What really lies behind Lady Gaga’s burqa?

At London’s iTunes Festival on Sunday night, Lady Gaga premiered several new tracks from her forthcoming album. Chief among them and opening her set was ‘Aura’, in which Gaga – clad all in black, face covered below the eyes, miming – gyrated to the chorus,

Do you want to see me naked, lover?
Do you want to peek underneath the cover?
Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?
Do you want to touch me, cosmic lover?
Do you want to peek underneath the cover?
Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura,
Behind the aura, behind the curtain, behind the burqa?

The song, like most of her material, is catchy and well-produced; analogising veiling to celebrities’ pursuit of privacy, it also offers an intriguing metaphor. Unfortunately, it’s one that grates.

‘Aura’, known previously by its working title ‘Burqa’, is beset with ironies – foremost among them, perhaps, that its author seems not to know what a burqa is. Her lyrics, costume and mime during performance suggest a niqab, a facial garment covering all but the eyes, not a burqa, which hangs over the whole body and covers the wearer’s eyes with a mesh sheet. The former, especially when worn with an abaya, is associated primarily with the Middle East, the latter with South Asia. Western reference to ‘the burqa’, apparently including Gaga’s, seems usually to have a niqab in mind; the two certainly have similar functions and origins, but are not interchangeable – conflating them is like conflating pita bread and naan bread, and buttresses the myth of a singular ‘Muslim world’.

That Gaga’s own veil has a mouth hole cut in it, moreover, seems paradoxical: a real niqab, had she worn one to celebrate veiling as liberating or empowering, wouldn’t have allowed her to sing. Likewise, the same choreography attempted in an actual burqa might have made an interesting sight. It’s almost enough to suggest that as a white American raised Catholic who’s likely never worn one and certainly never had to, she hasn’t given the garment she lionises much thought.

‘I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice’, the song begins. Who is the ‘I’ here? Obviously it isn’t Gaga, and what gives her the right to inhabit it? I’m not altogether sold on Myriam Francois Cerrah’s defence of her at the Independent, though I do appreciate the point that ‘no one has a monopoly on the significance of symbols’ – ‘Aura’, writes Francois-Cerrah, ‘subverts the monopoly on meaning typically associated with the face veil as the evil imposition of male domination’ – but how is Gaga, a non-Muslim woman with no personal knowledge or experience of hijab, any more entitled to define its meaning than Islamist men?

If your project is reclaiming something that was never part of your life, you’re not reclaiming it; you’re simply claiming it. I can certainly see why any reclamation of veiling, not least of burqas, would meet controversy; on the other hand, I feel just as ill-equipped as I think Gaga is to enter that debate. (Marwa Berro, who blogs at Between a Veil and a Dark Place, will be guest-posting on this next week.) If her song had been written and performed by a Muslim or ex-Muslim woman who’d actually worn a niqab, I still don’t know how I’d feel about it, but at least it would be authentic – at least it would testify honestly to how they felt, personally, toward being veiled. The voice Gaga creates, with its stereotyped ethnic English (‘Enigma pop star is fun/She wear burqa for fashion’) appears to have been devised as a depersonalised cipher for millions of women who never asked her to speak for them. We’ve seen this from her before; over at ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg notes identical tactics in Gaga’s ode to undocumented migrants, ‘Americano’.

Such is my feeling toward the actual burqa worn by Gaga previously in photographs: had a bubblegum pink, transparent burqa been donned by someone who’d lived under a real one, I might have found it a sardonic, wry inversion of policed modesty; when meant by the wearer as a commentary on an external group, it’s hard not to read it differently. Of all the ways a niqab might be eroticised, the song itself seemingly chooses the narratives of Islamists themselves to echo. Obscuration can, after all, eroticise a body as much as display, and the notion of a veiled woman’s body as the sole, fetishised preserve of her husband to be unwrapped by him – one we’ve yet to recognise as objectifying at Christian weddings – is precisely the one Gaga’s invitation for her partner to ‘peek underneath the cover’ recalls. Her second line disquieted me in particular: isn’t ‘My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face’ an apology for compulsory veiling we’ve heard before? Protection from what, specifically, or whom?

Burka Avenger, an animated series in which a vigilante teacher covers her face to defend her school with pens and books, seems a more original, inventive and effective treatment of the garments at hand. If Gaga’s single is intended to empower or liberate, a perfectly ulterior attitude appears to me to have been voiced through it – unveiled, one might say.


  1. Dunc says

    If Gaga’s single is intended to empower or liberate

    I doubt it. I suspect it’s about publicity through controversy, with the primary goal of making shitloads of money.

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