Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘Ce qui dit la pluie’.
Invisibility can signal erasure. Qanta Ahmed’s In the Land of Invisible Women, subtitled A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, describes shopping for the author’s first abbayah (burqa), “a flowing robe that covers the entire length of the body, from head to foot. … As I fastened the abbayah in front of the mirror in the makeshift dressing room, I watched my eradication. Soon I was completely submerged in black. No trace of my figure remained. My androgyny was complete.” [28, 37]
Not exactly androgynous but deliberately charmless are the orthodox women of another tradition, disguised by wigs and long sleeves, guilty until proven innocent of seductive intent.
A professor whose talent I admired once told me, “If you want to become a philosopher, you will have to destroy your femininity.” But philosophy begins in wonder – not in an intellectual abbayah.
In The Education of Henry Adams, that memoirist of the nineteenth century saw the American woman as reduced to the status of clothes rack on which her husband had hung his pricey proofs of success in his world. For Adams, this rendered invisible the Virgin, the Venus – the woman as a great force in her own right.
On the other hand, I prized invisibility as a city-girl skill: to stay in motion, glide and weave and swivel through the densest crowd so as not to arrest anybody’s gaze. Don’t think about parking here, I’m out of reach, eat my dust and no hard feelings. It didn’t always work. In the pre-dawn streets, when the men felt invisible and didn’t need to read your body language or eat your dust, they got more dirty-mouthed.
Beyond offense and defense, invisibility may carry its own deeper meaning. One of my teachers at New York’s Art Students’ League shared this Chinese definition of Art: “the spirit of life through the rhythm of things.” Spirit isn’t visible. It’s seen by indirection, not thrust forward or put in the front window. Could that be an ingredient in the recipe of the feminine?
To such a question, one does not like to say yes or no. One wants to preserve invisibility.