In the post below, Balbir K. Singh reflects on his article, “Decoding Dress: Countersurveillance Poetics and Practices Under Permanent War,” which appeared in a recent issue of Surveillance & Society.
In writing about the Muslim hijab and Sikh turban, the lens of surveillance, particularly queer surveillance, is especially generative. Both articles of faith are visual signs, symbols of social disorganization; and both have also become all the more significant given the global regime of Islamophobia that we have lived under since the start of the twenty-first century, targets of violation and violence on quotidian and structural levels. These objects operate at the nexus of racial, gendered, and sexual politics of American empire, given how they have been viewed both domestically and globally within the context of the ongoing Global Wars on Terror.
For my own purposes, I study these two objects through visual culture, art, and text, and this is the central work of my in-progress book manuscript, “Militant Bodies: Violence and Visual Culture Under Islamophobia.” I find that cultural forms and visual ephemera make for really interesting sites of analysis, providing new and provocative forms of engagement. For example, I
use the Department of Homeland Security’s posters for training Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents when it comes to Muslim and Sikh passengers. These posters are fascinating in providing images of different Muslim and Sikh forms of head dress, showing both
normative versions of female and male covering, with adults and children included as well. I find these posters especially generative for thinking about how Muslims and Sikhs have been forced to comport and conform when it comes to air travel. Of course, using the TSA posters is important in seeing how state surveillance operates in an overt way, while also demonstrating
liberal benevolence through its collaboration with Muslim and Sikh civil rights organizations.
Moreover, visual artist Adam Harvey’s work on privacy and surveillance is another crucial site of study for my own work, as he is invested in thinking and creating inventive modes of evading state surveillance. I am particularly taken by “Stealth Wear,” an anti-drone clothing line that comes in a few different clothing forms: hijab, hoodie, and burqa. In using two Muslim forms of dress as anti-drone clothing, Harvey is making an explicit statement about who and where drones target: specifically Muslim bodies in Muslim-majority countries.
Ultimately, I find work that centers Muslim and Sikh head dress, including separate analyses on the TSA posters, Adam Harvey’s “Stealth Wear,” as well as examinations of Solmaz Sharif’s poetry from Look, and the “Turban Primer” from 2012’s Chicago Redeye, are forms that show the varied and significant creative and affective lives of objects beyond the headlines of Islamophobic harm and violence.