Selima Chowdhury :
In Bangladesh, women practice veiling or purdah for a variety of reasons including religious belief, social or cultural practice and security. The veil is also considered a symbol of family status, and some women even use it as a fashion accessory. When they step out of their homes, women in Bangladesh are usually veiled from head to toe to protect their modesty and to avoid the male gaze. Because of the practice of veiling, Bangladeshi women are generally prohibited from going into public spaces and are mostly restricted to the home. The use of purdah represents not only the ideology of Islam but also strongly reflects the country’s patriarchal structure. Some women choose to wear a veil because it gives them a form of freedom to express themselves beneath their veils within the custom of their country; others are forced to veil themselves by their families and communities. In the colonial discourse, veiled women from the Muslim societies of the east were perceived as subservient, backward, inferior and oppressed, yet at the same time they evoked erotic fantasies in the eyes of western males. The representation of the veiled woman dominates the Middle Eastern art scene, and women artists from Bangladesh such as Preema Nazia Andaleeb, Atia Islam Anne and Tayeba Begum Lipi have also represented veiled women in their own distinct ways. In my research paper, I argue that the portrayal of the veiled women by these women artists adheres to the perception of veiled women through European colonial eyes, yet at the same time challenges the colonial gaze.
Veiled women and the iconic image of the Mona Lisa, one of the most famous paintings of western art, play a significant role in Atia Islam Anne’s series on Women and Society. In Veiled-1 (Fig 1), she depicts a veiled woman with a blank white face holding an injected apple while there is an image of the veiled Mona Lisa with her mouth open about to eat the apple on the canvas. The injected apple has been metaphorically interpreted as signifying the patriarchal imposition of the veil and the depiction of Mona Lisa about to devour the apple reflects the acceptance of veiling in public by western societies, thus undermining European colonialism.
In Veiled-2 (Fig 2), the face of the Mona Lisa is obscured by a veil making the veil appear as a powerful signifier of the power of Eastover West. The injected hand of Mona Lisa reflects the pressure of social environmental factors and female oppression, rendering the image of the west as visually weak. However in Veiled-3 (Fig 3) the image of the veiled women wearing high heels has been sexualized to conform to European colonialism. In the background there is an image of blonde women and the Mona Lisa, which together represent the colonial gaze. The principal aim of the Muslim veil is to cover parts of the body that are considered private, but Atia highlights women's breasts and the shape of their hands and legs by using grey to offset the black colour of the veil in the same way as the female body was enhanced by the draping of textiles in ancient Greek sculpture. The high heels worn by the women - as well as the other shoes lying on the floor - have been made conspicuous by the use of vibrant reds, greens, blues and yellows. High heeled shoes are associated with a form of fetishism in which sexual arousal is derived from a nonliving object. In Freudian terms, the shoe symbolically represents female genitalia and the foot represents a male phallus, so when the foot enters the shoe it symbolises the sexual union of man and woman. An anonymous hand offering a flower to the veiled women reinforces the idea that she has been rendered desirable for the male gaze.
In Preema Nazia Andaleeb’s Cosmopolitan, (Fig 4) western women are juxtaposed with veiled women. Women in western attire represent the western colonial powers, while veiled women signify the Islamic societies that have been colonized by western states. Like Atia, Preema has also made the women desirable for the colonial gaze by projecting a glamorous face with full makeup. One of the veiled women is holding a bright red rose, representing an expression of romantic love. However, the veiled women also challenge the colonial gaze through their own powerful gaze; their wide-open almond shaped eyes are reminiscent of the Egyptian sun god Ra. In ancient Egyptian mythology the eye of Ra is believed to be a force that is used to subdue and control enemies. The eyes of the veiled women can thus be interpreted as a direct threat to the western colonial powers.
In Toys watching Toys, (Fig 5), an installation by Tayeba Begum Lipi, four life size mannequin of veiled women are seated turning themselves away from the viewer towards Lipi's self-portraits. The women are wearing Saudi-style full-length satin burkas. Like high heels, satin is also associated with western fetishism, in which people are aroused by the look and feel of satin fabrics or garments. The softness, shine and smooth texture of the satin veil invites the western male to take sexual pleasure. Tayeba Begum appears in the painting herself, wearing makeup and with her hair down, uncovering the woman behind the veil to the penetrating gaze of the colonizer. According to historian Rachel Bailey Jones, “the power to demand sight of other bodies” and to unveil women was a strong fetish in the eyes of male colonial powers. However, like Preema, Lipi also challenges the colonizer by reflecting that colonial gaze.
The appearance of eyes in art signifies belief in the inner power of the personality, so Lipi’s powerful gaze undermines the domination of the colonizer.
Within the representation of European colonialism, the veil conjures up images of both eroticism and oppression. Preema Nazia Andaleeb, Atia lslam Anne and Tayeba Begum Lipi imbue veiled women with a sensual appeal in their interpretations and the representation of the veil in their respective work. They make veiled women desirable to the western colonial gaze. Atia and Lipi use fetish objects like high heels and satin to attract and excite the white male gaze, while Preema portrays a glamorous look by using makeup. By bending traditions of conformity, all three artists' work poses a threat to colonial powers. Atia’s depiction of the Mona Lisa shrouded in a veil presents a weak image of the imperial powers, emphasizing the superiority of the east, while the women in Preema and Lipi’s work threatens the gaze of their colonizer through their bold and fearless appearance. n
(Selima Chowdhury, Lecturer, General Education Department, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh)