I would guess that the vast majority of Canadian Muslims, thoughtful, tolerant, law-abiding citizens, must really hate it when their fellow Muslims go crazy over the barest of perceived slights.
If my guess is right, there must be a lot of sighing going after news broke yesterday that a brou-ha-ha had erupted at Thompson Rivers University over a photo of a woman wearing a niqab and abaya (garments sometimes worn by some Muslim women that cover almost the entire body) while looking at a bra.
Had the response been limited to a little head shaking or a few emails of complaint, one might not have noticed. But then Trad Bahabri, the President of Saudi Education Centre in Kamloops, made a public statement criticizing artist Sooraya Graham, and calling for her to “clarify the idea behind the picture.” Because if there’s one thing artists love, it’s stating that their work has one and only one valid interpretation.
But things really got out of hand, when a TRU staff member, encouraged by some TRU students according to one report, “removed” the picture without permission, and would not return it until the author promised not to rehang it.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and the TRU administration stood behind the student, and the photo, and made sure it was returned to the exhibit from whence it had come. No word on what punishment, if any, will go the staff member, but surely a stern “knock it off” is in order at the very least.
Of course, photographs dealing with religious themes always have the possibility of stirring up powerful feelings. But this photo? A woman with a bra? It’s not nearly so shocking as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or even as disrespectful as the cheeky Federici Ice Cream ad featuring a pregnant nun.
Indeed, Graham, herself a Muslim, says the aim was to show all women, including those wearing certain kinds of clothing, are fundamentally the same. We shouldn’t, she says, let stereotypes about women who dress a certain way make us forget about the person under the garments. Good on you, Ms Graham.
The trouble is that there are always multiple ways to read works of art. And while Bahabri says he is concerned that the photo was not approached “in a very professional way,” its’ hard to see how professionalism has anything to do with it. Why would professionalism be relevant to an amateur art show? Besides, I’ve seen plenty of professional photographs and this one looks pretty well-lit and well-composed to me.
So professionalism in this case sounds like a euphemism for “not doing anything that might possibly offend me or people who think like I do.” Those who are upset by the photo are interpreting it differently than the artist says she intended, which, of course, is fair enough in itself. They read the woman in the photo as looking at the bra wistfully, wishing she could wear sexy Western clothing but feeling forced to wear what her religion has set out for her. Frankly, that’s how I would interpret it, especially since the woman in the photo is holding the bra up to her body, as though almost trying it on but not sure if she should.
That’s the interpretation that bothers those opposed to the photo, and that’s why there”s a push for an explanation: to try to take the more controversial interpretation off the table, to establish that only the innocuous interpretation is genuine, and to make it clear that any interpretation hinting of a critique of Muslims must be a misunderstanding.
But even if we read the picture as critical, that is no reason to condemn it or the artist. To say that some Muslim women may wear certain things because they feel forced to may be unpleasant for some to hear, and it may spur disagreement, but it should not be outside the realm of civil discourse. Especially in a university art class where we ought to be training people to push the boundaries. A vibrant society simply cannot give in to everyone who thinks I’m bothered by this” is the same as “this is wrong and must be stopped.”
Certainly no one should deliberately encourage hatred towards another group, but criticism, even harsh criticism, is not hatred, and being offended is not the same as being assaulted. We should welcome and celebrate diversity and we should have a reasonable amount of respect for the traditions and feelings of others. But to try to control a work of art—whether by physically taking it or by stealing the viewer’s right to interpret it on her own—if not violence, is still an act of extremism and contrary to the basic values of a free society.
So knock it off.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.