Theory Teacher's Blog

Ninja Women in Iran and Saussure’s Theory of the Linguistic Sign

hijab or shinobi shozoku?

This past week, the internet was buzzing with news of Iran’s secret army of “deadly ninja women.” It sounds like something straight out of the plot of a James Bond movie, in which the world’s favorite “global hero” would have to seduce the deadly but also sexy ninja Muslim girl and save the planet from nuclear holocaust. The Washington Post imagined director Quentin Tarantino taking on this seemingly made-for-cinema topos. Of course, Iran has no such “army” of secret sexy soldiers who are experts in the art of invisibility. Rather, this is merely a club sport, like so many club sports for men and women around the world. In the United States today, thousands of women take kickboxing classes, and thousands more take pole dancing. If we can imagine Hollywood making a movie in which James Bond or some other international man of mystery falls in love with an Iranian ninja woman, can we also imagine Iran’s well-regarded movie industry making an action thriller with an Iranian secret agent seducing an American ex-cheerleader in order to prevent the world from another American-instigated war in the Middle East? The producers of the film would be sitting around a table in Tehran debating whether to make that character a kickboxer or a pole dancer.

What I want to argue here, since my theory class is just now beginning its unit on theories about language and signs, is that this video perfectly illustrates Ferdinand de Saussure’s famous point about the relationship between the signifier and the signified being constituted by a logic of difference. In this case, the signifier is the veil that has become such a politically loaded symbol of Islam, but is, of course, also an essential feature of the Japanese art of ninjitsu. Before I go on, please check out the video of Iran’s ninja women that has gone viral on YouTube.

Now that’s badaaassss!!!

There is a lot one can say about this video, but the point I want to make is about the nature of signs. One of the arguments of the structuralist linguistics presented be Ferdinand de Saussure is that language does not merely refer to things. Rather, language is a system constituted by difference. As human subjects, we enter a system of language that we come to understand even if we have never seen the things that the words refer to. Consequently, if the system of language pre-exists our experience of things, and if meaning is derived not from the thing itself but from the principle of difference, then we might begin to suspect that language affects how we see the world.

The particular sign that I want to focus on is the veil and headscarf (hijab) that is a standard feature for Muslim women and for ninjas. In European and American culture, the sign of the veil is typically understood as a symbol of Islam’s oppression of women. In this sense, the veil and headscarf  is understood by the West as a sign of difference –how they are different from us. Many connotations are attached to this one symbol, and it is somewhat famously controversial, but the strongest connotation for Europeans and Americans is oppression. What is curious about this symbol is how divorced from any sense of the ordinary, everyday life in the countries where hijab is commonly worn. So, the assumption in the western media is that all Iranian women are oppressed, and the meaning of this article of clothing is oppression. The piece of clothing functions as a sign — a sign overloaded with meaning, kind of like the way the Scarlet Letter A functions as sign for the Puritans in Hawthorne’s famous novel. An example of the western assumption is the rather chauvinistic Atlantic.com article about the women ninjas. This article wrongly assumes that the women ninjas are resisting state sponsored oppression. But this is no underground movement. In fact, the ninja clubs are part of a general state sponsored fitness program, the exact opposite of the Atlantic.com‘s idiotic assumption. What the Atlantic.com also neglects to mention is that 60% of all college graduates in Iran are women, and it has one of the most progressive family medical leave programs in the world. (The United States, in contrast, has one of the least progressive.) Considering that feminists have long been arguing for a more progressive family medical act, why is it so hard for American feminists to appreciate Iran? Why is hijab understood as oppressive and bikinis and pole dancing liberating? Despite the fact that Iranian women play sports, western governments won’t allow them to play in competitions for one reason only — the hijab clothing, simply because of its symbolic meaning.

What I think is so fascinating about the above video is that, when I am watching it, I can’t quite tell which part of the outfit is hijab and which part is the ninja’s outfit, called in Japanese shinobi shozoku. And this is key, because when we think about ninjas in the Japanese context, rather than the Iranian context, we think of that sort of clothing not as a symbol of oppression, but as a symbol of power. Hence, in the imagination of the other culture (always exaggerated according to a logic of difference — of us versus them), this same item of clothing in one context means weakness and in another context means strength. And this is why I think Saussure is correct when he says that the meaning of signs is not so much based on the referent (the thing that you can point to with your index finger — in this case, the clothing), but to the whole system of signs that the one sign is a part of.

And of course, the reason for all this odd fascination in American pop culture with the ninja women in Iran at this particular moment is that the United States happens to be leading an international embargo of Iran’s economy and threatening Iran with the possibility of an attack. Iran, meanwhile, continues to develop its nuclear program. It is not the point of this blog to make a political argument for or against the embargo or to speculate on the likelihood of the United States or Israel attacking Iran. Rather, I just want to point out how strange it is for Americans to be so fascinated by ninja women in Iran at this time. Or maybe it’s not strange at all. Maybe it’s all too predictable. If we read the signs, the contradictory double meaning of the veil says a lot about America’s confused and troubled relationship with this other country. For the western fantasy – the kind of fantasy we see in James Bond movies — the hijab is both a symbol of power and of weakness. It is the image of the woman he desires and the image of the woman he is supposed to scorn or pity, the woman he is both scared of and wants to save. And if you think I’m exaggerating, see this really gross website forum where American men have already posted lewd comments about either submitting to sexy Iranian women or dominating them. In conclusion, the American interpretation of the ninja woman in Iran and the sign of the veil is rife with all sorts of ideological contradictions. One can understand why American pop culture would have so much fun entertaining this contradictory fantasy, but let us hope that our political leaders don’t think and act like adolescent James Bonds.

February 20, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. It’s certainly interesting in an anthropological aspect. Here, the media’s perception of the “other,” is a bunch of female ninjas waiting to kick American ass.

    Comment by kjkerr | April 2, 2013 | Reply


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