Sexuality as Liberation? The Work of Salvation Narratives in Neoliberal Times
By Dina Siddiqi for AlalODulal.org
“[T]he connection between mosques, Muslims and conservative parents is ‘common sense’ in Euro American imaginations.”
The fashion magazine Elle’s culture section this month carried a brief note on a new advertising campaign launched by American Apparel (http://www.elle.com/news/culture/american-apparel-bangladesh-ad). As Elle describes it, “[F]eaturing the words “Made in Bangladesh” across a model’s bare chest, this campaign is guaranteed to cause a stir (emphasis added).” Indeed, the photo and an attached explanatory statement, have gone viral and generated a maelstrom of outrage and debate on social media and television talk shows within Bangladesh and its diaspora. Mainstream Euro-American forums as diverse as The Daily Beast and First Post web/blog? sites and the British newspaper The Daily Mail, as well as Elle, have covered the story – just in time for International Women’s Day on March 8.
In chat rooms and on Facebook threads, Bangladeshis have expressed a mixture of shock and horror at what appears to be the overt exploitation of Bangladeshi garment workers’ plight in order to sell goods made in the United States. US critics have questioned the ethics of “a white male run company using a woman of color’s body for commercial purposes” and judged the advertisement to be in bad taste at best.
I do not want to rehearse debates on whether and on what counts the advertisement campaign is offensive or exploitative. Several nuanced and thoughtful rejoinders (see Chaumtoli Huq’s counter advertisement, Tanwi Islam’s and AoD’s pieces) are already in circulation. Rather I am interested in why a campaign that is overtly about promoting the fair labor practices of American Apparel takes the shape that it does.
The photo and accompanying text seem calculated to provoke along very specific registers. The text deploys orientalist imagery and civilizational discourse to tell the story of Maks, the Bangladeshi born, formerly Muslim model/merchandiser. The narrative, which hinges on the popular trope of Escape from Islam, leaves little room for ambiguity. Maks journeys from a place of unfreedom (backward, uncivilized Bangladesh with its repressive social mores and “Islamic traditions”) to one of freedom (the progressive United States, secularity and the space for individual self-expression, including through sexuality). At the same time the MADE IN BANGLADESH label emblazoned (branded?) on her body signals presumed conditions of horror in Bangladeshi sweatshops, the very conditions that AA and its potential customers struggle to keep at bay. The novel conjoining of the sweatshop narrative with the Muslim women’s rescue from Islam to secularity/sexuality may well mark a new moment in the neoliberal production of ‘third world’ women who are also Muslim.
American Apparel may well have anticipated the contours of the heated exchanges that have followed. I imagine the publicity team is patting itself on the back for generating so much attention for the brand.
The Post Rana Plaza Entailments of Global Competition
The aim of the AA campaign appears straightforward enough: to convince American buyers to spend more on clothing that costs more but is ‘ethically’ manufactured. To this end, the Made in Bangladesh label is simply a handy and globally intelligible signifier of the depredations of sweatshop labor in faraway places such as Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi garment worker merely acts as the foil or ground for selling AA clothing.
Karl Marx observed a long time ago that capitalist competition across the globe drives down prices relentlessly. In the age of mass mediated corporate social responsibility and ethical sourcing, capital must also take on a set of entanglements around working conditions in order to stay competitive. The deaths caused by the fire at Tazreen Garments in November 2012 and the collapse of Rana Plaza six months later have propelled labor standards in the global garment industry into center stage. It appears that to stay globally competitive, it is no longer enough for American Apparel to highlight fair labor practices. Such practices become more meaningful when juxtaposed to the ‘sweatshop conditions’ associated with Bangladeshi made garments. (Hence an earlier campaign by Canadian firm Joe Fresh – NOT made in BD).
In short, the absent presence of the Bangladeshi garment worker (underaged, malnourished and hyper-exploited) is essential for the ‘social message’ embedded in the American Apparel campaign. The exhortation to buy American Apparel’s (not Made in Bangladesh) products works through the body of the Bangladeshi worker who remains invisible. American Apparel wants the consumer to know that they hire good American workers and do not exploit Bangladeshi workers unlike other brands with which they are competing (Asif Akter).
In a different context, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod observes that, “[R]epresentations of the unfreedom of others that blame the chains of culture incite rescue missions by outsiders. Such representations mask the histories of internal debate and institutional struggles over justice that have occurred in every nation. They also deflect attention from the social and political forces that are responsible for the ways people live (emphasis added p. 20).” Following Abu-Lughod, we can say that the injustices and inequities of the global system in which workers and consumers live their lives and struggles are elided altogether in the rush to compete over labor standards. For, as Laura Wagner poignantly notes,
[t]his system silently pits the struggling poor of the United States against the desperately poor of Bangladesh, of Haiti, of China, of Guatemala… for it is the poor and working class of the US who shop at Wal-Mart, who are able to buy a cheap blouse for $10 because someone like you  sewed it for a pittance in a factory with no fire escape. It is grotesquely elegant, this class war that is also a proxy war, a war in which the combatants do not know they are combatants, a war in which the rich and powerful profit while quietly creating a system in which the poor destroy the faraway poor.”
An Aside on Agency: Cultural Nationalism versus the Right to Bare?
It should come as no surprise that a barely covered nubile female body that simultaneously claims to represent the nation – in the flesh, quite literally – has brought forth charges from many Bangladeshis that the advertisement defames their country and its cultural norms, or that its rich ‘2000 year cultural heritage’ has been misrepresented as a place of religious oppression (Bangladesh is not Saudia Arabia, as the argument goes).
At the other end of the spectrum, defenders of the campaign stress the agency of the Bangladeshi born model Maks and her right to appear bare-breasted. Posing topless, in this view, represents an act of individual volition and free choice. The question of agency stymies a generally insightful piece on the subject from Firstpost which states that, “Of course, any allegation of exploitation runs inevitably into the fact of Maks’s agency. She is an adult who made the choice to bare her body and was not forced into posing for the ad.”
Framed through a narrowly conceived rights discourse, the meaning of the image turns on the individual and her intentionality. The focus on individual agency, I contend, is wholly misplaced in this context. Questions of individual intent and volition are the wrong kinds of question to ask. Maks the individual is clearly not a dupe. Neither her agency nor her right to bare her body are at stake in my analysis.
Instead, we must ask questions of the ideological work carried out in the staging of this image and its framing statement.
Why did AA publicists think this imagery would be the most effective way to advertise their fair labor practices? Why not use one of the “23 skilled American workers in Downtown Los Angeles, all of whom are paid a fair wage and have access to benefits such as healthcare?” Why resort to the semi naked body of a former Muslim emigrant who has never worked behind a sewing machine, in Bangladesh or in the US, to score points on labor standards? What is the purchase of this particular sexualized brown body in the larger narrative?
Sexuality, Freedom and Muslim Women: Re-calibrating the Rescue Narrative
Even though she represents the embodiment of the Made in Bangladesh label, Maks’s is not just any brown body. From the outset, hers is an explicitly (if formerly) Muslim body . made products, the company turned to the equally ‘marketable’ register of Muslim women’s freedom. It is worth remembering that the project of liberating women is central to contemporary discourses of Liberal feminism and secular democracy.
AA’s move was presumably calculated to reach out to Northern consumers who want to consume sweatshop free clothing and to whom humanitarian and Liberal feminist sentiments appeal. Post Rana plaza discourse on Bangladeshi garment workers has tended to obscure older cultural oppositions between Islam and the West but here we see them resurrected. Postcolonial scholars have noted that humanitarian projects and human rights discourses tend to rely on stereotyped constructions of Muslim women (see Lila Abu-lughod: 49). It seems that neoliberal forms of capitalism are encroaching or building upon this territory.
Ethnographic slides in Maks’s (perhaps Maksuda in an earlier incarnation?) story set the stage. She “vividly” recalls attending mosque with her “conservative Muslim” parents before she left for the US at age four. As many readers have pointed out, women and girls rarely go to mosques in Bangladesh, not to mention that few parents would consider taking a three old of any gender for formal prayers. No matter, the connection between mosques, Muslims and conservative parents is ‘common sense’ in Euro American imaginations. The association resonates with the potential consumer because of already existing and widely circulating scripts of Muslims with coercive patriarchal practices and an excess of religiosity .
What we see is an active effort to produce what Miriam Cooke calls the Muslimwoman – a monolithic, standardized victim of male and religious oppression – one who has escaped to the west to free and find herself.
Maks’s journey from a child (trapped in the vise of religion and family in Bangladesh) to a thinking adult “in search of new creative outlets,” mirrors her “life-changing” move to California. The story rests on a number of oppositions central to Euro American master narratives: Islam: Freedom; Developing: Developed; Child: Adult; Tradition: Modernity and Community: Individual.
Read in this backdrop, exercising the ‘right’ to bare the body signifies an act of empowerment for the Muslim woman whose ‘natural’ state is understood to be covered or behind the veil. Such rights are presumably not available to those whose are still Muslim or women still in the geographical space of Bangladesh. By uncovering, Maks appears to make a symbolic break with the coercion of community and religious norms.
But why is the Made in Bangladesh label stamped across Maks’s uncovered body? The absent referent here is the Bangladeshi garment worker, whose conditions of work are veiled or covered up, and who represent the opposite of the secular feminist reality now inhabited by Maks. The possibility for real liberation of Bangladeshi women then seems to lie elsewhere – in fleeing Islam/Bangladesh for the non-oppressive secular spaces of the US.
Maks’s ‘story of arrival’ perpetuates and reinforces civilizational discourses in which the US (or Euro-America more broadly) stands for freedom not only for women and individual expression but also of labor. By implication, places like Bangladesh — in an earlier stage of development — are repressive of workers, women and individuals. Rescued from religion and poverty, Maks has been saved to the multiple freedoms that the US ostensibly represents (including the freedom not to conform to conventional US narratives of the self).
Uncovering is Freedom
For the ‘Muslimwoman’, whose body by definition is concealed and oppressed, sexuality is foremost among these imagined freedoms. The surest sign of Maks’s distancing herself from her “Islamic faith” is the exercise of her right to uncover her body to the male gaze. The not so subtle message is that ultimate freedom for Muslim women lies in literally unveiling themselves. What could be interpreted as soft porn in another context signifies freedom in this discursive framing. Under the sign of neoliberal free choice and individual autonomy, Maks’s partial nudity merely affirms her experiment in self-expression. Sexuality is essential to her freedom. The emphasis on individual agency works to erase the history, meanings and contexts in which images of Muslim women are produced and circulated. They also do great epistemic violence to the real lives of Bangaldeshi garment workers.
This is a neoliberal twist on older narratives of rescue. The difference today is that feminism is big business, quite literally. The formerly Muslim model is saved from Islam to the world of the free market where she can ‘sell’ her body to sell clothing. Freedom, it seems, is up for sale.
 – Without the explanatory text, the American Apparel image can be still be read as yet another voyeuristic and pornographic endeavor, reminiscent of the postcards from Algeria over a century ago that Malek Alloula so eloquently analyzes in the Colonial Harem.
It is worth digressing here to note that the ensuing debate has (once more) opened up a space to trot out Islamophobic sentiments that masquerade as legitimate culture critique and support for Muslim women’s rights. For instance, Elle magazine’s comments section contained the following post from someone named Thomas Emilio of Queen’s College: “Islam is a FAIRY TALE, it is not grounded on anything sensible, a preposterous book that was written by an ignorant, pedophiliac warlord in the desert.” This and other inflammatory ‘observations’ came in response to posts pointing out glaring cultural inconsistencies in the American Apparels statement and the homogenizing and orientalist assumptions within which it was embedded.
Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Harvard University Press, 2013
Miriam Cooke, “The Muslimwoman,” Contemporary Islam 1, no. 2 (2007): 139-154