It gets me every time… it makes me upset and irrationally angry. The stereotyping, the orientalist exoticism and the appropriation are only some of the things that go on when niqab, hijabs and “Muslim clothing” in general is used for profit by non-Muslim Western stars.
Today M.I.A., who was once described by Time Magazine as wearing “one of the most controversial garments of our era” while wearing a niqab, is no longer “unique.” In early July, Madonna published pictures of herself wearing a chain-niqab and with the caption “‘The Revolution of Love is on…Inshallah.” According to the British Metro, the picture is part of a broader project with photographer Steve Klein, which has yet to be revealed.
Just a few days later, Lady Gaga was all over Western media sites wearing a pink burqa made out of a sheer material and leaving fans to wonder about her new “burqa song.” Lady Gaga, who had worn a niqab-like costume to Fashion Week in 2012, caused controversy once more this year.
Particularly in Lady Gaga’s case, discussions swung back and forth, some finding it less troubling than others. Some, like Myriam Fracois Cerrah, saw Gaga’s choice as a revelation of “a double standard far more concerning than the absurdity of a transparent burqa.” Others, like Callie Beusman, see it as problematic and culturally irresponsible. Some more thought of Lady Gaga as a for-profit culture jacker.
But when does it stop? And where does it lead?
Unlike Cerrah, I do not smile at how these outfits bring out double standards. I actually don’t think they do… Famous, white and orientalist women hardly compare to non-famous, non-white and religious women elsewhere. If French officials don’t go after Gaga’s burqa is not only because she is famous and ridiculously rich, but also because she is not a Muslim practitioner; she is a non-Muslim white western woman playing with the politics of gender and religion.
While M.I.A.’s Muslim and Middle Eastern imagery have been described as “controversial” and “thought provoking,” MMW writers and readers expressed their feelings towards M.I.A.’s outfits and videos in two separate occasions. The issue continues to be the same: the big intersection between orientalism, exoticism, cultural appropriation, profit and some kind of twisted sense of solidarity and controversy.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a purist. I do not get scared of sheer burqas (like the ones featured in Submission) and I am not longer surprised by the fact that orientalism is not over… it is just changing. I am not offended about these women wearing pseudo-burqas and niqabs per se. But it is rather what it comes out of it and how we perceive it.
Why is it controversial to see Madonna wearing a chain-niqab? It is not. She is playing with people’s sensibilities (and not only Muslim ones) for the sake of profit. She probably couldn’t care less about the significance of niqab or the meaning of the word “inshallah,” but we see it as controversial, transformative and discursive. And that’s where the profit is.
Lady Gaga wearing a pink burqa does not do anything for Muslim women. The problem is that we are the ones facing the day-to-day orientalist exoticism coming out of a hyper-sexual outfit worn by a woman who decided to profit out of it.
The fact that these acts are described as transformative just puzzles me… they for sure make people talk, but there is nothing relevant or significant coming out of it. Take M.I.A.’s so-called protest against the French ban on niqab, for example… well, it looked good in picture for a little while but it made me wonder, what kind of solidarity is this? Cultural appropriation does not equal solidarity. You want to support Muslim women’s causes around the globe, then go and support the groups working around real initiatives or write a letter to the Prime Minister… don’t wear a shinny burqa and call it “controversial” or “supportive.” At the end of the day, French officials couldn’t care less and women are still fined for wearing niqabs and burqas.
So, after this rant that I have been holding on to since Ramadan, I am still wondering: When do we realize that controversy for the sake of profit is not really transformative?