“It’s interesting to have a burqa”

The Western fascination with the burqa has crept up again in a new and mind-boggling way. A few months ago, I wrote about the Charming Burka, an art piece that used Bluetooth technology to take people “behind the burqa” by showing them a photo of the woman underneath.

Now? Just in time for the Christmas season, you can buy little decorative burqas for your wine bottles.

One of the wine-bottle burqas. Image via Chicago Tribune.

One of the wine-bottle burqas. Image via Kim Barker from the Chicago Tribune.

Yes, I just used the words “burqa” and “wine” in the same sentence. But that’s actually the less bizarre part of this article, found in last Friday’s Chicago Tribune.

The story is about the Women of Hope project, an organisation that employs Afghan women to sew crafts to sell overseas. It was started by an American woman, Betsy Beamon, who moved to Afghanistan after September 11 to try to support women there. According to the article, the “project has helped employ about 1,000 women — 100 main seamstresses who employ other women.”

At least from the tone of the article (which may well be taking things out of context), it appears that the crafts that these women make are tailored to what foreigners want to buy, which is where it gets weird. Along with the wine bottle burqas, you can buy Taliban dolls, or aprons for your wine bottle with “Afghanistan” stitched on them. There are also some more conventional dolls and Christmas decorations.

Am I alone in finding it weird that mini-burqas are now becoming some kind of collector’s item? That now that Western women have supposedly had a hand in “liberating” Afghan women, they can now have tiny symbols of their oppression as decorations? As with the Charming Burka project, the fear, fascination, and desire that so many Westerners seem to attach to the idea of the “veil” is playing out in a really bizarre and disconcerting way. The Taliban dolls are equally disconcerting. I really hope that there aren’t scenes being created in American homes that combine the Taliban dolls with the burqa-clad wine bottles in a reenactment of imagined stories of Afghanistan.

If the concept of the mini-burqas was coming from Afghan women themselves, wanting to reconfigure a symbol of their oppression and use it subversively, that would be one thing; however, according to the article, this craft is being done in response to the demand from foreigners, who apparently have “odd tastes.” In fact, according to the headlines, these small burqas are now supposed to symbolise hope for these women. What is especially telling is the quote from one of the women involved in the project:

“I don’t know why the foreigners like them,” said Marzia, 30 [...] “Maybe they like them for their children, maybe for themselves. Maybe they like them because it’s interesting to have a burqa.”

This idea, that it is “interesting” to have a burqa, seems a far cry from the experiences of Afghan women described in the article, who probably would not describe burqas in nearly the same way. I worry about the people who may be taking this “exotic” new decoration way our of context, and putting it on the dining room table, just in time for the holidays.

Readers, what’s your take on this?

  • RChoudh

    Are the people who came up with this wierd idea not afraid of offending Muslim sensibilities? It’s like openly having prostitutes masquerade themselves as Muslim women for the titillation of men both Muslim and non-Muslim. In both cases associating something religious (the act of covering) with something haraam (wine, prostitution) will not help anyone, especially Westerners.

  • cycads

    Oh my goodness, what a bizarre story! Horrible as it sounds, this is what commodification does to cultures that are exotic to foreigners – it strips away pretty much every meaning to cultural symbols i.e. the burqa here, and reduces it to an objet d’art to put in their homes; a souvenir from distant lands.

  • http://musicalchef.wordpress.com/ musicalchef

    I agree with Cycads.

    I’m totally disgusted…

  • http://desedo.com/blog MHB

    SMH

  • Um Omar

    That is ridiculous. Burqas for wine bottles, that American woman should be ashamed of herself. Sounds like she is totally out of touch with Afghani society.

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  • http://www.nuseiba.wordpress.com Sahar

    Krista: well analysed!

    I think it’s really just typical cultural appropriation. The burqa is now part of the many relics of another’s culture for the west and its own culture of spectacle to appropriate as art and display.

    It’s utterly offensive in another way. Perhaps i’m reading into it more, but the use of the burqa in this way is sending out a message of being conquered. In Western discourse the burqa is symbolic of religous extremism or Islam to be precise, and therefore associating the burqa with wine( alcohol) which is forbidden in Islam is a way of relegating Islam to a position of submission. It is now at the West’s disposal.

  • http://ojibwaymigisibineshii.blogspot.com/ Cecelia

    This is highly offensive. I agree with you Sahar, it is typical cultural appropriation. Just like so many other traditions, cultures and tribes worldwide where things are stolen and used without honor and respect. We see so much of Native American/First Nations culture appropriated in American society.

  • http://www.themuslimah.com Umm Layth

    as salamu ‘alaykum

    Such ignorance.

  • Bradley Strider

    I lol’d.

    Oh wait, no, I was outraged. Yeah. Really mad, I am.

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  • Naeem

    Bla bla bla, glad we are all up in arms about the burning crisis of the day. Burqa+Wine in same sentence. Oh my god, I can feel the fitna rushing to my head.

  • http://nadiaalam.wordpress.com nadiaalam

    i am absolutely appalled by this article. i think it is completely “symbols of their oppression as decorations” as mentioned in this article. what is even worse is that the women of this project do not understand the implications of the things that they are creating – that they are a symbolism of oppression, of terrorism. it is truly a sad thing.

  • Krista

    Thanks everyone for the comments.

    @Naeem: As you may have noticed, the wine bottle part of the story wasn’t actually the major focus. More disturbing is the commodification of the burqa and its appropriation as something that can now be a decoration in someone’s home, which is problematic regardless of whether wine is involved or not.

  • thabet

    Orientalism and consumerism are related.

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