“It’s interesting to have a burqa”

“It’s interesting to have a burqa” December 1, 2008

The Western fascination with the burqa has crept up again in a new and mind-boggling way. A few months ago, I wrote about the Charming Burka, an art piece that used Bluetooth technology to take people “behind the burqa” by showing them a photo of the woman underneath.

Now? Just in time for the Christmas season, you can buy little decorative burqas for your wine bottles.

One of the wine-bottle burqas. Image via Chicago Tribune.
One of the wine-bottle burqas. Image via Kim Barker from the Chicago Tribune.

Yes, I just used the words “burqa” and “wine” in the same sentence. But that’s actually the less bizarre part of this article, found in last Friday’s Chicago Tribune.

The story is about the Women of Hope project, an organisation that employs Afghan women to sew crafts to sell overseas. It was started by an American woman, Betsy Beamon, who moved to Afghanistan after September 11 to try to support women there. According to the article, the “project has helped employ about 1,000 women — 100 main seamstresses who employ other women.”

At least from the tone of the article (which may well be taking things out of context), it appears that the crafts that these women make are tailored to what foreigners want to buy, which is where it gets weird. Along with the wine bottle burqas, you can buy Taliban dolls, or aprons for your wine bottle with “Afghanistan” stitched on them. There are also some more conventional dolls and Christmas decorations.

Am I alone in finding it weird that mini-burqas are now becoming some kind of collector’s item? That now that Western women have supposedly had a hand in “liberating” Afghan women, they can now have tiny symbols of their oppression as decorations? As with the Charming Burka project, the fear, fascination, and desire that so many Westerners seem to attach to the idea of the “veil” is playing out in a really bizarre and disconcerting way. The Taliban dolls are equally disconcerting. I really hope that there aren’t scenes being created in American homes that combine the Taliban dolls with the burqa-clad wine bottles in a reenactment of imagined stories of Afghanistan.

If the concept of the mini-burqas was coming from Afghan women themselves, wanting to reconfigure a symbol of their oppression and use it subversively, that would be one thing; however, according to the article, this craft is being done in response to the demand from foreigners, who apparently have “odd tastes.” In fact, according to the headlines, these small burqas are now supposed to symbolise hope for these women. What is especially telling is the quote from one of the women involved in the project:

“I don’t know why the foreigners like them,” said Marzia, 30 […] “Maybe they like them for their children, maybe for themselves. Maybe they like them because it’s interesting to have a burqa.”

This idea, that it is “interesting” to have a burqa, seems a far cry from the experiences of Afghan women described in the article, who probably would not describe burqas in nearly the same way. I worry about the people who may be taking this “exotic” new decoration way our of context, and putting it on the dining room table, just in time for the holidays.

Readers, what’s your take on this?

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