niqab and the burqa: from exotic to extreme
inspired by one of my fellow sister bloggers icons, a black-and-white sketching of a woman clad from head-to-toe in the traditional afghani burqa with no trace of facial or bodily features, i too wanted something similar to identify me on the blogosphere. i began my icon search by typing in the word "niqab" in the Google Image search engine. the majority of the image results were close-up shots of the eyes of muslimaat peering through mostly black niqabs. as these images did not meet the quality of COMPLETE concealment that i was looking for, i decided to modify my search by exchanging the word "niqab" with the word "burqa." the first image: Lil' Kim, a very lewd female rapper on the cover of One World magazine, her eyes gazing out of a burgundy burqa which just barely covers her neckline, her breasts on downward completely exposed save for a matching skimpy burgundy string bikini. as i perused through the rest of the images it became clear to me that if by modifying my search i was looking for something more discrete, i was mistaken. sure, there were many images of Muslim women covered in the traditional burqa, however, peppered amidst these images were other images of mostly white European women donning some semblance of the burqa as if donning some sexy piece of lingerie. although the Lil' Kim image definitely took the cake in the "burqa as exotic" category, there were two others that were close matches. one was a series of six digressional images showing the transformation of a woman in burqa to an image of britney spears. as the images neared the one of britney spears the burqa's conciliatory effect became less and less apparant. the other image was actually a part of a series called "The Burka Project," which is a series of photos taken by reknowned pornographic/erotic photographers of white European models posing in the burqa in various locales throughout Paris and Vienna.
while this paradox should have shocked me, it didn't. instead i was reminded of a "Third World Documentary" course i took in college in which we read an essay written by an Algerian revolutionary during the Algerian Revolution against France. The Algerian revolutionary dedicates an entire section of his essay to the symblolic nature of Muslim women's complete covering, how the burqa-like garb that was worn by many of the Algerian women during the time of the war became affiliated with revolution because of its strategic use in the war. Algerian women would participate in the Algerian resistance by transporting guns to the revolutionaries, easily maneuvering through city streets unnoticed while they concealed weaponry underneath their flowing garments. Women were also used as secret messengers, again being able to utlize their invisibility in the public sphere. When the French eventually figured out this otherwise secret tactic of the Algerian revolutionaries, the women's conciliatory garb, which was once viewed as a mark of innocence and served to render women invisible, now became branded with the mark of revolutionary resistance.
in addition, the author of the essay speaks about the whole orientalist "Muslim/Eastern woman as exotic" prototype and how this view, while it was perpetuated by European men, was reviled by European women. European men found the secretive, modest, timidity of the Muslim woman to be exotic and seductive. Indeed if you read many journals and novels of the past you will find stories of the "Eastern woman" clad in her flowing gown with nothing of her body or face to be seen except for maybe a hand or foot intriguing some male European character/explorer, tempting him with the unseen, luring him into some alley or harem where he is amazed to find hordes of women just like her ready to satisfy his every need. in the essay of the Algerian revolutionary he talks about how this obsession with the "Eastern woman as exotic" threatened the white European woman because in essence the Eastern woman was everything she was not. back in the day, the women of the West were basically stripped of any sexuality or sensuality. this was coupled with the whole Christian doctrine of "sex is for reproduction not for pleasure." in addition to being threatened by this perceived exoticism of the Eastern woman, the author of the essay talks about how European women were threatened by the Muslim woman's concealment of her body because her reasoning for doing so defied the emerging notions of Western feminism that attached liberation and freedom to the baring of bodily parts. for the Algerian Muslim woman, her liberation and freedom was tied to her bodily concealment, the exact opposite of her Western peers.
with the more recent spotlight on niqab and a Muslim woman's complete covering being seen as "extreme" and a "threat to assimilation" and things like this, it's interesting that the same countries that have perpetuated this notion are also the very ones who concocted the notion of the Muslim woman as exotic based around the very garb that they are now deeming "extreme" and a "threat." it is in these same countries that you find a whole segment of the pornographic industry dedicated to the "Muslim woman as fantasy." of course that fantasy, while it is based on the perceived allure of the completely covered Muslimah, is not complete without the Muslim woman ultimately shedding her conciliatory garb. ahhh, the paradox!!!