In August 2016, several cities in France banned the wearing of the burkini on some French beaches. The court later suspended the regulation but the debate had just begun.
The Cherchez la femme exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Berlin explores the topic of women’s hair coverage as a structure from which the dialogue between the different religions that co–exist in Western Europe, especially in Germany can be understood. Traditional ideas supported by centuries of history in juxtaposition with current cultural habits and fashions. What happens when religious beliefs are confronted with secular societies? How do are politics implemented? How can artists participate in the debate?
Many voices and different artistic interpretations of the topic are represented with no unilateral judgment. From witty cartoons, art installations, photography, to a collection of different head-covers from the numerous communities that still wear them.
The exhibition intends to inform. Through different artists’ eyes the audience is encouraged to understand ‘the other”. Providing facts and statistics, showing recent political and media statements, digging into the history of these religions and how these traditions started. The elements all work together with the goal of education, with the philosophy that understanding breed’s acceptance.
In the fundamental text of each of the three major monotheistic religions that are the focus of the exhibition, shared notions of female modesty can be found. Head covering appears as the most easily recognisable way of presenting these principles within a community, to show that one respects and follows the rules of their particular style of devotion. For example, head covering can be found in the beginning of Christianity. The Virgin Mary is usually depicted in artworks wearing a veil. Nowadays, however, it is only nuns that kept the tradition. Hair does not play a major role in modern Christian society. Muslims and Jews, on the contrary, do continue covering their hair.
In Orthodox Judaism, women cover their hair after their marriage. They can also choose to wear wigs. In Dan Zollmann’s photograph “Waiting for the Chuppah” we can see a group of women waiting for a wedding event in Belgium, where the youngest girls have traditional hairstyles meanwhile the young and older ones wear a variety of head coverings, from hats, scarves, to many wigs each fashioned in the exact same style.
Muslim women may wear a hijab. The term hijab refers to the general covering of a women’s body. It traditionally means ‘cover’, ‘separate’ ‘conceal’. Today it is broadly used in the west to refer to a headscarf. The way a woman wears her headscarf can reflect her ethnic background, age, or particular branch of Islam. Therefore, a hijab can reflect much more than an individuals dedication to their Islamic values; it is a personal decision regarding identity and can even stand as a political and cultural symbol.
Many Muslim women living in Germany combine the headscarf with fashionable outfits as a way of expressing their dual heritage and participation with western cultural practices. However, they often become the victims of prejudice, as some assume that by covering their hair (or whole body) they indicate a refusal to integrate into the mainstream society.
Humour definitely plays an important role in the exhibition. Cartoon extracts from newspapers depict the contradictions of criteria on the beaches of France “Take your burkini off. We are helping you against oppression” says a policeman to a Muslim woman lying on the beach. Another comic shows a couple of police officers asking a nun if she had seen any ‘open displays of religious symbols” This one is called “Hypocrisy on the beach”.
Not so funny and probably the most impressive piece is the work of the American artist Andi LaVine Arnovitz “The Dress of the Unfaithful Wife”; a dress made out of paper, hair, dirt, and thread that alludes to a ritual described in the Torah where if a man suspects that his wife is being unfaithful, he brings her to a priest who in public uncovers her hair and gives her a drink through which he receives a divine judgment.
The ritual causes great conflict while trying to understand Jewish traditions, especially from a feminist point of view. The punishment was only for women and not for men, and undoubtedly caused emotional and physical humiliation. The Dress addresses this painful process, the lack of privacy and the exposure without consent of a woman’s sexual life.
Cherchez la femme invites to question some typical prejudices in Western societies. It invites you to understand the very many reasons behind. When you leave the Jewish Museum maybe you will be confused. You may not have many answers but you will certainly have many questions. In my opinion, this is the most fantastic conclusion. It will challenge your own privilege, understanding, and respect for the others.
Cherchez la femme
Jüdisches Museum Berlin
Until 2 July
Courtesy of the artist and Rampa Istanbul
Video stills photographed by Nicole Tintera.