New Criticals

Princess Hijab as Queer Interventionalist: Part One

This is the story of a young woman fighting every day for a noble cause: she wants to “hijabize” advertising. [She] knows that L’Oréal and Dark&Lovely have been killing her little by little. She feels that the veil is no longer that white. She feels contaminated […]With her spray paint and black marker pen, she is out to hijabize advertising. Even Kate Moss is targeted. Princess Hijab knows all about visual terrorism! [1]

These are the opening lines of the online manifesto of French, graffiti artist, Princess Hijab, who began paste-ing her first “hijab-ads” (alleged self-portraits according to some bloggers) around Paris metro stations in 2006, before moving to her signature tagging, or “hijabizing” aesthetic in 2007. Stealthily tagging large, designer clothing advertisements in the metro stations with black headscarves that menacingly drip and ooze beyond the bounds of their material reality, the hijab worn by Muslim women as a sign of sexual modesty and religious devotion, is wielded as a prop within the artist’s fight against the “visual terrorism” of Western culture.

On her blog, Princess Hijab’s manifesto denies her association with any group: "Don’t forget," the artist demands, "[Princess Hijab] acts upon her own free will. She is not involved in any lobby or movement be it political, religious or to do with advertising. In fact, the Princess is an insomniac-punk. She is the leader of an artistic fight, nothing else" [2].  Despite her claims of self-interested anti-consumerism, Princess Hijab engages both the notion of "spectacle" as proposed by the French Situationists in the 1960s [3],  and Western feminist readings of the headscarf as a symbol of women’s oppression [4]. Through this amalgamation of theoretical moorings and methodological practices, Princess Hijab creates her unsettling critique of capitalist consumerism that cunningly underscores a perversely religious devotion to commodity culture.

Framed by the Paris metro, an underground space informed by a long history of sexual encounter forcibly hidden or erased from the script of the functional, readable design of the city, adds another layer of significance to the larger implications of Princess’s “hijabizing” effect. Endemic of its very medium—which “criminally” alters and polices State-sanctioned spaces—Princess Hijab’s tags necessitate looking by way of unlawful encounters mobilized by bodies within the urban narrative. As Norman Mailer writes in “The Faith of Graffiti” (1974), “graffiti is your presence on their Presence…hanging your alias on their scene” [5].  Thus, graffiti performs a similarly subversive reclaiming of public space, as that performed by the hijab, which takes back segments of Western public space in the name of an exoticized, interior privacy.

Princess Hijab’s work, which brings graffiti and the veil together in Parisian train stations, consequently provides insight into the historical fetishization of the hijab itself, by emphasizing the centrality of travel to its creation as a text of inside/outside. Tourists, Frantz Fanon, wrote in his 1959 essay, “Algeria Unveiled,” noticed first and the foremost the veil worn by women when visiting the Arab world. Fanon surmised then that, “The veil characterizes Arab society” [6].

Paired with sparkling diamond rings, and the exposed, unblemished skin of photo-shopped, white models, the aggressive, visual obstruction of the hijab may be read, by some, as the social silencing through which women’s bodies become objects for consumptive pleasure and possession. And yet, at the same time, the hijab, at the tip of the Princess’s black marker, points to another, more subversive subtext, when applied, not to the female body, but to the corporeality of the male form.

Princess’s “hijabizing” of male underwear models in Dolce&Gabbana ads redirects the viewer's attention to an under-discussed queer politics circulating within the appropriaiton and deployment of the veil in popular culture. This ad, which features five swimmers of the Italian National team (Emiliano Brembilla, Paolo Bossini, Alessandro Terrin, Mirko Di Tora, and Nicola Cassio) who competed in the World Swimming Championships in July 2009, sells an image of white-washed, classicly sculpted and "perfected" male bodies (ostensibly anticipating the dialogue sparked by the media's heightened interest in hijab-wearing female athletes at the London 2012 Olympics). The ad campaign, which was set in the swimming pools of the historical Circolo Aniene di Roma, and shot by internationally acclaimed Peruvian photographer Mariano Vivanco, appeared in issues and markets around the world in July and August of that year.

Despite the dozen or so published responses to Princess Hijab’s work, discussion of her queering of the hijab’s status as a marker of controlled female sexuality through the ephemerally, imposed hijab drag, remains neglected, if not deliberately unattended. Too many bloggers and interpretators end their investigation of Princess Hijab's work with questions concerning only the artist's own intentions and biography. It is not the artist's own personal biases, however, but her posturing of the hijab as a vehicle for an encounter with the marginalized, but ever present queer global citizen. It is here, through this lens, that the work opens up onto salient dialogues about the entangled economies of surveillance and consumption today.

Consider two questions, which will structure the discussion that follows in "part two" of Princess Hijab as Interventionalist: 1) What are the larger social and political implications of the Princess’s queering of commodified heteronormativity? And 2) how does the viewer-as-commuter/tourist participate? In other words, what audience or public do these images create, and how does the viewership straddle or fuse both local and the global scales of queer sexual economy?


[1] “Princess Hijab: Thursday, September 24, 2009” <> Accessed 3 March 2010. This manifesto has been recently removed from Princess Hijab’s blog, and consequently exists only in reproduction on webpages such as ViaComIT.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For further reading on "spectacle" as theorized by the Situationists, refer to Guy Debord’s seminal text, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1995).

[4] For elaboration on the depth of this debate, refer to Christian Joppke’s Veil: Mirror of Identity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), Afsaneh Najmabadi’s “Veiled Discourse-Unveiled Bodies,” Feminist Studies v. 19 n. 3 (Autumn, 1993), and Joan Wallach Scott’s, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[5] Norman Mailer quoted in Alex Baker, et al. Beautiful Losers: Essays (New York: Iconoclast: in conjunction with Distributed Art Publishers, 2004), 198.

[6] Frantz Fanon, “Algeria Unveiled,” reprinted in Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art eds. David Baily and Gilane Tawadros (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 74.

Images collected from here and here.