Offended by a veiled woman holding a bra?

Published: April 19, 2012
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Frankly, what I find offensive is the idea that women in niqab or abayas need to be “humanised” in the first place. PHOTO: SCREENSHOT

I have been asked to comment on this picture by the blog editor of The Express Tribune, probably because the last time I blogged about the niqab, I took a controversial stance that earned me hundreds of comments, at least a thousand “likes” and retweets on Facebook and Twitter, and the ire of several dozen internet trolls who branded me as the blogger who “supports nudity”.

Rather than provoke an equal amount of ire this time, I decided to do things a little differently: I posted the picture on my Twitter account and asked people what they thought about it.

Given the fact that Pakistan has been recently ranked fourth in the world in a global intelligence survey, I thought I’d be on the receiving end of some very intelligent commentary on this provocative image. I should have known better. Here’s a sampling of the comments I received:

“Wrong size”

“Forget what we think. What do you think? Is she going to put bombs in it?”

“Niqabis need support too”

The only matter of fact comment came written in Urdu:

“Zaroorat hai, is mein sochne wali kya baat hai?”

 (It’s a necessity; what’s there to think about?)

That was my first thought, too, even though I knew the context of the photo: a Canadian photography student, Sooraya Graham, took a picture of a friend in a niqab doing her laundry and holding up the piece of lingerie.

She showed the picture in a photography exhibition at her university, with no context explaining the photograph, but said that her intention was to “humanise women who wear niqabs” (Graham wears one too).

Then the controversy began: a visiting international faculty member, a Muslim woman who said she was acting on behalf of other Muslim students, tore the photograph down and held it hostage in her office, refusing to give it back until Graham promised not to put it up again.

The university stood by Graham and her right to freedom of expression. The debate about whether or not veiled women are oppressed reared its no doubt hijabed head yet again, while elsewhere in the world, the Taliban attacked Kabul in multiple locations and more Syrian people died in the siege against protesters in Homs.

In other words, ho-hum.

I am kind of wondering why anyone would find this picture offensive in the first place. Have you ever been to a mall in Saudi Arabia where women aren’t allowed to work, so it’s Indian men selling the raciest of lingerie to heavily veiled women in abayas? (Recently women have won the right to sell lingerie to other women.)

Or have you been to any of the markets here in Pakistan where a man sits behind the counter selling contraband lingerie in Marks and Spencers packages, and assures you that he can tell your exact size just by looking at you? If you’ve been through that delightful experience, this picture won’t even faze you.

Frankly, what I find offensive is the idea that women in niqab or abayas need to be “humanised” in the first place.

When I taught writing at a local university, I was confronted with a student who wore a niqab. I felt awkward not being able to look at her face, however I quickly learned that she was the most intelligent person in the class. Not only did she outperform everyone on her assignments, but she was the most brilliant speaker and debater. Once I got over the fact that I couldn’t see her, I actually learned to listen to her words.

In conclusion, all I can say is that this photograph gives a new meaning to the phrase “Agent Provocateur”.

 Read more by Bina here or follow her on Twitter @BinaShah.

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Bina Shah

Author of A Season For Martyrs. She tweets @BinaShah (twitter.com/BinaShah)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.