Beauty and the ‘burqua’

Reuters here reports on a version of ‘America’ s next Top Model’ from Afghanistan.

It struck me as an issue full of ambivalence for feminists; on the one hand, there’s the recently reported on problem of the ‘whitewash’ of the fashion world (see here). Given this, the promotion of different ideals of beauty seems to be a good thing.

But on the other hand, the body image emphasis of these programs is something that, for the most, I find myself uncomfortable with.

To illustrate my ill-ease, consider this quotation, from one of the models on the show, Timour:

 ‘”I have seen outside Afghanistan they have a different kind of idea about women in Afghanistan — they think they are always wearing the burqa and sitting at home but it is not like that,” she said.’

Sounds good! I thought… but then she qualifies, with 

“Girls in Afghanistan are beautiful.”

which isn’t false, but I wish she’d said more! About not just misconceptions about the appearance, but the misconceptions about all Afghan women living as shut away, oppressed, victims (though, fair enough, she was talking about the fashion program, so not really fair to criticise her for not going beyong appearance issues…)

On which note, such misconceptions are, as Racialicious points out here, only perpetuated by the Reuters write up. There, Fatemah Fakhraie writes:

  • ‘Reuters eroticizes Afghan women, making it seem like just going out to get the day’s groceries is an act full of sensuality! Apparently, in Afghanistan, there’s always somebody cute in the grocery store.
  • But don’t forget! Reuter’s use of the phrase “behind the bars of its [the burqa’s] grille” reminds us that these poor, sexy women are unfortunate prisoners of their brutal man-folk or their terribly oppressive religion! These women can’t possibly be making the choice to wear a burqa (or, as it’s really known in Afghanistan, the chaadari—again, good job, Reuters).’

Whilst Reuters does report on a fair spread of opinion about the show, Fakhraie also criticises the way that the reported claims from a Muslic cleric that the women’s participation is against Sharia law, and so should be punished, are inadequately scrutinised or explained; whilst on the other hand, nor is the reported view from Afghan businessman that “It also complies with Afghan culture, so it’s fine.”

Indeed, the article seems at a number of points (though not wholeheartedly) to be guilty of cultural essentialism – seeing the culture as a homogeneous whole, in which individuals are mysterious ‘others’, who are subsumed by ‘the culture’ – in the way that Uma Narayan (1997) has highlighted and shown to be deeply problematic.