Bemused by Burqas and Beauty

Debbie says:

Sometimes I’m amazed by how many different reactions a relatively straightforward story can bring up.

Nearly six years after the overthrow of the strict Islamist Taliban government, almost all women in deeply conservative Afghanistan still only appear in public wafting past in the burqa’s pale blue, their dark eyes only occasionally visible behind the bars of its grille.

But in the relatively liberal northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a local television station has started to show a different image of Afghan women with an extremely low-budget take on the hit “America’s Next Top Model,” a reality TV show in which judges choose prospective models from a group of contestants over several weeks.

Four girls in brightly colored traditional costumes with baggy pants and long loose-fitting shawls and headscarves strode down the impromptu catwalk decked out in traditional Afghan rugs. Seemingly less confident than their Western counterparts, they avoided the gaze of the all-male film crew and press.

A quick change later, the same four appeared in camouflage combat trousers, sneakers and embroidered smocks. Then came denim jeans, open-toed sandals and colorful lightweight jackets.

afghani girls in jeans and hijabs

For more images, check out the slide show.

First, of course, it’s fabulous that these young women have the opportunity to do this. The director of the program is 18 years old, and she sounds utterly delighted by what she’s managed to pull off, against very significant odds.

Second, and equally of course, it’s horrific that they should be endangered by choosing to show themselves in a variety of outfits:

“According to Sharia law, Islam is absolutely against this,” said Afghan Muslim cleric Abdul Raouf. “Not only is it banned by Islamic Sharia law, but if we apply Sharia law and to take this issue to justice, these girls should be punished.”

So what else?

There’s the power of American TV and commercial American values: what does America’s Top Model have to do with the lives of Afghan women, and why are they building their rebellion around it? Why would the artificiality of the fashion show have any life outside of its own culture? And yet that leads to the point that, for all its flaws, American TV does give people something outside of their own culture to think about, and build their own ideas around.

There’s the clear implication that women in burqas are somehow not beautiful, or else that we can’t tell whether or not they’re beautiful. I think every Western woman has had (at least) moments in which the thought of not being judged by her beauty or lack thereof was awfully tempting. If we can’t tell whether or not a woman in modest dress is beautiful, maybe we have to find out something else about her? Or maybe she just gets relegated to generic “woman” and there is nothing special about her at all? When is “being beautiful” a desirable thing, and when is it objectifying?

In that context, I have to ask how much this show is about “the male gaze.” Who are they “being beautiful” for? Is it the same people who might punish them for violating Sharia? And is the male gaze what draws them to the fashion show concept in the first place?

It comes down to thinking about the four girls who participated in this show, and the ten who didn’t. I can’t really imagine their lives, their choices, their risks, their joys, or even the contexts in which these things take place. So all of my questions melt away into a bigger question.

And (to my surprise as I write this), I wind up back where I started. The director is 18 years old. She’s doing something for herself and girls like her. It feels (probably, mostly) good and right to her. And that I can simply celebrate.

Thanks to Racialicious for the link.

feminism, Afghanistan, burqa, fashion show, Islam, modest dress, Body Impolitic

2 thoughts on “Bemused by Burqas and Beauty

  1. Yes, every woman dreams of being able to walk around without caring how she looks. But wearing a burka doesn’t do it. Wearing a burka means that everybody will wonder what you look like, and who do you belong to, and how much you cost and if they can afford to buy you. Whereas there are a lot of women right now and here in London who very clearly don’t give a damn what they look like, as long as they are comfortable or they like themselves. Sometimes I’m even one of them. (Some of them wear a hijab. A lof those who wear a hijab worry about how they look like quite a lot: either if they look good, or if they look modest enough.)

    Liberation is not hiding. It should come from the inside. It’s not easy, but it’s easier then risking a lynching for not obeying ever-changing, arbitrary rules designed to establish that you are anybody’s possession but your own.

  2. first comment was right about the “wanting to be beautiful” remark… every woman wants to be rich and beautiful and have diamonds and gold.

    secondly, we muslim women do it for modesty, we dont do it because others think we are belittling ourselves. we know we are good looking. lol thats why we hide because we are so precious. we protect ourselves from men and sinful adultery.

    3rd, men dont “BUY” us. they GIVE us gifts, and we dont have to return the favor. lol. we are too dam special.

    Real Beauty comes from inside. not from whats being shown in media, like most famous beautiful people (on the outside, not inside), have massive problems with eating disorders and drugs and relationship breakups, plastic surgery. lol. They have no self respect or privacy or self love or confidence in their lives, or themselves.

    God tells us muslim women to not steep that low to change our bodies by man made means to look beatiful. Muslim women are the luckiest women in the world, the most proud, modest, beatiful from the inside out, caring, peaceful loving women in the world, who only share their love with their women friends and close family and husbands,

    Nowadays many teens are reforming to modern means to feel good about themselves and feel attractive and “cool”. i pitty them, i really do, because this hiphop culture in america is destroying the next generation into thinking its ok to use a gun and shoot people just for sake of selfishness and personal hurt. this world is based on wealth and money, no one really gives a stuff about health or safety because all they want is to market their products.

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