Haircut Jihadis, Mideast Makeovers

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Nick has already pointed to this appalling NYT story about Baghdad barbers who have been murdered by Taliban-like Islamists for giving the wrong kind of haircut. But that's a fight that Islamists are never going to win, because they are battling a force that is more powerful than they are: the desire to control one's presentation of self. Identity control has proven to be an irresistible force of modernity; the process was already on display among the rising middle classes of urbanizing, industrializing Europe in the 18th century (if not before), and apparently in the wealthier cities of the late Ottoman empire as well. (Though the Ottoman issue hasn't been very well studied.)

Even in Taliban Afghanistan, women established clandestine beauty parlors. Indeed, the Taliban found itself fighting a Leonardo di Caprio-style fad among men when there was no legal way for Afghan men to have seen di Caprio's movie in the first place.

An alternative glimpse into the Mideast's future—one very different from that of Islamists murdering barbers—comes from the Gulf-based TV program, It's Better Like This. The show is based on a BBC model; each week it takes one or more participants and, using a professional Beirut-based fashion consultant, transforms their self-presentation, sometimes quite dramatically. That program is a window on the ways that individuation—and thus modernization—is gradually playing out within the region's rules.

Earlier this month, for example, the show featured a young, conservative Muslim husband and wife (Mohammed and Siham) who had come to the Gulf from a small Levantine village. The husband wore a beard; the wife wore a scarf and covered her arms and legs. They were unassuming and even timid, and seemed the least likely couple in the world to throw themselves on the mercies of a totally secular woman who dressed in an assertively revealing manner.

Yet these conservative villagers emerged from the unlikely process delighted with their transformations. Speaking of haircuts, Mohammed had his hair streaked, and his beard trimmed to a chin stubble (he refused a clean shave). He had exchanged an ever-present suit jacket—he thought it made him look more mature—for open shirts over colored T-shirts (he had resisted the more extreme change that the consultant had tried). But the real change involved his wife Siham.

She was just as modestly covered at the end of the process as she was at the beginning, but she was nevertheless utterly changed. She'd exchanged her stark black headscarves for becoming pastels that she draped carefully around her face and shoulders (she'd had a cosmetic makeover, too). She wore slightly shorter skirts, but with high black boots. At the end of the program, she clearly relished parading her alluring new self before the camera as if she were on a runway.

Why am I including so much "superficial" fashion detail? Because in the case of Siham, it reveals that there are proliferating identity models in the Islamic world, even among conservative women. The striking model of the "alluring modest woman" may well have been encouraged by Arab TV itself. There are numerous religious, scarf-wearing women who now host talk shows in the region, and they have evolved ways to use the traditional dress code that enhance their beauty and allure. Islamic women who seek to assert their individuality in such a way do not face a choice between chadors and short skirts; markets generate cultural plenitude within social confines. That's what a show like It's Better Like This puts on display. (Of course, markets often reshape social confines, but that's another story.)

It's Better Like This is a case study in what scholar Gilles Lipovetsky calls "ephemeralization." Lipovetsky argues that a society's concern with ephemeral issues of self is linked to such larger social values as mutual tolerance. Anthropologist Grant McCracken has done invaluable work on consumption, self-assertion, and individuation; his blog is here. Virginia Postrel has revealed The Substance of Style; her blog is here.

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  1. Extreme Makeover vs. Islamic Extremists

    These guys should give up now. No way they can fight the tide of Reality TV.

  2. Coming soon to a satellite channel near you as Infidel Eye for the Islamic Guy

  3. One thing I had noticed when I went to Egypt, was the increase of headscarf wearing among people on the street. My family, secular, mostly unscarved (esp on my maternal side) were surprised as well. But what was interesting, was my girlfriend?s reaction. Her only experience with women wearing headscarves, is here, where the stark modesty is the point of the fashion. What struck her were the colors and the variety in fashion that people mixed it up with. She said that she could see herself wearing it and trying to pull off the fashions.
    One other thing is there is a big cultural struggle, at least in Egypt between scarf or no. My aunt doesn?t want my cousin to wear one, but apparently, her father?s family is doing some leaning on her to wear one. It?s an interesting push and pull, akin to the conflicts between the religious conservatives here. The way this turns out will be interesting. Part of me feels that more high fashion techniques to conservative Muslim dress will make it more acceptable for those who do not choose to wear it, though I could see it causing the exact opposite.
    One other interesting note: The nail salon was about 50-50 men and women for clientele for manicures and pedicures. Looks like there?s an Arab Fab Khamsa (five) cruising around Cairo in an SUV.

  4. BTW, this marked increase, about a doubling, happened between 2000 and 2004.

  5. “Islamic women who seek to assert their individuality in such a way do not face a choice between chadors and short skirts; markets generate cultural plenitude within social confines. ”

    Well said, there is a wide variety in women’s fashion throughout the Arab world, MO’s comment illustrates that there is a constant struggle for balance between what is personally preferrable and what is culturally imposed.

  6. I am not sure there is anything of great cultural significance in this.

    I have a major newspaper from 1940s Cairo that had a cartoon with a buxom female who has nipples showing at one point. There were stand up FEMALE comedians too.

    There were Egyptial beach blanket make-out movies in the 70s.

    The hijab is the cultural innovation of recent times. It was not supercommon until the past few years. Evil or no, the trend towards cleavage tells us little of mideast liberalism or its progress.

  7. Small point but I believe that Buckminster Fuller used the term “ephemeralization” for the process by which people use less-and-less matter per unit of output in response to market signals that something is scarce or in order to get higher output.

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