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“How can you be so shallow at a time like this?”

I think you can probably take it as a given that I’m going to remain a bad blogger for a while, but I’m not actually giving up. Instead I’m going to rant a bit (at least tonight) and that’s making me really excited. Rant!!

Steven and I got Vimanarama last week, since it was one of the few comics that needed to be bought the day it was out. Of course, it’s taken me almost a week to talk about it, but at least I’ve got an angle. Grant Morrison and Philip Bond have created the first segment of a three-part story about a young South Asian British guy, Ali, who meets his betrothed, Sofia, as they set off what may become the end of the world. I think the idea is sort of a Bollywood manga with Muslim leads, which was enough to have me sold on the story, but I’m afraid it may be just too alien for some readers. Even Jog, in an otherwise excellent analysis didn’t notice that the characters were in England, not India. Of course other readers didn’t notice that soccer is played with the feet and a black-and-white ball (I tease, Johnny! But is youth soccer not huge in your part of the state?) so maybe I shouldn’t write it off as cultural disconnect issues. Anyway, I very much enjoyed the book, but that’s not quite what I’m going to talk about.

Still, there’s one thing that’s getting to me, and that’s the issue of hijab, or Muslim dress (I use it here to mean specifically women’s headcoverings, but it’ll go a little beyond that). I’ll be quite open in saying that I’ve never been to the UK, but I think I can speak with a fair amount of certainty about young Muslim women in the American Midwest, and so that’s mostly what I’m going to do. Now, this is only the third mainstream comics story I’ve even read that involved veiled women to any major extent, the most recent previous being Morrison’s introduction of Dust in New X-Men. I know Dust is still an active character in the spinoff Mutant Academy X stories (or whatever the official title is now; it had two colons when I was reading it) but I haven’t kept up with those, despite being interested in what becomes of her, since what became of the rest of the characters didn’t mean anything to me at all. I was a little annoyed by the outfit she wore, since she’s from Afghanistan, which was certainly a topical locale, but where the blue burqa has taken on an almost mythical symbolic status, and yet she wears all black, scarf, gown, and face scarf (niqaab) which is a look I associate with Saudis or women from the Gulf states. It’s visually different from the Iranian chador, which generally includes a blanket-like rather than self-closing headcovering and no face-veil. So Dust was dressed this way because it made a good visual counterpoint to Fantomex, who had a similar amount of skin showing beneath his white helmet and bodysuit. I was just never convinced there was a good cultural justification and kept waiting for it to show up. I know modesty and self-respect are issues that are playing out for her in the newer X-Men book, but I’m not sure how well that will work.

The prior instance was a story written by Brian K. Vaughn for the JLA Annual #4, in which the JLA meet Turkey’s defender, young humanitarian doctor Selma Tolon a/k/a The Janissary. Her costume incorporates the Turkish flag and includes both a face veil of sorts and a red hijab. This made me laugh a lot, since part of Atat????rk’s secular revolution involved outlawing headcoverings for women in public schools or civil service positions. So Turkey’s great defender is a scofflaw! But this is an interesting point that ties into Vimanarama, because women who think that exercising their religion means covering their hair are stuck in a situation where they have to either leave the country or get some sort of religious schooling. So the Turkish women who study in the U.S. will disproportionately wear headcoverings, because they don’t have options at home. In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, I don’t have anything against hijab and actually can understand the appeal. It’s really empowering to be able to make yourself un-sexualized, to force people talking to you to look at your face, but of course there are practical drawbacks both in the Midwest and, I assume, in Britain, where Vimanarama is set. I do think it’s only a good choice if it is a choice, though, if there are legitimate and legal options (e.g. not Turkey and not Iran, pre- or post-Islamic revolution) .

And that brings us to Vimanarama, where seemingly secularized Ali wonders about God’s plan for him while threatening to kill himself if the girl he’s supposed to marry is ugly. He’s bringing a prayer rug to his injured brother, even though I think we can safely assume that traumatic head injuries are the sort of thing that exempt you from required prayers. And somehow Ali’s father, who is traditional enough to be arranging a marriage for his teenaged son, isn’t traditional enough to require that he change out of his tracksuit. It turns out Sofia’s parents are equally lax, letting her travel unaccompanied in capri jeans and a midriff-baring top beneath her hooded sleeveless sweatshirt. This strikes me as a little odd just because I think it’s not a culturally specific situation for parents to press their children to dress up for high-pressure situations like this, but we’ve still got 2/3 of the story to go and I won’t be sad if this point is never explained. As it is, I think it’s meant to set up Ali and Sofia as something new, both aware and accepting of their South Asian heritage while not keeping all the markers of Muslim identity, which is going to create a nice triangle with what seem to be Hindu god-beings they’ve roused. But I want to get back to those markers of identity, because while I realize there’s a re-veiling movement going on worldwide (not unlike the Turkish example above, in part as a way to mark the wearer as separate from secular society, to make a political statement) but, at least in the area I know, it’s not big among the Pakistani population. That’s why I was a little surprised that Ali’s home looks like this:

Ali's family, featuring two differently veiled women

The woman with the white headscarf is his sister Fatima, but again her outfit is just a little odd. In my experience, South Asian women who wear headcoverings wear loose, colorful scarves that may not even totally cover their hair (or they may have another tight hair cover beneath that) and often a salwar kameez, or loose pants with a tunic. But anyway, not only is she wearing some sort of jilbab (long coat) with her white scarf, but it’s a black one. And the other woman, potentially Ali’s mother or Omar’s wife or someone else entirely, has a face veil as well and in all black. I don’t know if this is common among British Muslim women who veil, but it is not the standard here and struck me as odd. I wouldn’t think it was all that strange for this one family to be more formal about covering or even to be part of a group that keeps stricter than standard dressing requirements, but I’m not sure how it fits into the story and what exactly is being portrayed. Is this a literal representation of the clothes women in a family like Ali’s would be wearing, or is it supposed to be symbolic of the roles they play as Muslim women? It’s because this is such a powerful symbol that there are arguments about veiling and control of veiling in post-revolutionary Iran and Turkey and the recent school legislation in France. It’s an issue of personal choice, but also more, and I’m interested to see what the “more” in this case will turn out to be. Of course, there’s good reason to disagree and say that Vimanarama isn’t set in a world that’s like ours but for the magic stuff, but in one that’s fundamentally different in many ways.

Ali meets Sofia

Wrapping things up a bit, Marc Singer already noted what I was going to comment on, that the Adidas-like logo on Ali’s jacket approximates the shape of the magical lotus. I do still want to point out Sofia’s first appearance, above. Covered in darkness, her hair and upper face are covered as if by a veil, her eyes pupilless slits. And so the focus is on her mouth and neck and shoulders, a sort of anti-hijab that at the same time draws Ali to her face, although he definitely later gets around to checking out her body. Her still face seems like an allusion to the masks Morrison so often uses, a reminder that all of these women are bodies onto which things are being projected. Ali’s eventual task is not just to find Imran (and wow, “Looking for a baby?” is some pickup line!) but to find the real Sofia beneath her collected facade and, along the way, to find himself. But beginning with this scene, Sofia is in control, the more secure and active of the two. Until that point, Ali had been the go-to guy in his family, the one who could be depended on to take charge (even if with some sighs) and do whatever needs to get done. And yet as the world shifts, Sofia is the one who finds the clues to get to Imran’s location, despite being new to the region, not to mention this magical area. Yet with the appearance of the Ultra-Hadeen, there’s another shift, and both Sofia and Ali are unsettled, among strange beings who are not their God, and ready to embark on something very, very new. I know I’m right with them.


  1. Dorian says:

    I’m not very well versed in the complexities of Muslim dress codes (my ancestors left that part of the world in part because they didn’t want their descendants to know about them), but it seemed to me that there was a mix of secular and religous impulses in the family. Omar is clearly more religous than either Ali or their father, as he wears a beard and a head-covering. I read Fatima as Omar’s wife and both Imran and the unnamed boy as their children, and the woman in black as Omar and Ali’s mother. In fact, the entire set-up of the family reminded me strongly of My Beautiful Laundrette, with it’s mix of religous and secular family members and the arranged marriage of convenience. Ali’s father could be marrying him to the daughter of another secularized merchant/businessman for purely financial reasons.

    — 15 February 2005 at 5:48 am (Permalink)

  2. Ian Brill says:

    At my school we have a significant Muslim population and a pretty active Muslim club. One thing I noticed was that when the war in Afghanistan was starting in 2002 many of the Muslim women who had previously worn head scraves were now covering up more with veils. All the while many news outlets were talking about women in Afghanistan will no longer have to wear burqas (which has probably not panned out as well now as some would hope, what with all of Afghanistan except Kabul controlled by warlords).

    I also remember during a speech one talked about the “misconception that women were abused in the Arab world.” I didn’t quite now how to feel about this. In one way I thought it was cool that these students were displaying their relgion more and more in a type of protest. On the other hand I felt that women were in a horrible a state in the Arab world, wished for their advancement and felt this student (who was practicing this protest I thought fondly of) was excusing some of that behavoir. I have conflicting feelings on the whole thing to this day.

    — 15 February 2005 at 6:08 am (Permalink)

  3. Rose says:

    Dorian, yeah, part of the oddness is that it’s really hard to know what’s going on within the family. Your interpretation of the situation matches what mine was initially, but Fatima calls Ali’s father “Dad” (which may or may not be literal) and his father clearly talks about Ali as his son, so I don’t really know what is going on. If the woman in black is Ali’s mother, though, it seems unusual that (assuming she’s South Asian rather than an Arab, which might not be a fair assumption) even if she is more religious than the next generation, she’s showing it in a way that is not typical for her cultural background and something I might expect more from a younger woman. I guess what I’m most curious about (and not likely ever to discover) is whether there are character reasons for the clothing choices of Ali’s female relatives or whether it was something Philip Bond chose as convenient signifiers, to try to represent some kind of secular/religious continuum visually.

    There are other interesting things I forgot to talk about, like Omar giving up his white cap for white bandages. Well, and that it seems a little odd to me to (potentially) have siblings named Fatima and Ali, which strikes me as a bit like having Adam and Eve, but then again neither is an uncommon name and it might not matter that the most famous historical bearers were a married couple.

    And Ian, I haven’t really kept up with any of the research or my own friends after leaving school, but I do think there was a marked move toward sort of a closing of ranks after 9/11, an attempt (especially by campus-based groups) to present a unified picture of moderate Islam. Wearing a headscarf of any kind is a politicized statement, and I think part of the drive to more covering was that these Muslim women felt they were already being Muslim all the time by nature of the attention focused on them, and that drove them to look “more Muslim” or try to be a better example of what they thought Muslim women should be or do. I do know that rates of conversion went up significantly in the U.S. after 9/11, particularly among women, and (outside prisons) the largest group of converts to Islam here is white women. I don’t think it’s some kind of conservation of veils issue where when they come off one place they go on in another, but the last 15 years or so have brought an increase in head coverings of all sort particularly among young, educated women, and it’s hard to sort out all the reasons for it or know which apply in any given case.

    And as for the last part, I think your conflicted feelings are justified, and probably shared by your fellow student. In many parts of the Muslim and Arab worlds, women are treated badly, but this is a problem for the developing world as a whole (and women are and have historically been treated badly in both similar and different ways in the more industrialized parts of the world) and yet often, especially in post-9/11 casual discourse, Americans (and others, I assume) would use this supposed bias against women as an argument that Islam is evil or that it’s corrupt or antithetical to modernity. And so what is a veiled woman supposed to say in the face of people who, at best, think she’s dealing with a bad case of false consciousness? Obviously it would be best to get across a nuanced view (if, in fact, that’s what she believes) but that’s hard in a speech and hard for a college student to enunciate to people who don’t have often any fundamental understanding of her religious or cultural situation.

    Many Islamic feminists base their views on the idea that if men were willing to actually live by Quranic principles, men and women would have fair and equal power. They argue that the problem is that Islam took root in patriarchal cultures and men haven’t been willing to give up the patriarchal traditions that keep them in control, but that true Islam would be a liberation from that. This is still not an argument that sits well with many non-Muslim Americans, as far as I can tell, but David Fiore probably knows about Christian feminist antecedents more than I do. And so for these feminists and for a lot of Muslim women who are tired of being asked questions that assume they’re deprived and abused, the important part is to say “this is not Islam” about a lot of these things. So this comes up in questions about female genital mutilation in Africa, which seems to be a holdover from pre-Islamic practices but whose practitioners will often say they are doing it for religious reasons, and there is a movement to counteract the practice by teaching about Islam with the idea being to separate religion from culture, to point out that there’s no textual basis for any practice like this. And unfortunately saying “this is not Islamically justified” about that or anything doesn’t make the problem go away, which I think is what you were feeling awkward about, Ian. I would guess the speaker meant to say that there’s a misconception that women’s abuse is justifiable or acceptable in the Muslim world, which is an argument you can make at an idealistic level at least. The problem is that even if it’s not Islamic, women are still being abused and people need to make it acceptable to talk about abuse, to set up safe places for women who have suffered abuses, to change cultural attitudes to be more accepting of women who initiate divorce actions, etc. Or maybe she was just being optimistic to the point of denying the reality that there’s probably no place on earth (not even Disneyland, certainly) where no one is ever hurt or abused or mistreated for whatever justification. I would hope not, because that’s a bizarrely starry-eyed view, but we can’t really know.

    More than you wanted to know, probably, but this is something I think about often still. And the title of my post refers to me, because I’m thinking about signifiers that are basically extraneous to the story, even if religiosity rubs around the core, because it interests me more than because I think Vimanarama is going to hold up to a deep, consistent reading about such signs even if I were informed enough to pull it off.

    — 15 February 2005 at 11:11 am (Permalink)

  4. Johnny B says:

    I’d be interested to know what kind of research Bond did prior to drawing this series. Would that he could read this and comment!

    The way Vimanarama began immediately put me in mind of Bend It Liike Beckham, so I never even paid attention to what kind of ball it was! Quite embarrassing.

    Youth soccer is well established in the larger communities around here, like Bowling Green and Glasgow…but many of the less-populated areas and school systems are soccer-free. For example, my high school, Caverna, doesn’t field a soccer team, nor is there a youth program within 12 miles that I’m aware of…

    — 15 February 2005 at 3:24 pm (Permalink)

  5. Rose says:

    I thought I’d read a Bond interview in which he said Morrison had done tons of reading in Islamic mysticism or something to prepare, which I took to mean that he himself hadn’t done much in the way of research, but now I’m finding nothing to back this up. Hmph.

    And the soccer thing is interesting because I’ve seen it referenced in several other places, and it’s just sort of an interesting slip-up. Or else people just aren’t up on women’s sports? How could I possibly be more sports-conscious than the average comics reader??

    I’m sort of shocked that there isn’t a high school soccer team, but I suppose there’s no point if there aren’t preparatory teams and I’m sure it’s a big expense. It’s by far the biggest youth sport in this area, although football and basketball get a little more attention at the high school level. I do think soccer is gaining ground, though, even there.

    — 15 February 2005 at 4:07 pm (Permalink)

  6. Johnny B says:

    — 15 February 2005 at 8:43 pm (Permalink)

  7. David Fiore says:

    very nice piece here Rose!

    Payday today, so I finally got a hold of Vimanarama today (also the last issues of We3 & JLA Classified…I’ve been falling behind on my Morrison!)

    still not quite sure what to say about it, because my I’m trying to give Cerebus as much attention as I can right now (when I’m not reading and writing for school, that is!)

    on religion + feminism–I don’t know very much about Islam, but I do know that the early political movements of this kind, in America, at least, generally did emerge directly out of the Protestant sects–with Anne Hutchinson heading up the list…

    of course–the one thing that all of these sects (Quakers, Congregationalists, later Unitatarians & Universalists) had in common was a rejection of received forms as “impure” accretions upon a nebulous “Christianity” that was basically (during the protean stages of these movements, at any rate) self-defined… and so, while there were obviously some pretty unpleasant consequences to this, the logic of continual revolution in theology & church polity opened up the possibility for these women to reject patriarchy along with all of the other “transient” elements of social/religious organization (like getting rid of ministers and sacraments)…

    I don’t know if there is a parallel to this in Islamic history… If there is, I don’t know about it–but then again, as I say, I don’t know much of anything about Islam, and the stuff that the average North American does hear about it (even, in my case, from several women that I know who’ve emigrated from muslim countries) is generally so biased that it’s hard to take it seriously… is there a tradition–as in radical protestantism–of using the “permanent” (and absolutely unformalizable) truth of “Islam” against all “transient”/institutionalized forms of Islam? I did once ask my friend Chris–who has a PhD in comparative religion–about this, and his answers were not terribly encouraging on this score–but then again, the social impact of these religions is not at all his focus (he’s kind of aspiring to be the new William James)…

    and there you have it–a ramble in exchange for your rant (and look, we’re verging on our old “identity” crisis, once again!)


    — 16 February 2005 at 5:47 am (Permalink)

  8. David Fiore says:

    just noticed that some (or all!) of that is a bit unclear–

    when I say that there were often “unpleasant consequences” to pursuing the kind of argument that I was describing, I didn’t mean the political thought itself–I meant the repression of it (which could be all the more disheartening, when, as I say, the logic of the “priesthood of all believers” gave women carte blanche, in theory, to empower themselves through biblical exegesis–Anne Hutchinson’s trial demonstrates the true limits of this freedom, at least in 1636…)


    — 16 February 2005 at 5:56 am (Permalink)

  9. Rose says:

    Dave F,

    If I’m following you, I think we’re talking about a similar trajectory, which is what I suspected. Most Islamic feminists (and there are Muslim feminists who aren’t Islamic feminists, so I’m using the adjective the same way I’d use “Marxist” or something like that) do seem to hold the position that the original, core form of Islam was a revolutionary change to the status quo for women, but that since it took root in patriarchal societies, those cultures twisted the core tenets to better serve their own expectations. The most common example given for this is specifically outlawing female infanticide, which had been a common pre-Islamic practice. Maybe this is a good example because it’s one where the scripture came down unambiguously and the rule was enforced pretty consistently after that, but the general idea of Islamic feminism is that to allow women to be authentically Islamic is to allow them to hold more power than they do now in the Muslim world. It’s basically a “difference” feminism, the idea being that men and women have complementary roles, but what needs to change for this to be realized is for the roles to be viewed as equal in worth and for women to get their share of the power as well as the burdens. Part of this equality is based on an idea of education for all, that women and girls need to know about their religion and their world to be able to fairly participate as God intended.

    And Johnny B., I was just curious because the West is the part of the state I know least about. I’d certainly be happy if Kentucky schools were spending their money on improving educational standards rather than building soccer fields, so I’m not going to complain about how they allocate sports funds. I just wondered what the standard setup is there. (And my school background was about the same size, but that’s because I went to Catholic schools that were small but in densely populated areas.)

    — 16 February 2005 at 6:46 am (Permalink)

  10. Mustafa Kulle says:

    As a Turkish Patriot, I think this whole “Janissery” thing should be scrapped. Why? Here are my reasons:
    1. The whole thing is making Turkey look like a “Typical” muslim country like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia etc, Turkey is a muslim country with a “MODERN” Muslim society controlled by STATE LAW. NOT islamic law.
    2. We don’t have that old Islamic Dress code.(Look Up “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk” who banned that dress code after winning the Turkish war of Independence).
    3. If you are going to create a hero from a certain country, you should have a decent knowledge about it before you start creating something Absurd. As far as I’m concerned, the creators are completely ignorant about Turkey and to be honest…(despite the incorrectly drawn map) I’m surprised that they were able to locate Turkey on the Map.

    — 28 October 2005 at 1:36 pm (Permalink)