Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« Terraplane Blues: AlterNet story up | Main | Russian journalist critical of Putin murdered in Moscow »

October 07, 2006

Burqas, Photoshop, and the feminist blogosphere


Perhaps you've heard of Burqa-gate, the controversy that erupted in the feminist blogosphere when Amanda's co-blogger photoshopped a burqa onto Jessica Valenti in order to ridicule the forced modesty crowd that tried to shame Jessica for wearing a knit sweater to pose with Bill Clinton.

Amanda was widely criticized in the feminist blogosphere for invoking the burqa as a symbol of patriarchal oppression. Her critics were outraged that she would appropriate a symbol associated with Islam and/or women of color (WOC) in order to score points against the right-wing bloggers who assailed Jessica Valenti's character because her clothes and her body language aroused impure thoughts in them.

Amanda was even accused of ridiculing women who actually wear burqas.

I was puzzled by the uproar. Amanda was making what I took to be an uncontroversial point: sexual shaming and coercively enforced modesty are universal phenomena. The difference between our homegrown American prudes and those seemingly "exotic" oppressors from distant lands is one of degree and not of kind.

Far from being ethnocentric, Amanda's insight undercuts ethnocentrism. It's harder to think of your culture as the measure of all others when you realize that humanity's most serious problems repeat themselves everywhere under different guises. If you assume that there are commonalities, awareness of an oppressive practice in another culture should lead you to wonder if your own culture might be doing something similar but less obvious to you.

Conservative moralists of all religions are consumed with a toxic mix of shame and entitlement. They are uncomfortable with sexuality, including their own. When the objects of their desire arouse "impure" thoughts in them, their first impulse is not self-scrutiny, but resentment. As far as they're concerned it's always the object's problem. She should be covered up or secluded in order to protect the community from her charms. Of course, if you also believe that the sexual purity of a woman is a reflection on the honor of the man who's in charge of her, you're going to be extra-paranoid about letting women wander around in all their wanton glory. When you think of it that way, "your" uncovered women are a major personal liability, as well as a threat to the decency of the community.

R Mildred's criticism of Amanda left me scratching my head:

Your burka piccie falls on the bad side of that Amanda, not to the same extent as Mark A Rose’s bullshit you understand, but it is still less helpful than it is helpful because it spreads the meme that he was touting that there’s something exceptionally misogynistic about islam (which is where the Othering comes in - out of all the oppressive cultures you could have picked, you picked that one, and remember that authorial intent is irrelevent okay? So note that I’m not implying intent either), and that false belief in the exceptional misogyny of islam is of course then used as justification for mass murder and colonialism that then feeds into things like the Iranian Revolution, where iranian women observed hijab as a direct act of defiance against western imperialism, and so on, and so forth.

I don't see how the burqa metaphor perpetuates the myth that Islam is uniquely mysogynistic. Burqas are widely regarded as un-Islamic, and are objectively atypical in most Muslim countries.

A burqa is an obscene caricature of Islamic dress that brutally forced upon large numbers of women in recent history. Unlike the headscarf, or even the face veil, the burqa is a form of physical restraint. These garments don't even have holes for the eyes. The wearer has to peer through a lace grille. Burqas muffle women's voices and the mesh panels constrain their vision to the point where it's hard to cross the street safely. Imagine how difficult it would be to drive a car, plead a case in court, or work in a laboratory wearing a portable tent. That's precisely the point.

The burqa is not a stand-in for all forms modest Islamic dress. Millions of Muslim women wear some form of hijab (literally: cover or barrier), but the burqa is almost unknown outside of Afghanistan and neighboring territories. Here are some links to pictures of hijabs that aren't burqas.

This is a burqa:


Compare the burqa (above), to the picture of Iranian rugby players (below, click to enlarge):

The subject of covering is controversial, but it's important not to conflate it with the burqa issue. I have little patience for people who complain that all religious head coverings are an affront to the dignity of women. If the woman has the right to refuse, and the covering doesn't restrict her daily activities, I don't see anything wrong with the tradition.

However, it's telling that the burqa tradition has virtually no currency outside violent patriarchies. (Unlike the hijab which is embraced by free and equal citizens throughout the world.) In Afghanistan the Taliban had to impose the burqa through violent revolution and enforce their rule through daily brutality and harrassment. Even then many Afghan women rebelled, openly or sublty.

What about the women who choose to wear burqas, Amanda's critics demanded to know. Are you saying that they are passive dupes or victims of false consciousness? Most women who wear burqas don't have a choice. I find it perverse that many of Amanda's critics were so consumed with what a hypothetical liberated feminist burqa-wearer might say that they lost sight of the fact that many actual burqa-wearers have been begging their fellow feminists for help.

Here are some of some of the Taliban's rules for women, compiled by Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).

Bitch|Lab says American feminist bloggers are forgetting that the United States helped the Taliban come to power in the first place. The United States did play a role, as I think most feminist bloggers are only too well aware. However, the United States' complicity in the rise of the Taliban underscores the connections between US moralists and their counterparts abroad. The United States was so keen to overthrow the communist government in Afghanistan as a proxy fight in the cold war that it didn't care what happened to Afghanistan's women. Today's Republican ditto-heads let the US sell out Afghanistan in favor of Iraq. Pretty soon, they'll happily relinquish both Iraq and Afghanistan to local patriarchs and set off happily for Iran.

Coalition forces formally ended Taliban rule in 2001, but the Taliban remains a powerful force in Afghanistan today. Amazingly, the US-backed Hamid Karzai suggested reviving the Taliban's religious police, Amro bil mahroof, in July of 2006.

That's not to say that every woman who is required to wear a burqa is miserable. No doubt many support the traditional as being right and necessary. Certainly, even women who hate the burqa have found creative ways to expand their freedom within a repressive society (e.g., female journalists using their cocoons to conceal hidden cameras).

Maybe some of these burqa-wearers would continue the tradition voluntarily. However, I suspect that in a free society the burqa would probably go the way of the mandatory whalebone corset in less than a generation. Unless you really believe that women need to be physically isolated and restrained, there's no reason to choose a burqa over a less restrictive alternative.

I found it interesting that several participants in this debate decided that the judgments of POC bloggers carried more weight simply in virtue of their color. It's a little silly for non-Muslim non-burqa wearers to vehemently denounce others for impinging upon the feelings of hypothetical empowered Muslim Burqa-Wearers In Afghanistan. It was downright absurd that Amanda felt pressured into apologizing either to the hypothetical MBWIA or to the WOC bloggers and their allies who suspected that these MBWIA might exist and felt contingently offended on their behalf.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Burqas, Photoshop, and the feminist blogosphere:

» The Spoils of Modern-American Feminism from Wa Salaam
Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a former feminist turned American-culture advice guru has released another book entitled, The Proper Care Feeding of Husbands. The title sounds a little strange, but after watching her interview on Larry King... [Read More]


The two photos, imo, make a thought-provoking point of departure.

What was the woman in the burqa thinking at that moment, how did she feel about being photographed? What are the particulars that led to that so very blue burqa? And what is the story behind the rugby photo? Who took it and how did it end up here?

How can we get the discussion broadened to include those rugby players, or, maybe, even, to include that woman from Afghanistan or someone like her?

Is that possible online? Are there blogs in English coming out of Iran or Kabul?


article 2

Thanks for the post; I think the clarification on the difference between hijabs and burquas is especially useful. And yes, the notion that I or anyone involved do not understand that the Taliban's power is the U.S.'s fault is resorting to a strawman because they're left without much else to criticize. I had people trying to argue that I was somehow more complicit than they were in the bombing of Afghanistan---though we're all Americans, all opposed to BushCo, but I think that thread basically died, especially when it was noted that feminist organizations in the U.S. take their lead directly from Afghani feminists in crafting statements about Afghanistan.

I do want, however, to reiterate that I'm sorry I put the picture up because the vast majority of burqua jokes are imperialist in tone and meant indeed to justify imperialist wars. I was trying to protest that, but I think in retrospect, the baggage that comes with burqua imagery is such that it's impossible to undermine it visually in any meaningful way. At least with the Crack Pandagon Photoshop Team's skills. I'll admit, I'm completely puzzled by the people who felt that this point---that it's not possible to co-opt that sort of humor to turn it on itself in any meaningful way---felt they had to defend a garment that is an unabashed symbol of oppression for the women under it.

In the first picture: there is no woman under the burqua. Auguste deliberately found a picture of one that's sitting on basically a stick to use for the photoshop precisely because he was trying to convey the idea that the burqua is over Jessica. Granted, that doesn't change the visuals, but it was important to Auguste that we not actually use a picture of another woman because that would change the meaning of the picture.

That there is no human being under that burqua and yet everyone assumes there is says a great deal about the point of the garment, which is to erase the human being under it. Obviously, it works well if people can't tell a burqua on a stick from a woman under a burqua.

Obviously, it works well if people can't tell a burqua on a stick from a woman under a burqua.

Good point.

I found it interesting that several participants in this debate decided that the judgments of POC bloggers carried more weight simply in virtue of their color.

And I find it interesting that you appear unwilling to give them any weight at all. Instead of linking to the bloggers of color, including the one whose post started the discussion in the first place and where vibrant and wide ranging discussions, disagreements, agreements, explanations, historical backgrounds and so on were there for all to see, you instead link to the white bloggers discussing the discussion and just paraphrase (with your own interpretation) what the original complaints were. Am not sure why the reluctance to allow them (bloggers of color) to speak for themselves. Is there a particular reason for this?

I find this an extremely dishonest and simplistic post, basically formatted to present and justify a narrow point of view of what the main thrust of the original or subsequent discussions were about - a view that has been impervious to the efforts of others to broaden the understanding of those whose focus seems to be on "they are saying not to attack the burqa" - especially considering the depths of the other ongoing discussions. Which you did not link to.

I actually came over here - because I have little familiarity with many of the partipants - with the intent of reading this blog, and going through the archives and so on, in an effort to put the best possible light on your comments both at the punkass blog and in the feministe thread, where I first noticed the tendency to obfuscate, justify and attempt to ameliorate the behavior of others in their interactions with non white people.

Got just a bit more than I bargained for, but it's certainly saved me lots of time, so thanks for that.

I'm with you M. Not an interesting comment, to be sure, but when i saw the some of the bizarre reactions that your insightful observations elicited...

I would have thought the burka-ized Jessica image would have been viewed as satire by everyone and not as an ethnocentric attack. Repression is repression, regardless of the religious particulars that are guiding it. Maybe this will only add fuel to the fire, but Tennessee Guerilla Women did a satirical post about the Red Burka for Red America, and I don't remember there being a backlash about it at all. Remember that this was also six months ago, making it much closer to the time of the furor over the Mohammed cartoons.

Amamda, obviously it's your prerogative to apologize, but I wouldn't have. That probably makes you a nice person and me a stubborn asshole. I'm sure Phantom would agree with the latter half of that statement.

Missed the whole "controversy," afraid of losing hours to reading all the back and forth vitriol. But, looking just at the picture, without knowing (but able to guess) what the fuss is about, I will say this:

Isn't this just the pictoral equivalent of the rejoinder, to all those making such hay out of Clinton in the background of a woman who has breasts or is posing to feature or highlight or otherwise draw attention to her breasts (or whatever it is that these people are projecting onto the breast-featuring woman and/or the man in the background), "MAYBE YOU'D BE HAPPIER IF WE WERE ALL WEARING BURQAS?"

The burqa image is funnier still because, if you believe that Clinton's look is lecherous or "interested" or whatever -- which I don't -- it strikes me as still possible for these people to look at this picture and see Clinton ogling a burqa on a stick.

It's a joke. See Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Kathy Griffin. There are, of course, people who believe that some topics are off-limits. This puts me in mind of the Catholic nuns of my upbringing, who always had the best Jesus jokes (e.g. "Why can't Jesus eat M&Ms?" "Because they keep falling through the holes in his hands.").

So the photo mooned me...
after all it is a full harvest moon time

I know a Muslim woman who keeps a burqa for those days that she sleeps in. She whips it on to get the children to the schoolbus and takes it off when she gets back in. Of course, the bunny slippers give her away and her husband wishes she would get rid of the thing. Other than that she is an impeccably dressed business woman with a mean sense of humor.
A burqa in a free society is a statement of choice; in a closed society, it makes a different statement. Perspective and context need to be applied to even a tent.

Quisp, it was two issues: 1) Burqua jokes are in fact mostly cheap racism engaged in by people who don't know or care about the diversity of Muslim cultures and practice, and are just seeking excuses to bomb people. The argument then is that I can't unmoor my image from that tradition, which seems likely, since people were so offended. It's like the Lieberman-in-blackface thing, some things just don't work. I apologized for this.

2) On top of that, there's a contigency out there that's determined that liberals are all secret imperialists, even those of us who adamantly oppose imperialism. They were seeking evidence that I have a secret imperialist agenda and they decided this was the evidence they needed. My actual stance on Afghanistan made this problematic, but no matter. On this issue, my patience is stretched thin, though I will say that it's only really Bitch Lab and a couple others that are pushing this.

Taking offense is an artform.

This reminds me of the joke about there being no humor section in the muslim (feminist) bookstore.

I thought the Valenti-Burqa picture was apt and funny. That said, Humor is about making fun of something, and Burqas and islam and feminism (and Clinton) are all in the realm of controversy and hypersensitivity.

The latter is not a criticism, there are very good reasons why these things provoke strong emotions. That's also why they are so damn funny.

When we offend, unless we were trying to be offensive, we should apologize for giving offense. Like with the Pope, that doesn't mean apologizing for what was said, if we still believe we were correct in saying it.

The offended should also look at context, while the picture somewhat implies that all women who wear the burqa are oppressed, and this is probably true in general, if one is going to argue there are specific hypothetical women who wear the burqa who aren't, one also has to note the specific woman who is. Valenti would probably feel oppressed by having to wear a burqa. Which was the point and why its funny. Wrapping her up like a Mummy would be funny too, but should probably not be taken as an insult to the Pharaohs.

The subject of covering is controversial, but it's important not to conflate it with the burqa issue.

Do you think maybe this could be another one of those differences "of degree and not of kind"? Speaking of which...
If the woman has the right to refuse, and the covering doesn't restrict her daily activities, I don't see anything wrong with the tradition.

I don't see how you can make any such qualification once you've already established that the remarks on Valenti's breasts are an instance of "coercively enforced modesty." As far as I know, no one was denying her legal right to pose like that.

Amanda, Lindsay, I emailed Ali Eteraz and Abbas of 3QD asking them for their takes. I think that if a picture is supposed to be offensive to Muslims, it's best to ask real Muslims if they were offended.

Hawise, I must admit, there are days when I wish the niqab were a socially acceptable option for non-Muslim women in New York... Every so often, you just want to opt out of the whole seeing-and-being seen arms race.

Having the option to conceal yourself is a big relief, even if it's just in baggy sweatpants and sunglasses.

Alon, thanks for inviting more people to the discussion. I'm looking forward to reading Abbas' and Ali's perspectives on this issue.

"Burqas are widely regarded as un-Islamic, and are objectively atypical in most Muslim countries."


A little poetry from This Here Garden

No More

I will no longer be the pin-up girl for your wars,
oppressed and veiled whore
to be pimped to the masses
for “feminist” causes.

From this moment on
this struggle will no longer be
all about you
and your agenda
for me.

I will not offer apologies
for refusing to melt my soul
and pour it into the mold
that you have shaped for me.

Take back your hands and their intent.
you cannot reshape me
into your image
of liberty.

You cannot liberate me
and simultaneously negate me,
alienate me,
berate me.

Know this, sweet sister,
I have the final say over my destiny.

My fashion decisions do not oppress.
These tightly woven strands of cloth on my head
do not compare
to the weight
of your foot
on my neck.

We will never succeed if each time i try to lift up
from the oppressive depths of obscurity,
you tear away at my beliefs

Some of us want to be heard
and not seen
and some of us want everything.

You know
and I know
and I know that you know:
power and freedom of choice
are not directly proportional
to the amount of flesh that I show.

Which part of Afghanistan is the person who wrote that poem from?

This is an example of the sort of thing that will keep the left marginalized forever. Think for a minute how this sounds to Rush Limbaugh or George Will, and think what they’ll do with it. While we on the left are squabbling over minutia of doctrinal purity, the right – like, you know, the people who are actually bombing women in burqas- will run circles around us.

It was a joke. Perhaps it wasn’t in good taste. Perhaps it was done with too little thought. Perhaps, just perhaps, the people responsible may not be evil racists bent on enslaving Muslims and all non-Aryans. Perhaps it was just a joke. Save this argument for later someday when the dust is finally settled in Afghanistan and women there can contemplate a life beyond perpetual war.

I’m reminded of a discussion I heard once about how committed the Sendero Luminoso were to feminism. Um, folks, can we agree that the forces that keep Quechua and Aymara speaking peoples and women oppressed are bad without going completely overboard and imagining that homicidal Maoism is a “feminist” answer? As if the Sendero guerillas ever heard of, or gave a crap about feminism or cultural sensitivity, or any of the concerns of the American/Western left.

I have a hard time believing that the guys in Afghanistan that will kill someone for starting up a school for girls actually give their wives, daughters, sisters the option of wearing a burqa. Women in Afghanistan wear burqas not out of national pride or solidarity against colonial hegemonists, or Islamic honor, but because an uncovered woman’s face in Afghanistan invites a punch. To say that someone who opposes the war, or the way it is being fought in Afghanistan, but refuses to endorse every rural Afghan tradition is actually some sort of closet colonialist is nonsense. To say that they are racist colonialists reflects more the worries of the western left than it does those of Afghani women.

We’ll never get anywhere calling one another racists and misogynists. While we were wringing our hands over “backstabbing liberals” Nixon won with his Southern strategy. While we were fretting idiotically about women vs. womyn, Phyllis Schlafly torpedoed the Equal Rights Amendment without even breaking a sweat. The right leaves the doctrinal spats for later when the destination is reached. The left meanwhile encourages mutinies, counter mutinies and endless fratricidal bloodletting until we end up drifting onto the rocks. The left has had a long tradition of pointless, self-defeating bickering. Read Orwell on the sniping –literally- between factions of the left in Barcelona and remember who won the war.

The right mocks us and the voters believe the mockery. Glorifying burqas will turn the joke on feminism and the left, and will guarantee many, many more years of bombing in Afghanistan.

Alon, we had a couple of people who identified as Muslim comment on my place and a couple others. Well, two I can remember, and one thought it was ill-advised and one thought that the fuss was stupid. But two people is not any kind of great sampling of any sort, though it's relevant to note they're regular commenters who would probably be hip to my general views on this stuff.

"This is an example of the sort of thing that will keep the left marginalized forever. "

Maybe there is no "Left" in any singular sense. Maybe there is a vast range of factions whose interests differ. Maybe winning majority status is about putting together a coalition of factions that can live together despite their differences.

Consider the political coalition that came together in America in 1932. I think middle class intellectuals were suddenly willing to form a political alliance with workers, perhaps due to the shock of the Depression.

I think in some eras members of the middle class, and even small business owners, have seen their interests as having more in common with the working-class than with the ruling class (or ruling classes). Not that those interests can ever be fully aligned, but during some stretches of history those interests are perceived to be close enough that people will put aside their differences for a while, and form a coalition.

I think the coalition of 1932 fell apart in 1980, when large portions of the middle class again decided that the way to get ahead was to be nice to the ruling class.

I think there are factions in America, factions which might be termed "left", that are as different from one another as they are different from Karl Rove. To expect them to agree is as likely as getting Karl Rove to see things your way. I could always be wrong about this, but I think that hoping that everyone in these different factions will someday agree on a subject is useless. I don't think that's how politics works, nor do people's personal politics work that way.

When you write a sentence like "This is an example of the sort of thing that will keep the left marginalized forever" you are making an assumption that the people you are talking to are all on the same team. Maybe you should think about that assumption. Do the writers over at the Women Of Color Blog perceive themselves to be on the same team as you? Do they want to be on your team? If not, then why write a sentence like the one you've written?

Lindsay --

As I pointed out in my response to your post, ">"> Saving Brown Women, I'm not sure you quite understand the concern about turning women into cultural dupes, etc.

For one, cultural dupes is a Bitchism, a phrase common in soc/anth, and I'm probably the only one who used it. A search on the threads turned up no one else who did.

Which is unfortunate, since I was discussing burqas, but my objection to using others forms of religious dress or gunnysacks, a thread to which you replied specifically. In that case, then, the discussion was about women's choices to wear religious dress or, more accurately, to join fundamentalist or evangelical churches even *as* feminists. The goal of feminists researchers, in those cases, is to seek to listen to and understand these supposedly most oppressed of all women in the US.

As for 'false consciousness' I'm unclear who used that phrase, since I didn't find it on a search either. Sunrunner mentioned painting them as "stupid" -- by which she is referring to a time when people did wear them by choice.

As for claims that Amanda does understand the postcolonial critiques of Western feminism, this remains unclear. At the very least, one should understand why the claim seems disingenuous at best. The degree to which people have repeatedly insisted Brownfemipower was engaged in relativism (precisely NOT) and failed to uphold the Taliban's misogyny ( and the misogyny of anticolonial nationlist regimes more generally) indicates to anyone familiar with PcCo critiques, just how little BfPs critics understood what she said, which was quite clear, to wit:

colonization is very much a gendered process–and I think so many western feminists have such a hard time reconciling that fact because they are not being colonized! It’s not possible to seperate the sexism of nationalism from the sexism of colonialism. the sexism of nationalism is reinforced and stregnthened when colonial structures start attacking. Women who are living under hyper nationalist rule AND being colonized can NOT seperate one type of sexism from the other as her survival depends upon organizing against BOTH types of sexism.

Thus, one need not have been familiar with the critique, but simply a careful reader. Failing to read, meant that people saw relativism. People saw a failure to uphold the anticolonial nationalizing regimes as responsible for misogyny.

You'll forgive me if I see, in this post, a continuation of a refusal to listen.

All of you are a lot smarter than this.

And, I find it troublesome, as well, because what is going on here is an exercise of the very same privilege white men engage in when they show up at feminist blogs to criticize feminists, relentlessly, without even an errant Klew of which they speak.

Being familiar with PoCo critiques wouldn't necess. mean that you agree with anyone, but it would have avoided the travesty of the last week: where BfP was and remains accused of precisely what she's never said.

All that said, because I'm a blog whore, if you're really interested in solid critiques of PoCo feminism and Identity politics, then I hope you'll be able to join the Janet Halley seminar in about a month when she'll join us to talk about her book, "Split Decisions: How and Why to take a Break from Feminism."

Oh and on a final note, being a WhammyDine Socialist Feminist, I find complaints that we're breaking apart feminism and the left amusing. This is the constant refrain among some Marxist men and women who complain about ID politics. It was the constant refrain during the early second wave of feminism: that women were damaging the movement with their critiques of sexist oppression.

Is there some reasons folks must persist in repeating these kinds of mistakes. It didn't work then and it won't work now.

The right mocks us and the voters believe the mockery. Glorifying burqas will turn the joke on feminism and the left, and will guarantee many, many more years of bombing in Afghanistan.

Aye-fucking-men brethren!

For so many years now I have seen the feminists refusing to support their betters in the long march against the neo-cons, picking nits everytime their nobler betters talk about giving up choice for momentary gains that will evaporate as soon as it is (once again) made clear by our right wing betters that for every inch our left wing betters give up in the name of "compromise", a mile is taken in the spirit of "screw you - I got mine".

And this is just another tesselation of the grand whine those tiny-hineyed woman's studies professors are always harping on about, oh you want us to even pretend that we respect the feelings of foreigners now do you? well tough luck, the white man has arrived and is here to set things straight once and for all by repeating right wing memes that are still being used to justify the mass bombing and slaughter of brown women that, in turn, is feeding a reationary fundamentalist movement in the middle east that is leading to women being beaten and killed for not observing the traditions that american funded governments say women should observe!

So what if POC feminists get irritated that any actual analysis of white people's propensity to completely ignore POC concerns and complaints inevitably seems to involve the same 5 or 6 routine evasive tactics and strawmen? Who the fuck are they to insist that we may have misspoken eh? Not only are some of our best friends POC, but we just plain know more about being a white person in a white person's world than they do and hence, we have the inside scoop as it were to what racism is really like. And how many POC have ever had to tip toe around these uppity and hysterical POC huh? So who are they to tell us if we're doing it wrong!?

I always felt that the north should have conceded to the South during the civil war just to show POC bloggers what life would be like if we didn't have good intentions behind our poorly thought out and badly executed attempts at pretending we care what they think.

Screw them all I say! And let whatever filthy heathen gods they worship sort them out!

The comments to this entry are closed.