> Les numéros > Scumgrrrls N° 9 - Printemps / Spring 2006

The illusive Freedom of Covering up

It seems as if we have come quite a long way to break out and beyond absolute and essentialist notions of our bodies – away from perceiving our bodies as constituting a fixed and biologically chained reality. Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, and many others have been pioneers in opening spaces to think about embodiment and gender in totally new ways. Spaces to imagine our gendered bodily realities more fluently, imagining the hybrid bodies, the in-betweens, and the bodies beyond gender ? At the same time most persons do live and navigate in a bodily reality – and rather than rejecting the ‘body’, one of the most exciting projects might be to explore how we are embodied as subjects, as beings… Our experience of our body being embedded in layers of social, political, economic, and cultural contexts – time and place. Acknowledging that the relationship to our embodiment is different, changing through time and place for most us…not a fixed reality that should dictate how we are in the world...

In Western media the emancipation of the “Afghan woman” after the fall of the Taliban was often exemplified by images of timid women gazing from under their burqas. Many photo journalists have reproduced the image of one unveiled woman on a sea of blue burqas. The burqa or any other form of fully covering, body-length veils remain popular in some parts of Afghanistan, but all over Afghanistan headscarves and clothing that covers breasts, hips and behinds remains “natural” or “necessary”. While much can be (and has been) said about headscarves and “modest” dressing, it can be amazingly liberating to find oneself in a culture where advertisements and popular culture does not reproduce images of (almost) naked and (always) ready-for-sex women. Having grown up in Western Europe, I have grown up surrounded by images of women. It is impossible to avoid images of women and especially women that fit the current beauty ideal when walking the streets, when opening a newspaper or when watching TV. The images of the perfect women of advertisements and popular culture affect women (and men). We have all at some point (or continually) battled with a bad self-image because we perceive ourselves too fat, too thin, too short, too tall, too small breasts, too much behind etc. While the power of images wears off over the years, how we look and how we think we are perceived because of our looks (style) remains important and an integral part of the lives of European, urban women.

Arriving in Afghanistan in autumn 2004, I met a culture where there are no images of naked or half-naked women – there were in fact almost no images of women. The sudden lack of images with which I could compare myself was liberating. I had thought the dress codes of Afghan culture would annoy me, that wearing a headscarf and using baggy clothes to cover breasts and behind would annoy me – but I was surprised to notice that having the contours of my body disappear under “modest” clothing made me feel good about myself. Covering up and being in a culture where bodily details did not seem to matter was liberating. (The headscarf is a different issue ; it is hot, gives me neck pains and keeps falling off). As we are all prisoners of our own culture, few Afghan women would probably agree with my assessment of the freedom of baggy clothes and few images of the “perfect woman”, although they do tend to feel sorry for me – as I lack the “privilege of protection”. The importance of beauty and the power of seduction is as important (if not more important) in Afghanistan as it is in my parts of Europe – as getting a man and keeping one’s husband interested is crucial for a tolerable life for most Afghan women. I have also had to notice how the style of wedding dresses – those pink, green, violet, red, sparkling and gold “princess dresses” – hanging in the windows of Kabul “wedding shops” (Yes, it is an industry !) has changed : In 2004 all dresses had sleeves, the spring collection 2006 seems to have brought with it daring, sleeveless dresses ! Nevertheless, for me the change of culture (which of course is a privilege in itself) has made me realize to what extent we are controlled by images and how much valuable time I have used feeling bad about myself and trying to make myself look like I think I have to look.


Voilàun petit temps que nous ne percevons plus nos corps comme une réalité fixe et biologiquement déterminée, loin de notions essentialistes et absolues du corps. Judith Butler, Donna Haraway et tant d’autres pionnières ont créé des espaces pour penser le corps et le genre d’une manière complètement nouvelle, des espaces pour imaginer nos réalités corporelles genrées d’une manière moins rigide, incluant les corps hybrides, les entre-deux et les corps au-delàdu genre ? En même temps, la plupart n’hésitent pas àvivre leur réalité corporelle et às’y mouvoir. Plutôt que de rejeter le ’corps’, ne serait-il pas plus excitant d’explorer comment nous sommes faites de corps, en tant que sujets, qu’êtres… Notre expérience de notre corps reste entrelacée dans des couches multiples de contextes sociaux, politiques, économiques et culturels – dans le temps et dans l’espace. Reconnaître que la relation au corps est différente, changeante dans le temps et l’espace pour la plupart d’entre nous, loin d’une réalité fixée qui dicterait comment nous sommes dans le monde….


We hebben de absolute en essentialistische visie op onze lichamen al een eind achter ons kunnen laten - we zien ze niet langer als een onveranderlijke, biologisch vastgelegde realiteit. Judith Butler, Donna Haraway en nog heel wat andere pioniers hebben ruimten gecreë erd waar we op een heel nieuwe manier konden gaan nadenken over belichaming en gender. Ruimten waar we onze lichamelijke realiteit meer vloeiend kunnen zien, waar we ons hybride lichamen kunnen uitdenken, inbetweens, of zelfs lichamen die gender overstijgen ? Tegelijk zullen de meeste mensen toch wel in een lichamelijke realiteit leven en bewegen - en in plaats van het ’lichaam’ te verwerpen kan het allicht heel wat spannender zijn na te gaan hoe we precies bestaan als belichaamde persoon, als wezen. Onze ervaring van ons lichaam, ingebed in lagen van sociale, politieke, economische en culturele contexten tijd en plaats. Erkennen dat onze verhouding tot onze belichaming verschilt en verandert naargelang tijd en plaats en geen vaste werkelijkheid is, die ons kan opleggen hoe we in de wereld staan.