I question my initial read of the figures as cis-women because I wonder what social constructions dictate this gendered read of them: the veil. I wonder how this piece of clothing became the statement for their identities. Judith Butler’s work around sex as a social construction becomes an interpretive tool for understanding this construction.[1] The social construction of sex comes from “not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulation norms materialize ‘sex’ and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms.”[2] Therefore, I realized the impact that both the patriarchal social construction and the Orientalist portrayals of the veil have had on the veil’s interpretation and the construction of sex/gender identities. The Western construction of gender and the veil have forcibly regulated into a symbol of identity. Conversely, this symbol is now being challenged by notions of homonationalism, which seek to liberate primitive gender constructions.

Going back to the subjects of the figures, I queerly began to wonder about their gender identities and sexualities. This thought might appear as titillating Orientalist erotic voyeurism but instead draws from queer experiences that push one to question the interpretations, symbols, and constructions before you. Essaydi understands the power of these female spaces and their sexual appeal:

Wherever a woman is, when a man enters that space, he established it as a public. This separation of public and private is testament to the power of women’s sexuality. It also helps explain how Arab women become sexualized under a Western gaze. In a Sense, what the West did was to dissolve the boundaries between public and private.[3]

The artist—mixer of these symbols—becomes an intrinsic part of this construction as she constructs and documents these scenes with women as opposed to a (orientalist) male behind the lens. She recognizes the power and gender politics of space and architecture. This relationship between artist and subject also influences our understanding and relationship to the work. My reflective reaction began through the initial triggering symbol the Veil has become in the West in a post 9/11 world, which remains anxiously fearful and fixated on the turban and veil as embodiments of terrorism.

While most conversations concerning the Veil center around discussions of women’s liberation, I feel compelled to offer a queerer interpretation of the Veil in order to expand its horizons in regards to geo-social politics, gender, and sexual potentials. Puar outlines how the veil has “generated Orientalist fantasies of female submission, emerged as nodal fixation, been established as a standard topic of discussion in women studies curriculum, and become an easy marker of an other.”[4] Consequently, it is important to actually visualize this potent symbol because face coverings come in a variety of forms;[5] they come in an assortment of styles like the Hijab, Niqab, Burka, Chador, and Khimar.[6] Even defining the categories of face coverings is debated, as there are variations in styles. They all vary in their mode and quantity of coverings. Consequently, discussions of the veil require an understanding of the actual fashion and its variations, contexts, and styles. Their place is important in relationship to our construction of sex and its gender expression and performance. While it may be construed as clothing just for women, it is used by a variety of sexes for various purposes.

This article of fashion is not just restricted or utilized by religious and conservative women. The veil can easily be used as cover for a variety of gender bending experiments. Essaydi’s second home country of Saudi Arabia produces a variety of stories around women and men cross-dressing and experimenting with their gender expressions for a variety of political and personal reasons.[7] Even Westerners like Michael Jackson evoke the veil’s gender and privacy symbols as exemplified when Jackson grabbed international attention after he was caught behind a veil during a trip to Bahrain.[8] He claimed to be using it to provide personal privacy within society where he had lost privacy as a result of fame. The queer icon Lady Gaga furthered perpetuated the sexual titillation of the veil through her song Burqa (later renamed Aura), which led to protests by many Muslim women due to the titillating eroticism of the covered body.[9] These Western uses and appropriations highlight the Orientalist and Homonational constructs around the Veil as they attempt to colonize its construction for their own purpose, while also advocate for its abolition. While the West remains fascinated on the sexual potential of the Veil, there are varying social differences around its use across the Muslim world.

Essaydi places her photographs in the North Africa geographic region of Morocco, whose borders contain a variety of ethnic groups like Arabs, Berbers, Jews, and French.[10] There are no specific laws in Morocco requiring women to Veil themselves but there is still strong social pressures.[11] Western North Africa is a region where veiling by both sexes has a long tradition. The Berbers of Morocco are primarily identified as the Imazighen.[12] To the south of Morocco, in the Sahara region, another Berber group, the Tuareg exist.[13]  The Tuareg are known for a flip in the gendered fashion of the face coverings because the men will veil their faces instead of the women.[14] They also do not restrict women to private or domestic spaces and allow some forms of economic independencies. Shah Mahmoud Hanifi outlined in the exhibition’s catalogue the geopolitical constructions of the Arab-Berber identity. To delve deeper into this identity reveals further complications that require further (de)classifications between the Tuareg and Imazighen who both have North African Berber roots.

Interestingly Essaydi’s work has slowly moved away from the veil as featured in the Converging Territories series to the more provocatively revealing outfits of the Bullet series. The viewer is not left with as many questions about the figures identities. Yet, I would push viewers to challenge their own preconceived notions around the gender presentations of the characters in order to not replicate the generally oppressive and binary gender system.

Morocco is considered a more liberal nation within the greater Arab world, in part because there is a recognized historical tolerance of gay culture.  The construction and perception of Morocco as a conservative place—instilled by Arabic/Muslim geo-politics—is pierced by its place in gay tourism and history. It was a destination for many queer figures like Kenneth Williams, William Burroughs, Joe Orton, and Paul Bowles.[15] Morocco actually popped into queer news during the 1960s when French singer Coccinelle went to Casablanca for a sex-change surgery in 1958.[16] The country might still have strict laws like Article 489 of the Penal code, which bans homosexuality[17]; however, there are varying degrees of tolerance as cities like Marrakesh—home to Essaydi—are home to numerous gays bars and frequently appear on gay travel guides.[18] These queer spaces are not just limited to Western expatriates but are also utilized by queer Moroccans. The group KifKif is Morocco’s largest queer organization. Interestingly, KifKif comes from the Arabic expression for “whatever.” As opposed to Western ideals of LGBT equality that are rooted in rights like Marriage, KifKif focuses on more transformational objects:

KifKif has united us against the stigmatization and discrimination we face in our society due to our sexual orientation and gender identity. We try to reconcile our sexual identity with the values of our civilization and the cultural identity of our country.

We work through the group to help and boost self-esteem, inform and create a safe environment allowing the participation and interaction between Moroccan citizens who happen to have a different sexuality.[19]

An overview of KifKif’s website reveals no mention of same-sex marriage, military participation, adoption, or workplace protections. These are the foundational ideas of liberation to Western LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. Yet anxiety, still persists around KifKif and other western gay organizations as they give credence to Islamist’s arguments about homosexuality as a foreign influence and they reduce homosexual numbers because “once homosexuality is defined and dragged out of the closet in terms no body wants to have anything to do with it;”[20] conversely, through Homonationalism, Western queers will then point to resulting homophobic backlashes of arrests, beatings, and legislation to get more publicity and funding even as the hysteria rises and consequently pushes many further away from their queer desires and activities.[21]

Essaydi’s figures are sexually evocative, especially in her Harem series as harems were originally designed for the lustful pleasure of men. She inverts these pleasures through the female communal construction of the photographic space:

Living together for several weeks, they discus and later rehearse for the pictures. To write on their bodies and on the surfaces that surround them…together they create an exclusive real of women, in which even the artist’ gaze is female and familiar.[22]

Essyadi converts this harem space, which are designed as spaces for the sexual pleasure of men, into a female centered and constructed space. This metamorphosis parlays into Essaydi’s feminist politics that focus on gradual transformation along the practices of Third Wave feminism: We Do not manifest in the streets. We are not militant in that sense. The change is very quiet. We work in a quieter manner suited to tradition and mores. I think this is the best way to be heard and to really make the change.”[23]

I wonder about the possible interpersonal pleasures available to women in these women ‘only’ spaces like those of the domestic realm. As a queer, I know that gender segregated space can actually provide cover to queer feelings, actions, and relationships. These gender specific spaces have a history as places for the concealment of same-sex desire, relations, and love. In Victorian times, these same-sex relationships were referred to as Boston Marriages refer to a relationship between women who set up a household together independent of men…and were typically characterized by affection and intimacy, though the extent to which partners engage in sexual activity is unclear. [24]

Coincidently, Essaydi spends/spent time in Boston as she completed an MFA at School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and continues to print her work in the city’s suburbs. The geographic site makes a serendipitous connection to place, which is highly accented in Essaydi’s practice, artistic story, and life. These Boston Married women provided a system and relationship for women—hetero and homo—to formulate self-supporting relationships without men. [25]  Essaydi speaks to the power of female spaces, bonds, and gatherings:

The process itself, the time I spent with these women, is very important.  That is what determines what’s in my work: the texture, the gestures.  We get together in those spaces and we are a group of women.  We talk a lot not necessarily about my work…So we get together and we talk and I write and I respond to them.   We spend sometimes days or weeks together.[26]

I begin to wonder about the arrangements in Essaydi’s photos and wonder why I assumed they might be connected romantically and supported men. Furthermore, I begin to further see these installations and performances as a strong feminist statement that draws from Third Wave Feminist ideals.

The resolute faces—when not covered—of Essaydi’s figures display not remorse, fear, or disdain but the power, pleasure, and dominance that are especially evocative in the Bullet Series. These women use their sexuality and position for power, survival, and personal pleasure. At first, they are appealing but as a commenter notes: “This enticingly exotic subject of Western fantasy may well be a corpse.”[27] Their faces are not reminiscent of the fearful or bored faces in the Orientalist figures by those like Courbet but of the powerful composed faces in the work of post-colonial artists like Shirin Neshat. The images’ large size only furthers the sense of power these women exude as they overwhelm the orientalist fantasy. A hallmark scene by Orientalists of women was in a harem, which dehumanization them as it equates them to just sources of pleasure. Yet Essaydi’s women are powerful yet provocative women who might still titillate but on their own accord, place, and reasons. The use of gun shells in the Bullet series conveys this sense of power.

With all of these thoughts racing through my head—orientalism, sexuality, voyeurism, Homonationalism, geography, gender identities—I am left wondering “for what purposes”[28] does Essaydi construct her work. I follow the advice from Essaydi in that “the viewer completes them and that’s part of the dialogue.” [29] She is tackling Orientalism through deconstruction and subversion but she is not totally deconstructing it or abolishing it. Instead, she seems to interrogate Orientalism through seemingly playful and austere forms. The viewer is left with a hollow Orientalist construction; yet, the work also confuses and probes other hegemonic systems like heterosexuality and patriarchy. The work reveals the social construction of these systems and like her calligraphy blurs them so that we realize they are readable yet also social gibberish in an ongoing struggle for life. We realize that gender and sexuality become an implicate part of Orientalism when coupled with the notion of Homonationalism. Companionship and personal veracity become the languages within Essaydi’s spaces with their motives remaining unspoken because maybe we just do not need to know.

[1] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter. 1993. 1-27

[2] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter. 1993. 1-2

[3] Samia Errazzouki, Artist Depictions of Arab Women, Jadaliyya, May 2012 http://lallaessaydi.com/news/PDFS/Interviews/Jadaliyya_Interview.pdf

[4]Jasbir Puar. Terrorist Assemblages. 181

[5]Muslim Veils, BBC Online, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/05/europe_muslim_veils/html/1.stm

[6] Darshna Soni, From Hijab to Burqa, Oct 2013: http://www.channel4.com/news/from-hijab-to-burqa-a-guide-to-muslim-headwear

[7] Tracy Clark-Flory, Cross-dressing in Saudi Arabia?  Salon, May 2008 http://www.salon.com/2008/05/14/saudi_love/

[8] Hasan Jamali, Michael Jackson Spotted in Robe & Veil, Associated Press, Jan 2006


[9] Umema Aimen, Washington Post, Aug 2013 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2013/08/19/dear-lady-gaga-burqa-sends-the-wrong-message/

[10] Morocco, CIA World Factbook, 2014 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mo.html

[11] Richard Hamilton, BBC News, Oct 2006: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5413808.stm

[12] Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, Arabs, Berbers, Islam, and Orientalism in Morocco:

Historically and Culturally Contextualizing the work of lalla essaydi, Exhibition Catalogue, 2014

[13] Thomas K. Seligman & Kristyne Loughran, Art of the Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World, Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, 2007-2008,  http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/tuareg/who.html

[14] Custom, Meet the Tuareg, PBS http://www.pbs.org/wnet/africa/explore/sahara/sahara_people_customs_lo.html

[15] Travel Reports: Morocco, Gay Times, http://www.gaytimes.co.uk/HotSpots/Travel-sectionid-1-articleid-25-page-0.html

[16] Coccinelle, Queer Music Heritage, Nov 2002http://queermusicheritage.us/nov2002e.html

[17] Morocco: Overturn Verdicts for Homosexual Conduct, Human Rights Watch, December 2007: http://www.hrw.org/news/2007/12/11/morocco-overturn-verdicts-homosexual-conduct

[18] Gay Scene, Merrakesh: Morocco, GayTravel.com: http://www.gaytravel.com/gay-guides/marrakesh/gay-scene

[19] KifKif http://fr.kifkifgroup.org/p/about-us.html

[20] Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East. John R. Bradley. Pg 250 Macmillan, 2010.

[21] John R. Bradle. Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East. 250

[22] David Ehreinpris, Exhibition Catalogue, Pg 60

[23] Maureen Shanahan, “A Conversation with Lalla Essaydi,” The Photography of Lalla Essaydi: Critiquing and Contextualizing Orientalism, 2014. JMU. Pg 19

[24] Gina Misiroglu, American Countercultures Volume 1, 2009, pg 103

[25] Ami Angelowicz, A Brief History of Boston Marriages, The Frisky, Sep 2012: http://www.thefrisky.com/2012-09-12/a-brief-history-of-boston-marriages/

[26] Catlaogue’s Interview with M. G. Shanahan

[27] GP. Visions of the Islamic World, The Economist, 2013 http://lallaessaydi.com/news/PDFS/Reviews/The_Economist_Visions_of_the_Islamic_world.pdf

[28] Natalie Kouri-Towe, Homonatioalism, No More Potlucks, http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/trending-homonationalism/, 2012

[29] Ming Lin, Writing Women: Interview with Lalla Essaydi, Mar 2013: http://lallaessaydi.com/news/PDFS/Interviews/ArtAsiaPacific.pdf