Effective Discussions on the Oppression of Women: Is the Burqa It?

Effective Discussions on the Oppression of Women: Is the Burqa It? November 20, 2013

For a few years now, I have been observing depictions of the veil, the niqab and the burqa, not only in the media but in pop culture. Muslimah Media Watch has written extensively about these depictions because they are so prevalent everywhere. Just last week, Nicole wrote about a controversial ad featuring a niqabi woman and a soldier. Similarly, as I have discussed in another post, niqabs and hijabs have made it to stardom through famous people like Lady Gaga and Madonna. We also see a tendency to use the niqab in artwork as woodturtle has explored. Yet, often these depictions do not result in any positive discussions about Muslim women’s rights.

Depictions of the niqab and hijab in artwork continues to trouble me perhaps because I have always seen museum-type art as elitist. Not everyone can afford to go to a museum, nor is everyone exposed to this “fine art”. I do not mean to undermine the importance of the fine arts at all; on the contrary, I have an artistic background myself. But I believe that along with appreciating art we should be critical of the processes that are involved in making it. In my own experience, artistic settings can be very exclusive. Not everyone is welcome and not everyone is deemed to understand (minimalist art anyone?). Likewise, not just anyone walks into the door and is received as an artist. One needs more than just talent to get into the “clique.” As an observer, the experience is quite similar, how many of us can be said to hang out with “intellectual” people who make and “understand” art?

But the political context is also important. For instance, growing up in Mexico, art was prevalent when centrist parties were in power despite other problems like corruption. The government funded cultural activities, subsidized museums (in most cases students and teachers could access for free all the time) and provided public spaces for emerging artists through a number of initiatives. However, these projects stopped being funded when conservatives came along, so many artists decided to appeal to the new government’s sensitivities and we saw a rise in commercial art.

So why am I telling you all this?

Last week my two friends and I decided to visit the Ottawa Art Gallery. The gallery is a huge building that keeps important pieces of art including Inuit art, modern art and classical fine art. If you ask me, it is by no means the best art gallery; it is a bit disorganized and the museographic work is poorly done in comparison to that of other museums. However, the best/worst moment was when we visited the Canadian Art section. Then I was faced with Colleen Wolstenholme’s burqa women…

Picture depicting one of the three figures.- Via The Coast. 

My friends and I walked into the “Canadian Art Section” and were immediately faced with a dimly-lit room. The spacious room did not feature any other sculptures, making the room too big for the three half-size statues. Since the gallery does not allow photographs, I have included pictures from other sources.

The collection features three sculptures that are ¾ the size of an average woman to represent, what the artist considers to be, the ¾ status of Muslim women according to Shari’ah. I walked into the empty, dimly-lit room featuring these cement- burqa- women and I was immediately confused. In a museum where no other images of Muslim women are displayed and the last thing one expected was to see three ¾ burqa women, there was no explanation of the sculptures and a guard stood by door indicating that people should not touch or take pictures. When I finally found the information about the pieces, I felt even more uncomfortable. The plaque indicated that these sculptures were meant to add to the discussion on the oppression of women (not Muslim women, just women).

The three burqa women together.- Via colleenwolstenholme.com 

One of my friends (a Ghanaian girl) commented that it was obvious that the artist was white and Western. My other friend (a Tunisian-Canadian girl) felt uncomfortable because the images were so out of context that they perpetrated a stereotype instead of producing meaningful discussions. And I… I decided to write a post.

Reading a bit about the artist, I confirmed that she is a Canadian white woman, who has a whole set of mini-burqa-women. Yet, her work is described as “outlaw” and “critical.” The racial aspect mentioned by my friend was not to imply that Caucasian people do not get it (because many do) or that all women of colour get it all the time (because not everyone does). Instead, it was a comment on “whiteness” as privilege and the naïve notion that, somehow, “whiteness” stands against women’s oppression.

Miniature burqa and niqab women by the artist.-Via colleenwolstenholme.com 

So I was left wondering… how critical is this? How critical is it to play with a stereotype and a limited understanding of Islamic law? How is it that women’s oppression is linked to the veil?

Then it hit me… this is what all the previously mentioned depictions have in common. They work with stereotypes and pretend to understand or explain something… But they bring no discussion. The discussion is shut down through a message that says “If you are a Muslim woman, especially one wearing the veil, then you are oppressed.”

So what entails an effective discussion on the oppression of women? Well, I think that depends on the particular communities. Yet, I can tell you, that three short cement women are not necessarily much of a discussion. It is a statement on what an outsider considers to be reality.



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6 responses to “Effective Discussions on the Oppression of Women: Is the Burqa It?”

  1. I completely agree!

    What’s most common in all these “artistic” depictions of hijab/ niqab is that… there is NO discussion with women who wear them, at all. These “artists” are simply utilizing a stereotype to make *themselves* appear “cutting edge” and “outlaws” and whatever else… but they clearly have no interest, and make no effort, in reaching out to actual Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab.

    Art should cause people to think *outside* of the cliches and stereotypes, to either cause some kind of effective change or discussion, or to encourage it. The majority of hijab/ niqab related “art” does not do so.

  2. “It is a statement on what an outsider considers to be reality.”
    It is sad that the artist is only able to depict women who are wearing the burqa as mini-humans, or as stunted beings. Is her art an actual representation of her interactions with these women?
    Is this exhibit a part of the “culture war” or the clash of
    civilization? Maybe there is still a taboo to depict women of the other
    side of that “war” is the same demonizing way as they do the men. So by
    default, we get the commonly portrayed images of “faceless”,
    personality-less Muslim women. How often do the average Canadian bumped
    into a Muslim woman wearing burqa? I’m with you that the diminished cement women may not be of much help in a discussion on the oppression of women. Just another addition to the lists of thought-terminating cliché that
    surrounds the topic of oppressed [Muslim] women.

  3. My reaction on seeing the piece was very similar to yours. I actually turned around and walked out of the room before I had to explain it to my kid, because I knew I was going to get angry and couldn’t explain to him both what I thought about it and what the artist meant to say. It wasn’t a piece that opened dialogue or furthered a conversation–it made a statement and silenced anyone who had anything other to say about it.

  4. The point you raise is most certainly a valid one; the context of the piece – arguably as or perhaps even more important than the piece itself – sends a pretty galling stereotypical message.

    It does beg a certain question, though: Is the piece a problem in itself, or because of it being the only representation there? The message it seeks to send – a pointed finger at certain religious sects – would likely be a welcome part of a real discussion, in the context of a discussion, but a message by itself is not a discussion; it is a monologue.

  5. I find this critique of Islamic women really one-sided and irrelevant. The artist didn’t consider the women’s voices behind those veils, and the idea that “Islam” or “Muslim” should stand as packed terms to refer to “oppression” is really appalling.

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