My blog on Lady Gaga’s use of burqa (actually niqab) imagery was a discussion of relevant topoi in broad terms – it conceded that never having worn hijab or been made to, I can’t speak to what that’s like any more than Gaga. This is a guest post, as promised, from Marwa Berro of Between a Veil and a Dark Place, who can. Tweet her your thoughts at @Marwa_Berro.
NB: refers to personal experience of parental abuse, harassment and intimidation, violence, mental illness, racism and state terrorism.
A lot has been said about Lady Gaga’s new song ‘Aura’, which was leaked several weeks prior to her live performance of it at the London iTunes festival this month.
The argument that this song blatantly commits cultural appropriation, is context-blind, and falls into orientalism has been made here.
An argument by a Muslim woman in support of the song, arguing that it allows Muslim women to be viewed as powerful and active sexual beings rather than a forcibly oppressed voiceless mass, has been made here.
Alex Gabriel, kindly hosting me as a guest-blogger, wrote about it a few days ago too, pointing out several layers of irony and paradox in the gap between Gaga’s representation and the reality of the burqa and other forms of Muslim veiling.
Much has already been said. I am here to make it personal.
I’m not here to give yet another spin on the critiques of Gaga’s song as orientalist and fetishizing and appropriating and ignorant. It’s been hashed and re-hashed and some of it is great and some of it is trivial and the arguments and responses to them have been made, and I am not willing to expend the emotion and care it takes to separate what has already been said into smaller and more robust distinctions.
Nor am I here to say something for the sake of saying something about it, because I am an ex-Muslim woman of color who blogs about such things and thus I must blog about this thing.
But I must blog about this thing.
Because after I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers.
If you read my blog you’ll know by now that I am one for careful preambles. Talking about this takes great emotion and care. From what I have read on the topic already, even those arguments in passionate defense of the rights of brown women not to be lumped together as one entity, appropriated and consumed, have left me feeling empty. The discourse has been so depersonalizing as to make me feel almost physically ill. And I watch the video again and feel ill again at how the criticism of it has been given in such general terms of what Muslim women want and don’t want, have and don’t have, can and can’t choose – without actually mentioning specific instances of any of that. What is it like to want or not want, have or not have? What it is it like to choose and not choose the hijab, the burqa, the niqab? To be faced with such a choice? How is it presented? What does it mean? Why is it important? Where is the discussion of what it is like to wear the hijab, the niqab, or the burqa in private, in public, by choice, or unwillingly, as identity or as norm?
I understand why this hasn’t really been gone into. This is an issue so broad that subjectivity could be utterly limiting. There is good reason for generality, striving to preserve sound argumentative form by attacking the issue from multiple planes, so as to be all-encompassing and unbiased. But does it work? Because as a result, I read all of this commentary and come away thinking that it has missed, in some dire ways, how nearly entirely removed it is from the details of a woman’s life that give the concepts of appropriation and oppression meaning.
I say this to assert that when it comes to gender and identity politics, there is good reason to ignore the philosophical urge to entirely sidestep personal anecdote as an incoherent form of commentary and critique because of the probability that it is fallaciously unrepresentative. There is moving power in literary-narrative critique that is not to be found in philosophical argumentation, and the field of creative nonfiction (encompassing personal essay and memoir) is testament to how rhetoric that is personal can change minds and hearts, be listened to, gather money, create movements for social change, make real things happen. Not that the more impersonal arguments cannot do all of this also. It is not a binary. They ought to supplement each other, precisely because specific example illustrates in ways that general discussion cannot. So I am here today, as a gentle reminder of the how deeply personal all of this is, how powerfully supplemental personal narrative can be to general argumentation.
Here is a story, and with it a promise.
The story starts like this: a woman wears the hijab from her childhood, for fourteen years from the age of nine to the age of 23. She moves to the West and stops wearing it at that point, angry and resentful of the wasted confusion and coercion of those years, and doesn’t know what exactly to do with that energy. That she knows what she wants and takes what she wants now is true; it is also true that the complexity of the life-long process of coming to that knowledge and ability has left her somewhat bereft and burdened.
When she was nine years old and came of age, her mother asked her if she wanted to wear it. Her mother, who was the warm, smiling, giving woman who fed her and cradled her when she was sick, who comforted her and shielded her from the dark, who taught her to cup her hands like a book she read from, and ask for mercy and grace from above.
I promise you she was asked when she was nine, and that her mother who wore it too not only asked her, but explained to her what it meant, what it was for, how it was protective like a shimmering oyster around a precious pearl, how it kept the special things about a person special for only the closest and most special people to see. I promise you, they asked her. And she was surrounded by it, living on a compound in Saudi Arabia as a Lebanese-American expatriate with family friends of similar backgrounds, surrounded too outside the compound by niqabs and black abayas hiding the special graces of special people she was not special enough to see. And little girl that she was, she wore the abaya by law whenever she left the compound, venturing into the public places of the Kingdom, because so it was dictated by the highest power in the land. I promise you she said yes and she meant it, because it was so clearly right and normal and she wanted to be like her mother. They threw her a hijab party. She cut her cake, her small hand with fingernails newly cleaned from the ornamental polish of childhood.
I promise you that fifteen years later, she watched Lady Gaga sing ‘I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice/My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face’, trembling at how easily this person spoke about a choice they could never fathom having to make.
When she was thirteen, she was tired of being an ugly, awkward, desexualized, bullied girl with raging hormones and a forged parental signature on the permission slip for sex ed in health class. She was a teenager, and had she been the girl with a leg brace or stutter she would have been tired of that too, but it happened that she was the girl who wore a rag on her head (and was told she wore a rag on her head) in this American school full of bare limbs, bare heads in the middle of the Arabian desert. She was tired of being thirteen, hardly with the nubs of breasts, and having her sleeves checked by her mother before she went to school, to see if they covered her wrists all the way. She was tired of her mother measuring all her shirts to make sure they went down over her knees, making sure her jeans were baggy enough, tired of hair plastered back by pins and more pins under her hijab in the desert heat, her notebooks and bag and pockets routinely searched and checked, her phone calls listened to, her roller blades and bike incrementally torn away from her, an absolute ban on makeup or nail polish of any kind – and understanding finally that it was about sex, even though she did not know yet what sex was.
I promise you she was confused and said NO in her head, and once dared to take the hijab off when she was at school, and did not understand the choice she made in taking it off because she only took it off due to being harassed and tired, and she might have torn off a leg brace or her glasses in the same way.
Maybe even then she kind of knew it was not the same, because there was something about how urgent and moral wearing this thing was, how important it was, and how could she think her father would not find out? How could she think she would not be dragged across the floor by her hair and have it cut off with a knife, and be relegated to sleeping and doing homework for weeks in the storage room, because it was her place? Did she not understand what it meant to have a place and a role and a responsibility she had to fill? Because it was expected by others – because others asked her if she wanted to wear it when she turned nine and she didn’t ask herself, and she wore a veil over her head but was always watched and it was never about what she wanted.
I promise you eleven years later, she watched Lady Gaga sing ‘Do you want to peek underneath the cover? Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?’, trembling at how easily this person spoke about wanting something, as if she could fathom what it is to want ownership of your body in this way, to know who the girl you were behind all of that even was, independent of what she was allowed to be.
When she was fourteen, she repatriated to her homeland, Lebanon. They sent her to an all-girls school at first, an Islamic one with uniforms, and the guilt of looking different and being shamed for it was gone, but gone with it was any space that allowed wanting to look different or be different. Her yellow prayer card was stamped every recess as she joined rows and rows of identically clad girls in the school’s rooftop mosque area. At first she rebelled by rolling up her sleeves and growing her fingernails, but soon she found peace and pleasure in conformity, and she thought of her body as a holy thing of grace, a beauteous thing of wonderment that only she knew and only one person who committed his livelihood and self to her utterly could ever access. She loved her hijab and wore it by choice, violent choice that she’d defend if anybody tried to touch her or it. It was hers.
I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice.
But I promise you, it did not last – because even when she was willing and loving of all that was prescribed to her, even though she prayed and fasted and was so clean, none of that was easy, and though she wore and wanted to wear it, the choice she already made was not an easy one to keep implementing, moment after moment, day after day. She had to watch how she walked and spoke, to keep checking her sleeves and hairline and socks, and hardest of all, to watch how she thought as it grew and changed so she could keep it in line and reconcile it with the choice she had made as she learned more about what that choice meant. She learned that the hijab was not just about sex, but about control and power and honor and her entire family, and it was not even about itself, a thing by itself or a symbol, but only one thing among a million other things, a symptom of something much bigger, a set of behaviors that underlie an entire social structure. She learned that though she chose it, the hijab afforded her no privacy of being or thought, and still all she said and did and read and kept was watched and checked. She learned how to hide her books and stash and code her stories and essays successfully, so she could keep more secrets. She learned that the hijab was the most private thing in the world, and that she had no privacy.
Then she was twenty, and I promise you she had gone through every loophole and read through every book trying to understand why things seemed to be so disproportionately controlled for women, why she had to stand in the back during prayer and not speak though she was smarter and livelier and more articulate, why women were constantly compared to inanimate objects like lollipops and pearls in attempts to honor them. She shed blood for asking questions, and tears for not understanding the answers. (That is not a metaphor.) Nobody told her she was allowed to create her own answers, but she understood that maybe she could, and keep them to herself, and never tell anybody what they were because they were not the right ones. None of it was special or hers or new or an uncommon narrative.
I promise you she loved a boy who she would not touch without a marriage rite and read enough to figure out how to perform one herself, but things went wrong and she tried to leave her parents’ home and ran away, and she wasn’t even a heathen yet but she ran away still, and they had a militant Islamist organization track her down, bring her home and keep her quiet while she was first taught lessons of what she was allowed to do with her skin and what was allowed to be done to it, then locked away for months without books or human contact but with drugs and doctors and suppressants. I promise you she understood the one choice to be made was to conform and that was how things would change.
And four years later, I promise you, she listened to Lady Gaga sing ‘Do you want to touch me, cosmic lover?/Do you want to peek underneath the cover?’, trembling at how easy it was for this person to invite other people who were different and strange to a place even her own self was not allowed; to give a sexual invitation without acknowledging how powerful, dangerous, taboo, wanted, yearned for something close to a sexual identity could be.
Then she was 23: successful, accomplished, educated and an educator who was modest and reserved and kind outwardly, and a robot in every other way. She had a letter of acceptance to graduate school in the United States in one hand, and then the real ticket there in the other: approval and acceptance from her parents. She was 23, and had spent the last ten years thrashing into her pillows from sexual frustration, curling her fists in her pockets, hiding relationships and friendships like dirty secrets, saying godly words though her heart had lost God years before, fasting from food and water though she did not believe it held any merit, praying because others were watching and even mouthing the words in case they read her lips, nullifying her own thoughts and instincts and feelings and humanity, regulating her emotions and responses like a clock.
She flew to the West, convinced it would backfire at any moment, and a lifetime of work and struggle, confusion, pain, punishment, and mistakes flew with her. She flew, waited, gathered courage, and took off her hijab.
And claimed her sexuality. Lost her family. Lost her homeland. Lost her peace of mind to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks.
And claimed her body. Lived – lives – in fear.
A year later, she watched Lady Gaga sing this song, trembling at how easy it is for everybody to say things like ‘A Muslim woman can be a sexual being’ and ‘The burqa and niqab and hijab represent complex choices’ and ‘Women from Muslim cultures can reclaim the burqa as a symbol of their own freedom and identity’, and ‘It eroticizes Muslim women in a way they haven’t consented to’ and so on and so on and so on. It is easy to say these things without thinking of the years of thought and movement and struggle and defiance and confusion and control and suppression that is entailed in having, doing, choosing, wanting these things.
In retrospect, this girl, watching Lady Gaga sing so easily about things so weighty and momentous and dangerous and grave – about life-defining, moving things – she remembers things she never even knew were so integral to the puzzle. She flashbacks to when she was four, before her expatriation, when she called 911 when her parents were not home because she didn’t know what it meant and wanted to see what would happen. Her parents arrived with the police, and explained to them how they had to run out to the leasing office down the street for fifteen minutes, just fifteen minutes to sign some paperwork – and they were afraid, being Muslims in America, of having their children torn from them on pretense of negligence, as afraid as they were when it happened to another Muslim family because of a bathtub accident; as afraid as they were when the FBI visited their home just when she, their daughter, was born, asking why her parents called the Arab-American hub of Dearborn, Michigan so often; as afraid and suspicious as they were of Western backing of the foreign occupation of Lebanon that had caused them to immigrate to begin with.
This is about the hijab too, because it is this fear of invasion, takeovers and control that spurs so much invading, taking-over and control. Her mother was so afraid that she beat the little girl and told her never to do such a thing again. And again, it was fear when she beat the girl at six for touching herself, at ten for running outside without her hijab, forgetful, at thirteen for changing clothes when she got to school, at sixteen for refusing to go to bed at midnight, at nineteen for not answering questions when she was asked them – because security and protection and keeping personal things personal was so powerfully important.
So there is one story, from one woman: me.
Maybe another story from another woman will come along, and another, and another. Because the greatest relevance this discussion has is as commentary on the very personal struggles Muslim women and women in Muslim-majority countries deal with regarding their personal autonomy and sexual identities.
Maybe somebody will be moved by one of these stories in a way that they are not when they are told that somebody’s culture has been appropriated and it hurts, it hurts.
And maybe some of these stories will become normalized, the voices heard in mainstream media, the movements requisite to change things undertaken.
Maybe. Either way, my conscience compelled me to tell this story because none of it is easy, general, impersonal. People live, die, bleed, love, and hate for these choices.
Singing about them is so easy. Making them is everything.
Marwa Berro is a Lebanese American blogger, philosopher, writer, atheist, and apostate from Islam. She engages in critique about Muslim and ex-Muslim issues at her blog, Between A Veil and A Dark Place. She writes fiction and teaches creative writing, composition, and rhetoric at a very lucky school in the midwest. She blogs under a pseudonym.