Oooh, Baby, Put it On: Ripping up Veil Fetish Art

by Racialicious special correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie, originally published at Muslimah Media Watch

The original view of Middle Eastern/Muslim women was that of a lazily sensual harem woman reclining on a couch. Most recently, it has morphed into a cowed housewife bullied by her religion and the men in her life. From these icons arises a newer image of Muslim women: one that combines the two.

I’ll term this genre “veil fetish art,” because every featured woman has most or all of her face and hair covered. Although the woman herself is the main focus, the veil acts as a sexual catalyst: it brands the woman as forbidden, despite the fact that you may be able to see most of her naked body. So even though she’s exposed, the veil reminds you that she’s “forbidden fruit,” and pushes the viewer to want her even more.

So did I find these pictures while uploading porn? Nope. All I did was run a Google search for phrases like “Muslim women,” “burka,” and “veil,” and several not-safe-for-work results came up (FYI: moderate safe-search was on). The majority of these results came up within the first five pages. If you click on the pictures to find where they’re showcased, you’ll usually be taken to websites geared toward Islamophobic and xenophobic world views that fly under the flag of “anti-terrorism.” Or Islamophobic discussion threads. Or porn sites (sorry, no links for those).

Though it’s a possibility, these women are most likely not Middle Eastern or Muslim. It’s more likely that they’re white and/or western models with some spray-tans. The only thing that signifies their cultural or religious affiliation is a veil, which works in two ways: to brand the woman as a Middle Eastern/Muslim woman, and to arouse the viewer.

It’s something like an updated version of the French-Algerian colonialist postcards produced in the mid-nineteenth century. The primary difference is that the Orientalist postcards centered on domesticity, docility, and an exotic locale, aiming to showcase naïve young Algerian girls with their breasts exposed.

But the subjects of veil fetish art are neither girls nor innocent, and it doesn’t matter where they are: these women are hot under that niqab, and they want you to know it. They are positioned in pin-up posture: coy, curvy, and enticing. Or, they’re in a Maxim-style stance: they stare you down while your eyes roam over their partially-obscured form.

These women bear the “oppressive” niqab of their mothers, the badge of female Muslim submission to the Western world. But they also perform like their harem girl grandmothers, whose chests and hips protruded the same way over a hundred years ago. They are a combination of the silent and sensual, and they just want your attention.

So whose attention are they aiming for? Like I described earlier, the majority of websites that feature images like these usually carry heavy Islamophobic themes. Ironically, these outlets are often the same ones that call for the “liberation” of Muslim women while depicting these women in pornographic imagery. In these pictures, the veil adds a dimension of oppression that cries out for western male help: you can almost hear the women breathe, “Liberate me!” Take off her veil and get a prize…her body!

The type of liberation these images imply is a sexual one: erotic poses and come-hither eyes imply that this veiled woman just wants the freedom to be the dirty, dirty girl that she is. This simultaneously reinforces Orientalist ideas that Muslim women are oppressed (sexually as well as socially or religiously) and hypersexual. It also supports the idea that covering oneself is oppressive, and that the only way to be a liberated woman is to show some skin.

Taking into consideration the context of these images, it occurs that they might be a way to regain control over male egos bruised by a faltering war on terror and recent fears of women becoming suicide bombers. Since women in Afghanistan and Iraq are rejecting the faulty premises of women’s liberation that the Bush administration has been touting, the idea that Muslim women just want a (Western) knight in shining armor is dashed. And reducing a woman to a sex toy makes her a lot less scarier.

So…if you can’t beat ‘em, degrade ‘em!

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.