Monday, December 19, 2011

Shadi Ghadirian's "Qajar": The Ambiguity of Religious Practices (and the Place of Women)

I saw Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian's "Qajar" exhibit yesterday at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, and have been thinking since I did so of several of the photos of women with fully veiled faces, one of which I've selected for the graphic above.  In her artist's statement appended to the exhibit (this can be accessed at the link above by clicking on "Statement"), Ghadirian says that her work has focused on and will continue to focus on Iranian women because women in Iran are "dazed."

They live caught in a web of contradictions and dualities in which they are both themselves and the possession of someone else.  They cannot even say in what frame of time they live--hence, the anachronisms built into each photograph, which show Iranian women in dress of a previous era holding or posed beside household objects from the modern era.

The one point of continuity in the lives of Iranian women over the course of history, Ghadirian suggests, is precisely those household objects, the tools of the domestic labor expected of women no matter what the period of history in which they happen to find themselves living.

As I think about Ghadirian's work, and, in particular, her unsettling images of face-veiled women sporting modern household appliances or, in the case of the photo above, a houseplant, I'm struck by something that's been in my thoughts in recent days, as media commentators discuss the death of Christopher Hitchens.  I've been noting this theme in my blog.

It's the terrible, tragic ambiguity of religion, of its symbols and its affirmations.  It's the terrible ambiguity of every religious system in the world--an ambiguity caused by the propensity of systems of faith to wear both redemptive and demonic faces.  At the same time: the ability of religions to exert demonic influence in culture is the flip side of their ability to transform hearts, minds, lives in a powerfully positive way.

For believers who seek coherence in their relationship to their religious tradition, who want to engage that tradition in a mature and adult way, there is always the challenge of sorting the demonic distortion of the tradition from its salvific possibilities.  And that challenge is perhaps nowhere so apparent, for modern and postmodern adherents of most religious traditions, than in the area of the religion's approach to women.

For me as a Catholic, for instance: what am I to do with a photograph like the one at the left, which shows French Carmelite nuns making hay in 1904?  Cloistered Carmelite nuns carrying on their community's longstanding tradition of veiling the face when a nun is  outside the cloister or inside, but speaking with those outside through a grate . . . . A cultural-religious tradition that has such strong overtones of similar Islamic customs that one has to wonder about carryover of cultural influences in the Spanish culture in which Teresa of Avila instituted her reforms of Carmelite life . . . . 

It is altogether too easy for Catholics looking at Ghadirian's photographs of women whose faces are heavily veiled to affect a superior revulsion at how Islam has treated women historically--forgetting altogether that our own religious tradition is hardly pure or free of symbols fraught with ambiguity (and downright misogyny) not dissimilar from those of Islam.  In my own lifetime, I've heard more than one person raised in parishes in south Louisiana whose schools were staffed by non-cloistered Carmelite nuns speak of the eeriness of the practice of "their" Carmelite sisters of lowering a veil over their faces after they had gone to communion in the parish church.

And, of course, it's easier to pretend that all of this never existed and to escape the tragic ambiguity of my own tradition by altering history.  Or to imagine, entirely fatuously, that my tradition couldn't possibly retain attitudes or practices as destructive to the integrity of women today.

Since we've lived beyond all of that now.  Haven't we?  And it's now to be found only in Islamic cultures . . . .  

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