It all started this morning when Kawlture suggested we feature the Foreign Policy issue cover on our blog, the Mainstream Media and the Orient. I was on my phone and could not see the cover clearly. At first, I thought it was blackface, but upon zooming in and reading the the featured article title by Mona Eltahawy, my eyes weren’t fooling me. It really was a woman covered in a black body-painted niqab.
They tell you don’t judge a book by its cover. But I, as an Arab-American Muslim woman, could not get that image out of my head long enough to even begin reading Mona’s article. I kept thinking about how the image degraded and insulted every woman I know that wears or has ever worn the niqab. The face veil is rooted in pre-Islamic history, and I’m not going to delve into it. If you want a more comprehensive read, I recommend Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam.
Today, those who are fixated on the niqab believe that focusing on what a Muslim woman wears is what defines her thought, her intellect, her capabilities, her sexuality, her gender, her very existence. It’s a narrative that’s been framed by the West and fed by the likes of Qasim Amin and even Hoda Sha’rawi. FP’s decision to choose this photograph of a naked woman with a body-painted niqab embodies this problematic narrative in more ways than one:
- This inherent sexualization of the niqab through the pose and exposure of the female form revives the classic harem literature and art, presenting the Arab and/or Muslim woman as “exotic” and “mysterious,” but still an object. An object lacking the agency to define herself, thus defined by others.
- All of the women close to me who wear the niqab do so for different reasons. One friend only wears the niqab when she goes protesting because she feels comfortable in it. Another friend has worn the niqab, against the will of her family, since she was 14 out of her own free will. The representation of the niqab as splattered body paint on a naked woman degrades the decision of women who wear the niqab as a choice.
- The feature of an Arab woman’s article on the front cover does not justify the editorial choice to use the image. Mona Eltahawy was notoriously owned during a debate over the niqab ban in France, where she took the position in favor of the ban. Her stance on the niqab is convenient to the narrative being perpetuated by the problematic image.
But I digress. On to Mona’s article, titled “Why Do They Hate Us.” As a writer, I’m aware that editors sometimes propose titles, but they usually inform writers of that change. At least, that was my experience with Foreign Policy (it was a piece they never published). However, immediately, the title sets off an alarm: the use of the first-person-plural. The first-person-plural can be appropriately used when the speaker has been elected to speak on behalf of the group they are speaking on behalf of. In this case, the “They” being Arab societies and “Us” being Arab women. Mona’s self-appointed representation of Arab women is neither professional nor accurate. While I sincerely value the freedom of self-expression and have not one problem with her expressing her views, but to do so on the behalf of all Arab women is enraging.
Her article presents a summary and background of the treatment of women in the region, paired with statistics and specific examples of cases from countries throughout the region, fluffed with emotional rhetoric, ending with a call for fighting against injustices. Every now and then, a different image of the nude woman with the body-painted niqab interrupts the commentary, fueling the rage all over again.
She includes bits like:
“I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on Earth in the girl’s urine made you impure? I wondered. Hatred of women.”
“The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region — now more than ever.”
“But at least Yemeni women can drive. It surely hasn’t ended their litany of problems, but it symbolizes freedom.”
“We are more than our headscarves and our hymens. Listen to those of us fighting. Amplify the voices of the region and poke the hatred in its eye.”
The entire article is framed in a way that portrays Arab women as helpless, and in need of rescue and protection. It’s a convenient narrative for FP’s mostly Western-based readership. No mention of Tawakul Karman, Zainab and Maryam al-Khawaja, etc.—women who rose through the revolutions and were present in the public sphere during protests and demonstrations, standing alongside their compatriots demanding change and an end to injustices of all kinds. These women stood up as individuals and not as self-proclaimed representatives of Arab women.
Mona points to “hate” as the source and cause of the injustices committed against Arab women. She scapegoats the rise of the Islamists, but Maya Mikdashi debunked that argument a couple months ago:
“Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do with Islamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.”
Yet, she entirely neglects the socioeconomic roots of gender inequality, the rise of authoritarian regimes in a post-colonialist context, the remnants of dehumanization and oppression from colonialism, the systematic exclusion of women from the political system or those who are used as convenient tools for the regime. There is more to gender inequality than just “hate.”
The true fight should be against the monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body. This does nothing to rectify the position of women in ANY society.