Let me just state right off the top: I have nothing against naked women. But as with all things, there's a time and place. When they appear out of context, naked women quickly become nekkid chicks. Now, granted, I'm hard pressed to point out exactly when -- outside of three or four very specific scenarios -- it's appropriate to plunk down a picture of a naked woman. But I'm certain it's not smack in the middle of a serious essay about gender-based violence in the Arab world.
Here's a quick reenactment of me reading Mona Eltahawy's cover essay as my eyes involuntarily (I swear!) flit over to Nekkid Burqa Woman: "So, yes, women all over the world have problems -- BOOBS! -- yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president -- BOOOBS! -- and yes, women continue to be objectified in many "Western" countries -- BOOOOOBS!" And so on.
When I was asked to contribute this critique, I had to ask myself what exactly my problem was. I've narrowed it down to two things: The image of Nekkid Burqa Woman is lazy and insulting.
Let's talk lazy first. And by lazy I mean editorially. Illustrations for print stories are meant to illuminate the text, to present a further dimension to the written word. They are not incidental to the item. The image of a naked woman with a painted-on burqa does nothing to illuminate the essay it accompanies. It's trite and boring -- been there, done that.
Nekkid Burqa Woman is, in fact, so common that she doesn't even shock or provoke anymore. Her image simply elicits, in the language of the Internet, a "Really, Foreign Policy? Really?" The covered-yet-naked-yet-covered Unknown Brown Woman is all over the place. You can find her on book covers and in movie trailers. You'll see her used in making the case for war and you'll see her used in making the case for jihad.
The image, in fact, works against the essay. It belies the nuance and the breadth of the writing by reducing the subject to one easily consumable image -- an image that doesn't even speak to the kind of women Eltahawy is writing about.
If anything, the image does exactly what Eltahawy accuses Islamists of doing: reducing women to one-dimensional caricatures with little or no autonomy.
Given the kind of riveting photos that emerged from the Arab Spring -- images of women in hijab and not, old and young, protesting, fighting, and dying to assert their agency -- I find it difficult to believe the magazine went with its best option.
I also thought the image was insulting -- to Muslim women specifically but also to women in general.
Muslim women are typically presented in two ways in the West: traditional/veiled/subservient or modern/unveiled/autonomous. In the Muslim world, it's the reverse. The best, most free woman is the most covered. Uncovering is for a woman without morals, one who is oppressed by her own desires.
In both views, Muslim women are defined by how they (un)dress. Eltahawy's essay is, at its core, about Arab women -- Muslim and not -- fighting for their right to define themselves. Eltahawy writes about women from Morocco and Yemen, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Libya. They are religious and secular, rural and urban, educated and illiterate. They are married and single, young and old. But these various identities -- some overlapping and some in opposition -- are reduced to the one most facile image that we in the West have become used to. It mocks the complexity of Muslim women.
The further insult stems from the fact the woman in the picture is inactive. She is simply presented for consumption. She is whatever you want her to be. Eltahawy's essay -- whether you agree with it or not -- is a voice of directed rage. She is enraged not just by what she's seeing but by what she, herself, has experienced at the hands -- literally -- of the Egyptian state.
She is not silent. The women she writes about are not silent. But she, and they, are represented by the image of a woman with nothing to say.
And it's not just about Muslim women. The illustration is insulting to women in general. It takes the profound problem of gender-based violence and reduces it to sexual imagery: "Hey, we might be talking about the endemic hatred of one gender for the other but here's a naked painted lady to keep you company!"
Eltahawy had plenty to say in her essay. The anger is unmistakable. She doesn't mince words about the insults and abuses and violence women face on a daily basis. It would've been nice if the illustrations for her essay weren't just one more kick to the head.
Naheed Mustafa is a freelance writer and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.