Jellyfish Fantasies: The Creature with the Black Niqab Fetish

Like a horrific scene from a 1960s monster movie: unbeknownst to scientists on a fossil-hunting expedition along the mist-shrouded Arabian Gulf, a prehistoric creature of gargantuan proportions slowly emerges from the water to the piercing screams of… oh no, wait. It’s not the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or even the Loch Ness monster – it’s just a woman in niqab taking a dip off the cost of Dubai for a staged photoshoot.

“An Emerging Mystery” is the creation of Sebastian Farmborough, a budding photographer who spends his time learning new languages, traveling the Middle East and apparently sexualizing Muslim women when he’s not working on his photography skills. While this is a lovely photo, I can’t get past the photographer’s motivation for creating the piece, which he’s outlined clearly for the Express Tribune (with emphasis added):

“The image is based on one of my very first experiences in Saudi Arabia. With the naked beaches of Barcelona a not too distant memory, I headed down to the Arabian Gulf for a dip. There, I became mystified by something black and obscure out at sea. It looked like a huge jellyfish. Then, as it approached closer, I realised that it was in fact a woman.”

Well, I’m certainly glad he figured that one out before she stung him with her venomous tentacles, forcing him to run around the beach begging Saudis to pee on him.

Watching a woman swim fully covered was such an “intense experience” for Farmborough that he just had to “capture it” for himself. Now, I can understand that after the naked beaches of Barcelona, Saudi Arabia might be a little overwhelming, especially if you’re only evaluating women on the basis of their nakedness or lack thereof — but it’s a special gem that goes the extra step to sexualize a cultural and religious context experienced in one Muslim country, use it to represent all Muslim women, and call it art.

Farmborough’s picture. Via the Express Tribune.

Realizing that taking pictures of women on the beach in Saudi Arabia could get him arrested, it took Farmborough over a year to gather his equipment and find a willing model with “beautiful eyes” and who was “open-minded enough to actually be a part of this photograph.” Eventually he was able to fulfill his vision in Dubai.

According to the artist this photograph is “extremely symbolic of Muslim women’s increasing prominence in the world, despite a continued mystery that surrounds their veil” — and is a part of his valiant effort to counteract negative portrayals of the niqab, saying that “[it] in no way hinders their progression or their amazing personalities.” While that’s true, nothing says progression and amazing personality more than sexy bedroom eyes shining through a veil.

You know, I probably wouldn’t have such a problem with this photograph if the motivations behind it weren’t so terribly sexist and misguided, and if the piece wasn’t framed as something truly evocative and, ugh, liberating. Especially when it’s literally the same old Arab/Muslim stereotype of the exotic, veiled beauty. Only this time instead of belly dancing or being oppressed, she’s a contestant in a strangely suggestive wet-burqa contest. Unfortunately, I have no doubt this image will join the hundreds already used by media to unimaginatively represent Muslim women going about their daily lives.

Thankfully there are many real examples of niqab-as-art being used provocatively – in edgyoriginal and critical ways — by artists who are actually working toward dispelling myths and stereotypes by highlighting the fact Muslim women are not a monolith to be essentialized.

In the end, there’s really no mystery to Farmborough’s work. It’s simply the sexist, Orientalist, jellyfish fantasies of a privileged, cultural opportunist.

A shorter version of this article was first posted as part of wood turtle’s Muslim roundup on September 14.

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  • nicole

    thank you for this. i’ve been seeing this photograph circulating in the blogosphere, mostly with people fawning over it, and i didn’t understand why. it just seemed to personify the same old orientalist, sexist tropes about muslim women. i’m grateful to find that i’m not the only one who was not impressed by the image.

    • kar

      so sad to hear this from pple that do not understand the beauty of arab culture i guess there r pple who r as ignorant as u although am a christian i admire the photo because its unique and it symbolizes the beauty if the arab women

      • kar

        ive met professional photgraphers and this is one of a kind its a masterpiece.

        • kar

          this shows the true beauty of women of arab cultures as the same way when we see them walk among us so how does this make any difference lol

  • Sebastian Farmborough

    Praise indeed Woodturtle. Interesting that you should interpret the image in such a way, perhaps that says something about you. For me, it’s not at all sexual, but depicts a strong confident woman unfazed by her niqab.

    I wanted to produce this image, because I was sick and tired of seeing Saudi women portrayed as bin bags in the Western media. Those images just add to the notion that muslim women are forced to wear a veil and for the majority that simply is not true.

    Actually, many muslim women have written to me to thank me and say how much it means to them. Of course you are never going to be able to please everyone, but I certainly prefer my image to the bin bag version.

    • glo

      Very interesting to hear from the one who produced the picture. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sebastian.

  • wood turtle

    Thank you for commenting Sebastian — I am really glad to see your response.

    I do like the image with its soft colours, stillness of water, even the few droplets of water shining on her cheeks are a lovely touch. It does indeed provide a stark contrast to the garbage bin images (which are actually a stereotype of Afghan women). So yes, thank you for not photographing the other extreme.

    But it’s exotifying and erases her from any form of agency. The allure of mystery in the title. The subtle hint of what could be underneath the water. The accompanying explanation. I’m not sure how this image evokes anything other than the old, Orientalist stereotype. Could there not have been a more powerful way to illustrate a Saudi woman — other than erasing her body and reducing her to a floating veil? Is that all she is?

    To me, that sounds exactly what is normally portrayed in “Western media.”

    • Sebastian Farmborough

      I hardly think this image is stereotypical of the Arab world, most Westerners will have never seen a woman swimming like this or even imagined that it occurred. I don’t find it at all exotic, I think it is shocking more than anything and as I experienced it, a mysterious figure arising from the deep.

      Perhaps the use of the word jellyfish was a little crass, but that was my first impression. Words aren’t really my thing, I am a photographer, but every time it is published I am asked to write something to go with it. If it was down to me, I would only have the image and the title “An Emerging Mystery” and leave it open for people to make their own interpretations.

      Had I shown her abaya too, it would have clung to her skin accentuating her body and then I would have understood people’s criticisms. The last thing I wanted to do was produce something sexual.

      She’s a lot more than a floating veil. Look at the intensity of the expression in her eyes. She’s strong and confident and she knows a lot more about you than you know about her.

  • Rawiya

    How nice it is to have the artist respond to this post. It’s always interesting to hear about the inspirations and motivations behind a piece of art. While a definitely appreciate Mr. Farmborough’s perspectives, I’ve got to say that whether or not the photo included a full body shot of a woman in a dripping abaya, it’s still very evocative, and really does seem to recreate typical Orientalist depictions of the ‘mysterious’ veiled woman. And these Orientalist images of women are inherently sexualized- the Muslim woman, covered, exotic, is a mystery begging to be unveiled by the Western male gaze.

    I’m sure there are Muslim women out there that were thankful for this image. But as a Muslim woman myself, I’ve got to say that I wish we didn’t have to choose between being represented as garbage bags or elusive Orientalized mysteries.

    • Sebastian Farmborough

      Well, it seems to be a question of perception. Perhaps, in images like this, we see what we want to see.

      I was happy to discover that many Saudi women have been using it as a background to their phones. I find it enormously fulfilling that they identify with the lady in the water. After all, this image was for them.

  • Eren Cervantes

    Thank you for this article woodturtle, I really enjoyed it and agree with you. Despite the fact that the author may not see it as an orientalist and sexist image due to the intention, I think it is very important to point that when we are dealing with gender and cultural matters we don’t necessarily realize how sexist or misled we are until we place ourselves in the other’s shoes. I think that as much as some Saudi women will be proud of such a picture, other would be completely outraged by it just thinking that sexiness and provocation is what this man saw in them when they were swimming despite their clothing!

  • Sebastian Farmborough

    This whole reaction reminds me of my encounters with the religious police over there. They were always stopping me on my way into shopping malls. All I wanted to do, was buy a few things for the house, yet the ‘seeds of evil’ were in their minds, not mine.

  • Sebastian Farmborough

    Well, I wonder if you would feel quite the same if the photograph had been taken by a woman.

    • Krista

      I can’t speak for wood turtle, but as someone whose reaction to the picture was similar to hers, I would say that yes, I’d have had the same reaction if the photo had been taken by a woman. (And I’ve written about it – for example: The context is slightly different there, but still, the fact of the artist being a woman and Muslim didn’t affect the problems that I saw in the images that they used.)

      I can appreciate that your intentions were good in making this photo, but images of veiled Muslim women as “mysterious” and with “beautiful eyes” actually have a pretty long history, especially when it comes to Western representations of the Middle East – there are some examples linked in the post in my above paragraph. So even if you wanted your photo to be doing something different, even if you intended for it to be something empowering, it ends up reinforcing a fairly tired image that has been used to sexualise and objectify Muslim women. Even if the intentions behind it were better, there’s little about the image itself that serves as much of a departure from that.

  • Sebastian Farmborough

    Oh please, you can’t relate my work to that. That’s insulting. Of course, showing a Saudi woman’s legs is sexual, but I did nothing of the sort.

    I appreciate that there are many photos of veiled women with beautiful eyes, but as I said before, the majority of Westerners would have never imagined that Saudi women swam like that. I know, I didn’t. It was such a foreign concept for me that my brain related it to the huge jellyfish I encountered in Brasil as a child. I was mesmerised, not aroused. She is a mermaid.

    I totally disagree with you and I think most of the nearly 18,000 people from 133 different countries that have seen it would back me up. I challenge you to find a better photograph of a veiled woman. i don’t know how much you know about photography, but it is incredibly difficult to execute a shot like that, to achieve that level of detail. This most certainly was not a studio shot.

    There is so much hatred towards muslims in the West, I think it’s sad that people like yourself are trying to shoot down those seeking to promote cross-cultural communication. This can only function if both sides compromise and we meet in the middle. Yes, we Westerners need to be more open-minded regarding a woman’s choice to wear a veil, and whether you like it or not, the picture encourages Westerns to understand and accept it. For us, it is not at all about sex. Perhaps people like yourself should bare this in mind and compromise a little. It is the only way we are going to be able coexist in harmony. The veil needs to be more personable.

  • Sheila

    As a Western non-Muslim woman I would have to say I agree with the article’s author. It looks to me like every other image of a niqabbed woman’s face that can be found in the Western media. Oooh, how mysterious she looks with only beautiful eyes showing blah, blah, blah. This image is used to sell all kinds of ideas whether it’s the idea of oppressed Muslim women or the idea of the foreigness of couscous. It is an exoticiszation. The image is almost always a close-up, eye level, straight on shot which reduces the woman to a body part: her head/eyes. It is passive, not active. It makes me think of John Berger’s ideas about how men act but women appear. The women in these images are watching us look at them. We do not give these women any deeper thought because they are mysterious, simply watching us, as we consume them. They are mysterious and therefore beyond our understanding, we can not fathom them or what might exist in their mind as they watch us watching them. They are symbols which we attach whatever meaning we want attach to.

    I think the photographer would have been able to show that Muslim women are more than “bin bags” is he had shown her more actively enjoying the water. I realize that this might be a bit more challenging to show since we only see her eyes (therefore no facial expessions) and also that her wet robes are likely to cling to her body in undesirable way but surely someone who spent a year working on this photograph could have found some way to do so? Maybe with experiments in a pool with a woman friend or relative? If the model is experiencing joy by being in the water wouldn’t her joy be able to make it to her eyes? I find it unlikely that niqabbed women would be swimming in the sea if they did not find it pleasureable (gasp. just like non niqabbed women!) so that pleasure should have been shown in the photograph.

  • Sebastian Farmborough

    I urge you to consider your position carefully. Your stance does not promote cross-cultural communication and if we do not communicate, we will never understand and accept one another. At present, it is so easy for Western governments to demonise and alienate muslims. If the Western general public could only relate to you, they would be far more compelled to defend you. After all, Venezuela has oil too.

  • Janelle Evans

    Sebastion, as a male with very fixed ideas about what you are trying to portray, you unfortunately are not unable to grasp what the female respondents are saying to you. Your intentions may have been to create cross cultural communication, but in reality all you do is reinforce stereotypes of Muslim women as exotic oriental women. Your photograph gives no agency to your subject. You strip all power and self determination away from her and therefore I see no difference in your portrayal of her and her lived reality.

  • Sebastian Farmborough

    Well, I’m convinced that my image can do a lot of good in the West and repair some of the damage done by images such as this:

    I guess only time will tell…

    • kar

      Sebastian dont answer them clearly they have NO idea what so ever abt photography professionalism, ignore them completely if they wanna keep posting ridiculous statements let them, its there loss.. there are pple who do not see the big picture lol which clearly shows they have no clue on art and culture :))

  • Haji Rafiq A. Tschannen

    Well, I may have a different view of this topic. On the one hand I am a male (chauvinist, if you like), on the other hand I am actually married to one of these ladies. As the chauvinist I share the view of the ‘mysterious’ hidden behind. As the husband I know that there may not only be a beauty hidden behind this veil, but a very strong lady. In fact these ‘mysterious ladies’ have a lot more power in their families than their counterparts in the West. Human nature is human nature and knowing the East as well as the West I would say that Ladies are bossing around men in the East in about equal percentages than in the West. Such is life. Vive la difference!


    I just want to first thank Mr. Farmborough for coming here to initiate a dialogue over the purpose behind his image. Personally I side with the author of this post, in that it might have been better to just leave the image as is, without having to inject any one interpretation about it. Thus I have no problem with the image per se, since it’s more interesting and unique than various other images out there of Muslim women in the media. I’m just uncomfortable with the woman being equated to an animal, since historically women (particularly those from non-white cultures) have been referred to as being “animalistic” in nature. But at this point, seeing as there is no point of consensus, it might be best to agree to disagree over this matter.

  • wood turtle

    Sebastian, I understand that your intention was to promote cross-cultural dialogue and help combat negative veil images. And thank you for taking the time to respond. Unfortunately, it is clear that you are unwilling or unable to see the critical point of view laid out in these comments. Since it’s likely we are not going to agree and I really don’t want to prolong the conversation, this is probably the last thing I’ll say on the subject.

    Again, the image you created is beautiful. As a visual, it’s intriguing — but the point of this post is to look at the way the image represents Muslim women and not its quality as Art. As mentioned in the comments above, the image of a disembodied woman gazing out from behind a veil is a traditional stereotype of the exotified, Orientalized Muslim woman. As a floating veil her agency as a human being who lives, works, loves and suffers is removed and she becomes a commodity to be consumed by the male or western gaze. Her humanity is represented only by a veil — the real woman hidden, mysterious, othered and therefore beyond understanding, existing only as a symbol.

    Creating an aesthetically pleasing image of a woman in niqab therefore, actually doesn’t do much to combat negative stereotypes or assumptions of what Muslim women are capable. When people think “Muslim women” the default should not be “oppressed garbage bag,” nor should it be “pretty veil with confident eyes.”

    I hope that one day you are able to showcase this and all of your images in a gallery. If I may make a suggestion, it could be beneficial for cross-cultural dialogue to do exactly what you would have liked to: namely, title the piece, “An Emerging Mystery and leave it open for people to make their own interpretations.”

    Hold a symposium allowing the audience to submit their interpretations — create an artistic space for others to engage with the piece and discuss what they like about it, what they don’t like about it, what inspires them and what makes them uncomfortable about seeing a disembodied veil representing ALL Muslim women or even ALL Saudi women. That’s the only thing I can offer at this point if you’re not able to appreciate, acknowledge or understand why others would find the image highly problematic.

  • Datdamwuf

    Sebastion, it is a beautiful photo. Your own words embody the objectification so evident to us, I’m not sure why you cannot see this.

    “It actually took me a year to find the right lady for this task I had embarked on completing. Yes, there are lots of women with beautiful eyes in the Emirates, but finding one who was open-minded enough to actually be a part of this photograph, now that was a challenge! ”

    You had to find someone (young) with beautiful eyes, ask yourself why?

  • The Salafi Feminist

    Sebastian, I am a Canadian Muslim woman who wears the niqaab, so please hold on for a moment while I share my thoughts.

    1) I’ve gone swimming before in my abayah and hijab, but I make a point of pulling my niqaab down. IT’S A SAFETY HAZARD! (And uncomfortable, and triggers my phobia of drowning.)

    2) Calling the woman a mermaid is really no better than calling her a jellyfish. You do know that mermaids have been historically perceived as sexual beings whose ultimate goal was to seduce and drown men, right?

    3) The composition of the photo is beautiful. Heck, I admired it for 5 full seconds before shaking my head in annoyance at the message it’s sending. But the message. The message is little different from all those other ‘niqaab fetish’ pictures out there. Oooh, she’s so mysterious in her sexy wet veil. But that’s where it stops. Mystery. She is an object to be admired, not a person of action.

    I like this picture MUCH better: