When we amplify cultural appropriation with glossy mediated representations trimmed from context we often get something spectacular. Witness M.I.A.’s new video. Is it a sensationalist exploitation of vague Arab identity? Is it a mediocre song with a snazzy video? Is it an anthem for Arab women’s power and emancipation at a particular moment when Saudi Arabian women are fighting for the right to drive?
Saudi Arabia is the only country that bars women from driving. But the topic remains a highly emotional issue in the kingdom, where women are also not allowed to vote, or even work without their husbands’, or fathers’, permission. For religious puritans, the ban on women driving is a sign that the government remains steadfast in the face of a Western onslaught on Saudi traditions. A political cartoon here once depicted car keys attached to a hand grenade.
Maybe these sultry hooded women are representations of the terrifying hand grenade of women’s emancipation? M.I.A. is certainly in charge — note that she and the other women are suggested as the stunt drivers in her video. Not quite the dis-empowered sultry video vixen.
Let’s also note the Saudi stunt driving tradition which has provided some of the visual antecedents for M.I.A.’s video.
I think it is a smart way to make the argument. It’s a savvy juxtaposition — to connect the stunt driving (socially acceptable youth rebellion) with women driving (absolute moral panic). But the construction of the argument relies on some of the most blunt images of Arab and Muslim cultures.
Cultural appropriation has a couple of dimensions. One is the absorption of specific cultural traditions into a generic western culture (German sausages become hot dogs which then become America’s national food). A second dimension is the insistence that citizens hide their specific culture: language, food, sexuality in order to gain the benefits of citizenship.
In this case, I think the risk is the other-izing jump to rescue Arab women from their oppressive men. In the buildup to the US-Afghanistan war, the Taliban’s treatment of women was a central theme used to drum up support for military intervention. I think this is an insincere secondary objectification of women’s struggles, a hijack of liberation and autonomy. The American invasion of Afghanistan has not helped the women of Afghanistan and the emotional concern that made ‘Afghan women‘ a news cycle trope seems to have dissipated.
We tend to represent the Arab-other in murky abstractions of difference and this video is a slight variation of an Orientalist theme.