time the Western imposes itself as an authority figure over the Middle-East, people start covering their faces. They start putting up shields between their true lives and the regime. They suit up, and create alter-egos. And this, perhaps, is why we are so inherently nervous when we see Islamic people walking about in what we have decided are our countries with their faces obscured. We understand what it means to put on the mask, because we understand superheroes (perhaps now more than ever, thanks to Hollywood's activity in the last decade). This idea exists in our popular culture, and it has been there since the battle of Troy, so at some primal level we think we know why these people want to be veiled. It disturbs us, then (and I'll not pretend to be making absolute statements here, this is all sweeping hypothesis), because we know a) what masked people who move under the radar can do within a society, and b) because it means we are the regime.

I think that terrifies us a little, and maybe it makes us hate ourselves for what our culture at large has been responsible for through history. Either way, it remains something we must come to terms with. Either we let Islamic people among us wear their veils until they decide, on their own terms, that the coverings are no longer necessary, or we forcibly strip them of their cultural armour and force them out into the open, exposing them to all the inherent oppression of the Western world. At that point, we will know for certain what role we play.

We will have become Polyphemus.

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