Tina Brown and Hillary Clinton’s Burqa

This was written by Allison McCarthy and originally appeared at GlobalComment.

Tina Brown’s ploys for self-promotion are numerous, but her latest piece, along with a follow-up interview on CNN, takes the cake. Brown, former editor for noted U.S. magazines such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Talk, has always maintained some problematic notions of feminist politics in her writing. She is also an adamant Hillary Clinton supporter, prepared to defend her candidate’s political representation at all costs. Unhappy with Clinton’s supporting role in the Obama administration, Brown lashes out against the perceived oppression of Clinton in her job as Secretary of State. In her new Daily Beast article “Barack’s Other Wife,” Brown proclaims in her opening lines:

“Left behind on major presidential trips, overruled in choosing her own staff — Hillary Clinton is the invisible woman at State. But Obama’s brilliant foreign-policy spouse may not stay silent forever. It’s time for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burqa.” (emphasis mine)

Comparisons between Clinton’s status as a white upper-class female politician and Muslim women who don the burqa as a sign of personal and religious expression are asinine and reflect a racist, xenophobic and sexist perspective. Not only has Brown appropriated the experiences of other women, many of them women of color, but she also (wrongfully) assumes that women who wear the burqa are repressed and in need of rescue by the Western hemisphere. The only “invisible” women in this article are the ones who do wear the burqa of their own free will. However, these women often lack the large public media platforms granted to Brown.

White feminists often point to the supposed “oppression” of Muslim women, and Brown’s use of offensive hyperbole in this case is no exception. Clearly, Brown has not even considered that Muslim women may choose their attire as freely as Clinton picks her power suits and pumps every morning before going to work. Or are Western feminists to presume that women from other parts of the world require our permission to live as they please? I think not.

The remainder of Brown’s article bemoans Clinton’s lack of public credit and recognition for her role as Secretary of State under the Obama administration. In her final paragraph, she argues that, “Those who voted for Hillary wonder how long she’ll be content with an office wifehood of the Saudi variety.” In a recent interview with CNN, Brown argued that her burqa comparison was a justified point of view Defending her comments to CNN, Brown claims,

“I mean I’d like to see a little more of Hillary being allowed to be her own person in the State Department. Clearly she’s obviously having to represent the administration and she’s doing it. She’s showing, though, immense discipline, I have to say, about knocking herself back from the spotlight… Because I think it’s time we saw more of her.”

Brown’s not-so-subtle suggestion, throughout the article, is that Obama’s appointment of Clinton to one of the top Cabinet positions in U.S. government is an act of subversive oppression, designed to keep Clinton on a “tight leash.” This could not be further from the truth. By Brown’s own admission, Clinton is an engaged, highly intelligent politician and she functions with great ability in her executive post. A May 2009 article for The New York Times reported that in her tenure to that point, Clinton travelled 74,000 miles to visit 22 countries – and that was just for her first 100 days in office. Since May, Clinton has provided key diplomatic support for relations between the United States and other global powers. This would suggest a politician who commands authority and power in her role, not a repressed victim of Obama’s so-called chessboard politics.

Isn’t it sexist to reduce Clinton’s powerful role in the U.S. cabinet to merely being the president’s other wife? As Secretary of State, her job is to promote the policy initiatives. The men in Obama’s cabinet who do just that are not emasculated for doing so, yet Clinton’s gender, in this context, renders her as a “wife” rather than a subordinate civil servant. In her interview with CNN, Brown also offered a pseudo-analysis of Clinton’s theoretical “wifely” role in relationshop to Obama. “She’s playing back up to him,” Brown insists. “I think at a certain time she might find that frustrating.”

I can’t recall any other Cabinet members who have earned the title of “other wife” in the media, though there are six additional female cabinet leaders, many of whom work just as closely with Obama. Obama did not have to appoint her to the position she holds, after all; he had already bested her politically in the presidential Democratic nominee race. Yet he chose Clinton for her expertise and successfully nominated her for this important position. Once again, however, a woman’s political accomplishments (and Clinton has many to her name) are reduced to the role of “other wife.” With a key relationship to the President, travels in the name of U.S. foreign diplomacy, as well as wealth and public prestige, Clinton is far from a mere wifely accessory. And she certainly doesn’t need to remove any metaphoric burqa to prove so, either.