Oooh, Baby, Put it On: Ripping up Veil Fetish Art

The original view of Middle Eastern/Muslim women was that of a lazily sensual harem woman reclining on a couch. Most recently, it has morphed into a cowed housewife bullied by her religion and the men in her life. From these icons arises a newer image of Muslim women: one that combines the two.

I’ll term it “veil fetish art,” because every featured woman has most or all of her face and her hair covered. Although the woman herself is the main focus, the veil acts as a sexual catalyst: it brands the woman as forbidden, despite the fact that you may be able to see most of her naked body. So even though she’s exposed, the veil reminds you that she’s “forbidden fruit,” and pushes the viewer to want her even more.

So did I find these pictures while uploading porn? Nope. All I did was run a Google search for phrases like “Muslim women,” “burka,” and “veil,” and several not-safe-for-work results came up (FYI: moderate safe-search was on). The majority of these results came up within the first five pages. If you click on the pictures to find where they’re showcased, you’ll usually be taken to websites geared toward Islamophobic and xenophobic world views that fly under the flag of “anti-terrorism.” Or Islamophobic discussion threads. Or porn sites (sorry, no links for those).

Though it’s a possibility, these women are most likely not Middle Eastern or Muslim. It’s more likely that they’re white and/or western models with some spray-tans. The only thing that signifies their cultural or religious affiliation is a veil, which works in two ways: to brand the woman as a Middle Eastern/Muslim woman, and to arouse the viewer.

It’s something like an updated version of the colonialist postcards produced in the mid-nineteenth century. The primary difference is that the colonial Orientalist postcards centered on domesticity, docility, and an exotic locale, aiming to showcase naïve young Algerian girls with their breasts exposed.

But the subjects of veil fetish art are neither girls nor innocent, and it doesn’t matter where they are: these women are hot under that niqab, and they want you to know it. They are positioned in pin-up posture: coy, curvy, and enticing. Or, they’re in a Maxim-style stance: they stare you down while your eyes roam over their partially-obscured form (the naked woman with explosives that Melinda referred to last week is an excellent example of this).

These women bear the “oppressive” niqab of their mothers, the badge of female Muslim submission in the Western world. But they also perform like their harem girl grandmothers, whose chests and hips protruded the same way over a hundred years ago. They are a combination of the silent and sensual, and they just want your attention.

So whose attention are they aiming for? Like I described earlier, the majority of websites that feature images like these usually carry heavy Islamophobic themes. Ironically, these outlets are often the same ones that call for the “liberation” of Muslim women while depicting these women in pornographic imagery. In these pictures, the veil adds a dimension of oppression that cries out for western male help: you can almost hear the women breathe, “Liberate me!” Take off her veil and get a prize…her body!

The type of liberation these images imply is a sexual one: erotic poses and come-hither eyes imply that this veiled woman just wants the freedom to be the dirty, dirty girl that she is. This simultaneously reinforces Orientalist ideas that Muslim women are oppressed (sexually as well as socially or religiously) and hypersexual. It also supports the idea that covering oneself is oppressive, and that the only way to be a liberated woman is to show some skin.

Taking into consideration the context of these images, it occurs that they might be a way to regain control over egos bruised by a faltering war on terror and recent fears of women becoming suicide bombers. Since women in Afghanistan and Iraq are starting to reject the faulty premises of women’s liberation that the Bush administration has been touting, the idea that Muslim women just want a (Western) knight in shining armor is dashed. And reducing a woman to a sex toy makes her a lot less scarier.

So…if you can’t beat ‘em, degrade ‘em!

  • Melinda

    Excellent analysis!These outlets are often the same ones that call for the “liberation” of Muslim women. In these pictures, the veil adds a dimension of oppression that cries out for western male help: you can almost hear the women breathe, “Liberate me!” Take off her veil and get a prize…her body!Oh, the irony. As though sexual objectification is any kind of “liberation.”

  • orodemniades

    Okay, as an afficianado of science fiction, if I were to see the first two on the cover of a book I’d be likely to check out the blurb on the back and see who did the cover art (Boris Vallejo, I’m talking to you). As a bellydancer, I am both appreciative and annoyed at Oriental Fantasy art.As a woman, I’m offended that once again, we’re reduced to ‘see how Manly I Am with this bit of hot property on my arm’.As a Westerner, I wish the veil were less of an issue.

  • Roxie

    I just had to say that the woman in the Red is Lil Kim, the rapper.

  • animamea

    The first picture looks like a shot of Bettie Page with a Photoshopped veil.

  • darknessatnoon

    “Oh, the irony. As though sexual objectification is any kind of “liberation.””Hey, now! Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

  • Henry

    So I’m looking for a little insight. The vast majority of women posing for pictures like this (be they Muslim or otherwise) do so willingly, so is it liberating that they have the choice whether or not to expose their bodies, or does it do greater harm to women to be objectified? Does individual choice or the good of the whole take priority on this issue?I’ve heard feminist arguments for both sides, but I was just curious what your take on it was.

  • Zeynab

    Henry, I don’t want to get into that issue here, because it’s just too big. If this was Muslim women themselves doing it, maybe I wouldn’t get so mad. But these women are not Middle Eastern or Muslim (the one in the red veil is Lil’ Kim). So there’s an added dimension of “dress up” or “cultural appropriation” here that’s not cool.

  • Henry

    Fair enough, just curious.

  • Stephie

    That’s a great analysis of the issue. It just goes to show that those in the business of racial stereotyping in objectifying women aren’t stopping at African American women but are willing to take it to new levels by appropriating symbols of religion in porn. Just because a woman chooses to cover up doesn’t mean she needs to be “freed”.

  • GoGo

    Thanks for posting this commentary. I came across pics like these searching for the herstory of the veil in islam a few months back and am glad to see someone took it to the page to discuss.Personally, unless these were shot and made by women themselves regarding their own heritage, these shots are stem from nothing more than the same oppression that comes when we force veils onto women.~GoGo

  • ilmgirl

    Regarding the issue of choice and liberation, whether Western women can choose to be sexualized or not (and hence that is at the root of their freedom), I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’m pretty sure it’s not as easy as ‘well, at least I can choose to have sex’, or not. What we’re really choosing is whether or not we want to participate in a system that values us to the degree that we can manage the sexualization of our own bodies, thus performing what is seen and portrayed as an appropriate gender role, or choose *not* to participate in that system. By participating in it, women must delicately manage their performance so as not to come off as a slut. By not participating, they risk being referred to in other ways. Often time the assumption is that they are simply a lesbian, and are dismissed as such. Maybe it sounds like a cliche, but American culture, most often through the media, does produce the image of gender roles that people overall aspire to. And if you don’t think so, remember what it was like to be a teenager? I don’t think that we can assume that women aren’t under pressure here (as they are all over the world), to conform to certain gendered expectations, and that these expectations oftentimes take a serious toll.Anyways, my two cents.

  • nadia n

    re: Henry: I know this is a massive debate, but in general I hate the “they weren’t forced therefore this is awesome” argument. I think the Onion put it best: Women are now empowered by everything a woman does.

  • Émilie

    Thank you for this post. I recognized the third picture (the woman in the burqa with the Marilyn Monroe-inspired legs) as having made the cover of a 2005 special edition of “La vie en rose”, a feminist magazine that was started in Québec in 1980 (and that died many years ago). You can find the cover here. It is alledgedly the women in charge of this issue who are at the origin of the image.I thought it was interesting to add, in regard of your interest to the context of those pictures. For this one, it was neither in a (visible) pornographic or xenophobic context, rather in a feminist context.But in the same vein as your post, other people denounced this picture/cover from a feminist and anticolonialist standpoint. And according to them in the introduction of their critique, it was not even ever clear why this picture was chosen. Some said it was to remind people that “Under the burqa is a woman,” others that it showed “two oppressions,” others simply that the image had to sell. And it did.

  • Ethar

    This is an incredible post. Love your analysis.

  • Pingback: Fitna - Page 4 - Belly Dance Forums

  • Layla

    I dont understand how any of it is saying liberate me.. I wear abaya and hijab and yes i am very sexy underneath FOR MY HUSBAND TO SEE ONLY.. it should not be saying liberate me.. it should be saying WE COVER UP BECAUSE WE ARE BEAUTIFUL…to protect ourselves. the best gift is one that is wrapped.

  • Fatemeh

    @Layla: Uh…I feel like you’re missing the point of my post…my post isn’t referring to actual Muslim women, it’s referring to these fetishistic images that are intended for a specific audience.

  • Sobia

    Women are not gifts. We are human beings. Gifts imply objectification. Not only that, but you are making a value judgment on women who are “covered” and not “covered.” Covering in abaya and hijab may be best for you, but its not best for every woman.

    Covering doesn’t protect from anything. Men still ogle and harass. There can be a myriad of reasons to cover to whatever extent one chooses, but our covering or not should make no difference in how men treat us nor does it cause men to harass or not harass us, or assault or not assault us. If we are assaulted or harassed it has nothing to do with how we’re dressed and everything to do with how that man or men think about women.