The Unveiled Truth Naked prejudices?

A picture has been making the rounds on the internet this week titled "The Difference Between Eastern and Western Women." Depending on whom you ask, the picture is "provocative", "obscene", "funny", "clever", "stupid", "tame", "lame" or simply "boring". In this week's 'The Unveiled Truth', Shirin Sadeghi takes a look at the picture behind the "picture".

New in Ceasefire, The Unveiled Truth - Posted on Thursday, November 11, 2010 0:05 - 15 Comments

By Shirin Sadeghi

A picture has been making the rounds on the internet this week titled “The Difference Between Eastern and Western Women.” In the image lies a distinct contrast: standing against the same pale background is an apparently “Western” woman, completely nude but for a blindfold, and to her right is an apparently “Eastern” woman, completely covered, but for her eyes.

We aren’t, presumably, expected to believe that this is the difference between middle-of-the-ground “Eastern” and “Western” women – these two are extremes. Further, the image is intended to display information, which most people will gather instantly: “Eastern” women are oppressed and non-sexual and “Western” women are liberated and quite sexually advanced (hence the S & M blindfold). There is also an overall comment on veiling and hejab.

The image is shocking and worthy of contemplation. Is this an “Eastern” woman living in the “West”, a place where she is not forced by law to wear the Hijab, but is wearing the extreme Hijab-Niqab as a force of family learning and cultural values? Is this an “Eastern” woman in the “East”, specifically in a country like Iran or Saudi Arabia where she is prohibited from not wearing the Hijab?

Why is the “Eastern” woman so bulky and apparently rotund – is there a lovely figure hidden under that Hijab or is she plump (and on her way to being fat) because, like other “Eastern” attire such as the South Asian shalwar kameez or kurta, she has no restraint on her mid-section or waist as a woman who wears jeans or a skirt everyday would have, and therefore runs the risk of losing track of her girth over the years?

And what about the “Western” woman? Why is she so perfectly fit? (Some of the fattest people I’ve ever seen are women in the “West”.) And why is she so sexually experimental? Do all “Western” women regularly practice sadomasochistic sexual relations? Doesn’t S & M involve sexual acts that are meant to diminish the blindfolded member of the act? Is the difference between “Western” women and “Eastern” women a difference, then, of privacy? That is, do “Western” women allow themselves to be diminished in private whereas “Eastern” women are perfectly comfortable doing it public?

Here is where the debate on Hijab takes its most sensitive turn and also where the image hits at a nerve: is the Hijab diminishing to women? Those who wear Hijab fall in many different categories ranging from being forced by the family or government to wear it to choosing to wear it contrary to family or government values. But the choice is absolutely not visible in the Hijab – a woman wearing hijab is covering herself from the outside world and there is no apparent reason for this act other than Islam.

Hijab in the form we see it in this image is – in this day and age – a representative of Islam, and the woman wearing it is either a Muslim or in a Muslim country. If she is Muslim, she is in the minority – most Muslim women do not wear hijab, whether it’s mandatory or not. If she is in a Muslim country, she is also in the minority – most predominantly Muslim countries do not require Hijab by governmental decree. Thus we understand that the Muslim woman in the image is a minority amongst Muslims and is distinguishing herself amongst Muslims.

Why is she distinguishing herself? The only answer to that is a need – whether derived from rebellion against a feeling of marginalization in a global political outlook against Muslims or derived from a motivation to be different in a very overt way – to simply stand out as a Muslim. In any given case, it is not clear who made this decision for the woman. This reason of needing to stand out, however, has nothing to do with the religion as per its primary text and is simply a function of ideology: a minority of adherents to any given ideology like to make their affiliation known in a visible way.

In the religion of Islam, veiling is addressed in the source material. The Quran is rather ambiguous on the matter, stating only that for the sake of the chastity of men and women, women should be spoken to from behind a curtain. There are other passages about the charms of women’s hair and ambiguous body parts, but veiling itself is addressed in reference to a curtain. What is certain, however, is that veiling is reserved exclusively for women. Men do not veil, they dress modestly, but do not veil. Where a curtain is involved, it is women who are behind it, not men.

So is it diminishing to women that they are the ones who must be behind the curtain? Being behind a curtain delineates a situation where a larger space is curtailed by a curtain, which keeps women in that smaller space whereas men are free to roam in the large space. Perhaps there is an exit in the curtained area where the women are but their space, nonetheless, is more limited than the men’s.

Or perhaps the room is split exactly in two and the curtained space (with or without an exit) is equal in size to the other side of the curtain. The fact remains that the women are still segregated. Someone could argue that the men are also segregated, but a closer look at the natural facts of the situation indicates otherwise.

The men are the actors in this scenario: they choose to enter the space where a curtain exists in order to speak with the women. They then approach the curtain and address the women by their own initiative. The women, on the other hand, are placed in the curtained portion and are approached by the men. They are made passive. As modestly dressed and chaste woman, they cannot shout through the curtain when they want to address a man — discussions and interactions will only take place at the initiative of the man.

That sounds diminishing to women.

But let us return to the hijab in the image – while the woman is in purdah (or curtained), she is not literally encased behind a curtain. Instead, she has attached the curtain to herself in a clothing-like fashion that nonetheless retains some curtain qualities (varying depending on the style of hijab). She is being segregated from men.

She is also being segregated from other women who do not wear the Hijab (remember, most Muslim women do not wear it). Is she still being diminished as in the curtain/room scenario? Those Hijab wearing women who are kept indoors, or who must be chaperoned when outdoors – the ones who are prohibited from independence – certainly are.

The more interesting question has to do with the ones who have jobs or are otherwise independent – are they being diminished by their Hijab? The segregation is there, yes. But the problem of initiative has disappeared and perhaps even reversed. Now, men hesitate to approach these women and interaction will take place on her initiative, though as a chaste woman such interactions are quite contrary to the guidelines.

Other, non-Hijab-wearing women are also hesitant to approach these women who have shielded themselves with a curtain. So the segregation is quite pervasive and instead of men diminishing these women, they are put in a position where they must diminish themselves: they must control natural, normal instincts in themselves and they must control natural, normal instincts in others — toward them. The guidelines of decorum must be adhered to, as unnatural as they might be.

And finally we come to the matter of choice. For the ones who wear Hijab in countries where it is not mandatory, there are no statistics as to whether that is self-imposed segregation or not so we do not know whose choice it was to so distinctly segregate these women or whose choice it was to indoctrinate these women such that they would wear Hijab without protest.

And there is certainly room for protest. Consider that Hijab in its most common state is of a dark black hue – a hue that is a danger to the health of the women who wear it, primarily because they tend to live in some of the hottest regions of the world where such attire can and does create severe health conditions for women.

Why black? Is it to make the women into shadows of themselves? Is it to obscure any semblance of the female body? Or is it to make them invisible? And even when it is not black, it is wrapped so securely around necks and hairlines alone that even the slightest breeze brings a comfort of indescribable dimensions because the wearer of the hijab is absolutely suffering from it.

Many of these women insist it is their own choice to wear Hijab but that kind of statement can be likened to saying that “it is my choice to be born” or further “it is my choice to be born a Muslim.” Or even further: it is my choice to live in a society where I feel less comfortable without the Hijab because centuries of covering women, along with attitudes that diminish women, have resulted in a culture and a tradition that eyes women in a most un-chaste manner, forcing them into a false sense of liberation with Hijab from a condition which Hijab itself encouraged.

So what of the original comparison between Eastern and Western women? Is one more free than the other? Is it more free to be publicly diminished based on someone else’s choice or more free to be privately diminished based on your own choice? What the public knows when it sees a woman in Hijab is that somewhere along the line, this woman was not allowed to make a critical choice about so simple a thing as how she will clothe herself.

Thus the discomfort upon seeing such women anywhere in the world. Thus the dramatic contrast we see in this image. Both these women are extremists, but one woman chose to be diminished and the other did not.

Shirin Sadeghi is an Iranian-American writer and Middle East Consultant. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and has previously worked as a Producer and Reporter for the BBC and Al Jazeera Television.

Her weekly column, ‘The Unveiled Truth’, appears every Wednesday.

15 Comments

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James
Nov 12, 2010 3:08

As soon as I saw the picture, I assumed the point of the ‘Western woman’ wearing only a blindfold was to suggest that in nudity she has lost her vision, ability to see the world for what it really is, and so on. I didn’t get the S&M references at all.

Morgan
Nov 12, 2010 5:45

I thought the same as James initially, and then the S&M inferences come in too.

To me the Western woman immediately looks likes she’s supposed to look vulnerable – she’s naked and exposed and covering herself with her arms in an almost defensive way, and she can’t see. The veiled woman doesn’t look particularly happy, but she can see out without being seen, whereas the naked woman is exposed to everyone else’s view while deprived of the ability to see for herself. You can easily read it as her being the one who has lost her agency.

I assume that that was the intended message, even – in fact especially – with the undertones of sexuality and BDSM: that in the name of sexual liberation we are rendering ourselves blind and vulnerable, unable to see what’s coming, whereas at least the veiled woman can see out (though she looks pretty worried – like she doesn’t much like what it is she’s seeing).

On the other hand, the veiled woman does look diminished, not by the veil per say but by her stance and expression and most of all the height difference between her and the blindfolded woman.

Andy
Nov 12, 2010 8:48

I’d have interpreted the blindfold as symbolic: subject to the gaze rather than seeing herself; and implying ideological “blindness”. Neither woman looks very happy, I wonder if the message is that they’re both diminished/oppressed but in different ways.

Compare this story:
http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/6940766-niqabitches-protest-the-burka-ban-in-france
That seems to me a truly subversive act in the best possible sense, not only showing the stupidity of state regulation of clothing, but also transgressing expectations as to the symbolic meanings of dress.

Personally I can see the appeal of wanting to be covered in a garment which keeps a person invisible to strangers, partly because I’m sick of the constant visibility imposed by CCTVs and other kinds of high-tech snooping (cf anarchist and Zapatista masks and balaclavas, and the fashion for hoodies). I can also imagine a barrier to the world being quite reassuring to people who are afraid of violence or are insecure about their bodies. Capitalism and the state like to make people visible all the time so that people are subject to fear (the threat of persecution) and competition (the judgement of others). So there’s bound to be an affective pull to do the exact opposite.

Andy
Nov 12, 2010 9:04

In Iran the affective pull would seem to be the other way, to bend the rules by wearing looser or brightly coloureed hijabs, or to discard them in moments of protest… what is conformity and what is transgression varies with the constellations of the dominant prejudices and chauvinisms.

D
Nov 12, 2010 15:47

I think this image says a lot about how our culture has defined women. There is the obsessive classification system (indicating how objectified women are) – one is Eastern, one is Western and never the twain shall meet. One is white, one is black. One is tall, one is short and so on. Of course, the white supremacist hierarchy requires that the white women be presented as more attractive – taller and slimmer.

I think the fact that the white woman has shaved body hair, including pubic hair, is also quite interesting. Is she trying to please her man? To make her body more attractive for men? If so, perhaps there is a subtle dig at the idea that only Muslims and other Orientals oppress ‘their’ women.

Whether this is crude racism or an attempt at a more nuanced political statement, it is objectifying and degrading to women.

agree
Nov 12, 2010 20:46

yeah i would say that often the argument is that Muslim women are oppressed b/c they are not allowed to show their bodies, but western women are oppressed because they are pressured into showing their bodies

Guy C
Nov 12, 2010 22:30

It’s a great piece of art.

officer reinhold grabass
Nov 13, 2010 0:32

the image is very interesting. the flaw is that the ‘western’ woman’s fingers are not covered. clearly, the photographer was trying to juxtapose what appear to be negative images, leaving the interpretation to the audience. the S&M attributed by the author of this article is very astute, although I’m certain the photographer wasn’t going for that being the dominant impression by the audience. none-the-less, this is a very interesting article exploring the meanings behind hijab. like all religious belief and behaviour, however, it is not subject to rational exploration, but rather indoctrination and unquestioning acceptance.

Andy
Nov 13, 2010 2:33

I’m not sure whether the western woman is meant to be attractive or the Muslim woman to be unattractive, the naked woman is not presented in typical porn / page three style, it’s not like the “our women are hotter than yours” images that do the rounds occasionally, actually from her body language and facial expression she doesn’t look like she’s meant to be sexualised at all, her expression is somewhere between depressed and businesslike, as if she’s posing for a mugshot or a medical inspection. And I wonder (from the protruding bones and angular face) if the picture connotes anorexia (as effect of body-image obsession), and if she’s covering her stomach (the focus of most body-image problems) – in which case the blindfold could imply body dysmorphia. Has anyone noticed also, that her hair is arranged to look like it could be a scarf? I think there’s a sense that, although she’s naked and on display, what’s on display is also a constructed persona or a kind of veil made from the body. The Muslim woman, I’m not sure is meant to be viewed as plump, the point might be that in a loose-fitting outfit like this, we just can’t tell, and I think she’s also desexualised, mainly by her facial expression (hijabs/veiling have sexual connotations for western observers which the artist may be trying to dispel). Though I do think from her facial expression and posture that the Muslim woman looks more relaxed, though not exactly happy.

Helen
Nov 18, 2010 1:11

There are so many interesting questions that one could ask in relation to this photograph concerning sexuality, composition, concealment, voyeurism …

BUT when it comes to the veil, well, drag out the same old women’s studies essay from 1993, attach a provocative image, toss in a questionable S&M reference for good measure, and voila, somebody cares.

Images should be put to good use and good writing about them should make readers see in a way they wouldn’t have with their own eyes. We should ask, what is this image saying (with or without its photographer realizing it)?

Instead, Sadeghi treats the above image as documentary evidence of the ‘eastern’ woman’s loss of freedom of choice. It provides proof of her submission, her lack of will and wardrobe. But this is not an example of photojournalism; and the image we see is but a highly stylized portrait, carefully staged by the man or woman behind the lens, the one who remains to us, totally unseen. If this escaped you at first glance, you might ask yourself a simple question:

Would a niqab-wearing woman allow herself to be photographed beside a naked woman?

One would assume that the author of such an article would know enough to ask such questions and to provide her readers with answers that might then give them a thing or two to actually think about. Then again, if that essay still ain’t broke…

psicologos salamanca
Dec 17, 2011 15:15

psicologos salamanca…

[…]The Unveiled Truth Naked prejudices? | Ceasefire Magazine[…]…

tomcj
Dec 20, 2011 22:30

The author of this article is very pretty and at least part of HER power comes from her attractiveness. The naked woman is also powerful; nothing is more powerful than female beauty among women in their prime sexual years. Islam may not be a joke, but it is the hottest new sensation of the 9th Century, and even the Islamic men with power and money and influence crave western women.

One woman has power and grace in this photo, the naked woman. The rest that our beautiful, young, powerful narrator says about the asinine hijab on the frumpy, preposterously unsexual Islamic woman is just pseudo feminist nonsense.

Why do so many men pretend that they don’t despise the sheer backwardness of Islam as it is too often practiced? Even the author, to her real credit, realizes beauty is a powerful weapon.

Islam was a great religion, and has great cultural accomplishments from Encyclopedias to zero to integers to Rumi to Sufi to the actual peace-craving Muslims I have often met in America.

However, wherever Islam has been the national religion, Islam has produced awful, preposterous, pre-medieval male-dominated fascist states.

If we lose freedom, it will be because of corporate conformity or religious conformity. Islam is the only religion which has been successful in enforcing itself as the civil religion in te Modern, post-World War world. All the Islamist who want to speak and publish freely flee every country where the religion is actually practiced.

Gibe me a naked beauty in her twenties over the frumpy harridans that Islamists “prefer” when they aren’t at strip bars.

Freethinker
Apr 2, 2013 12:07

What James wrote is what Shirin Sadeghi actually means…and Sadeghi’s article is a disguise.
Is she suggesting, that western women are blind. … Well, the reality is quite different. Mulsim women on average proportion are the least educated. Muslim man want to keep it that way and treat them as f**kdolls under the pretext of modesty.

molly123
Mar 17, 2015 15:02

I feel that the writer of this piece has missed the point behind the image, it is not a criticism on the eastern woman, it is showing two different cultures next to each other making the world think about the difference of each one. The fact that the western woman is wearing a blindfold should not be directly taken as a comment on her sexual liberation through the ideas of bondage, this is one way of seeing the image however there is another way, that she has no vision, this could be seen as a supportive view on the eastern women saying that she has her ability to view the world and be in control whereas the western women is vulnerable due to her nudity and can not see.
i think that this is a very powerful image that creates a strong comment on the positives and negatives of each culture depending on which way you look at the images. The fact that the writer has taken this image as almost an insult to the hijab suggests that she is in fact looking at the photo with a very narrow mind!

buzz_merlin
Nov 5, 2016 19:55

Hi,

Would it be possible to know the name of the photographer please?

Thanks.

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