My granddaughter, Irene, is going off to college. Last night, at a family gathering to wish her well, conversation, as it often is when we’re all together, was lively and veered in quick succession from one exciting topic to another. Having recently traveled to London and witnessed some surprising fashion trends, I brought up the subject of the burqa. That’s when Irene shared with us this fascinating essay, which she’s given me permission to post for all to read. [Footnotes and Works Cited not included.]
Sitting poolside at a glamorous hotel in Abu Dhabi, Carrie Bradshaw, Charlotte Yorke, Miranda Hobbes and Samantha Jones observe a group of women clad in burqas eating lunch and chatting on cell phones. The woman on the phone, seemingly on a business call is dressed in a turquoise burqa with a gold sequin trim, while the woman next to her is eating French fries, lifting up the flap on the burqa that covers her mouth for each bite. What really calls attention to these two women in this “modern” Middle East setting is the way that the ladies from New York City observe them. They go about commenting upon their behavior by playing their regular character type roles from Sex and The City – Charlotte seems to be ashamed to look at them, Samantha is loud and outspoken, Miranda is reading them facts out of an Abu Dhabi guide book and Carrie is making punny jokes while reflecting on their cultural differences and similarities. This scene from Sex and the City 2 is one of many that reflect the viewing of women in the Middle East and predominantly Muslim countries. At play here is the “colonial gaze” of the SATC girls who have just touched down in a Middle Eastern country with which they are unfamiliar. The colonial gaze is a way in which Westerners view people of other cultures – it can either have undertones of superiority or fear of the “other” attached to it. They regard the women wearing burqas as oppressed by the patriarchal society in which they are “trapped.” But what also functions as some sort of colonial gaze, more predominantly for the audience watching Sex and the City 2, is the fact that the “modern Middle East” these Manhattan girls visit is a hedonistic Westerners’ paradise. This is a different representation of Middle Eastern culture that plays as equally into the colonial gaze as the oppressive patriarchal society that we have come to know.
There have been many representations of a rich and overflowing Middle East. In Sex and the City 2, the four friends’ journey to Abu Dhabi is an all-expenses-paid-for trip where servants in the hotel produce cocktails and food, glamorous lunches appear by the pool and even a full picnic with golden trays of dates under a gossamer canopy shielding the sun in the middle of the Arabian Desert. This scene appears when the ladies go on a camel ride where they meet a handsome, Danish architect. Samantha then references other depictions of the Middle East as a land of mystery and rich resources in the form of a sexual joke by swooning and crying “he’s the Lawrence of my labia!” Years and years before SATC2 was made, there were countless depictions in art (and later, in cinema) of the Western woman going to the Middle East or the “Orient”, to a land of mystery, sexual desire, exotic experiences and even magic. The Orient, or the East, was where the original colonies were established in the age of colonialism of Europe and the West. These colonies, when depicted as the Orient, were utilized to establish the West as the norm and the East as the “other” – the West and the rest.
This isn’t the only way that hedonism– seeking healing for your soul by means of the senses– has played into recent representations of the Middle East. In relation to women, rapper M.I.A.’s music video for the song “Bad Girls” portrays a hedonistic romp in the dessert. The imagery of the video alludes to the Saudi Arabian driving ban against women, and is arguably in favor of “liberating the women from the shackles of their patriarchal society”. The women in the video are dressed in the kind of garb you might find American rappers wearing today: silk Versace pants; white Nikes, and gold chains and jewelry. M.I.A. appropriates these images from U.S. rap culture and puts them on women with veils, and sticks them in a barren desert landscape. While this video, paired with the political commentary of the song, may seem to be liberating the women, it uses very Orientalized Arab stereotypes to prove its point. Another questionable fact about the video is the lack of actual Arab women cast. Many of the women who are put behind the wheel in the video are masked with silk, leopard print burqas, but there are also a number of androgynous men shown driving. The video plays on stereotypes of Arab males more so than it does females; all of the men in the video are wearing traditional Arab headscarves and white robes while the women are wearing burqas indicating Western influence, such as popular fashions attributed to U.S. rap culture. It has been argued that these Western fashion choices liberate the women from the Arab/Muslim bonds seeing that it is an “unequivocal and unabashed critique of Saudi Arabia’s well-known ban against women driving”. M.I.A.’s previous music videos have used these fashion choices to prove politically-charged points, maybe trying to harness the stick-it-to-the-man type of attitude that can be found in some hip hop music.
Though Western fashion influences are only used in a fictionalized music video, they are very reflective of many contemporary Muslim women and how they dress. “Dress serves as a discursive daily practice of gender,” and Muslim women today use dress as a way to exert their power. A 2004 study charted the practices of dress of Bosnian Muslim refugee women who had relocated to Vermont after the civil war. The way these women dressed borrowed highly from Western norms of dress and utilized “emphasized femininity” in their style of dress to liberate themselves. These Bosnians challenged the traditional Muslim styles of dress such as veils and baggy, shapeless clothing to harness a sense of “hyper femininity”as something liberating.
Many younger Muslim women have been utilizing Western styles in their own fashion, ever since the late 20th century and the early 21st century, to feel control of their bodies and as a means of self-expression. Since then, the trend has bled into the styles of older Muslim women as illustrated by a cross-cultural moment at the denouement of Sex and the City 2: a scene in an Abu Dhabi marketplace, where Samantha has just dropped her bag and a supply of condoms has fallen out. Samantha is then swarmed by Arab men yelling at her, to which she replies by holding up the condoms and her middle finger, screaming “YES! I HAVE SEX!” This scene is indeed a colonial look at the Arab and Muslim men in the Middle East, but the colonial gaze soon comes into play again just seconds later, when Samantha is rescued by a group of burqa-clad women. Samantha and friends are taken into a storeroom where the Manhattan women and the Abu Dhabi women bond over their love/hate relationship with men, menopause and finally, high fashion. The burqa-clad women then reveal that they are wearing the latest designs from Gucci and Prada underneath their black robes. This seems to be the first time that the SATC girls feel at home in this strange Arab country, and it is through Western fashions.
More than a movie scene, this trend of dressing in haute couture for pleasure underneath covering garments, is very popular amongst contemporary Arab and Muslim women. Many women in Arab countries who practice the hijab or the burqa will wear them out and take them off as soon as they are in their private homes. Western culture is highly received in the Middle East, the women see these Western fashions and images and scenarios that seem much more liberating than their current situation, though it may not seem like it works the other way around. This is where the other half, maybe the better known half, of Middle Eastern women’s roles comes in, the half dictated by the patriarchy of a traditional Muslim society, and where the Western colonial gaze plays a massive role.
Islamic governments and the powerful men who run them largely dictate the modes of representation of women. Most prominent is the Iranian government, which has gone back and forth in terms of women’s roles in society and how they are portrayed visually. During the Iranian revolution in 1979, there was a campaign to modernize Iran and cure it of its “backwards” ways. Part of this was having soldiers with batons tearing veils off the heads of Muslim women. Though this “modernizing” revolution may seem like it did a favor to the women of Iran, the women felt a different way. Some of the women this happened to felt like they were being violated. That they had something very special taken away from them unceremoniously. Modern day Iran, in wake of this modernization campaign, still goes back and forth between women’s rights advocacy and oppression. There exists, in contemporary Iranian society, a “fashion police” which enforces the dress code that Iranian women must comply with – loose clothing (preferably a black or white robe) when going out, as well as either a full-face veil or scarf.
If you ask women in Islamic countries whether the burqa is a religious or cultural construct, you will get a variety of answers. Some may say that the burqa is simply part of a religious practice and that by choosing it one is performing an act of worship. There is no direct mention of the burqa in the Quran; the closest mention to it would be “O prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, as well as all believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more conducive to their being recognized as decent women and not molested.” This passage of the Quran only states that women dress in modest clothing; this same sentiment applies to Islamic men as well. This is where the burqa changes from a purely religious manifestation to one of Islamic culture.
The burqa has made its way into the laws and legislatures of Middle Eastern countries who hold the teachings of Islam as the supreme law of the land. The laws of the burqa can take on two different forms in terms of laws. Some countries (such as Turkey) take a more secular approach, giving the women the freedom to choose the way they dress themselves in terms of the burqa. However, the laws in some more conservative Islamic countries (such as Saudi Arabia) have punishments for failure to wear a burqa set as beatings, harassment, or worse.There has even been the creation of the so-called “Afghan burqa”, which is one of the more extreme constrictions of women’s dress codes– this is enforced by the Taliban.
An important component of the burqa and the decisions surrounding it has to do with self-expression and the kind of identity Islamic women wish to create for themselves. “My body is my business,” states Ms. Yamsmin, a 21 year-old Islamic woman living in Australia. “I shouldn’t have to defend what I wear to anyone. The burqa is part of my religion, and the fact that I choose to wear it does not make me any less human.” This is an argument that many Arab/Muslim women will use, whether it is defending a sacred part of their religion or the clothes they choose to wear on a day-to-day basis. The change and continuity in styles of dress reflect one thing of contemporary Arab/Muslim women: the way they wish to be perceived, the way they wish to build their own individual identity and the kind of individual they wish to be in the greater scope of their society. Even with this sincere motive, there is hardly any escaping the colonial gaze that comes with styles of dress.
The American colonial gaze tends to view the Muslim countries that oppress women as backward, foreign, medieval, etc. We may not only find the country oppressive but we ask why these women would let this happen because we cannot possibly see how anyone could put up with this kind of treatment. But sometimes we forget that not every culture has to confine to our own, though many cultures try. The American colonial gaze feels more comfortable cheering on the women who appropriate Western styles and calling it liberation. However, when we are confronted with the traditional Muslim experience of women, we feel uncomfortable and a feeling of superiority that comes with colonial gaze sets in. We sometimes fail to understand the cultural norms of other countries because we write them off as wrong. We hear so much of the wrong the Arab/Muslim patriarchal society is doing to their women, and in some cases it is very oppressive, but the styles of dress that go along with it, such as veils, hijabs and burqas, are decisions that these women can make about the way they wish to be portrayed. “Dress ‘tells us who we are, what we have been and what we are becoming,’” states William Keenan, and this statement holds true not only for the Arab/Muslim women but also for women all over the world. Getting caught up in issues of gendered dress finds us in a perpetual cycle of the colonial gaze, but the women will chose how they portray their liberation.