On first viewing, Manchester artist Sophia Gardiner’s Feminislam (2013, pictured below) led me rapidly through three stages of response. Firstly: wow, what a wonderful idea. Secondly, what a wonderfully simple idea and (as so often with art that unquestionably and immediately delivers) why has nobody else done it? Finally, as the piece began to sink in, came another ‘wow’ at my growing realization that, far from simple, Gardiner’s piece is loaded with complexity, substantially located in the range of responses it generates in the viewer. The strength of the piece lies – obviously – in the integration that is actually a juxtaposition (Suffragette colours and the niqab), that powerfully straddles time, place and cultural beliefs, singing with the tension of that reach.
For several days I have been returning to this image in my mind, because in Feminislam, Gardiner has achieved what I have aimed to do with literature in The Invisible Riot – revivifying ideas of the Suffragette movement by placing them into a contemporary context, a viewfinder for 21st century experience. Gardiner’s aim may be to focus on perceptions of Muslim women, but her bringing together of two such potent symbols likewise throws light onto perceptions of the Women’s Suffrage legacy. The embroidery of ‘Votes for Women’ (the famous Suffragette slogan) in Arabic across the front of the unseen female face loads both the slogan and the presentation of it with a ferocious synergy that will not settle, that goes on delivering the more I contemplate it.
Every aspect of the work elicits knotty, uneasy responses, as the viewer engages with this challenging and challenged symbol of Islam, the veiling (self-imposed or otherwise) of women; and chews over what constitutes real choice and where power truly lies.
Discussing Feminislam on her blog, Gardiner states that ‘Islamophobes… use [the perceived misogyny of Islam] as an excuse to ply their hatred.’ While this may be inarguable in some contexts, you don’t have to be an Islamophobe to feel obvious concerns around the level of choice involved in any of the regimes where women’s rights are violently curtailed. For many people the enforced wearing of the burqa is emblematic of such oppression. And, as ever, caught somewhere between choice and enforcement, are the millions of women this issue directly affects – as Gardiner states, ‘grown women… having a law telling them how to dress themselves.’
It’s hum-drum predictable and still extraordinary that so much again comes down to women’s appearance. My book focuses on the physical battles of the Suffragettes precisely because it is so hard for us to picture it – the Edwardian women in their long skirts, climbing on roofs, smashing windows, blowing things up. The skirts get in the way, in our imaginations at least. Likewise our imaginations may let us down when trying to imagine who is really behind the niqab.
In the West, the struggle for women’s rights within our own countries is often seen as a commendable museum piece we are happy to proudly display on a shelf where it doesn’t demand too much attention. As a still-pulsating global imperative, as a human rights issue that reaches across cultures and religions, it is far less comfortable for us to engage with.
Far from being outdated, the Suffragette stories remain mostly uncelebrated because they still hold the power to upset the status quo at the deepest level – Gardiner’s work here capitalizes on that capacity for upset by bringing it smack up against this prickly, compelling symbol of what it is to be a woman in the 21st Century. Feminislam, in its quiet, deeply provocative way, makes us engage with that discomfort. The issues the Suffragettes fought and suffered for have not disappeared; the women’s history and example continue to fizz with unpacked power.