Does NiqaBitch Enrich the Burqa Ban Debate?

Does NiqaBitch Enrich the Burqa Ban Debate? October 5, 2010

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?

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