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Interchangeable Women: East and West

One of the questions one might raise about coverage of the Middle East is how much to feature women under the veil.  Despite the range of positions in the region about body covering, the tendency in the US is to feature burqas (of whatever kind or name) when emphasizing deficits of rights and modernization.  But, of course, the matter is not so simple.


For the record, these women are wearing the Afghan chadiri.  If you look closely at this photo, you can see that it might confound several assumptions about living under the veil.  Instead of uniformity, each outfit is individually decorated.  Instead of a primitive society, the women are standing in a pleasantly modern setting.  Most peculiar, perhaps, is that they are standing to be photographed.  How, one might think, can a photograph matter when their faces can’t be seen? (To see how mistaken this question can be, go here.) They may expect to be recognized by what can be seen, or they may be indulging the request for a photo precisely because they are protected from public scrutiny.

These subtleties may be obvious inside their culture, whereas to the Western gaze the women are interchangeable: anonymous, uniform, and uniformly subjugated.  Given their confinement to private life, in public they are not citizens but merely women, interchangeable women.

Before anyone gets too righteous about the Western alternative, we should take a look at this:

These Florida State fans are definitely not under the veil.  They are, however, another example of cosmetic cloning.  (Let’s set the little girl aside, although notice that she is a Florida State woman in training, right down to the bracelet.) Sure, we can identify them as separate individuals: one belly has a navel stud, one doesn’t, and the third has a tattoo, what more do you want?  But they are more closely entrained than the three women in the first photograph: bare midriffs, identical shirts, hats, buttons, bracelets, hairstyles, makeup, and gestures.  Even their faces look like close copies of each other.

We could point out that they are free to choose how they display themselves in public, but this doesn’t seem to be a great example of independent decision making.  My point is that they might as well be in burqas–they are interchangeable women, as much under the sway of gender-specific norms for appearing in public as anyone else.  Their aggressive femininity is little different than the gender segregation of the burqa; both might be labeled variant forms of cosmetic fundamentalism.

None of this need be complicated: many people rightly oppose any gender rules that confine women to subordinate status.  But if  images of women are to be used to subordinate East to West on the grounds that a denial of visibility is a denial of rights, then it’s only fair to raise equivalent questions about how rights are being used to keep women locked into limited gender roles closer to home.

Photographs by Margaret Orwig and Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel.


Interchangeable Women: East and West


13 Responses

  1. fiddlergene says

    THe first photo is one of women who chose to be covered as they are. Their society as dictated to them how to dress, but if they had any mind at all, and chose to change, they could make it happen. The Greek comedian Aristophanes demonstrated in his play Lysistrata just how to do it.

    The second photo is a perfect example of American ‘herd’ mentality. Women pandering their sexuality to attract the attention of men, the wealthier the better, so that they can eventually fulfill their biological destiny.

    Neither photo speaks very well of half the human race.

  2. sv13en says

    There is a lot of truth in the thoughts posted in the article … however, I think the quality of the requirements of the different societies is not really comparable.

    – How many hours of their public life does each of the women spend in the ‘uniforms’ they are depicted in?

    – What kind of consequences has each of the women (or their peers not in the images) to fear if they decide not to wear the ‘uniform’?

    – If all the women depicted could choose which image (and society) they would like to be in, which would they choose?

    As I said, I agree with the fact that there is a problem with societies and their expectations towards women (or, towards individuals in general — everybody is expected by their societies to fulfill certain stereotypes, unless they want to remain alone). But the quality of the expectations is quite different, I think.

  3. lucaites says

    sv13en: These are all good questions, to be sure. But I sense in their asking something of a “rhetorical question” that presumes its answer. But I’m not really sure I know what the right answer would be. Writing from the west, one might assume more “freedom” and “choice” from the women in the second picture, but I’ve been told by more than just a few Muslim women that this is not necessarily so. And that, it seems to me, is the issue here. “Visibility” is not a simple issue and can function to discipline in many different registers even when, sometimes, it would “appear” to be straight forward.

  4. BGY says

    Enjoyed the post … interesting observations (and comments by readers) …

    Especially intrigued by the idea that “”both might be labeled variant forms of cosmetic fundamentalism.”

    That said, I agree with sv13en that you’ go a bit too far with, for example, “they might as well be in burqas.”

    And, like eszter. I am curious what fiddlergene means by:
    “Neither photo speaks very well of half the human race.”

    This includes not being whether
    Same half?
    Different halves?

  5. Lisa D says

    Seeing this everywhere — even in “high art” fashion houses that cater to an audience that is markedly different from the Florida State cosmetic clones. Check out Prada’s latest ad campaign:
    (Click collection / ad campaign)

  6. Joe says

    I’m sorry, but this kind of crap makes me so angry. You skim over the subject, finding a facile point about “choice” that totally fails to consider the context, ramifications, and depth of this.

    First, the US women are free to have a sex life the equal of men. The tent women do not – they are denied it, and forced into tents that solidify their victim status in regard to aggressive patriarchal attitudes. If they showed their hair or faces they would get assaulted, raped, or even murdered. So get real.

    Second, the US women CAN wear what they want so DO have choice. If they wanted to dress up as Darth Vader, they could. If the tent women wanted to wear tee shirts, they could not.

    The US women are open, evident individuals in public: we could go up to them, flirt with them, talk with them about anything. You can’t even see the faces of the tent women, FFS, and how dehumanising and psychopathic is that?

    Third, the US women can go anywhere, work anywhere, say what they want about society, sex, religion, anything. The tent women are treated no better than cattle.

    Fourth, the US women are free to talk to men – any man they like. The tent women are not. They are treated like to do so is a terrible moral sin, that gets violently punished.

    Fifth, if the US women have daughters they will allow them the freedoms and advantages they enjoy. The tent women will force their daughters into a pre feminist servitude dating from 1400 YEARS AGO when men had harems and sex with 9 year old girls (Mohammed did this with Aisha).

    And thats just a start. Women are treated so barbarically in Islam, so terribly, it really doesn’t help when educated Westerners play little ‘hmm maybe women following Western fashions is just the same’ games.

  7. Joe says

    Those girls could wear tee shirts, bikini tops, see through blouses, all manner of items in any colour and style they wished covering as much or as little (almost) as they like. They are girls enjoying their sexuality in the world of 2009 and if they chose, as some do, to wear more “modest” clothes that is also an option for them. To compare that to being forced into tents, culturally speaking, is utterly ludicrous.

    It is precisely bullshit arguments like this that Muslims use to defend and justify treating women like cattle: Islamic customs dating from 1400 AD that have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the 2009 world, that derive from a backward culture largely still evident in the Middle East.

    Interpret this ugly tent wearing in terms of the culture it comes from and how its gender relations work, and how there are widespread practises of human rights (women’s) abuse associated with it.

  8. Joe says

    You are confusing UNIFORMITY – a complex and in depth socio psychological subject pertaining not only to clothing fashion – with CHOICE.

    When this kind of crap is written (above) it defends and condones the worst, most patriarchal woman-oppressing ideology on the planet. And Muslims take advantage of it.

  9. lucaites says

    Joe: The rage of Achilles that you display in your multiple posts strike me as dangerously misplaced. The original post at NCN was provocative, to be sure. The comparison of the two photographs certainly borders on excess. But the real question is, does it cross that boundary? I don’t think so, and therein lies a point worthy of our careful consideration. You emphasize the difference between “uniformity” and “choice” in your last post. I am reminded of the line from a 1960s Kris Kristofferson song, “Freedom’s just another word for nuthin’ left to lose.” I have no doubt that the three women in the second picture would say (and believe) that their uniform attire is a matter of choice. Nor would it surprise me to learn that the young girl at the end of their line yearns for the time when she can make the same choice. But then I’ve also talked to a few Muslim women who maintain that their attire is equally a matter of choice. And I’ve seen interviews with other Muslim women that confirm the point. Not all Muslim women hold this view, mind you, but enough seem to prefer the style and the life that goes along with it to indicate that the “choice” is not easily rejected for being eccentric. Are they simply deluded by their ideology into making something like a forced choice? My guess is that you would respond by noting that the Muslim ideology is excessively oppressive to the point of “violence” and “barbarism.” But before we go too far done that route I’d encourage you to look closely at the FBI crime statistics on domestic violence in the U.S., numbers that almost all agree are largely under reported. And add to that the statistics concerning the number of single mothers who have been abandoned by their mates? I don’t think that the Muslim world corners the market on gender violence or barbarism. And so, back to the original point: there is an uncomfortable comparison here that bears reflection and consideration. If the reflection proves the comparison to be false or ill-considered so much the better; but perhaps it will help us to see a little bit of ourselves in ways that is otherwise uncomfortable to imagine, and what could be wrong with that if it helps us to understand both ourselves and the “other.” The alternative, outrage, seems to lock us into a posture with too few options, none of them salutary.

  10. Mars says

    I began wearing a burka to public events in Melbourne, Australia, immediately following the 2001 Sept 11 massacre… I chose to do this for political reasons…to assess the levels of racist response to media frenzy… a very interesting study that lasted a year… but in regard to this particular debate regarding freedom and entrapment in wearing the burka, I dont think there are any black and white answers. I found that wearing a burka gave me a totally unexpected sense of freedom insofar as I felt for the first time in my life anonymous and uncategorised according to my appearance ( other than being unusual to be wearing a burka to an art opening, or a street festival). I hadn’t realised the extent of how conscious I was, and had been all my life, of being taller, more frecklie, with red hair… that I carry this in public with me… not negatively, but it’s there all the time… my clothes have always been a reflection of who I am and what mood or mode I’m in… the burka got rid of that, and it felt strangely liberating. But of course, it was my choice to wear it, it became addicitive also even though no-one else was wearing it around me… I found it very confusing to work out what to wear to events once I ditched the study and shed the burka, how to dress for the public was scary at first as the burka had made all that side of things so easy!
    I believe there are some areas of some countries where the women have a certain amount of choice in wearing the burka, and I also believe that in some areas of some countries, the burka is used to oppress women, where the women have no choice at all… and this, of course, I strongly oppose. It’s tricky, and grey, and controversial… why should wearing a veil to school in France be outlawed? A veil is not a burka… but how many fundamentalist Muslims reside in France now? A significantly increasing slice of the population…
    I think the photos above are very interesting, and any debate on this can only be enlightening.

  11. Sohel says

    The First Three women will be go Jannath ( Haven) If Allah want.
    Last three women will be go Jahnnam ( Hell) if Allah want.

    So who believe in jannah he/ she will obey Allah. They should be maintain Allah’s Order and who do not believe in Allah they are free to maintain Allah’s order.

  12. Jaguar says

    The first three women are slaves.

    The second are slutty but FREE!

    Beauty should not be concealed, otherwise what are we on this Earth for?

    We should all live in freedom!!! Well said, Joe!

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