This is the third post in what is becoming a series on how the burqa challenges the visual norms that define public spaces in the West. (Previous posts are here and here.) Today’s image is a small work of public art that I’ve held on to for several years:
You are looking at Rosemarie Skaine, author of The Women of Afghanistan Under the Taliban. Or are you? She is under the veil, while you are shown her hands holding a laptop whose screen reproduces a digital image of her face. She is both there and not there, and so the photograph creates an eerie strangeness. (Georg Simmel observed that the stranger “is near and far at the same time.”)
Or the tableau can be understood to include two women, one imprisoned under the veil by premodern authority and the other enjoying full personhood due to Western scientific achievement. It also implies a narrative of progress: women who are completely effaced by traditional customs such as the burqa can be liberated by Western technology to achieve self-realization. In any case, the tableau is striking precisely because it intensifies, almost to the breaking point, two assumptions defining the visual public sphere of modern liberal societies: liberty involves the ability not to hide but rather to be seen, and the face is the essential medium of individuality.
Although Skaine’s entire body is in the room, it is the digital image of her face that is the sole marker of her identity. That face, however, is an image; unlike the women behind the mask, it cannot see, and it can be reproduced indefinitely or eliminated by touching a key. The irony is that Western woman’s face lives in the modern technology but acquires a greater vulnerability for that fact. So there are two women there after all: one is premodern, devoid of personality, and looming large, monstrous, like an image of death itself. The other is modern, the epitome of individual personality, but also disembodied and mechanized. Perhaps both are under the veil. If we can assume that continued global modernization will liberate women now in burqas, the fate of women in the West nonetheless becomes less clear. One hopes for a third alternative, which is one indication that the artist has done her job.
There is a lot more that could be said about his tableau, and there are other images that I’d like to put alongside it. But that will have to wait for another day. The photo was taken (posed) for a story in an Iowa newspaper promoting the book’s pending release in 2002. Photo by Harry Baumert for the Des Moines Register, October 14, 2001, E-1.