My Chain Hits My Chest When I’m Banging on the Dashboard (Or A Woman’s Right to Drive)

Women’s sacred rights – employment and pay equality, economic independence, pro-choice support, just to name a few – are being put at stake all over the world. Times are dark for everybody and for women, in particular: they have always been the first victims of economic crisis, the first who lose their jobs (if they have one) and whose rights are often trampled by governments, in the name of  vague “emergency measures” to take if they want to save their countries. Times are dark for everybody, but it has always been like this for some women, those who actually have no rights, not even the right to drive. This is what happens in Saudi Arabia, for example, where women caught driving face corporal punishment. Women driving (which means being free to move without men, if they wish) are considered a symbol of moral decline, which could “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce”. It would be interesting to explain why women are seen as the root of all evil (just think of the role of Eve in the Garden of Eden), but I’d better not annoy readers with my considerations. What I think is important to point out is that the road towards equality is longer and harder than ever, but breaking patriarchal rules and traditions is everyone’s duty. M.I.A., the British singer and composer of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, has always taken seriously her public role and uses her art to speak out about social issues. Bad Girls, her latest music video, directed by Romain Gavras [1], deals with the driving ban and re-works some well-known cinematic atmospheres with cultural elements from the Middle East.

I’ve always rejected the label of being a fashion blogger, because I believe in the cultural and social – and not in the economic/purely aesthetic – importance of fashion and I’ve always tried to go beyond appearances, when it comes to fashion shows, tv shows and music videos alike. It’s true my introduction is political, but the relevance of fashion cannot be left out, because the achievement of women’s rights goes through fashion, as well.

The singer’s flamboyant style has been toned down here, but the result is far from being boring. In the opening scene of the video [2], she wears a black t-shirt, a gold bead necklace and an army green MA-1 flight jacket, which hints at a military imagery.

The same setting – the desert and fires burning in the background – can be found later: in this case, M.I.A. is only wearing her t-shirt and a pair of patterned jeans.

The second change of outfit includes a black long-sleeved top with metallic bra-effect appliqués, patterned high-waist trousers, stacked gold bracelets and a straw hat; the gold bead necklace is always there.

The video doesn’t really have a plot, but the singer has a definite role: even though she never drives, she rules a group of armed women who actually drive. Her “crew” wears traditional  jilbābs and hijabs with an aggressive vibe: animal print and gold lamé are so Cher in Las Vegas.

The third change of outfit brings things on a higher level: M.I.A. opts for some interesting layering, which includes a palm-printed top (Donatella, you must have had a role in all this), green lamé leggings and a Claw Money one-of-a-kind hooded jacket.

The recurring presence of lamé (or metallic spandex) is a reference to the 80s – disco music meeting hip-hop and ghettoblasters.

This impressive scene is the prelude to the most talked-about part. The 4.12 minutes of the video are packed with car races à la Fast and the Furious and crazy acrobatics, but it’s certainly peculiar that the protagonist herself is among those who dangerously sit on a car running on two wheels.

M.I.A. explained: “I thought I was gonna die on the shoot when I saw the drifting. It was a four day shoot so everyone was on edge the whole time specifically ME when I had to do bluesteel singing to the camera while the cars did doughnuts on the wet road 10 feet away.” She may have been scared all the time, but she delivered an impressive performance. Filing her nails with a pink Swiss pocket knife is so badass that only heroines from a Tarantino movie could do the same and look equally cool. In this scene, she wore a yellow shearling hooded jacket, leopard-printed trousers, a pastel green shirt with a plastic overlay and gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses.

Not only sitting, but even leaning on the side of the car! I am in awe.

The plastic overlay of the shirt is a quirky detail which introduces another recurring theme in the video, connected to the 80s aesthetic.

Do you remember the impressive blue lights on the Nissan Skyline seen in 2 Fast 2 Furious? The same concept has been used – and developed – in the car above, whose doors are completely transparent. You gotta love such a show-off of car technology and tacky style!

M.I.A. is on board, wearing another hooded item – a green coat.

The hat she wears here can stand for different cultural references: it’s similar to the Stetson hat worn by the Run DMC (in this case, the 80s hip-hop vibe is more present than ever), but it’s also reminiscent of the Haredi wide-brimmed hat, a symbol of Orthodox Judaism (a reference to the mixture/clash of cultures between Palestine and Israel, maybe). Whatever the origin, the gold chains hanging from it give it a strong Middle Eastern vibe.

This scene includes a dancing routine. All the back-up dancers are wearing pastel outfits with plastic overlays, while the singer is wearing a gorgeous iridescent tracksuit, white shoes and the black hat with golden chains.

Later in the video, the singer appears with the same outfit, plus a transparent plastic raincoat, the same black hat minus the gold chains. Here, she’s wearing a green bandana instead, thus adding a further layer of complexity to her outfit (American gang subculture, anyone?).

In a short scene, M.I.A. wears a gold jacket, an animal-printed headscarf and an orange scarf tied on it – another variation on the mix&match theme.

The last change of outfit is probably my favourite: in this part of the video, she cheers the reckless drivers who are competing on the street. The main piece of this ensemble is a black jumpsuit embellished by golden zippers, accessorized with a statement belt.

Her head is covered by a scarf, kept in place by another scarf (in the tradition, this is the function of the egal). This scarf is characterized by a zebra print and a Greek fret motif all around, so reminiscent of some Versace designs from the 80s.

I’m not sure if her scarf is a vintage piece by Versace, but if you take a close look at the jumpsuit’s collar, you’ll see it’s decorated by a gold Greek fret motif, as well.

In this behind-the-scene shot, we can see she also wore a pair of lace-up combat boots and gold jewellery.

Before closing, here are two screencaps showing what some of the women in the video wore. The one in the picture above wore an animal-printed jilbāb and scarves with different prints as a hijab, kept in place by a golden egal. The strongest piece of this outfit is definitely the embellished leather gloves, a glamourous version of the classic driving gloves.

I love this shot, where another woman of the crew appears. She’s wearing an animal-print jilbāb and a polka-dot hijab which hides most of her face, kept in place by a black egal decorated by a gold necklace. Over-decoration can also be found in the car seat covers, printed with pictures of women apparently taken from Western fashion magazines.

Besides being interesting from an iconographic point of view (the hip-hop/Middle East cross-over is very appealing), I think the message expressed by the video is its strongest point. Every woman has the right to drive, which means everyone should be able to live her life at its fullest without restraints, to lead her life where she prefers, without any conditioning or bans imposed by men. It’s not a case that M.I.A.’s anthem says she was “born free” and the same should be said for women all around the world. Things won’t change overnight, but I think it’s extremely important for everyone to focus on what we can do NOW, in our daily life, to make things change. Governments can take decisions to make our life worse, but it’s our duty to speak out and express our disappointment with determination. I’ve never believed in the saviour with the shining armour (and I’m sure M.I.A. shares the same thought): WE are the masters of our own freedom and we mustn’t let anyone hold us down.

[1] Gavras also directed the controversial music video for M.I.A.’s Born Free in 2010. He’s the son of Costa-Gavras, the Greek film-maker who has often directed socially committed films, dealing with violence, oppression, justice and totalitarian regimens.

[2] It was shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco.

6 comments

  1. I have but one point of contention: In the United States, no one was a ‘right’ to drive, not men, not women, nor anyone in between. Everyone who can meet the licensing requirements and obtains the proper license/registration/insurance is granted the PRIVILEGE to drive, but no one has the right to drive, hence how your driving privileges can be taken away after a long enough pattern of behavior. I am a man, and I’ve had my ability to drive taken from me many times by the state, mainly for driving like what is shown in MIA’s video.
    The vocabulary of our culture has inexplicably confused the concept of rights with the concept of privileges many times in recent cases. Firearms are a great example of the corollary to this phenomenon. Owning a firearm is a Right, explicitly codified in the Constitution, yet we’ve somehow bastardized that right into being perceived as a privilege. Anyway, food for semantic thought.

    1. Thanks so much for your interesting comment.

      You’re right when you say the concepts of “privilege” and “right” are often confused. When referring to a woman’s right to drive, I was actually referring to the specific situation in Saudi Arabia, where women are not even allowed to obtain a driving license, despite the licensing requirements they can have. In this case, they are not given the privilege to drive, something which – I think – should be granted to anybody has the requirements to get what it takes (a license) to drive.

    2. you are completely missing the point, sir. The fact that women have a RIGHT to drive literally means – they should be allowed to drive. (They also should have the privilege to drive). Please don’t stray from the topic on a technicality and make it about the US (once again, like most Americans like to do).

      This is about the poor women in the middle east. and they deserve equal rights.

  2. Do you know what brand of necklace M.I.A. is wearing throughout the video? It’s a piece of continuity that hit me and I would love to know where to find one.

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