Sunday, September 7, 2008


How Obscenity, Sexuality and Violence Infiltrate the Private Worlds of the Unwilling

“With regard to the strongest musk let me point out that in the visible world it means a thing which man carries and from which rises up a fragrant smell that makes it so much known and apparent that even if he wants to hide it, it does not become hidden but spreads.” – Al-Ghazali

From the discussion of the jawal as obscene object (obscene commodity Mr. Marx) it is an easy jump to old-school Islamic denouncement of cross-gender Bluetooth and PAN use interaction as obscene. The link between Marx’s disgust and Mother’s disapproval is that “It is no longer the obscenity of the hidden, the repressed, the obscure, but that of the visible, the all-too-visible, the more-visible-than-visible; it is the obscenity of that which no longer contains a secret and is entirely soluble in information and communication.”

Gulfi mothers warn their daughters against exposing themselves to criticism and nothing is more intrusive or explosive than a full-facial photo sent to a man met via Bluetooth in the mall or an illicit txt session in which you divulge your family name. A wide bright smile on a veiled woman is visible even through her niqab and it spreads like an open invitation like the ‘strongest musk’ Al-Ghazali speaks of. It breeds infamy and taints honor. As in Rajaa El Sanea’s bestselling novel Girls of Riyadh, a rule-weary narrator explains: “At weddings you barely walk, you barely talk, you barely smile, you barely dance, be mature, be wise . . . measure carefully.” So the intrinsically personal and intimate relationship had with the jawal is already a liability to the dignity and draw of eligible (and taken) women.

But not only is the object of the jawal a liability, the environment has morphed around it and the stakes are therefore much higher. Now spectacle and illusion, which had once been confined to the stage have “become immediately transparent, visible, and exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication” as the stage has folded out on itself and made every screen a theater and every unsuspecting actor a star. According to our Baudrillard, this is where obscenity begins: the orgiastic state of saturation and transparency and the dissolvement of public and private boundaries. The theater is destroyed, the play no longer false:

“The public stage, the public place have been replaced by a gigantic circulation, ventilation, and ephemeral connecting space. The private space undergoes the same fate. Its disappearance parallels the diminishing of the public space. Both have ceased to be either spectacle or secret. The distinction between an interior and an exterior, which was just what characterized the domestic stage of objects and that of a symbolic space of the object has been blurred in a double obscenity. The most intimate operation of your life becomes the potential grazing ground of the media. The entire universe also unfolds unnecessarily on your home screen. This is a microscopic pornography, pornographic because it is forced, exaggerated, just like the close-up of sexual acts in a porno film All this destroys the stage, once preserved through a minimal distance and which was based on a secret ritual known only to its actors.”

In other words private universes of individuals and families and tribes are now exposed and exiled onto the network of jawals in the bleeping, Bluetoothed bastard child of reality television. The ties that once bound (i.e. family, love) and provided protection are now the outlets for public disgrace as brothers expose sisters and lovers exact revenge by informing parents of chat-indiscretions. Although everyone is more tightly (if invisibly) connected, there is also a new patina of alienation and mistrust glazing on all relationships, forcing physical contact to turn to the very web of otherness which is causing the problem.

As a result the Gulf is miserable, unemployed, oppressed and fat. This may sound like a broad generalization but anything or one going through shock (as discussed the region has just spun out of a wormhole in time) is bound to experience some kind of existential depression. The most nourishing light for these disgruntled and disenfranchised corpses is to consume and create spectacle. But the spectacle they provide in their lurid affairs and taboo exposures are of ‘cold obscenity’ in which the shock of the body or indiscretion are only “desperate attempts to emphasize the existence of something.”

A famous 2006 rape victim known as the ‘Qatif Girl’ is a prime example of this mixture of aggression, obscene spectacle and technological (via jawal) incision into law and mores in Saudi Arabia. The female victim of the rape told Emirates based Al-Arabiya News Channel “I knew him when I was ten, but I only knew him through telephone, his voice was all I knew about him. He then threatened to tell my family about it if I didn’t give him a picture of myself.” This and several other jawal related rape cases in the Gulf have sprung up in recent years and have been used to justify arguments hinging on the immoral use of the technology to engage in affairs or even harmless flirtation. The Qatif girl and several other women who have been victim to an epidemic of rapes were videotaped by assailants. In another case that surfaced in the months following Qatif, a jawal video of five Bengali men raping a Saudi woman was released. These files were then circulated as currency between users craving darker spectacle and higher stakes. The individuals who collect these rape videos “no longer partake of the drama of alienation but are in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene. Obscene is that which eliminates the gaze, the image and every representation.” The obscenity committed by the consumers of these videos has nothing to do with sex (or in the case of rape, power) and everything to do with the “pornography of circuits and networks of functions and objects in their availability and regulation.” When the authorities eventually catch wind they either turn away or use the incident to stage a morality play in the collapsed theater of public spectacle, facebook groups pop up like “The national campaign for the struggle against Bengalis” , hate crime and more rapes ensue, all available on the PAN. Her exposure, her fall from grace is always linked by the judge to the obscenity of her object. Which is why the victim of the Qatif rape case received a sentence of ninety lashes and six months in prison.
And although the rape cases sited invariably involve female bodies betrayed by their image on screen, the next chapter will explore the deception of gender in jawal culture and the transgressions across the “line in the sand drawn across an indifferently figured body…a body subject to rape.“

No comments: