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In another life

Manta by Hela Fattoumi and Éric Lamoureux : Veil hunting, choreographic version

par Frédéric Gies
26 octobre 2010

The French choreographers Hela Fattoumi and Éric Lamoureux, directors of the National Choreographic Center of Basse-Normandie, recently presented their performance Manta [1] during the festival Tanz im August in Berlin. With this performance, created in 2009 for the Festival Montpellier Danse, they intend to gaze at the veil, avoiding “Manichaeism” but nevertheless “without negotiation” [2]. Watching this performance, which is unfortunately nothing else but an accumulation of clichés and of dubious procedures, we could believe that Sarkozy’s government or Ni Putes Ni Soumises [3] commissioned the two choreographers to make a performance that conveys their opinion on the topic. Indeed, if the artists claim that they question the veil from a “plastic, politic, social and personal” point of view, their performance looks more like propaganda than like an invitation to think…

Danced in solo by Hela Fattoumi, it is a performance “full of emotion”, a quality that makes Wassyla Tamzali go into ecstasies during the conference “Veiled identities ?” that was held in relation to the performance in the frame of Tanz im August. We immediately question the admiration that Wassyla Tamzali shows for artists that use emotions to convey ideas, since the act of conveying ideas in an emotional mode can easily lead to regrettable short-cuts and can obstruct the way to reflection. We will question it even further due to the uncommendable ideas that this performance displays.

Manta starts this way : Hela Fattoumi enters the stage and sits in front of her laptop, which screen is projected on the back wall of the stage, so that we can see its content. She quickly scrolls through a series of Google researches about the veil. This scene seems to be the re-enactment of the preliminary online research that the choreographers made before creating the performance. First, we can see images of the different types of veils and their respective names, as well as the different entries on the topic that pop up on the Google page. Since the choreographer scrolls through the pages very quickly, we barely have the time to realize that there are diverse opinions on the theme.

Suddenly, a picture pops up on the screen : it is a picture of a little girl, that we suppose is around two years old, wearing the veil and carrying a book under her arm which we can suppose is the Koran. A picture that has been specifically chosen to give rise to emotion. However, not any emotion, as it evidently appears that, by choosing this picture, the choreographers attempt to give rise to emotions such as dread and indignation (something like : Oh my God ! They even subject the little girls to this horror !). In any case, this picture has certainly not been chosen to give a positive image of the wearing of the veil and of Islam in general, as the rest of the performance and the speech of the artists will confirm.

After these first images, a video that seems to have been found on Youtube shows us a woman, probably American, who gives her advices on make-up, rather referring to a representation of women as sexual object. By choosing this video and by juxtaposing it with the previous images, the choreographers plunge us into a dialectic very much in the style of Ni Putes Ni Soumises : on the one hand a hyper-sexualized representation of women, and the women wearing the veil, represented as oppressed and suffocating bodies, deprived of their freedom of movement, on the other. The rest of the performance will however, as we will see, try hard to exclusively represent the equation veiled woman = oppressed woman. By doing so, the performance confines sexism and the oppression of women to the Muslim religion, except for in the last scene, which proposes what the artists seem to view as the model of emancipation par excellence.

A dance with a claim

But let’s come back to the description of the performance, which speaks for itself. The light switches off to switch on again, illuminating Hela Fattoumi, now dressed in an integral veil, as we will soon discover. The choreographer, who has her back to the audience, bends over so that we can only see her legs and her bottom, hidden under the veil. On the furious rhythm of an oriental music, she performs a kind of “butt dance”, as one would perform a belly dance. Under the veil, the body is reduced to its bottom and to the supposed sensuality of the oriental woman. The choreographer stands up, with her back still turned to the audience, and continues a dance that evokes, very clearly this time, a belly dance.

Then, she turns around to face the audience, making us discover the full veil that she is wearing – the very veil our legislators seem to fear so much that they need to ban the women who wear it from public spaces. She stares at the audience for a long time, her eyes sometimes moving from right to left. The rest of her body remains motionless, as if fixed.

Finally, she opens her arms on her sides, but it is only a small hint of a movement, before the lights go out again. In the following sequence, the choreographer shows us her back again, so that we can see the pleats of her veil while she slowly opens her arms on her sides. We suppose that this is to what it comes down to when the choreographers call “to question the veil from a plastic point of view”. On the screen at the back of the stage, several texts appear that display clothing instructions (thus, the uses of the veil) as they are specified in religious texts. Rather than being confronted with what the two artists call their “political questions”, it is the display of their dogma that we are confronted with once again : in the chronology of the performance, the image that follows does not look like a question at all and can in no way cause the slightest confusion as to its meaning.

Indeed, Hela Fattoumi literally melts under her veil, as if her body were deflating, to leave nothing but a shapeless mass of fabric sprawled on the floor, only revealing the upper part of her torso and her head, still veiled. She is then shaken by spasms, like the last convulsions of her body, withered by that veil of all the oppressions. Finally, she takes in long and heavy breaths, mouth fully open, as if she were suffocating, in a slow agony. And yet, she will stand up once again, to carry on displaying clichés, over and over.

Hodge-podge

Now standing up, Hela Fattoumi lifts the part of her veil that covers her stomach, while the soundtrack spits out a sound reminiscent of the burst of a machine gun. We ask ourselves if our so well intentioned choreographers have tried to be a bit more subtle this time, constructing an image that seems to invite to two different readings :

- are we meant to see this as a representation of the execution of a Muslim woman who would have sinned ?

- or, should we start to imagine some plastic explosive on her stomach and associate this image to the warlike soundtrack, creating an image of a woman-bomb ?

In fact, it doesn’t really matter, because in both cases the result is the same. If the first possibility clearly says : in certain Muslim countries, women are savagely killed, the second version clearly associates Islam with terrorism. Thus, in both cases, the image doesn’t give a very positive view of Islam.

A short time after, the choreographer lies down on the floor and spreads her legs, letting her genitals appear for a second, or rather the thick fake hair that covers them. We immediately associate this image with the Origin of the world of Courbet, and we think that this image, maybe, symbolizes a certain vision of women which equate them with their genitals, in other words with a sexual and procreative function. Or is it the image of a body, here reduced to its genitals, which would desperately try to escape from under the veil, as the following image will suggest ?

Feminism ?

Indeed, Hela Fattoumi’s body, still covered by the veil, is suddenly taken by an intense tremor. Standing, she gesticulates and screams in pain, as if she wanted to break out of the veil that is supposed to deprive her of any kind of movement. This scene is lit from behind. The light that shines through the fabric makes the contours of the performer’s body appear. Strangely enough, the choreographers manage to produce exactly the opposite of what they seem to want with this image. Indeed, while they seem to want to condemn the oppression of women (to be understood here as especially, if not exclusively, experienced by Muslim women and exerted only by Muslim men), this evocative image of a woman’s body‘s silhouette totally locks the performer’s body in the male gaze. In an unbelievable review of the piece [4], published in the magazine Mouvement, Jean-Marc Adolphe gives us a staggering example of this male gaze, a gaze that this piece certainly does not destabilize when he insists on the “sensuous presence” and the “voluptuous curves” of the performer.

The next sequence seems to be meant to evoke an image of rich Muslim women shopping at Chanel. For this time, an arm – covered by a golden sleeve and very Haute-Couture – rises from under the veil. Just before, Hela Fattoumi has covered (veiled ?) the podium on which she performs with pieces of the same fabric as her veil, transforming it into a catwalk. Very soon, she poses like a model. There is no doubt that this image perfectly reflects her thoughts :

“I have always been astonished by the hypocrisy of those wealthy women wearing the signs of two extremes, from the prudishness to the excess of the consumerist woman-object” [5].

We appreciate, on our side, the hypocrisy of choreographers who, under cover of feminism, sign a performance that proves to be islamophobic. Hence, following the example of the French government that suddenly discovered itself to be feminist and that recently voted in favor of a law banning certain women from public spaces by forbidding the wearing of the full veil. Similarly, in 2004, the government adopted a law that forbids the wearing of the veil at school, depriving numerous girls from the access to education. How can forcing women to remain at home behind closed doors and not giving them a choice be regarded “feminist” ? What’s wrong with the picture ?

Islamophobic is really the only word that comes to mind while watching this performance, even though the choreographers would certainly deny it. Is there another word to use for images that systematically associate the oppression of women with the Muslim religion and culture, as if this oppression was exerted by Muslim men only, and as if these inequalities and oppressions were absent in the white western culture ? The image of the American woman in the make-up lesson at the beginning of the performance is the singular little exception in relation to this line of speech. The rest of the performance, as one can already see very clearly, only shows a negative outlook on the Muslim religion, opposing to it a positive view on western culture, as we will soon discover.


What’s hot

The next sequence unfolds along the same line : Hela Fattoumi now starts to fold some pieces of fabric, the same as the one her veil is made of, into squares, in a mechanical way, a bit robot-like. This way, she gives us an image of a woman confined to household work (she folds the fabric the same way as one folds sheets), as well as an image of an exploited body. Of course, this woman wears the veil, because the confinement to household work exists only in a Muslim context, as everybody knows ! To make sure we get the idea that this does not concern Madame Dupont, Frau Schmidt or Mrs Jones, an Arabic-like music contextualizes the scene in the most obvious way. Hela Fattoumi and Éric Lamoureux seem to agree with an unfortunately highly fashionable speech – a speech that strives to minimize the importance of the inequalities between white women and white men on one hand, and claims that today, sexism would be the prerogative of Muslim boys and men from the suburbs and of some “archaic” and Muslim (of course !) countries on the other.

This speech incidentally benefits from a wide echo in the media, who, like our two choreographers, apply themselves to stir up our emotions, with the help of the pictures of Sohane, Sakineh or Bibi Aisha [6], who in this way become instrumentalized for the sake of more than dubious intentions. Of course, the same media carefully avoid publishing the pictures of white women killed by their white husbands, and the dramatic statistics of domestic violence. Often, they even prefer to stand up for the white male, who commit crimes toward women (standing up for Polanski, for example) or to simply forget about their crimes (advertising the come back of the French singer Bertrand Cantat, who killed his partner Marie Trintignant).

A normative emancipation

We now come to a crucial moment in this militant choreographic masterpiece. Indeed, Hela Fattoumi is going to show us the royal road to emancipation :

- 1. to unveil oneself ;

- 2. to violently dump the veil on the floor ;

- 3. to put on jeans, heels, a small skin color tank top and a fetching small satin red jacket.

Between step 2 and 3, we watch a short movie that looks like a holiday home video because of its cheesy I-movie–like edit effects. We can see a family scene in a house, in which women, some wearing the veil and some bare headed, are dancing and picking through the grain. After this movie, Hela Fattoumi puts on a veil again, but this time the veil is made of a printed fabric that looks a bit childish, and starts rope skipping. We easily link this image to the image of the veiled little girl at the beginning of the performance, and we start to think that it is maybe an evocation of the choreographer’s hypothetical life, since she says in an interview, without kidding, that in another life, she could have been forced to wear the veil. In another life, it’s true, so may other things could have happened…

After slipping into the outfit of the emancipated woman, who, here, is western and modern, and who never denies her femininity (step 3), Hela Fattoumi now sings a song, and we are stunned by so much political courage - for it does take guts, indeed, to speak out loud and with so much style the discourse of the dominant, even more when it is the islamophobic discourse. She sings It’s a man’s world, the famous song of James Brown [7], which strangely enough here serves as a feminist anthem, karaoke version. This choice is quite obscure, as the lyrics are not particularly feminist : in this song, men invent a lot of fancy devices, whereas the women seem to only have a decorative role. But Hela Fattoumi modifies the lyrics : at the end of the song, she sings a list of names of famous women, such as Coco Chanel, Benazir Bhutto or Simone de Beauvoir. No doubt, some of them wouldn’t really recognize themselves in a performance that is so questionable on a political level.

In a strange way, Hela Fattoumi’s interpretation of the song sometimes becomes a kind of flirtation with the audience, whom the performer tries to bewitch with her loving gaze. Finally, the choreographer, now liberated from her veil (thus free to move, if we follow her logic), ends the performance by treating us to a dance, which she probably thinks of as a free dance. One only needs a basic understanding of contemporary European choreographic culture to see that this dance is a kind of cliché of contemporary dance and, what’s more, hardly up to date, for it resembles a kind of modern dance improvisation, once again so western.

Veil vs. high heels

Although the two choreographers claim that the question of the veil “cannot deal with Manichaeism”, that “the performance invites to question oneself” and that they asked themselves “what would be the outcomes of this creation, without indulging in a simplistic denunciation”, we can definitely see in it nothing else but the exact opposite of what they set out to avoid. The performance shows the veil as an instrument of the oppression of women and never admits that it can have any another signification. Unlike the veil, heels and tight jeans are synonymous with emancipation ! The choreographers obviously ignore that clothes don’t mean anything per se. Clothes mean only what we make of them. We can easily object that concretely, heels inhibit movement as much as the veil does. Are heels consequently an instrument of oppression ? If they can be seen as part of the outfit of a woman – seen as a sexual object – it is clear as well that they have another signification for Hela Fattoumi and that they will have another one for a dominatrix.

We cannot help seeing something fundamentally dishonest in the artists’ approach : if they really wanted to speak about the veil with as much openness as they claim, wouldn’t they have avoided indulging in the worst clichés described above ? Why didn’t they show that the veil could mean something else than oppression for many women ? Why did they omit other models of emancipation by ignoring that, for example, it is possible to wear the veil and be feminist ? It is because Hela Fattoumi and Éric Lamoureux know very well where they want to go.

Projection

Hela Fattoumi’s description of her artistic approach doesn’t contradict this claim. The first thing she did was to buy a hijab in Jean-Pierre Timbaud Street in Paris, to have “the intimate bodily experience of the veil”. By listening to the choreographer, we clearly discover how she has projected on the veil exactly what she wanted to project onto it :

“While I was wearing the veil, I always had the feeling of not having a body anymore, not being myself”.

It would have been enough to do exactly the same experiment, but without preconceived ideas, to come to a totally different conclusion and to make a very different performance that would be the vehicle for completely different ideas than the ones that are imposed on us here. In any case, after watching this performance, we can very well imagine that this described experience of the veil has been made in the safety of the studio of the national choreographic center that the two choreographers direct. Yet, it would have been very informative for them to go through the experience of wearing the veil in the public space, where they would certainly have been confronted with the hateful looks and insults that veiled women have to put up with in the streets of France and Europe, which both have become more and more openly islamophobic and racist. But they carefully avoided it.

Veilology

It is no wonder, if we listen to Hela Fattoumi during the conference “Veiled identities ?”. Indeed, the choreographer reveals the depth of her thoughts : how can someone choose to wear the veil in a democracy, she asks herself. If she is saying that she respects the women who choose the veil for religious reasons (although the rest of her speech allows to doubt the extent of her “respect”), she claims that these are a minority, and that most of the women don’t even know why they make this choice. Or, if not, they chose it for “bad” reasons.

One of these “bad” reasons, she says, is to wear the veil to avoid being seen as a whore. We immediately wonder why this is deemed as a bad reason, since this also can be a strategy for some women, who, for example, choose to wear trousers rather than a skirt. Women who make this kind of choice do this in the white and gentrified city centers as well, not only in the suburbs. Trousers don’t have a religious signification, of course, but they can nevertheless be used for the same purpose.

Another bad reason to choose the veil, according to Hela Fattoumi as well as for Wassyla Tamzali who takes part in the conference, is to wear it for identity reasons, i.e. as a sign of resistance to the western world. Once more, we question this opinion that de-legitimates this particular resistance. What is wrong with resisting politics, speeches and practices that are rather oppressive and offensive, to say the least, to certain populations ? It is enough to remember the recent and disgusting debate on national identity, initiated by the sinister Éric Besson, the French Minister for Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Mutually-Supportive Development, to see that this resistance is understandable, if not necessary.

Of course, Hela Fattoumi and Wassily Tamzali avoid referring to the xenophobic and islamophobic politics of the French government. They will also avoid mentioning, for example, the disastrous effects of the French ban on religious signs in school. Moreover, their lips remain sealed when someone in the audience claims that in reality, only certain signs are forbidden, as the schools turn a blind eye on students who wear crosses. Of course, they don’t mention the contradiction that lies in the core of this law, which excludes the female students who wear the veil and deprive them of the access to education in the name of secularism and feminism. Even worse, Hela Fattoumi delights at the fact that the elaboration of the laws that forbid the veil have helped to spark the debate about the veil. How can one be delighted by the unleashing of a racist and islamophobic speech ? This is the main effect the debate has had. Despite all that has been said, it has certainly not, in any way, helped to lessen sexism.

“Debate”

Hela Fattoumi and Wassyla Tamzali were not the only guests invited to this conference. Their speech has been nuanced, questioned and contradicted by other participants (Tuba Isik-Yigit, Riem Spielhaus, Helena Waldman [[Details on the debate and biographies of the participants : here]). Still, we cannot really be delighted by it because the very terms of a debate that approaches the veil as a problem is flawed and twisted from the very outset. The terms of such a debate are only putting the women who wear the veil (in this case represented by Tuba Isik-Yigit) in a minority position and compel them to justify themselves about their choice and motives. That is exactly what happened in Tanz im August. We could sum it up by reporting a particularly revealing moment in the conference when Hela Fattoumi, after Tuba Isik-Yigit had made her point, asked herself : in relation to one Tuba, how many women have not chosen to wear the veil ? Of course, the choreographer did not say how she expected this headcount to be done, since it relies only on her subjective point of view. Finally, this kind of debate only participates in the stigmatization of veiled women and of Muslims at large.

We can only be very critical of the programming of this performance, even more when it is programmed in the frame of a festival that has human rights as a theme, as was the case in Tanz im August. Under the heading of such a theme, how is it possible to justify the programming of a performance that indulges in islamophobic propaganda under cover of feminism ? How is it possible to be so blind and not see that this performance is totally in keeping with the discriminatory politics toward Muslims that have developed more or less everywhere in Europe ? Rather than programming a conference that in fact comes down to the question “pro-veil or anti-veil ?”, it would have been more judicious to organize a debate around the xenophobic turn of politics in many European countries. Or on women’s rights, the rights of every woman.

Finally, we are led to be all the more critical toward this kind of performance and toward this kind of program, if we bear in mind the fact that choreographic creations as well as the theaters and festivals that program them depend on public funding. Let’s finish with a piece of information that doesn’t contradict our assumptions of the similarities between this performance and the politics of the French government : Manta was acclaimed “national event” in the frame of the 50th anniversary of the Ministry of Culture and Communication.

Notes

[1] Trailer of the performance here.
Also on youtube : this.

[3] Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whore Nor Submissive) is a French Feminist movement, created in 2002. It has often been criticized for supporting an islamophobic instrumentalization of Feminism. Fadela Amara, a former leader of the movement, is now the Secretary of State for Urban Policies in Sarkozy’s Governement. For further information, read about Ni Putes Ni Soumise on Wikipedia.

[4] Read the review here.

[5] Hela Fattoumi, quoted in the review of Jean-Marc Adolphe in Mouvement.

[6] About Sohane : here.
About Sakineh : here.
About Bibi Aicha : Bibi Aicha is a young Afghan woman whose face has been mutilated by her husband and two other men. She found assylum in the United States. She recently was on the cover of Times magazine.

[7] Lyrics of the song : here.