Does NiqaBitch Enrich the Burqa Ban Debate?

With articles in Der Spiegel, Rue89, The Telegraph, and a YouTube video in recent weeks, the two self-described web-activists called Niqabitch are making a splash in the French (and European) media landscape. As they said themselves in the Rue89 article, throwing on a burqa in protest of France’s burqa ban would be “too simple.” They wanted to see what would happen by mixing things up a bit and throwing together a niqab with a miniskirt.

So the ladies of MMW got together and discussed our feelings on Niqabitch:

Nicole: I think this idea of protest for protest’s sake is typically French, a tongue-in-cheek representation similar to the “burqa experiment” of Bérengère Lefranc. As I said about Lefranc (and as the duo said about themselves), I don’t think the Niqabitch experiment is about Islam or Muslim women per se.

Rather, a false dichotomy of their look highlights two things. First, the burqa debate is really just about who owns women’s bodies, whether these women are covered up or not, and for that Niqabitch is spot on. Second, the fact that Niqabitches are walking around in protest makes it “okay” by some French people in a way a burqa worn for religious reasons would not be ok, which is exactly what happened in the YouTube video when the cop wanted to take a picture of the duo.

Safiyyah: When I watched the video of the two women for the first time, I was delighted, and loved their juxtaposition of “baring it all” vs. “covering it all up.” It highlighted, in a most jarring way, the ridiculous nature of wanting to “free” women, by negating freedom of choice. In my opinion, it holds a deeper message, portraying the de-humanization of women and how by wearing very little or too much, women are defined as sexual beings first.

The video has an edge about it; it’s bold. That one of the women is a Muslim adds to the interest of this story. A Muslim woman taking action to protest a full-face veil ban by not only wearing one, but exposing some skin as well, speaks of choice, and of Muslim women who are empowered to make daring statements. I am concerned though, about the possible backlash by some Muslims, as it could come across as disrespectful to Muslim women by making a mockery of the face veil.

Diana: The self titled “Niqabitches” aren’t really a novelty in the discourse surrounding the niqab. While my first instinct was to rally behind these women, on the basis of their irreverent and seemingly unorthodox parade of “anti-burqa ban” sentiment, I later retracted my enthusiasm when I found myself asking the obvious questions: Did this accomplish what these ladies wanted it to? Was their message even clear? And if not, then isn’t this display damaging to Muslim women?

This has been done before. Not in the same hot-pants-wearing, strut your stuff on the street manner; but it’s been done. Take the work of artist Makan Emadi in his series of paintings titled “Islamic Erotica.” The idea is very reminiscent. Women dressed in burqas but with parts of their bodies exposed. It draws onlookers into this fantasy of what is behind the veil, it feeds into an Orientalist worldview of Muslim women and, unnecessarily, these women are allowing themselves to be objectified.

The men taking pictures, waving from cars and ogling from their bikes are oblivious to the “protest” taking place. What they seem to be witnessing is a fantasy come true: two women, who by way of their clothing, suggest that they are covered, but still easily accessible. In this manner, they play into subversive Orientalist notions of an exotic and mysterious Muslim woman.

Safiyyah: The more I dwelt on it, the Orientalist connotations associated with Muslim women became quite glaring, especially from the reaction of the male public, who I think, did not really get the message, and interpreted it more as a bizarre satire of niqab, rather than as a commentary about women’s bodies and public decency. For me, it seems to shout to the double standards of the veil being sexy and intriguing when it is eroticized in an Oriental way.

Diana: The two female students said that they asked themselves, “How would the authorities react when faced with women wearing a burqa and mini-shorts?” If this was really the point, shouldn’t they have waited till the burqa ban is actually enforced next year to stump the authorities?

The point of this whole parade through the streets is not quite clear to onlookers. Salivating men, staring faces, confused couples—they all are unsure of what these women are doing and who exactly these women are. Are these women Muslims trying to make a statement? If so, what is the statement?

Safiyyah: While I am not sure how effective these protests can be other than to raise awareness, the over-arching message highlights the nuances of the issue as larger than just one of “security” and “liberating women,” but one about the use and abuse of women and women’s bodies in the context of power politics.

Diana: I am stretching my idealism to say, perhaps, some intuitive onlookers translated the “Niqabitches’” display as a fight between “East and West” over the bodies of Muslim women. This, at least, might spark some more “anti-burqa ban” sentiment within witnesses and challenge the control over the bodies of Muslim women. Though, judging by the bystanders’ reactions, I think it would be safe to assume that this did more damage than good.

Nicole: Does the niqabitch experiment advance the debate on the burqa in France? Not really. The policy makers behind the “burqa ban” are just a bit too thick, and of course, President Sarkozy has his own pair of long model legs to ogle. But is what they are doing cute and funny for those of us fans in Niqabitch’s “affinity group” who get it? Of course. Team Niqabitch all the way.

Readers, what are your thoughts about the video?

  • emma

    I was disappointed that they chose to just wander around having their picture taken. That, I think, is where the sense of objectification came in — why the bystanders ended up simply looking at them and capturing their image. It would have been more effective had they been active, even in an everyday way. Of course it’s hard to get permission to film in shops or metro stations.

  • Pingback: niqabitches: yay or nay? « the invazn

  • http://www.popmuslim.com Susan

    I am so glad you’ve had this dicussion. The Orientalist undertones eeked me out the very first time I saw it, as did the “what is this achieving?” confusion. They said they were doing it to see how the government would react, yet what were they expecting them to do? The ban is not in place, so there was never going to be any reaction from them, other than surprised looks. Hardly debate enhancing.

    I can’t shake the feeling it was more of an attention-seeking exercise than a genuine attempt to challenge the ban and attitudes surrounding it, even if the women’s identities aren’t revealed, as they seemed to do little more that wave at passers-by and stop for photos.

  • http://culturalfascinations.blogspot.com/ SakuraPassion

    I think it was interesting. But something about it doesn’t feel right. Maybe because it’s reinforcing the false dichotomy. That either women are to be fully covered=oppressed/minishorts=liberated. Then again, maybe it isn’t.

  • http://woodturtle.wordpress.com/ Woodturtle

    I think this protest sensationalizes the issue more than enriching it. It will certainly bring attention to how this law is incredibly anti-Islam, and how incredibly funny and daring Muslim women are — but I doubt niqabitches will be anything more than a youTube sensation.

    Perhaps it’s because we are used to hearing that the niqaab is either oppressive or worn by the most pious of Muslims, that this protest makes some uncomfortable. When seen as a religious requirement, the niqaab becomes transformed from a simple piece of cloth to a sacred object. When the sacred and the profane intersect, it’s jarring.

    Wearing niqaab and hotpants is an interesting juxtaposition, but in the end, it doesn’t matter what you wear. I’ve received more unwanted advances while in my most unflattering hijab/abaya combo than my pre-hijab days.

    In terms of Orientalism and Diana’s points, she’s right, it isn’t new. Sadly, western artists have been portraying bear breasted, veiled Muslim women since the 15th century (so perhaps it’s time we take some control over that??). Muslim women are still objectified — whether we’re wearing the hijab/niqaab through forced religious or political mandates or someone reduces the veiled Muslim woman to a voiceless and helpless creature in need of liberation.

    The best hijab protest I’ve heard is in Turkey. University students who choose to wear the hijab do so… they just wear a wig on top.

  • http://mattcornell.org Matt Cornell

    Speaking for an atheist, feminist and American perspective, I can say that the video generated a fruitful discussion in my social networks. Feminist sex educator Susie Bright posted it, though she thought it was ultimately more critical of Islam than I find it. (I find it necessarily ambiguous about the meaning of the veil.)

    The Niqabitches seem to be critiquing the whole notion of women’s bodies as battlefield in the culture war, and the cynical appropriation of feminist rhetoric by Islamophobes. They demonstrate that France tolerates (encourages/welcomes) expressions of sexually available/objectified womanhood while also supposedly condemning the veil in the name of respect for women.

    I can tell you that this makes some white liberals uncomfortable, exposing the oppressive gender norms we take for granted while condemning those of Muslim culture.

  • Pingback: niqabitches « wood turtle

  • clare

    Also, “niquer” is French for “to screw,” and I doubt that meaning was lost on the French. Combining American profanity with French profanity is pretty common, so when I saw “NiqaBitch” in the headline, I didn’t even immediately recognize the “niqab” reference.

  • Kate

    I was first entertained by the video, but then the censorship of the passersby caught my attention. The only thing seen of the women, besides their legs, is their eyes. The only thing we cannot see on the passersby is their eyes. In our society, are eyes the only “window to the soul?”

  • asha

    The impression this gives is one of absurdity.

    Confronted with the juxtaposition of two extremes, i immediately took away the message that either extreme would be undesirable: both the niqab and the miniskirt objectify women. Both of these extremes diminish a woman’s opportunity to engage meaningfully in civil society.

    The best solution for both women and society would be to adopt a middle path.

  • Ida Bakar

    At first I was entertained by the weird juxtaposition of the niqab and the miniskirt. It reminds me of the hijabis in Malaysia with their short sleeves T-shirts and low slung jeans. I tought it was very clever of the NiqaBitches to highlight the notion that women’s bodies are battlefields of ideology and political chicanery.

    However, by parading in the niqab – and doing whatever else they did – the students strengthed the argument against full face (minus eyes) covering. These two women are anonymous. They could be anybody. They were just women in niqab – faceless.

    On the other hand, if they were to remain anonymous, all I can say is that with a bit more posing they might even reach the status of Banksy – the grafitti artist with this subversive and yet thought provoking ‘art’.

  • Pingback: C L O S E R » Blog Archive » Closing the Week 40 – Featuring the Re-/De-colonization of the Netherlands Antilles 10-10-10

  • Pingback: Weekly Feminist Reader

  • Pingback: Women Can't Drive! » Blog Archive » Weekly Feminist Reader

  • Pingback: NiqaBitch on youtube « The female side

  • Pingback: 6. Women Looking at Women « Tikkunista!

  • Pingback: “NiqaBitch”: Two French Women Stage Anti-Burqa Ban Protest « ambivigilante

  • sarah

    I definitely agree that something feels problematic about the video, particularly in terms of shots of them seeming to just pose for photos, but the more that I think about it in some ways what’s really interesting is the reactions of people on the street. The decision to just take a quick photo out of your car window, as opposed to engaging and asking these two young women what’s up, as the (female?) police officer did.

    I guess what I’m getting at is there are a lot of people that don’t want to get it, and this video shows them in their full ignorant glory, but for others this action/intervention sparked something, including the great discussion above.