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Lady Gaga’s bizarre burqa song is not ‘empowering’. No, really.

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In case we weren’t convinced yet that she’s the queen of controversy, a recently leaked song from Lady Gaga’s forthcoming album, ARTPOP, has the pop singer regaling us with half-formed, ignorant lyrics about the burqa.

The song, either entitled ‘Aura’, or ‘Burqa’, includes the lyrics ‘I’m not a wandering slave I am a woman of choice/My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face’ and ‘Enigma popstar is fun/She wear burqa for fashion/It’s not a statement as much as just a move of passion’.

Well, thanks for clearing that up, Lady G – here I was thinking you were just being racially insensitive, and sensationalizing a seriously problematic item of clothing for the sake of your album sales. But, no. You’re just an ‘enigma popstar’ having passionate fun. Or something.

Gaga’s song, and also her sudden interest in the burqa as a fashion item is offensive on numerous, obvious levels, but it also speaks to the broader issue of how the West talks about and deals with the burqa in public discourse.

As an item of clothing, the burqa is steeped in controversy and symbolism. In Islam, the burqa, the hijab and the niqab all serve the purpose of both demonstrating a woman’s faith and commitment to Allah, but also shielding her from the corrupting male gaze.

From a Western viewpoint, this is obviously problematic. The idea of women having to cover themselves from head to toe, often leaving only their eyes uncovered, is alarming, disturbing even. How oppressive, to be imprisoned by clothing to ‘protect’ your modesty, while men escape such restrictions and are instead allowed to dress normally, their supposedly lustful eyes no longer offended by the sight of a woman’s basic body shape.

There are two main Western discourses around the burqa. The first prevailing thought in liberal Western society is that burqas are inherently oppressive, and should not be condoned.  In a 2009 article for The Canberra Times titled ‘Ban the Burka’, Virginia Haussegger referred to a woman wearing a burqa in public as a ‘hideously shrouded figure’, the sight of whom was ‘confronting and offensive’. She went on to say,

“I wanted to stop and ask why she had such disrespect for herself and our culture that she would hide her face and body under all that black cloth, designed to render her shapeless and inhuman… But then, throughout history, feeble women who are afraid of modernity have always been complicit in their own oppression.”

Haussegger was widely criticised for her take on the burqa, and for her vocal calls to ban the garment entirely in Australia. Her views were described as condescending to women, and on that, I would have to agree.

In creating a narrative where women who wear burqas are either forced to by their tyrannical husbands, or complicit in their own subjugation through an unwillingness to face ‘modernity’, Haussegger and others who share her views are robbing muslim women further of their agency.

Proclaiming a group of people as victims without their input does little to free them from oppression – it creates a paradigm in which they are incapable of ruling their own existences, and in a way further oppresses them. It’s an imperialistic approach that continues to push the norms and values of liberal Western society on the backwards and barbaric Middle East, and one that ignores the contextual complexities of the issue.

And it is insulting to muslim women, who are not a homogenous group, but a diverse collective with unique views on the issue. When feminist activist group, Femen, launched a campaign against Islam earlier this year with ‘Topless Jihad Day’, a counter movement was founded by muslim women who felt insulted at the implication that they were oppressed without even knowing it.

The group ‘Muslim Women Against Femen’ say on their Facebook page, ‘This page is for Muslim women who want to expose FEMEN for the Islamophobes/Imperialists that they are. We have had enough of Western feminists imposing their values on us. We are taking a stand to make our voices heard and reclaim our agency.’

Whilst it is absolutely important that muslim women have their voices heard in any debate about the burqa or Islam more generally, this can then lead to the second extreme liberal view – that out of cultural sensitivity, it is not the place of Western society to make judgments on the burqa, or indeed, any facet of Islam.

Left wing discourse seems to become so entangled in ideas of relativism and cultural freedom that it can fail to address the issues associated with the burqa, because it is conscious of speaking for other cultures, or assuming the superiority of liberal Western culture in a way that feels kind of racist, or colonialist. To me, this attitude is just as problematic as the view of all muslim women as victims, as it ignored the very real problems of the burqa and all it symbolises.

The burqa exists in a context that is ultimately sexist – the Quran and Islam more broadly (much like most religions) is based on numerous sexist principles, where women are treated as sexual property, and their agency and self-determination are severely limited. Access to education, the right to work, or even to drive is contested in countries that follow Sharia law. By our standards in the West, this is textbook inequality. This doesn’t mean that every woman who wears a burqa is oppressed, and it certainly doesn’t mean that every muslim man is a sexist tyrant – but it would be ignorant to claim that those scenarios don’t exist, or to turn a blind eye to the very real subjugation and oppression that does occur because we’re scared of being labeled as ‘racist’.

Lady Gaga’s song falls into this trap, but takes it one step further. In attempting to show just how ‘cool’ she is with the burqa, she sexualizes it, and sensationalises it in a way that turns a very problematic garment into a catchy chorus hook.

“Do you wanna see me naked, lover?/Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?”

By turning the burqa into a coy sexual ploy, Gaga is stripping the garment of it’s context and meaning, simultaneously insulting the numerous muslim women who wear it as a symbol of their deep faith, and ignoring the very serious consequences of the burqa for women’s liberation and equality in countries where it is compulsory garb. Gaga is trying to avoid the top-down effect of treating muslim women like victims, by stating their freedom of choice in wearing the burqa – ‘I am not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice’. But in doing so, she relies heavily on Western ideals of sexuality and commercialism – as if the only way a muslim woman can be truly free while wearing a burqa is to become a sexual object beneath it, and to play within the commercial rules of the fashion industry.

The burqa is arguably one of the most complex and controversial garments in existence. The subjective experiences of muslim women who choose to, or are made to wear it are too diverse and varied for the burqa to be labeled as either unequivocally oppressive, or liberating.

Perhaps Lady Gaga is genuinely trying to make a point about the agency of muslim women. Unfortunately, despite her best intentions, ‘Burqa’ comes off as an insensitive attempt at using a deeply symbolic cultural item for a cheap buck, further complicating the way in which the burqa is consumed, articulated and understood.

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4 thoughts on “Lady Gaga’s bizarre burqa song is not ‘empowering’. No, really.

  1. Awesome post, Zoya. I feel the need to defend the relativist argument somewhat, or at least my take on it. In my view, Islamic nations are sexist, but so too are most Western nations. We don’t come from a superior perspective and I don’t think Muslim women should aim to be like us – that would be aiming too low. At the same time, there are many Muslim women doing great work in combating sexism. Western feminists should support those women, rather than impose their own feminism.

  2. I feel the need to respond to the relativist response :)
    To point out that Western nations are sexist has no bearing on the question of whether Islamic nations are sexist.

    To say that Westerners cant criticize other cultures on that basis is playing the (wo)man rather than the ball. It’s saying you’re not allowed to have an opinion not because of what you think, but because of your inherent identity.

    It sends my discrimination and racism radar into overdrive. I’d rather have Muslims feel free to criticize Westerners for being hypocritical, and Westerners dishing it out right back rather than then some eerily silent politically correct sphere where people can only criticize people of the same culture.

  3. I don’t know if it deviates from a purely relativist stance, but I believe that we should be critical and upset when we hear stories like women being stoned for having the misfortune of being raped, I just don’t believe that our vision of liberation is going to be the same for women in other places. By all means judge, but don’t coerce or impose.

  4. I agree with you entirely that the concept of liberation is not going to be same for all women in all places – I just don’t think that legitimises or necessitates any tenet of cultural relativism.

    It’s important to critique the assumption that outsiders know best, true, but it’s also important to critique the assumption that only people within the given culture have the authority to talk about it.

    Indeed, don’t coerce and impose on other cultures,, but one should feel free to write a critical op-ed without fearing they are inciting coercion.

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