Federical Valabrega’s photo essay on the lives of Orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn, New York that appeared on Time Lightbox reminded me of something I had read in Carol A. Brekenridge and Peter van der Veer’s excellent book Orientalism And The Post Colonial Predicament.
It was an essay by Jayant Lele, titled Orientalism And The Social Sciences where he critiques Western social scientist’s inability for self-reflection, and their unwillingness to see the habits and practices of the cultures and communities they study, as being similar or mirrored in their own. I quote from his essay (see page 56):
…coming ‘to grips with a social reality that is systematically different from one’s own, and to explain its specific logic and momentum are most difficult conceptual and pedagogical tasks.’ I have argued in these pages that the intellectual opportunism preached and practiced by the new politics of modernisation, its refusal to confront and engage structural analysis, and its incapacity for critical self-reflection have effectively sealed it from being able to fulfil its task. This is true of the affirmative social science in general, both at home and on the periphery. Furthermore, this has been the pattern of almost all the western encounters with the Orient, since Napoleon. Despite the absence of self-reflexivity, through singular affirmation of one’s own condition as positive and worth of emulation, these encounters did produce ‘correct’ knowledge that allows conquerors to subjugate and control people politically and to exploit them economically. The incorporation of this correct knowledge into a broader self-affirmative framework of interpretation has had a different task: to insulate one’s own worldview from a possible critique through an open exposure to other ways of making sense.
In particular I was reminded of Lele’s arguments because of the text that was offered about Valabrega’s work, and her own explanations about what she thought of the traditions and social practices of the women she spent time with. What struck me was her willingness to offer these women tremendous individuality, and particularly, complete individual agency. I quote the photographer:
I don’t find these women to be fanatics. They are open-minded, even though they are attached to religion. For a lot of people, there’s something wrong with a woman who shaves her head as a sign of respect for her husband, but if you talk to that woman and photograph her in her everyday life, you realise that it’s a choice she’s made. You see her beauty come out.
Beauty. Humility. Choice.
Here, amongst a religious, fundamentalist, conservative group of Jews, the Western photographer finds humility when she observes behaviours and habits that would – had these women been Middle Eastern or Muslims, be considered ‘repressed’, ‘oppressed’, ‘violated’ and ‘in need of being saved’ from their hideous Arab / Muslim men. How generous and fabulously human are the photographer’s sentiments, though reserved only for the Jewish conservatives and fundamentalists. Suddenly, if you are Jewish, the head coverings, domesticity, arranged marriages, restrictions of movement etc. become ‘choices’….a generous statement never allowed to a woman if she is cursed with being Muslim, or from the Middle East / Arab and Muslim worlds. As we witnessed in the hideous scenes of burly French police-goons manhandling a woman in France in order to ‘liberate’ her from her obvious oppression (see my earlier post: The Sorrows Of Europe Or How The Burqa Helps Hide Europe’s Fraying Social And Economic Realities)
Who was she? What is her story? Where is her voice? Her individual right to choose and live as she prefers and wants? None of that was allowed to her because, obviously, being Muslim, she does not have such agency, but also isn’t deserving of such consideration. The latter would imply our collusion in the oppression of women and their degradation. As I argued in my post:
It takes as much prejudice, misogyny, repression and brutality to compel a woman to take off a burqa as it does to compel her to put one on. Both acts deny her as an agent, an individual, a mind, a person, and a sovereign member of a family and a society with the capacity to speak, think, act and change. If you are not convinced, look closely at this scene, and tell me you do not realise where we have arrived. Tell me that this moment is not truly one of shame and lament.
The generosity and humanism with which the photographer, and Time Lightbox, surround the story about about a very conservative, closed, insular, patriarchical and quite often misogynist community – this is the same community that 1) will not allow women the same right of religious practice, or 2) or be seen sitting anywhere near them or force them to the back of the bus, or 3) teargas them for not walking on the opposite sidewalk, or posting notices to that effect and more, is quite impressive. It suggests a willing to tolerate difference, and to see past our own prejudices and attempt to investigate without judgement the lives of those who chose to live very differently. Fair enough.
I will also point out that none of these ‘repressions’ or ‘choices’ as the photographer prefers to label them, of course go uncontested and unchallenged within these communities, whether in Israel or elsewhere. There are many women and men, even from the Orthodox communities, that are fighting against such crass segregation and violence against women. But regardless, it remains a deeply segregating and discriminatory community, but one that is always treated with respect and near deference (see Carolyn Drake’s work on the Hasidim, for example). There is absolutely no critical eye, no judgement, no denigration, no mocking, no accusatory language, no suggestions of male domination and women’s oppression through these works. There is in fact an eye that venerates, and humanises what can very easily be considered seriously problematic. And in fact would be if the photographers were asked to document a Muslim community with similar practices. Then, the prejudices, the judgements, the accusations, the denigration and outrage are out in full force.
My intention in pointing out these facts isn’t to denigrate, but to argue that when we look at societies, we have to see that they are always something becoming, with contestations, contradictions, cracks and transformations in the works. There are conservatives, and there are others. There are debates and struggles, there are challenges and attempts at preservations. None are static, or fixed, or rigid or robotic. That this religious community – one that is deeply complicit in Israeli war crimes and military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and also practices an overt sexism and gender segregation, can still be documented with a generous, humane and considered way by this photographer, and by the publishing editor at Time Lightbox, is a choice.
Just as it is a choice that it would not be a form, or posture, adopted when it comes to speaking about Muslims, or Muslim women. The now near monolithic narrative of women’s oppression under Muslim male misogyny has become a justification for war, invasions, continued occupations and humiliation, and Time Magazine has frequently been at the forefront with its much ballyhooed support of ‘women’s rights’ and their ‘liberation’ a pretext to supporting more war and more deaths in those blighted parts of the world. And so back to Lele, and as it applies to journalism, journalists and editors from the West:
…the intellectual opportunism preached and practiced by the new politics of modernisation, its refusal to confront and engage structural analysis, and its incapacity for critical self-reflection have effectively sealed it from being able to fulfil its task.
The American discourse about Islam, Muslims and the Arab world has deteriorated to overt and obvious racism, one that pervades the perspectives and utterances of our politicians, academics, pundits and journalists. But stories such as Valabrega’s reminds us that these prejudices are chosen, and rarely fact based. That the same acts that can be celebrated as choices, or expressions of cultural continuity, can also been judged and condemned as repression and acts on with violence. That an entire people have been reduced to caricatures, and that these caricatures are today the basis of policing, political and military policy is dismaying to face. That works such as Valabrega’s can be unapologetically published by the same publication that can unapologetically dehumanize and denigrate another people is also dismaying to confront. The realisation that these bigotries are chosen, that these mis-representations, and dehumanising depictions of Muslims are intentional, simply leaves on bereft.