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Thursday, January 7, 2016

"I'll choose what to wear, thanks"

These are the opening remarks I prepared for the opening of Catherine Lambert's exhibition of paintings, featuring iconic women wearing niqab. Present were federal Senator Nick Xenophon and the Muslim Women's Association of SA. (You'll have to read to the end of the post to see samples of the work.)

I’m deeply honoured and flattered to be asked by THE one and only Catherine Lambert to open her first ever exhibition of a series of paintings I first saw a couple years ago in the early stages of development. I liked them immediately and immensely: they are technically accomplished, crisp and draughtsman-like in their rendering, gorgeously, lusciously colourful, and boldly composed. But moreover because I found them provocative and very, very timely in touching a couple of intersecting subjects that lie like exposed nerves in the tissue of our culture: gender equality and Islam. Touching either of these is like touching a live wire—it doesn’t take long before someone’s jumping up and down with their hair on fire.

I admired Catherine’s brave and accomplished work so much that when I was asked as her church Minister to open the show, I very nearly declined. Because when I thought about speaking about it to room full of the sort of people likely to be here, all I could think was “Yes, I’m sure these people will be just dying to know what another white, western male clergyman thinks of art which intersects feminism and Islam. I’m not a Muslim, and I’m not a woman. What right have I speak about such things?

But thankfully your identity isn’t your destiny and further reflection helped me see that the audience these paintings seem to seek to engage (nay, confront) are neither women, Muslims, nor Muslim women, but people for whom the in-your-face contrast in the paintings might just jolt into something like a new way of considering these two very live issues of our times, issues that are poised to evolve and must evolve for all our sakes. For all our technological advancement, we are still in the dark ages about gender equality and about freedom of religious expression in pluralist, multicultural societies.


An anecdote to illustrate: I recently had to endure one of those leafy neighbourhood dinner parties so saturated by grog and privilege that your antennae are on high-alert for the moment anyone blithely strolls into the minefield of politics or religion (this is an occupational hazard of ministry). One gentlemen was in high dudgeon about how Islam oppresses women. He was morally certain that any woman wearing hijabi (burqa, niqab, etc.) was necessarily coerced into wearing it, therefore cruelly oppressed, by being denied their fundamental right to choose what to wear. Allowing that this was not some half-baked brain-belch from a mono-diet of the Murdoch press and talk-back radio, I helpfully, I thought, pointed out things like World Hijab Day--the movement within Islam to frame the wearing of hijabi as an expression not of absence of choice, but of a particular kind of choice—a choice for modesty, piety, and their inherent worth as children of the God of their understanding, rather than any apparent worth as objects of the male gaze. That true freedom might just have more to do with expressing your essential being than with conforming to current western notions of female beauty.

Of course, I failed to sway him, but my neighbour’s view is far from aberrant, and is supported by more sober and thoughtful folk. The ex-Muslim feminist writer Arshia Malik, writing in theNation says that when Muslim women claim wearing hijabi is about the freedom of choice of clothing, they deny the freedom to those women who would prefer to reject it as a sign of oppression. The "freedom to wear what I choose" argument, she says, is in fact sustaining the patriarchal order of Muslim society.

Anyone with any experience in student politics will recognize this as the old ‘false consciousness’ argument: you poor darling, you only THINK you’re free, and any claim you make to freedom of choice is but more proof of your self-deluded enslavement. False consciousness is an insidious form of argument because you can’t disprove it! Like the old doctrine of sin: “The sinful don’t know they’re sinning because they’re sinful”. Or the psychoanalysis trap: “The more you resist psychotherapy, the more you clearly need it.” There is no escape.

Thankfully postmodernist thinking has exploded that old trick: when people claim to be exercising agency, exercising freedom to choose despite (or in accordance with) their enculturation, you have literally no way of knowing that they are not doing so freely. No one has a clear, comprehensive, and objective window into another person’s thoughts. There can be no moral certainty about the inner life of another.

This exhibition is titled, with disarming directness, “I’ll choose what to wear, thanks”, and celebrates and makes visible that free inner agency. I was taught by nuns who wore the full wimple (practically indistinguishable from the hijab). In my youthful innocence, it never once occurred to me that the nuns hadn’t freely chosen to don that striking and inconvenient garb, just as freely as the many nuns who later chose to take it off. I am the father of two grown daughters. In my paternal innocence, it never occurred to me that all of the ways I watched them accommodating their identity to the male gaze—hair colour and style, makeup, jewelry, clothing, tatts, and piercings—was not something they too were freely choosing . If the patriarchy is so comprehensive and inescapable, can anyone exercise a truly free choice unconstrained by the power of patriarchal norms and expectations?

I’m not so sure. To say there’s no free choice in such matters is to deny the very existence of free will, an essential quality that makes us human. The common-sense materialism of our times suggests we are mere matter, mechanically running a DNA program, and thus choice and free will are an illusion we’ve developed to give ourselves an empowered self-image we can live with, and thus gives us the self-confidence to reproduce the DNA program.

But free will is the ghost in this machine. Think of the difference between just wanting something and wanting to want it. If you put 6 kinds of cat food in front of the cat, you aren’t giving it free choice. The cat will be driven to eat something if it’s hungry. But a cat can’t decide to want to want the food. The cat can’t decide for example to go on a diet-- or starve itself to waif-like thinness (speaking of accommodating yourself to the male gaze). Human beings can want to want things, or not. That’s free choice.

So when we speak of free will and free choice, we speak of a mental event, an event un-locatable in space and time, unmeasurable, and therefore beyond the reach of science. Something of a mystery. It certainly feels autonomous. Whether it is real or not, whether it IS actually as free as it feels, is a much-contested philosophical question, and (you’ll be glad to know) beyond the scope of this chat. But I would ask you to consider if life would be worth living if free will and choice were just illusions. What of personal responsibility? Praise? Blame? The notion of morality itself presumes freedom of choice. Without that mental event we call a free choice—a mystery I would claim is evidence of something very like a soul—what would we be but automata?

We may still be in the dark about truly knowing ourselves as much as we are about gender equality and religious freedom, but Catherine’s paintings fairly burst--not with darkness--but with spectral light—a light that is only partly veiled by the hijabi...like fig leaves that almost ask to be whipped off to reveal the starkness of this truth—that choosing or not choosing to wear something is not where our fullest human liberation lies, but in the act of choosing itself. It does not skill to ask ‘how free is that free choice’. We’ve little enough knowledge of our own minds to claim exact knowledge of the mind of another. And this should counsel humility, even (dare I say it) modesty best expressed by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

This should apply to anyone—man, woman, Muslim, white western clergyman… whoever. That understanding takes mindfulness and imagination. That sort of thinking is hard, and judging is easier, so mostly people judge. Catherine, it seems to me, wants you instead to think, and this striking series of paintings makes you do just that.


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