Chapter 1: Starman

Foreword.

It doesn’t matter what I write about. Nothing I say can be as erotic as Bowie, in any of his guises but especially the early ones.

I was eight when I first discovered him, the same spring Mum went back to work. Before that she’d been been single, unemployed and benefit-reliant, and on the weeknights she went out to teach dance classes and no babysitter could be found, I sat home alone with warmed up food and television. Small children aren’t supposed to be left on their own all evening, but I’m glad I was: unsupervised, it was the first time I allowed myself to watch series like Buffy, deemed then to be what Christianity opposed, and – via the archive version of Top of the Pops, which aired immediately before – was how I first met Ziggy Stardust.

A mythos has grown up around the clip where Bowie, pipecleaner thin even before the coke and wearing a lurid faux-snakeskin jumpsuit, plays ‘Starman’ to a 1972 crowd. Its sales skyrocketed when the performance aired, bringing him fame and scandalising straitlaced parents throughout Britain. With his made-up face and coquettish gaze – the kind I knew then from Princess Diana – I might myself have been convinced he came from Mars, and it speaks volumes that in 2000, the footage had the same effect on me as on children who saw it thirty years before.

The image of Bowie on his knees, mouth pressed to the strings of Mick Ronson’s guitar and hands gripping his thighs, has been analogised to cunnilingus; considering whose crotch it was behind the instrument, there’s as strong an argument for fellatio, but perhaps the ambiguity was the point. In fact, they never did this on Top of the Pops – photos of it were taken on their tour – but what was caught on camera was more than enough for me. In the chorus, as his voice jumps the same octave on ‘star-man’ Judy Garland’s does singing ‘Over the Rainbow’, Bowie drapes a single, languid arm round Ronson’s neck.

Sat on the carpet by the TV screen, life went from sepia to Technicolor. Putting an arm round someone had been a prosaic gesture, something middle aged couples did or boys used as a way of scaring girls at school. (‘Scaring’ was what they called it then.) If two boys did it it was meant to be funny, but this wasn’t funny. Ziggy’s smoky eyes beckoned forward, optimistic and intent, as if doing it meant nothing to him, so to me it meant everything. I hadn’t realised this was an option, and suddenly so many new options existed; didn’t know what planet he was from, but wanted desperately to visit.

Some say Bowie’s bisexuality was put on, produced by mere ‘compulsion to flout moral codes’. Rumoured affairs with male musicians and Mick Jagger, with whom his then-wife claims to have found him in bed, aren’t publicly confirmed, and in middle age he’s settled at least outwardly into married life. What if it was affected, though? Long before I encountered him, I’d learnt to break the rules – to enjoy the shifting architecture of the doll’s house at the dentist, ask teachers for the fuchsia-coloured card and collage it in floral tissue paper, if only to make other boys uncomfortable. (Other boys, I’d decided, were dull.)

Christopher Hughes and Harry Machin, who sat at my table aged five, sniggered when I did the latter that I was a sissy and a girl. I was pleased with myself. Boy or girl, it seemed to me, was all about what you put on: occasionally I’d be the latter for an hour, slicking my hair back, applying cosmetics from the cabinet and salvaging old shoes from below Mum’s bed, though the only time I told her I’d turned myself into one, she asked why as if I’d done something more grandiose, shocking and confusing by far than playing with doll’s houses. Later, by the time my hair was long enough adults called me a girl, I’d learned enough to feel shame.

You could read these anecdotes as omens of inevitable queerness, but there was nothing inevitable about them. Other boys broke rules too, or hadn’t yet discovered them. Harry, who grabbed the bulge in my shorts in kindergarten and could deal eyewatering pain with fingernails on foreskin, never realised what he was doing was forbidden (or, in the former case, reserved for girls), so no doubt has forgotten it. I still recall because like Bowie, with his eye shadow and steady, sex-drinched grin, I liked to provoke. What I did as a child became the first part of a story he inspired with an arm round Mick Ronson, breaking a rule I hadn’t known I could.

Chapter 2: Other Boys.

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Winter is coming: forget Christmas and fall in love with it

Warning: contains spoilers for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Each season has a scent to herald and define it. Summer’s belongs to sizzling car roofs and sweating rubber tyres, the static residue of thunderstorms following heatwaves, autumn’s to low-hanging mist and rotting leaves, then toffee apples, fireworks and chip fat running into drains. Winter’s at its height is fresh, the icy clean of morning frosts and condensation-covered windows, but its first approach has an anflug of its own – the oily, faint metallic wash of pipes grinding back into use, radiators moaning once more while cold hangs in the air outside. This was the smell that filled my house this morning.

Till January I’m resident again in my home town, a draughty, church-filled thorp near the Scottish border, twenty miles of mountains, lakes and woods to either side. Not since 2008 have I seen winter in here: for the five years in between, I spent those months either in Oxford or Berlin, returning Christmastime to a place transformed without viewing the transformation. Before that, winter was a misery, dark days and long nights holed up, blocked up and fed up, craving sunlight and release. As a teen I loathed this town, longed to escape its smothering isolation – the day my A-levels reached an end, also the day I turned eighteen, I packed a bag and left by train, staying on the road till university – and the darkest, coldest time of year when venturing outside was foolish made it feel more cut off still. Our calendar’s last months, the dying embers of the year, seemed lifeless, desolate, as bare emotionally as nearby forests.

I wonder looking back how much of this reflects the religion of my childhood. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory for children after which my whole bedroom aged eight was styled, the titular witch Jadis – having corrupted it on its creation – curses all Narnia with a winter that never ends, though Christmas never comes. (Why Narnians ever celebrated Christmas, God’s avatar in their world being Aslan, I still haven’t quite fathomed.) The bleak midwinter makes a familiar metaphor, as in Rossetti’s poem and its hymnal setting, for a world short of salvation: Christmas arrives, both first time round and for believers since, a light in the darkness, imbuing creation once more with life and hope.

The trope isn’t unique to Christianity, whose major rites are at once its most syncretic. Those festivals which fall around midwinter, as festivals are prone to do, have often stood for redemption in some sense or other: feasting after a year’s hard labour, remembering past struggles’ fruits, festooning evergreens and keeping fires lit, reminders the cold season’s atrophy will give way in its turn to spring. Summon your fondest images of winter – aren’t they, in fact, ones of its mitigation? Music and merriment to counteract bleak weather, time with loved ones to stop icy roads and storms cutting us off; fires to beat discomfort back, roast feasts and sweet things to quell emptiness psychic as well as bodily. We console ourselves, in Steven Moffat’s words, that we’re half way out of the dark, toasting our own resilience and emergence soon from the the cold more than we toast the cold itself.

My godless life rather enacts Lewis and Rosetti’s spiritual winter – an atheist, my world has yet to thaw in their terms (or rather, has succumbed to deconversion’s heat death), and my secularity of late runs deeper still. Partially as an introvert, partially tending despite myself toward the ascetic, I’ve little time nowdays for festivity, Christmas included: its trappings and traditions leave me jangled, stressed and out of sorts – longing, if I might half-inch a term from Christian liturgy, for ordinary time. The best December of my life so far, I spent alone two years back in Berlin, 2011’s last weeks pursued in solitude except online, nothing at all of Christmas or much else timetabled in. If this sounds glum, it was the perfect converse: nothing can be a hugely profitable thing to do, and ducking pomp and circumstance made me aware I generally dislike them – on birthdays, solstices or other dates. Berlin’s long freeze, in fact, prompted me to review my thoughts on colder seasons: I now find Narnia’s Christmasless winter quite ideal.

Like atheists, winter requires no redemption. My instinct is if we accepted it – if we focused in simply on feeling winter, instead of self-distracting with egg nog and tinselled trees, trying not to feel it – we just might fall for Jack Frost on his own terms. As the scent of winter’s nearness greeted me, sweeping between the house’s walls, I thought of its barren beauty, like that of deserts and ghost towns: exhalations thick and opaque, vanishing seconds after forming, empty skies clear and crystalline. The shortness of the days is precious, not oppressive, enough to give us pause and make us catch them while we can; being stuck inside, an invitation to focus on what counts. And what wakes slumbering neurons like a brisk morning’s cold snap, kicking the senses into gear, the mind into the present moment?

This is what winter’s bleakness really offers: a chance to re-enter the here and now, less busy and finer-tuned. Instead of seeking ways around it, let’s learn to learn to love that.

Winter is coming. I welcome it.

Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal

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 others, eroticizes, and fetishizes Muslim women in ways they do not want or approve of has been made here and here.

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.

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.

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.