Princess Hijab is Paris’s most elusive street artist. Striking at night with dripping black paint s/he slaps black Muslim veils on the half-naked airbrushed women – and men – of the metro’s fashion adverts. Her/his guerrilla niqab art has been exhibited from New York to Vienna, sparking debates about feminism and fundamentalism – yet her/his identity remains a mystery. S/he dons spandex tights, shorts and a hoodie, a long black wig totally obscuring her face, one thing is clear. S/he won’t say if s/he’s a Muslim and may not be a woman.
Who is s/he? A French Muslim woman in hijab raging at the system, rare thing on Paris’s male-dominated graffiti scene? Is s/he a religious fundamentalist making a point about female flesh? But s/he likes to leaves a witty smattering of buttock cheeks and midriff on display. If s/he’s a leftwing feminist making a point about the exploitation of women, it’s odd that s/he always flees the scene of her crimes. Is s/he Muslim?
For Princess Hijab real identity is of no importance, but the veil has many hidden meanings: it can be as profane as it is sacred, consumerist and sanctimonious, from Arabic Gothicism to the condition of man. The interpretations are numerous and of course carries great symbolism on race, sexuality and real and imagined geography.
Princess Hijab sees her/himself as part of a new “graffiti of minorities” reclaiming the streets. “If it was only about the burqa ban, my work wouldn’t have a resonance for very long. But I think the burqa ban has given a global visibility to the issue of integration in France,” she says. “We definitely can’t keep closing off and putting groups in boxes, always reducing them to the same old questions about religion or urban violence. Education levels are better and we can’t have the old Manichean discourse anymore.”
The hijab debates first erupted in 1989 when three high-school girls were suspended after they refused to remove their Islamic headscarves at a school in a suburb of Paris. Years of controversy led to former President Jacques Chirac passing a bill in 2004 banning “religious symbols” in schools on the grounds that they clashed with France’s cherished notions of secularization. The previous president Nicolas Sarkozy upheld the ban on burqas and headscarves in public spaces, stating, “the burqa is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We cannot accept women in cages, amputated of all dignity, on French soil.”
Princess Hijab sees her/his work as a “cartography of crime” a mapping out of the underbelly of the city where “I bring inside everything that’s been excreted out.”
Princess Hijab argues that the human right of expression has been displaced by publicists, advertisers, and the machinery of capitalist, commodified culture, and her/his work explores how something as intimate as the human body has become as distant as a message from your corporate sponsor. Her/his guerrilla art is “innocent and criminal, ancient and dystopian, intimate and political. Princess Hijab chose the veil because it does what art should do: it challenges, it frightens, and it re-imagines. Also guerrilla art presents a mystery and an impishness consistently missing from serious discourses on the hijab.” The terms “hijabizing” or “hijabism” continue to define his/her work. Could hijabizing ads could be a way to ‘take back’ women’s rights to their bodies?
If it turns out that Princess Hijab is not a Muslim it would lend credibility to the idea that the dislike of being exposed to ‘visual aggression’ is not necessarily rooted in religious belief.