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The Unveiled Truth: The importance of being M.I.A.

In this week’s column, Shirin Sadeghi takes a look at the case of M.I.A., who made headlines this week when, at an awards show, she appeared on the red carpet with a highly stylized but completely covering abaya and niqab. As Sadeghi shows, what makes M.I.A.’s work, in its visceral impact, so important is that it forces both the “East” and the “West” to face, and know, each other.

New in Ceasefire, The Unveiled Truth - Posted on Wednesday, October 20, 2010 22:14 - 3 Comments

By Shirin Sadeghi

Anglo-American culture-makers in Hollywood and their British counterparts have put quite an effort in the last ten years to promote the most air-headed and least self-respecting individuals in their midst. At the top of the list have been overly made-up, plasticized young women who spare no shame (or sex video) for the public’s helpless eyes. And so it is that at this point in the history of “Western” entertainment, it is far more eye-catching to be covered up than to be exposed.

Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, known to the music industry as the rapper M.I.A., made the headlines this week when, at an entertainment awards show, the Spike TV’s 2010 Scream Awards, she appeared on the red carpet with a highly stylized but completely covering abaya and niqab.

The abaya was strewn with colorful lyrics from her new song “XXXO” and the only two of her body parts which were exposed -her eyes and her toes- were weighed down with heavy paint.

She was, unbeknownst to those who are unfamiliar with some Middle Eastern fashion trends, looking quite normal. But for her “Western” audience she was shocking, provocative and possibly even offensive to Muslims, as far as they could tell, because abayas and niqabs are 100% black and the women who wear them do not wear makeup and do not paint their toenails.

Tell that to the numerous fashion designers in the Middle East who make a fortune from stylized abayas and niqabs -selling high-end designs with crystals and jewels, colorful trims and exquisite decorations for as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

Tell that to the millions of hijab wearers who are strolling the malls of Dubai with makeup so heavy it obscures what little was already visible of their faces. Considering what I’ve seen in KFCs and other ordinary eateries in Dubai, M.I.A.’s makeup looked subdued for a fashion’s night out at a major entertainment awards show.

The value of M.I.A. – a Sri-Lankan who grew up in London and has taken on the cause of the Tamil Tigers in her homeland — is that she has reached the heights of mainstream “Western” entertainment but unlike her peers in the field actually knows something of the world of the “East” and actually has sympathies with “Eastern” people, despite her London upbringing.

Her video for XXXO, the song whose lyrics such as the very shocking “I love you” have been printed on her abaya, is confusing to the mainstream audience who views it. They think she is being kitsch with her low-end graphics and mechanical zooms from the 80’s. And she has managed to be controversial to them simply by projecting Arabic script on the screen — that scary, terrorist writing that has been used so effectively in the War on Terror’s propaganda schemes.

But for those of us who have watched television in the Middle East, it is clear what she has done and it is far more controversial than all that.

She has taken those 5-times daily low-graphic productions that announce prayer times in Muslim countries and replaced the bearded man of religion with an attractive young woman and close-ups of her glossy red lips.

In the background, in place of where the prayer time videos zoom in and out with quotes from the Koran, M.I.A. has visions of Arabic words swirling around her hotpants and lips. Some of the words are real — shema3’ meaning male veiling — and others are jibberish comprised of backward letters and meaningless constructions of Arabic alphabets. “You want me to be somebody I’m not”, she sings.

The subtlety is lost to much, if not most, of her mainstream audience. But that’s what makes M.I.A. so important: she is introducing the “East” and its culture and its politics to the “West” but at the same time introducing “Westerners” to their own culture, politics and history.

Unsurprisingly, many people don’t like history lessons.

Her last music video, “Born Free”, was banned in many places presumably because too many people didn’t like the image of “Western” people being invaded and attacked like “Easterners”. That’s all we can assume since the same people regularly watch news reports of the War on Terror, with images of scraggly terrorists from the Middle East and South Asia being herded and manhandled, and invaded by military personnel from the “West”.

The 9-minute video is reminiscent of the news reports of the Palestinian Intifada, the Iraq War, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan war we have been subjected to by the mainstream “Western” media for years now: images of “Western” heroes capturing, bussing and ultimately shooting down the dark terrorists of the “East”. “25 Islamist militants were killed in Eastern Peshawar today”, rings a now-familiar news headline…

Except in M.I.A.’s video there is a key difference . The US military (as evidenced by close-ups of the flag on their uniforms) is targeting gingers – the whitest-skinned red heads they can find — who just happen to be wearing keffiyehs. It’s disturbing and it’s shocking not only because innocent lives are being taken (and barbarically, no less) but because it’s not true, because it isn’t the status quo of world violence today. And because for many mainstream viewers their empathy for the victims of war is only made tangible from this angle.

This week, as usual, M.I.A. has forced the other’s perspective onto her audience. And as usual, it is provocative.

Shirin Sadeghi is an Iranian-American writer and Middle East Consultant. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and has previously worked as a Producer and Reporter for the BBC and Al Jazeera Television.

Her weekly column, ‘The Unveiled Truth’, appears every Wednesday.


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Oct 21, 2010 17:13

Brilliant article! 🙂

Oct 26, 2010 19:54

wow, i didn’t realize how well thought out her stuff was, i mean i knew it was more political than main stream music, but clearly i was lacking some basic knowledge surrounding some of these issues, thanks!

Nov 7, 2010 22:08

What do i think of M.I.A? As a believer in the religion Islam who has CHOSEN to cover herself and even don the niqab i think M.I.A’s attempt at being controversial, her sorry attempts at raising awareness women’s plight in the so-called “Muslim-world” having Islam stereotypically shoved down their throats is quite frankly a ignorant assult at her lack of understanding the issue.

To summarise, there is NO COUNTRY in the world at this time that rules by the ‘Shari’ah law’ (i.e. the law of Islam based upon the Qur’an and the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him). So whatever stories you may hear of women being opressed, beaten, mistreated and not being given their rights in the name of Islam is incorrect. These countries pik ‘n’ mix culture with religion and brainwash the masses with this new Islam when it TOTALLY contradicts the religious teachings, primarily the rights and honour of Muslim women and women in general.

And to correct the writer of the article, the abayah and the niqab doesn’t HAVE to be black. Its not forbidden to wear different colours. I wear blue, brown but mainly black because i like to; not because its a complusion. The so-called Muslim world today has forgotten the true teachings of Islam and doesn’t even bother standing up for the opression of their brothers and sisters in places like Gaza, Afghanistan, Chechneya, Iraq etc. They are in other words, sell-outs of the religion. So don’t judge Islam by the actions of these misguided countries and M.I.A please do your homework before trying to be some “freedom fighter” for women who are dressed like me. I don’t condone forcing religion upon people, even in the Qur’an it says there is NO COMPLUSION in religion, but don’t paint all women who dress like me with the same paint brush.

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