The third post in the blog series on the role of international collections and their collectors in promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion was contributed by Heidi Madden, Ph.D., Librarian for Western European and Medieval Renaissance Studies, International and Area Studies Department, Duke University Libraries.
Muslims represented around 5% of the total European Union (EU) population in 2016, and according to the World Fact Book, the highest numbers of Europe’s Muslims reside in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The influx of refugees fleeing conflicts in the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East (and parts of Africa) and seeking asylum in the EU has prompted heated debates about immigration, social integration, security policies, and religious freedom. In response to these debates, governments in several different EU countries have passed legislation restricting religious expression in public places (especially schools) in an effort to maintain a strict separation between church and state and to foster religious pluralism without creating civil strife.
The headscarf (Arabic: حجاب ḥijāb, “cover, wrap, curtain, veil, screen, partition”) traditionally worn by some Muslim women in the presence of people outside of their immediate family, has received negative attention in these debates because it is seen as a visible signifier of religious identity. The first major controversy about women wearing Islamic headscarves occurred in France, in 1989, when three female students were suspended from school for refusing to remove their head scarfs (the media coverage at the time can be followed in our French newspaper database Eureka). This incident sparked controversy about the extent to which government legislation should be used for negotiating culture clashes. In the end, France passed a law in 2004 banning ostentatious religious clothing or objects in public schools, including the Islamic head scarf, the Jewish brimless cap (Hebrew: כִּיפָּה, kippah, “dome”), and large Christian crosses. Since then, several European Union countries introduced similar legislation. A 2017 European Commission report on “Religious Clothing and Symbols in Employment,” authored by members of the European Network of Legal Experts in Gender Equality and Non-Discrimination and freely-available on the website of the Publications Office of the European Union, describes the chronology in greater detail.
It is within, and in response, to this polarized political context that Ayşe Taşci (b. 1983), a Turkish-born (Aydin, Turkey), German-based (in Bonn since 2003) photographer organized ÇAPRAŞIK – Verwickelt, a well-received exhibit of contemporary photographs featuring ḥijāb-wearing women.
The exhibit, which took place in 2010, asked the viewers to question how they look at a woman in a Muslim headscarf and what they see when they do so. The rich, multilayered meaning of the hyphenated exhibition title, which employed both the Turkish word çapraşık and the German word Verwickelt, explicitly evoked the sense of being tangled, wrapped-up, complicated, knotted, complicit, and involved. These are the perfect words to describe the questions raised by Taşci’s photo exhibit. What is the relationship between veiling and unveiling? Does the wearer of a ḥijāb hide or reveal her (religious, cultural, gendered) identity? Is the Muslim headscarf oppressive or emancipatory? How does a photographer represent the woman who wears a ḥijāb ? And how does photography itself veil, unveil, or stage the identity of women wearing a head covering?
For example, what happens to viewer’s expectations when a photographer chooses to represent an ordinary woman’s wig as a headscarf? In Turkey, until 2013, wearing the veil at university, and other places, was prohibited. In order to get around this law, Turkish women would wear a headscarf over their hair and then put a wig over the headscarf. Would the act of photographing this kind of life-hack advance or hinder women’s participation in the public sphere?
Taşci’s exhibit helped visitors examine the complicated dynamic between their own unexamined, and often prejudiced, way of seeing the ḥijāb. Viewers also became aware of the often-unacknowledged power wielded by photographers, and the mass media in general, in creating positive or negative discourse through the mobilization of emotive images. By this means, the exhibit “entangled” the viewer and created “a space for open discourse, controversial debates and dialog between photography, art and people.”
The exhibit ÇAPRAŞIK – Verwickelt was based on Ayşe Taşci’s master’s thesis at Folkwang University of the Arts (Essen, Germany), which was published in a very small print run at the beginning of her professional career. Professor Claudia Koonz, a noted European Studies expert at Duke University, who discovered the exhibit, suggested that the library purchase Taşci’s Diplomarbeit, because it is an evocative example of the kind of visual materials often used as primary sources, both in student term papers and in academic research publications. The acquisition of this primary visual source strengthens Duke University Libraries’ collection on Turkish-German relations, Islamophobia, gender, visual, and migration studies in Europe. It also contributes to the pedagogical mission of the university by emphasizing visual literacy— an increasingly important skill of critical thinking and an essential component of a 21st-century education—potentially serving as the library’s counterpart to the visual materials in How Do You Look?, the online portal for the promotion of visual literacy hosted by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Just as importantly, the acquisition of this rare publication, which at the time of this writing is still held only by Duke University Libraries, allows us to see the Muslim experience in Europe from Taşci’s unique perspective. The book thus serves not only as a physical reminder of our commitment to building collections of distinction, but also to the broader mission of collecting for global diversity.
Readers who wish to see more photos from Ayşe Taşci’s exhibit on the ḥijāb are welcome to check out her book, which is located in the Lower Stacks (LL2) of the Perkins & Bostock Library on Duke’s West Campus. You can also can consult the online article about ÇAPRAŞIK – Verwickelt on the German website Art à la Turka, which contains a number of evocative images from the exhibit.