This Picture of a Muslim Woman Holding a Bra Is Not Offensive

In an attempt to “humanize” someone who doesn’t always get treated that way, Thompson Rivers University (Canada) art student Sooraya Graham took this picture:

The idea (to me, anyway) is that no matter what we wear on the outside, we still wear similar things underneath.

Turns out that picture — THAT picture — is too offensive for some:

A faculty member did not agree, going so far as to tear down the image from the wall in an exhibition of student work. The artist now is embroiled in a controversy about religion and free speech.

Even though that faculty member – an international adviser, of all things — has since apologized and the image is back to hanging in the university’s art department, not everyone is happy:

Members of the Saudi Education Centre in Kamloops have spoken out in the media, criticizing Graham’s photo mural and calling for her to post an explanatory note with the photo.

Graham, who is Muslim but not of Saudi origin, said she doesn’t feel the work needs to be explained. She said she selected the photo for the exhibit because “it humanizes the veiled woman.”

“You often see the stereotype of the veiled woman being oppressed. We all wear the same undergarments, do laundry, go shopping. I was leaving it open-ended for others to interpret the photo in their own way,” said Graham, who wears the niqab herself.

What is there to explain? A lot of women wear bras, including Muslim ones? I didn’t think we needed a citation for that…

Blogger Dea has the perfect response:

Today, although Sooraya and I are far apart on religious issues — I want her to know that I support her rights and freedoms. I think her photo is very compelling on so many levels. In fact, I`m even a little glad that this controversy happened — because now even more people will see your work and hopefully stop and think about their own biases.

Thank you, Streisand Effect.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Nordog

    Personally, I find the photo underwhelming.  Neither offensive nor provacative.  I just see a pick of a woman in a burka holding a bra.

    Check that.  I actually find burkas offensive.

    Anyway, I think it is right to say that Canadians do not enjoy free speech rights that even come close to approaching those rights held by people here in America.

    It will be interesting to see if this flares up into a bigger deal with which the art student will be forced to deal.

    • SlightlyAmused

      Like the Virgin Mary in toast, people see what they want to see.

      • Nordog

         Ha!  That reminds me of my favorite Peanuts cartoon with Lucy, Linus and Charlie Brown looking up at clowds:

        Lucy: If you use your imagination you can see lots of things in the cloud formations. . . What do you think you see, Linus?”Linus:
        “Well, those cloud up there look to me like the map of British Honduras
        on the Caribbean. . . that cloud up there looks a little like the
        profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. . . and that
        group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of
        Stephen. . . I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side. . . .Lucy: Uh huh . . . . that’s very good. . . . What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?”Charlie Brown: “Well. I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”

    • Sarah T.

      I simply don’t understand the viewpoint that classes burqas as uniquely offensive or oppressive. I mean yes, the idea that women lead their brothers into sin is offensive to women, but it’s not unique to Muslims and even many atheists act like a woman’s appearance affects how she should be treated.

      But heck, maybe you do make an effort to point out the offensiveness of Western appearance-based sexism.

      • Nordog

         I’m with Aristotle on the idea that virtue is found in the mean and is increasingly lost as one approaches the extremes.  To me, the burka is extreme.

        • Sarah T.

           It’s a niqab.

          Again, perhaps you express your offense at other forms of extreme religious modest dress, but it’s illogical. What is offensive is the theology which demands that women present themselves a certain way to the public. The theology absent the niqab means that women are forced to stay sequestered at home. The niqab without theocracy is just another choice.

      • Ibis3
        • Sarah T.

           This blog post appears to be discussing a theocratic law where women are legally forced to wear certain clothing. Putting aside the fact that many governments institute religious-based laws about appropriate dress, what is offensive is not the burqa, but the law. What is the evidence that the woman in the photo is coerced (legally or socially) to wear the niqab?

          I oppose all government restrictions on a person’s right to choose their self-expression. This means I oppose both Islamic laws which force veiling, and I also oppose French laws which ban it. But I do not find the clothing itself offensive, and in a free society (such as Canada) a woman may choose to wear a niqab or burqa just as western Christians choose to wear full-sleeves or bonnets.

      • usclat

        What are you referring to? Perhaps SOME non-religious persons think that the way a woman (or man) dresses denotes something about them. Maybe. But, the burqa is absolutely “uniquely” offensive because it is an institutionalized demand on women where there are these backward thought frameworks. 

    • Renshia

       “Anyway, I think it is right to say that Canadians do not enjoy free
      speech rights that even come close to approaching those rights held by
      people here in America.”

      Well, you obviously have no clue as to what you speak.

      We have extremely strong freedom of speech laws in Canada. The people complaining have as much rights as those causing the controversy. This is why you will see these type of stories, all the time.

      Not that the picture was returned and the teacher disciplined.

      Here is a little info from the CBC story on this:

      “Once the institution learned of the action, it immediately returned
      the art and made a commitment to cover any costs for its repair or
      replacement.

      “The university is committed to honouring artistic expression and on a
      campus with many international stakeholders it is important that we
      balance cultural sensitivity with freedom of speech, and we value the
      conversations that this piece of art and all our others inspire,” said
      Seguin.

      Graham was allowed to display it at the university’s art gallery, as part of an art show, until April 12th.”

      See CBC story here: http://bit.ly/HE43Zp

      Just so you know, Canada Rocks.

      • Thesupremecanuck

         Yeah, I’ve got to say, telling us that we don’t have protection for freedom of expression in Canada – at least in comparison to the mighty USA – is, well, rather insulting. And arrogant. And plain incorrect.

        • Nordog

           Tell it to Mark Steyn.

          • Ibis3

            Yes, because both the OHRC and the CHRC dismissed complaints against him.

          • Renshia

            What about him? Sure he went through some shit. Yes, at times he got a raw deal. But in the end the allegations were dropped and he is still out there ranting and raving his opinions.

            Yes, our rights tribunals are not perfect and sometimes grievous errors take place. In most cases in the end our courts tend to find a balance.

            For the most part we have civil dialog and reason usually prevails. At least as a majority we do protect the right to free speech.

            • Nordog

              Well, yes, I basically agree.  However, my point is that free speech in Canada is not on the same level as free speech in America.  Though America may well close the gap, so to speak.

              Basically I was called arrogant for having made that observation, but the case of Mark Steyn supports the observation.

              The fact of the matter is, as of yet the American government does not and cannot bring the power of the state to bear against a private citizen for having published opinion.  Not so in Canada.

              The star chamber type treatment at the hands of government functionaries received by Steyn for having written opinion is something we could easily see in the US someday.  But I hope not.

              In any event, arrogant or not, the subjects of Her Majesty do play under different rules than their American cousins.

              • Thesupremecanuck

                 And it would have been fine had you said “free speech rights are stronger in the US than Canada.” Because that’s true. What you said, though, was that our free speech protections don’t “even come close to approaching” those in the US.

                Which is factually incorrect, arrogant, and insulting.

                • Patterrssonn

                  “factually incorrect, arrogant and insulting” Basically Nordog.

                • Nordog

                  Well as it is said in these parts, no one has a right not to be insulted.  This is especially so when it comes to the truth.

                  And the truth is, I said “I think it is right to say…” etc.  This is a technique used to introduce opinion.  It is apt and ironic that you are taking me to task on my opinion, much like the jackbooted governmental Canadian toadies to Steyn to task over his opinion.

                  The fact is (I’ll be univocal this time) Canadians do not, as a practical matter, have free speech rights that even come close to those we have in America.

                  When American governmental agents begin grilling opinion writers then this will no longer be the case.  In the mean time you will just have to get used to being insulted in this regard.

                  Though I must say I find it odd that you seem more insulted by me than by the OHRC or CHRC, or whatever those people call themselves.

                • http://profile.yahoo.com/SQKS7GFKZ4MBAWOJD5JT6RYXI4 James

                  Considering that absolutely no action was taken against Steyn, your statement is invalid.  In the United States, local communities and governments have sometimes sought to place limits upon speech that was deemed subversive or unpopular. There was a significant struggle for the right to free speech on the campus of the University of local communities and governments have sometimes sought to place limits upon speech that was deemed subversive or unpopular. There was a significant struggle for the right to free speech on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s. And, in the period from 1906 to 1916, the Industrial Workers of the World, a working class union, found it necessary to engage in free speech fights intended to secure the right of union organizers to speak freely to wage workers. These free speech campaigns
                  were sometimes quite successful, although participants often put themselves at great risk. California at Berkeley in the 1960s. And, in the period from
                  1906 to 1916, the Industrial Workers of the World, a working class union, found it necessary to engage in free speech fights intended to secure the right of union organizers to speak freely to wage workers. These free speech campaigns
                  were sometimes quite successful, although participants often put themselves at great risk.

                • 59 Norris

                  In the examples you give, which one’s represent private citizens being brought before government boards and forced to justify their opinions?

                • Nordog

                  er…  “…which ones…”

                • http://profile.yahoo.com/SQKS7GFKZ4MBAWOJD5JT6RYXI4 James

                  It was the United States that had Sedition Act of 1918 , not Canada.

                • Nordog

                  I wouldn’t say no action was taken against Steyn.

                  And, while your examples are great and all, things like the Sedition Act on 1918 bear little on a conversation about free speech in US and Canada today.  I have been speaking in the present tense after all.  Though I have made reference to the fact that the present situation could change such that my observation is no longer valid.  But it is valid, today.  1918 notwithstanding.

    • http://profiles.google.com/carlosrfonseca Carlos Ribeiro da Fonseca

      “I just see a pick of a woman in a burka holding a bra.”

      Actually, she’s wearing a niqab, not a burka.

      • Nordog

         Thanks for the correction.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/SQKS7GFKZ4MBAWOJD5JT6RYXI4 James

       Actually, we do have the same speech right that America has.  Not at all sure how you could think otherwise.

  • Amyable

    Weird – while shopping for lingerie at the Macy’s in Herald Square last year, I saw exactly that – two women in “burqua minus eye mesh” examining/purchasing lingerie. They were with male escorts and I was, as I generally am, kind of creeped out by the veils (wedding veils in all forms also disgust me, to be fair), but it did strike me as kind of neat. I made a game of it by wondering if, under the black cloaks, sexy lingerie was all they were wearing…

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      I saw a documentary once about lingerie shops in the Middle East. Apparently, women are expected to dress in sexy underwear for their husbands. From my perspective, it seems like just another way for Muslim men to control women. Men get to choose what they wear when they’re out in public, and they also get to demand what they wear in private.

    • Stev84

      Iranian women for example usually dress up very nicely under their veils. Including haircuts and makeup. The lingerie thing is probably more for the benefit of the men, but they do seek ways to be individuals and feel good.

  • Justin Miyundees

    Jesus these guys have got a lot of nerve.  Screw them and the horse they fly through the air on.

    Bring on pictures at the grocery store holding produce.  

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I glanced through a bunch of reports on this story, and none of them could so much as hint at what was offensive about the photo.  Sounds like a very one-sided “controversy”.

  • Annie

    I find the photograph very appealing, in a Cassatt sort of way… an image that captures a regular, every day event that might not be privy to the outsider.  Offensive?  Hardly.  Though people take offense at much less these days.  I hope this will bring more than passing fame to the artist who took it.

  • MommyAnarchy

    Anyone who finds burqas or niqab offensive is part of the problem. You don’t get to decide what a woman chooses to wear. And that is the key – that it should be only the choice of the woman. It should not be required that she wear one, nor should it be forbidden. There are just different ways of policing a woman’s body.
    Muslim women cover themselves for a variety of reasons, it is not always a form of subjugation or oppression, some women even find it empowering. I only though of them as solely a tool of oppression before I actually read anything written  by Muslim women. 
    Some places to start:
    Remembering the Body Police http://www.womanist-musings.com/2012/03/remembering-body-police.html
    Does Islam Need Muslim Feminists? http://www.womanist-musings.com/2012/01/does-islam-need-muslim-feminists.html
    The Process of Hijab http://www.womanist-musings.com/2011/05/process-of-hijab.html

    • Nordog

      In you zeal you mistakenly equate my finding something offensive with my wanting to control it.  That is a penchant of liberals, but not me.

      You are correct, however, in as much as I do not get to decide what a woman chooses to wear.  But you are incorrect in thinking “that is the key.”  No, the key is, does the woman wearing a burqa or a niqab get to choose it?  If so, fine.  If it’s forced on her, not so much.

      I’m willing to wager that countries within which the niqab for women is the norm are also contries in which men are not known for really giving women a lot of choices.

      • MommyAnarchy

        I agree that the important point being that it is the woman’s choice. A piece of fabric in itself is not offensive. Yes, it is a tool of oppression in some countries, but just eliminating the burqa would not eliminate the oppression. Sometimes people who are offended by the way some Muslim women dressed is because they feel like women should always be on display. The burqa it not the problem, it is the coercion. Plenty of women in the US and Canada do freely chose to wear hijab though.

        • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

          Plenty of women in the US and Canada do freely chose to wear hijab though.

          Depends on what you mean by “freely.” Most Muslim women in the United States and Canada were indoctrinated from birth to believe that the hijab is required of them. I don’t really consider that making a free choice.

          • MommyAnarchy

            Have you talked to many of them? Are they somehow more indoctrinated than we are? Are you the one who gets to decide if it was *really* a free choice?
            It is very paternalistic to believe that you somehow know more about it than the women who actually live the experience.  If a woman happily wears it, believes her choice to be free from coercion, and does not mistreat those who do not wear it – I cannot see a problem with it. It is not my place to decide what other women can wear, or to condescendingly tell them they are not free. I will support other women’s choices, and do my best to make sure they are “free” to make those choices. Just because their decisions are not the same ones I make does not make me somehow more enlightened or educated than they are. 

            • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

              Well, they’re certainly “more indoctrinated” than I was, given the fact that I was never indoctrinated at all.

              I don’t understand atheists giving a pat on the head to Islam (or Judaism, or Christianity) when it comes to their subjugation of women. It’s not paternalistic to note that children raised in those environments are told very specifically that their god demands certain things from them. Women and girls are told that their bodies must be covered in order to please their god and stop men from being tempted. It’s patriarchal, and it’s repugnant, no matter what form it comes in.

              They can say it’s a “free choice” all they want, and perhaps for some it is, but they are choosing to embrace a backward, misogynistic religion that deems them less than men and demands horrible things from them. No person would ever choose to wear a bag over their entire body, unless they were told that they must do so in order to be a good person.

      • Coyotenose

         “In you zeal you mistakenly equate my finding something offensive with my
        wanting to control it.  That is a penchant of liberals, but not me.”

        That’s a penchant of totalitarianism. That you automatically associate it with “liberals” tells us that you’re ignorant of both. That you felt the need to take political jabs at a shadowy, undefined group out to control people tells us quite a bit more.

        • Nordog

          Perhaps, but where I live the totalitarians happen to be liberals, or as they prefer it, progressives.

          Someone telling me I hate women because I don’t want to pay the fee for her to kill the child in her womb is, well, both a liberal and a totalitarian.

          Thanks for playing.

          • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

            You’re the one paying all those fees? I never got the chance to thank you before, but: thank you!

            I’ve been paying the fees for paving the roads and building ammunition et cetera. Damn totalitarian liberals!

            • Nordog

               As is typical of a liberal (though I only suspect you are one) you miss the distinction between paying taxes that are used for something of which you disapprove on the one hand, and the government forcing you to pay directly from your own money to enter into a contractual relationship with some other person or corporation.

              People on the left love the whole ObamaCare thing, even the individual mandate.  They seem to miss the whole part about how that radically redefines the relationship between the national level government and the individual.

              If the commerce clause allows for this, there is nothing it cannot do.  And that includes turning the power of the state against those not in power.

              Are atheists in power?  Are atheist likely to be in power soon?

              You should be afraid of the individual mandate.

              • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

                I’ve discussed this distinction with you before, between mandatory taxes and mandatory direct purchases. I recognize that the distinction exists, but I don’t recognize any significance to it.

                All your fear and woe over mandatory payments is the same that is said of the IRS. What, exactly, is the significance between the two types of payment?

          • Deven_Kale

            Your version of this particular discussion seems to be somewhat distorted.

            I’m not entirely sure why you think somebody exercising their free speech by calling you a misogynist is totalitarian at all. All they’re doing is calling you something, they’re not using laws, fines, or anything to limit your ability to not want to pay a fee. In fact, all Federal money that goes to planned parenthood is used for things other than abortion, as required by law. Medicaid does not cover abortions (unless that’s changed recently), except in cases of extreme risk to the mother and/or child. No fees coming from you at all.

            Your description of how totalitarianism fits in with the abortion discussion in particular is completely flawed. First off, nobody likes abortion. The idea of ending all that potential is not something anybody considers pleasant. The liberal (generally, some libs are anti-choice) standpoint, however, is that there can be times where abortion is actually preferential to giving birth, for various reasons I will not go into since I’m sure you’ve heard them. Whether or not it is should be determined by the mother herself since she has the greatest knowledge of the situation. They have a reasonable length of time to decide whether or not to abort, generally 6 months. After that, it’s illegal except, again, in cases of extreme risk to the mother and/or child.

            The conservative (again, generally) standpoint is that every child is a human life, from the point of conception forward. Aborting the fetus, to them, is akin to murder in the first degree. Because of this view, they state that abortion should be illegal in all cases, some say even in cases of rape. The end result of this is to force every single woman into a potential deadly situation in order to give the best chance of life to a fetus that has a reasonably good chance of miscarriage in the first place.

            Now explain to me which of those paragraphs has a more accurate description of totalitarianism in them.

            • Nordog

               “I’m not entirely sure why you think somebody exercising their free
              speech by calling you a misogynist is totalitarian at all. All they’re
              doing is calling you something, they’re not using laws, fines, or
              anything to limit your ability to not want to pay a fee.”

              Actually you’re wrong.  Sure someone has free speech rights to call names (though at some point libel/slander laws kick in), but obviously you missed the whole individual mandate thing in the news, particularly the whole “War on Women” bit for those who balked at forcing the Catholic Church to pay for sterile sex party supplies and abortion services of others.

              • Deven_Kale

                 If you have a problem with Obamacare, don’t talk to liberals. It’s almost exactly the same as Romneycare, which is based on the health plans thought up by the conservative think tank “The Heritage Foundation.” Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry themselves both endorsed it, and Mitt Romney is on record stating that he thought it would be a great idea to use his health care plan as a model for the entire country. In other words, Obamacare is conservative, so complain about it to them.

                Nice try with the red herrings of the War on Women and the sex party contraception strawman.

                I couldn’t help but notice you didn’t answer my questions about Totalitarianism, such as which group is more likely to be considered as such. Should I take that as a concession on your part? That definitely seems to be the case.

  • Deven_Kale

    Actually I personally find this image a bit disturbing and it does make me feel somewhat offended.

    My interpretation is admittedly biased, as I think clothing of any sort is generally unnecessary unless  being used for protection from weather (like a sweater in the cold) ,dangerous substances (like hazmat suits), or pointy things (like briar bushes). So I understand most people aren’t going to see this in the same way that I do.

    How I see this image is based on the idea of a person in their natural state. For many Americans a person in their natural state is someone who is wearing no clothing at all — in other words, nude . At least, that’s how I feel. When a person is wearing a bra, I see that as an addition to that, something you put on top of yourself which covers you in your natural state.

    To me, this image almost seems like the artist is saying that the bra should be worn ON TOP OF the niqab. It nearly seems like this person is trying to say that this is the natural state of the woman, and that they should only be considered whole within that frame. It seems to be implying that removal of the niqab is a perversion of womanhood, and should therefore be avoided nearly to the point of wearing undergarments outside of it.

    I understand this is most likely a fringe interpretation, especially in a forum such as this. I don’t pretend to say this is the same reason that most people who find it offensive have, or even any of them at all, but that’s my honest interpretation of the image and I’m sticking to it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-A-Anderson/100000016895400 John A. Anderson

      In other words, you just want to see her nekkid. Why not just say so? The guys understand.

    • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

      Clothing isn’t justified for general protection like from: chafing, dirt, wind, sun?

      If find your bra-on-top interpretation very creative.

      • Deven_Kale

        Oops, I guess I got overly specific there. I think clothing has it’s uses, and the times when it comes in handy are varied. Those were just 3 examples, it wasn’t meant as an exhaustive list. As a protective tool clothing is great, I just don’t believe that it’s always necessary in every situation.

        I wasn’t intending to be creative with my interpretation of the image, that’s just what I immediately understood when I first saw it. I knew it was an unusual view. When I noticed somebody say that no-one had ever posted a reason why it could be considered offensive, I thought I would speak up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/valoriek Valorie Kappmeyer

    Brilliant picture.  It really is.

  • Georgina

    Gee people, of course it is offensive to muslim men – it implies that, not only do muslim women have hair on their heads (SIN!) but they might actually have boobs under all that cloth! Anyway, everybody knows that booby traps are a western invension to make women appear more sexually attractive to men and have nothing to do with aiding the muscules doing sport – since god-fearing muslim women don’t do anything so awful as indult in sports. /sarc

  • Dave Hodgkinson

    Ditto @88e72124bf166b5a7918d70ce80572b7:disqus in London. Kinda wierd.

  • Scifisyko

    “A faculty member did not agree, going so far as to tear down the image from the wall in an exhibition of student work.”

    Well if you ask me, that right there should be instant termination.  You do NOT touch/damage/remove other people’s artwork, especially students’ artwork.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    Where on earth is this ‘international advisor’ from?  Surely, it’s common knowledge that Islamic women have all sorts of attractive garments and jewelry, even under burkas.  The lingerie and dresses for sale in some of the Saudi malls are more high-fashion than 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive.
      http://www.smh.com.au/world/saudi-women-may-not-burn-bras-but-they-can-sell-them-20110701-1gv4b.html

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    This image is wonderfully evocative. Preconceptions about Niqab or women’s underwear? Let the repressed craziness flow…


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