Offended by a veiled woman holding a bra?

Published: April 19, 2012

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.


Would you feel uncomfortable in the presence of a woman who wears a face veil?

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Bina Shah

Author of A Season For Martyrs. She tweets @BinaShah (

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

  • Omar

    @Fahad Raza:
    Not quite glad to know you read Kim Kardashian. No wonder criticism be flows your loose tongue. For others who fancy Kardashian’s written work; the main point made by this blogger is that women vieling themselves have as much freedom of expression as women wearing bikinis have. While so is the case, Why women in abayas are assumed to be living an inhumane life?

    Atleast the blogger BinaShah is putting in some effort to create awareness. What are you doing?…besides criticising.Recommend

  • HNC

    Why would she do laundry in a niqab?Recommend

  • Naveed Babar

    Very pathetic way to criticize woman wearings..!!!!!!! Recommend

  • khadija

    An excellent and sensible piece.Recommend

  • Aqua28

    Hey Media guys, please highlight the real issues of this nation, not the ones which indulge us in someone’s privacy. There are lot more issues and topics in our social life which need to be focused and to discuss. Please change the direction, as you are direction less most of the time.

    I do not know where did you guys get this picture, its unethical practice to even WRITE on this kind of topic. Nothing I can get from it. :(

    I am really sorry that express tribune need to create value in their work and articles which ultimately result in maturity of the society , that’s not the standard which I was expecting. Please stop highlighting the culture, values and issues which do not belong to ours. Recommend

  • AJ

    I swear to you this is by far the most interesting article I have read on the Express Tribune blog!!!Recommend

  • Sarah

    @Saira Rauf:
    and you’re acting no different than extremists who judge others by their own morals and only believe in things what they think are right!Recommend

  • Qaiser Siddiqui

    Dear Ms Shah,

    Good attempt in explaining your point of view over the picture. Although there is no harm in it yet it might seem offensive to the women who do wear veil and are from this part of the world. But enough of controversy already. Many people boast about freedom of expression either in the west or in the east and that is a good thing no doubt and is a basic or fundamental human right. That said, do we really care to comprehend the real essence of what this right entails and this right, like other rights; has some moral obligation attached to it, which is what one is expected to respect in return. What is that? Well simply put everyone has a right of expression until and unles his/her right of expression hurts someone else. So this means one can express to a point where one is not hurting the sentiments of others. Very simple but I do not know why all the people forget this attachment to this right whilst boasting about it in the first place.

    Therefore, freedom of expression of an individual is limited by the fact that it does not hurt the feeling of another. Secondly, let us not intend to ridicule women in burqas by stating or labeling them. As a niqab wearing women once said “Adam and Eve were naked in the heaven but when they were sent down on earth they started covering themselves and as their maturity and intellect, to live in this world improved, they started covering more. So I am representing the most intellectual class of the world today” It all depends on how we look at things. Hijab but not Niqab is a religious duty so let us encourage women who perform that rather than, as some of your fans put it, promote nudity :)

    Qaiser M. SiddiquiRecommend

  • Alizeh

    I feel sorry for all the people who dont get the point to this article…. i guess they just dont like to be mentally challenged! how typical.Recommend

  • Stranger

    A Rubbish n senseless Blog..
    I m fully agree with Mr. Asad. They are just MOM DAD type blog writers. According to them only nudity,Veena n Mathira type topics r there to write about….Recommend

  • Syed Mohsin Bukhari

    I think express tribune management must read first this kind of blogs….
    if they read then they never post this type of irrelevant blogs which convey nothing for blog reader….. Recommend

  • Monty

    Sometimes its better to stay quiet.Recommend

  • Muhammad Furqan

    @Saira Rauf:
    Your expression shows alot about What kind of mentality you have… any how it’s not only Men’s World. and a lady who’s doing hijab for ALLAH’s sake not for Men, and a lady who’s doing item are not similar … if they are similar than HELL AND HEAVEN are also similar… !! got it ?better think before you speak …! it’s not about what men want or not it’s about what good for a women or what our religion says about women. Recommend

  • Haidar Ali

    @ Author
    YOu dont see any thing productive to write ?
    This show how you are excusing about Islamic Traditions..
    If you dont like Hijaab , dont care…but Women who wear HIjab much happier than you..
    there is difference in want that people see your beauty and you feel satisfacttion this way..BUt Girl with Hijaab think she is not for sale ..

    Respect others..
    By spreading these things you are not doing human servcie…Recommend

  • Meysam Abbas


    These type of images articles topics, issues creates alot of hypes buzz, thats why people also doesnot like to talk. Most important thing is all should respect the freedom of expression, but there are limitation to almost every thing, because every action does have after effect. There were news that in denmarks , and some time back in US a priest in the name of freedom os expression burnt Quran. Was all that right ? no not at all, so why not before excercising our freedom of speech we should being a responsible human being work out on the consequences that might occur while working to satisfy our internal need of applying so called freedom.

    Lady holding Bra in hand, what is so sensible about this ? please ask the author(of image) was this so right so she should have hold the bra without the naqaab so people could have seen her face holding her own bra in her hand..

    Living in west and in the name of Freedom and rights sab se zyada vulnerable hamari generation ki girls hae, jo rights or freedom k naam pe senses mae nahi hae, ( i am not saying k unhe illetrate males se problem hosakti hae but i am still shocked k aik larki is tarha ki image ko present kar rahi hae.. and wants every one to comments.. )…

    Any ways I am done here…

    Chao Chao..Recommend

  • Saad Suleman

    I think she wrote very well, we must not turn our faces from reality!!
    We know very well how women are treated in our country and they are not treated as human, we can search a long list of victims of gang rape in our country. I think that the context of picture if humanizing the woman not that the women under abaya or hajab wear bras or not…Recommend