This article was written for Muslimah Media Watch by Anny Gaul.
Yesterday, The New York Times ran an article about what Iraqi women are wearing these days. It paints a picture of a once-secular society’s pluralism run amok: “Vendors around the Kadhimiya mosque in northern Baghdad sell all manner of women’s clothing, from drape-like black abayas to racy evening wear. But on a recent afternoon, Hameed Ibrahim ushered his family toward a different kind of fashion display.” The piece goes on to describe an exhibit displayed by a local mosque that features female mannequins in Western-style outfits, surrounded by leering images of men and the flames of hell. An enthusiastic local father is interviewed about the virtues of this display and the message it sends.
John Leland, the author, aims for some of the greatest advantages journalism can offer – a dialogue with people on the ground and a candid account of the immediate events that shape their lives – and yet falls into the trap of oversimplifying complex social phenomena and reinforcing stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims (especially Arab and Muslim women). It exhibits the double standards international journalism so often applies to Arab cultures, and most of all, it demonstrates how, time and time again, women’s bodies are made to bear the burden of progress, development, and even the level of pluralism or democracy within their societies.
The article’s language contributes to its rhetoric considerably: names like Um Noor and Abu Karar are glossed in parentheses (“mother of Noor,” “father of Karar”) as if to imply that the strictures of Arab family ties are so paramount that they embody one’s entire identity (I doubt the Times has ever explicated a Russian patronymic this way). It describes an “abaya battle” within Iraqi society, likening it to American “culture wars” – never mind that the mosque in question is giving away headscarves, not abayas, according to the article. When all forms of Islamic dress are rhetorically elided into one garment, it not only distorts reality – it also blurs the important notion that most Muslim women in the world exercise some sense of choice in the way they dress (just like non-Muslim women do).