x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Beyond the veil: an experiment with the burqa

As many European countries wrestle with banning the full face veil, Adnan Khan takes notebook and camera inside a Berlin university classroom to witness an experiment with the burqa.

Berlin, Germany Annika Schmeding wearing a burkha at Berlin's central train station. (Photo by Adnan Khan)
Berlin, Germany Annika Schmeding wearing a burkha at Berlin's central train station. (Photo by Adnan Khan)

The shock factor is intentional. To confront, to challenge. Picture it: a room full of German students at a university in the heart of Berlin, their chatter filling the air in the rat-a-tat-tat intonation of a language infused with order. The seating is atypical, students piled onto desks, sprawled out over every inch of available floor space, lining the walls with martial precision. But the space demands such disarray: it is too small for the numbers.

Then the shock: three figures float into the room, covered from head to toe. Three ghosts rippling into a German classroom, dressed in burqas, anonymous and unsettling. The chatter suddenly dies, and tension pervades the calm that descends.

But hold on a second, maybe I'm describing it all wrong. Let me re-evaluate... hmm... yes, there are problems. The words I'm using are loaded with meaning: "order" and "martial" - these are descriptions that fit nicely into the stereotypical category of the fascist German. They limit, they designate. And "figures floating," "ghosts", "anonymous" - these are typically western ways of describing women in burqas or chadors, to veiling in general. They negate, they turn the real into something surreal.

OK ... let's try again.

The three burqa-clad women entering the classroom are a radical departure from how a university seminar is supposed to begin. The young faces, mostly female and evidently all European, go blank in curiosity and surprise. A few giggles in the back of the room punctuate the mounting austerity.

Burqas can have that effect on a western audience. Even just a few days before Halloween, their ghost-like appearance at the Free University in Berlin elicits the (stereo)typical German response: silence and wonder. Who are these women? What are they up to, and should we be afraid?

Better? I don't think so. Personally, I'm not so much afraid, but I am a bit confused: how can I write a story about writing about others if every adjective I use splits off into a hundred uncontrollable meanings, if nouns drip with history and verbs suggest actions that were not at all intended?

Annika Schmeding looks at me in pity and bemusement. "This is what studying anthropology does to you," she says, trying to guide me through my linguistic crisis. "When you describe the Other, no words are ever quite right. You realise language itself is a product of your own culture and history, and you are trapped in it."

Schmeding was one of those three women who walked into that late October seminar at the Free University wearing a burqa, along with her co-instructor Carolin Maertens, and their social anthropology professor, Dr Jeanne Berrenberger. It was their first seminar in a five-month-long weekly series exploring popular representations of Islam in German society, provocatively titled Orientalism Reloaded.

"We did it to perform," Maertens says of their decision to walk into class wearing burqas. "Instead of just telling, we wanted to challenge the common perception of seeing a burqa, to force the students to see what it means to be understood from the inside."

Implicit in Maertens's explanation is the absence of language. In Germany, the debate over veiling, and expressions of Islam in general, has drifted into a world suffused with inflammatory language. In a mid-October speech to young Christian Democrat party members, for example, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that multiculturalism had "utterly failed" in Germany. What Germany needs, she said, is integration.

But what does "integration" mean? And for that matter, what about "multiculturalism"? According to the father of Orientalism, Edward Said, the late cultural critic and author known best for his book Orientalism, the way these debates are framed in western society, from a largely imperialist, and consequently arrogant, perspective, leads inevitably to a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of other cultures.

And the words matter. "Modern," for example. In German terms, to be a modern woman is to dress in power suits during the week and jeans and T-shirts at the weekend. "Germans define the modern through democracy and economy," says Frank Haeussermann, a fourth-year anthropology student at the university. "They see the veil as not-modern, which to them means undemocratic and underdeveloped, which itself means traditional. But the words 'modern' and 'traditional' have a variety of meanings in different contexts. It's hard to agree with this terminology. Built into these words is the idea that you have be a certain way, that you have to conform to be German. I took this course to learn a different way of seeing the world and to be more aware of what I'm seeing and reading in the media."

Indeed, Orientalist imagery crops up again and again in German popular media. Schmeding tells me about one magazine article, published in June 2008, describing a football match between Germany and Turkey at a stadium in Vienna. "The writer employed an extended metaphor that linked the Turkish team's presence to the Ottoman troops at the gates of Vienna in 1529," she says. "He wrote about the brutality of the Ottomans and the threat they had posed to Europe, ending the story with a line that went something like: 'And they will be back'. If you deconstruct an article like this, you see its connections to the popular consciousness of a culture and how that consciousness is formed, where mundane, everyday events are linked to a feeling of fear and the general assumption that Turkish people or people of Muslim descent are a threat to Europeans."

Most representations, like a cartoon of an Arab in Darfur, on horseback in a field of skeletons, with a caption reading: "It's not Genocide. It's Jihad", play on the collective fears of Germans. They are out there, the cartoon seems to be saying, and they want blood. These are the obvious attacks on Islam, the Islamophobia that is generally on the rise throughout Europe. But Orientalism Reloaded is less concerned with these blatant expressions of ignorance, says Maertens. "It's the subtleties that matter to us. Even Germans who consider themselves sensitive to the issues have the tendency to use language and imagery that is basically racist."

But some of us could be guilty of this tendency, to simplify the Other in a way that fits our world view. There are people who want the westerner to be decadent and depraved, because that is the lens through which their critique of the West is focused. Conversely, many westerners want Muslims to be un-modern and violent, because without those qualities, their critique of Islam loses its meaning.

Us and them: a seminar such as Orientalism Reloaded is an attempt to deconstruct such oversimplifications. And the burqa strategy worked, at least as a means of launching the debate and getting students thinking. "I didn't know what to think at first," says Aysegul Albayrak, a 23-year old Middle Eastern Studies major and the only woman in the seminar wearing a hijab. "I was confused and then a little angry. I thought, hey, that's not Islamic! But now I realise my response was also a product of my own Islamic upbringing. The burqa does have a valid meaning in certain cultures but my Turkish roots and life in Germany also make me susceptible to defining it in my own way."

The problem, if it can be called a problem, persists in our human tendency to categorise. We humans like our classifications. They make the world so much easier to understand, especially a globalised world in which we are constantly confronted with the foreign. "This is not the stuff of conspiracy theories," Berrenberger says. "It's much more subtle. The Ottoman Turks standing at the gates of Vienna, that great horde of an army, this image persists in the collective memory of Europeans.

"More recent events have reinforced the spectre of the invading Other - the Iranian revolution, for example. Before 1979, Islam was not an issue; nobody thought of it as a threat. And then 9/11 of course, and we all know what's happened since then."

The relevance of Said's ideas has grown exponentially ever since. Orientalism is not a new subject; its power in fact is its ability to survive the changing dynamics of history.

For Schmeding, who has studied in Pakistan and travelled in the Middle East, revisiting the subject at a time of rising Islamophobia in Europe is crucial.

"That's why I proposed this seminar to Jeanne," she says. "Here we are in Europe, banning the veil, banning minarets, talking jihad without even a basic understanding of what these terms and symbols mean to Muslims themselves."

But even she admits she has her own Orientalist demons to conquer: wearing the burqa into class has also had its impact on her.

Days before the fourth seminar, we decide to take the burqa experiment a step further. Early one grey Berlin morning, we strike out onto the streets of one of Europe's biggest cites, Schmeding sporting a burqa, me carrying a camera. We visit churches and train stations, shopping malls and districts popular with graffiti artists. We walk the streets and sit in cafes. Our goal is to provoke (the burqa is not a common sight on the streets of Berlin). We want to confront, to say to Germans: "Hey look, I'm here, you can talk to me."

The odd thing is, no one pays much attention to the "ghost-like figure" among them. "Germans, Berliners especially, have this tendency to hold back their emotions in public," Schmeding says.

"They may whisper with each other or look with quick glances. But they will rarely stare or say something out loud."

What's more interesting, she admits, is how she felt. Walking into a church felt like a betrayal, as if she were insulting the Christian faithful. Being on the streets she felt like an object, separated from society.

She felt, in other words, like the Other.

Repeating the same experiment the next day with one of her friends produces different results. The Germans still ignore us (except for one drunken man who yells: "Shocking!" and a security guard who politely asks us not to photograph at the now-defunct Tempelhof airport) but Schmeding's friend Anna-Maria, an artist and an immigrant herself, is radiant. "I love it!" she says. "I feel powerful. I can see people, I can see their expressions but they can't see me. It's liberating!"

By the fourth seminar, the same process has begun to take its effect on the students. Some question the validity of discussing such human issues in a sterile, academic context. "Why don't we ask the real woman standing on the corner?" asks Sina Holst, a 20-year old anthropology major. "In Germany, we have this opportunity to really exchange and understand. But instead, we're just creating more borders. We're talking about each other and not with each other."

It's a common criticism of Orientalism, that it is an academic subject, cloistered inside academia, with a language and a repertoire all its own. Efforts to propel it into the public domain have met with resistance. But Dr Berrenberger offers some sobering advice. "I'm constantly confronted by students who have never been introduced to this kind of thinking," she says. "They believe they are intelligent and know something about this world. Then I tell them all of their knowledge is a construction. Ultimately, they must deconstruct themselves, and that is a very difficult process."

I get it. Researching this story has forced me to deconstruct myself. And let me tell you: it can be painful. But what I've learnt is that this is exactly what makes this kind of knowledge so important: the pain is a product of fundamentally altering the way I see the world and the multitudes of people and cultures who occupy it. And that's precisely the kind of pain our troubled world so desperately needs.