When I invited artist Marie Rim to Middlebury College, I didn't know what to expect. Her project "Burka Fittings Across America" asks randomly selected people to try on a burka for a few minutes and to look at themselves in a full-length mirror. Her artistic goal is to explore "otherness, embodiment and empathy, as well as the meanings Americans associate with the burka".
Some people are outraged that she is appropriating the burka for her own purposes. Others worry that it will reinforce Islamophobia. If you are optimistic, like Rim, you hope it will undermine people's preconceived notions and generate greater cross-cultural understanding. This is not your grandfather's art project, blandly hanging on a gallery or museum wall.
Marie Rim grew up on the East Coast and is a painter by training. While based in Los Angeles, she began to work with wedding dresses, redirecting her art in a tactile and interactive direction. She invited passersby to don garments she had made from second-hand wedding dresses and to examine themselves in the mirror. It was playful and good-natured. Everybody walked away happy.
Then she switched to the burka. When she tried it on for the first time, her reflection overwhelmed her. It concealed so much of her body that almost all outward markers disappeared. She realised how much feeling visibly gay had affected her at a profound level. Of course, she was hardly planning to wear the burka full time, nor was she particularly attuned to the cultural and religious significance of the burka in these early experiments. For Marie, the burka simply helped her grasp her personal experience of "otherness".
By her own admission, Marie was naïve in what she did next. She took her show on the road - literally - by asking people on the street if they would like to experience wearing a burka and looking at themselves in the mirror. She has done this in 18 states so far, and has plans to carry out the project in all 50 states.
Mixed emotions and reactions
I invited Marie to Middlebury College as a guest artist for my seminar on "'The Muslim': Politics and Perceptions in the West". She presented a short video and pictures of her artistic subjects with quotations from their experiences. She conducted burka fittings in front of the college dining hall and then spoke with my students for an hour.
Seeing the reactions to her project from people on and off campus was eye-opening. If Marie was naïve when launching her project, I was naïve in my own way. Although I study Islamophobia, I had guessed that most people would find wearing a burka demystifying. Others on campus - some of whom expressed deep doubts about inviting Marie in the first place - probably assumed just the opposite.
The reality was much more complicated. Reactions among burka-wearers were far from uniform. Most people kept it on for just a minute or two, and all of them looked at themselves in a full-length mirror only after the black robe, face covering (with two roughly inch-high by three-inch wide eye openings), and scarf were completely on. Women and men participated, as did Muslims and non-Muslims. All together more than a dozen people tried it on.
"... it [the burka] is also a mirror, seemingly reflecting back to the participant whatever assumptions he or she brought to the experience in the first place."
The majority had powerful and negative reactions. One simply said, "get it off". Another said she felt like a monster. Others felt they had lost their individuality or their ability to express themselves through something as instinctive as a smile. They felt claustrophobic or trapped, scary like a Sith Lord, or "freaked out", as if in a shroud. A few had tremendous difficulty articulating any reaction, struck speechless. One commented that she felt sorry for women who had to wear the burka all the time.
A sizeable minority, on the other hand, did not have these reactions at all. One participant said she felt protected and safe, and another mentioned that she had worn a garment that covered much of her body while in Morocco and that she appreciated the anonymity it provided her as a Western woman.
One of my students who tried it on said she felt mysterious and powerful, like a ninja. Unlike others, she did not take off the burka right away, but rather walked into the dining hall to gauge the reaction of her fellow students. Heads turned. She approached friends one by one, most of whom did not recognise her, though one woman from Afghanistan addressed her by name, seemingly adept at seeing through the cloth. Reactions ranged as widely as those who tried it on, from friends who found her frightening to those who proclaimed her "cute".
There were also a wide range of responses by burka-wearers that were nowhere near as freighted. Many people commented on the restricted sight-lines, the greater difficulty of making oneself heard, the light-weight cloth, the black uniformity (wondering if there were different colours available), or the fact that it felt like putting on a costume rather than a cultural symbol. One said he felt like an Orthodox priest.
Among the observers and the passersby, a few people were clearly intrigued and some were put-off. Almost nobody walked by without noticing. Throughout this process, for both the participants and the observers, I did my best to add context and background about the burka. I am a political scientist who studies race and ethnic politics, not a scholar of Islam, nor a specialist in burkas or cultures where they are habitually worn.
Perceptions of the burka
My goal was to let the art project unfold in a way that lets participants be true to their emotions and reactions, while also trying to explain what I knew about burka wearing. Some women were forced to wear them, yes, but some women also chose to wear them. They were as much a cultural marker as a religious one. It was possible to identify the individual wearer and her body language with practice - in other words, communication was possible even though there was a burka in the mix.
This mediation between the individual experience and the larger social, political and cultural context turned out to be essential. My students grilled Marie on how she was building this in to her project. They wanted to be sure that her motives were good ones. Unless those were true, and unless she provided information for her subjects, they feared the project risked being hurtful to Muslims and harmful to non-Muslim perceptions of the burka.
I couldn't agree more. The burka is like a prism that refracts reactions into more shades and tones than I had imagined. At the same time, it is also a mirror, seemingly reflecting back to the participant whatever assumptions he or she brought to the experience in the first place.
Happily, Marie was able to communicate her desire to proceed as sensitively as possible. She also fully recognised the need to partner with scholars and knowledgeable individuals who can provide information and context for participants. After all the feedback she has received, Marie is thinking through her next steps.
Instead of simply displaying her project in a conventional art environment, she is considering developing a website with a blog component where her burka-wearers, critics and everyone can weigh in on the project.
No matter what your reaction to "Burka Fittings Across America", the project undeniably creates friction. It is potentially inflammatory. But if handled in the right way, it also has the potential to produce at least as much light as heat.
Erik Bleich is professor of Political Science and Director of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College and is the author of The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
Follow him on Twitter: @ErikBleich1
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.