Burqa (or really niqab) for a day

Firstly, in memory of the communities that have been attacked in the US this week, there are some details from the Oak Creek Sikh temple for those offering donations – they’ve asked that instead, people donate directly to their own local community or their local Sikh temple, if there is one in your area.  There is also a site to donate to the family of the temple’s priest, Satwant Singh Kaleka, who was shot while helping some of his congregants escape, as well as a site to donate to the families of the other victims.  Moreover, the only mosque in Joplin, Missouri burned down last week, for the second time this summer – there is also a site to help pay for its re-building.

Secondly, I want to preface this post by noting that an academic criticizing a magazine called Vice is obviously ridiculous, but they sent one of their reporters around New York City in a niqab last week . . . for . . . reasons.  And that’s not something I can not comment on.  On the other hand, they also called Britain’s The Daily Mail “the most black-hearted hypocrites we’ve ever encountered,” so they obviously aren’t all bad.

So last week, a fashion magazine called Vice sent one of its reporters and one of its photographers around New York City, with the reporter in a niqab, and published her experiences and some photos under the unfortunate title of “I walked Around in a Burqa (and I’m not Muslim)”.  The piece received a lot of criticism, and Vice then published a not-apology, in which they, among other things, made fun of The Daily Mail.  Again, yay for making fun of The Mail!

Now, saying they ‘sent’ one of their reporters may actually be a bit unfair – it’s actually entirely unclear from the article if this was something she planned to do, was asked to do by the magazine, or did on a whim and then gave the results to them to publish.  Of the three, though, I’d guess it was actually the latter – she explains that the whole thing started when, “I was recently asked by our global editor to track down a burqa for a music video we were planning to shoot, I guess because I’m the fashion editor.”  Whether *she* was meant to be wearing it in the music video, or why she never bothered to research what a burqa is, as versus a niqab, remain among the many mysteries of the piece.

The rest of the article is a strange mix of random fashionista observations – it’s hard to eat in public in a niqab[1], wearing head-to-toe fabric in New York humidity is uncomfortable, but on the upside, you don’t need to carry an umbrella – mixed with more than a little self-internalized Islamophobia, in particular regarding her visit to the Empire State Building – “I didn’t realize the significance of visiting one of the tallest buildings in New York dressed in Islamic garb until we reached the entrance. I felt like a jerk.”  This passages also disproves one of the claims made by Vice in their non-apology, that the reporter “was in no way making any kind of statement about Muslim women or Islam.”  If that were the case, I, as her editor, would have suggested we nix the section about the Empire State Building, or at least her commentary on it, which, at least in my reading, seems to be entirely about posing in what many consider ‘traditional’ Islamic garb in a place where it might make people uncomfortable in order to garner some kind of a response.  If that’s not making a statement, I’m not sure what is.

I’ve talked before about the idea that clothing is generally more cultural than religious, and often heavily influenced by environment.  Personally, I’ve never worn a niqab or burqa, but I have worn a hijab whilst in the Middle East – however, it really wasn’t out of some interest to experience life as a local or even really to blend in, but mostly out of convenience – I tried it for a couple of days, and found it was a really convenient way to keep from eating my hair constantly in the high, arid winds in Jordan and Syria.  Particularly since my traveling companions and I spent a lot of time at archaeological sites, we were constantly covered in dust, and having another part of my body covered by cloth that I could easily remove and rinse was really nice (and also, the sensation of soaking a hijab in cold water and then putting it back on whilst out in 100+ degree heat is one so glorious I may never forget it!).  As it happened, it did also help me blend in, and I had several interesting conversations sparked by my wearing it, but that really wasn’t why I was doing it.

From a religious standpoint, the burqa, niqab and hijab were all options developed by the Muslim community to address the Qur’anic conception of modesty.  As Nahida has talked about extensively, they’re also far from the only options, and really only address a single aspect of modesty, that is, women’s presentation of themselves in public spaces (and, to a certain extent, the male gaze, but in a highly problematic way).  The Qur’anic definition of modesty is far more all-encompassing than that, and so to equate the cultural tradition of dress with the religious concept of modesty is to limit the latter significantly.

But I think the larger problem with the Vice piece (and writing this, I am getting ever-more aware that I’m critiquing something that appeared in a magazine called Vice – believe me, I’m nearly done!), and the reason why it stuck in the craw of so many of its readers, is addressed in its non-apology by its author, that “if [this project] offends you, perhaps you should consider that religion as a concept is increasingly offensive to many people these days.”

It is?  According to whom?  Under what circumstances?  In what settings?  Are you offended by the Salvation Army?  The transmission of Virgil?  The existence of universities?  Public hospitals?  Algebra?  Astronomy?  All of these things relate to the existence of religious communities in one way or another.  Admittedly, some more so than others[2], but all of them connect to “religion as a concept” in some way.

It’s problematic to reduce a religion to a manner of dress.  But this project does more than that – it reduces all religion, in all times and at all places, to the experiences of a single woman.  And unfortunately, it’s not the only one that does so – time and again, I’ve pointed to examples of the modern tendency to reduce religion to single experiences, to generalize ‘religion’ from a single faith, or from a single representative of that faith.

It’s a fun game, and makes arguing all the easier.  For example, religion must be good because I like public hospitals, and I don’t like poor people dying in the street.  See?  Persuasive!  Also, ridiculous!

Is it possible to learn something useful about Islam by dressing up in a niqab?  Sure.  But is it really the best option?  Personally, I might have started with a book.

[1] As I said, I’ve never worn a niqab or burqa, but I was surprised to hear from friends who do that they actually find it fairly easy to eat in them – it apparently just takes practice.

[2] I admit to harboring a special disapproval in Richard Dawkins in part because we share the same university, a place that, because of its age, exists almost exclusively due to the Christian church.  In fact, the life of Oxford is so tied to the church that we have an entire college that was founded to train new priests after many were lost to the black death.  I’m all for diversity of opinion, but really, Professor Dawkins, way to bite the hand that feeds you!

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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