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March 13, 2005

Eye Foreign Eye


I picked out this image inspired by the many fine comments posted to my last couple Beirut entries. 

Specifically, I was thinking about the factors in play when we see more “westernized” images of women wearing the hijab. As BAG readers quentin and aethorian point out, this style of dress not only calls up stereotypes as to who is underneath, it also stimulates an urge to make them more like us.

In those instances where they actually do look more like us, however, to what extent is this a factor of Islamic liberalization, western glamorization, commercial exploitation or just plain voyeurism? 

Before fleshing this out a bit more (…wow, now that’s a weird pun), I also wanted to put this on the table. 


This image appeared in last Monday’s NYT Business section (Ads for Saudi Bank Focus on Women – link).  It’s part of a new ad campaign by the Saudi Arabian bank, Saudi Fransi, targeted at Saudi women. 

As I understand it, there are also four different t.v. commercials featuring the same Saudi woman in her hijab.  They show her attending a business meeting with other women, working on a computer, attending her wedding and playing with her children.  Although specialized banking services for women are not new, the visibility of these ads and the increased focus on the well being of Saudi women is apparently ground breaking. 

I’ll leave it to you to interpret the image, if you like.  I offer it, though, because it seems to touch on those four characteristics I mentioned: liberalization, glamorization, commercialization and voyeurism.  (I realize the image is intended for a Saudi audience, but I consider it fair game since it was designed by a western agency, and showed up in the Times for western consumption.)

So, what’s up with our two sets of eyes?

The top image comes from the MSNBC “Pictures of the Week” gallery from the period of February 24- March 3.  They titled it: Eye to eye.  Here’s the caption: 

Supporters of terror suspect Babar Ahmad, who is facing extradition to the United States, protest outside a court in London on March 2.  Britain began extradition hearing for Ahmad, who is wanted in the United States for allegedly running terrorist Web sites, but Muslim groups said he should be tried at home.

So, should we start with the positive space, or the negative?

I assume there are standard ways the western eye (or guy) tends to glamorize these cloaked women — starting with the “eye window” as some kind of teaser.  What really tilts this photo to the west, however, is the fact these eyes and lashes (like those in the bank ad) are so made up.  You can almost hear the sigh of assurance that these women are more educated and middle class.

Or, you could start with one blue pair of eyes and one brown pair.  Because the blue associates more with white culture while the brown associates more to, well… brown, one could say the image sets up an East-West dichotomy. 

If you subscribe to the East-West argument, you could also say that the blue or west-leaning eyes are “good,” while the brown represent those followers of Islam we have to look out for.  The picture also reinforces this interpretation through facial gesture.  The “good” blue eyes, for example, bear a decidedly more benign expression.  The other figure, however, has a look that could almost be read as scheming.

You can also get a conspiratorial sense from how the figures interact.  It looks like they are literally “putting their heads together.”  The impression is that the one on the right is discretely whispering something, while the one on the left is playing it low key.

If you think I am overplaying the association to threat, it’s easy to say that I’ve been set up by the caption.  But then, this caption is guilty of a lot of things.  By linking the photo to a court proceeding, it implies the picture is newsworthy.  So, are these women protesters?  Or, more libelously, are they supporters of the suspect, or even “supporters of terror?”  Before answering that, however, perhaps one needs to consider the virtue of associating such a suggestive photo (politically, and otherwise) to a provocative news event few readers have ever heard of.  (If you ask me, I’d say it puts us back in the neighborhood of exploitation and voyeurism again.)

Oh, I almost forgot about the negative space.  On my very first glance, I saw the Empire State building in that white field.  I can no longer reconstruct it, but my deepest, darkest split second reaction might have started off something like:  “First the Trade Centers, and now …. “  Frankly, I’m shocked that came out of me.  I thought I was more enlightened. 

Still, I should know better than to underestimate a caption, let alone the years between the New York attack and the Iraq invasion when the fear was pounded into our collective roots.

(image 1: Toby Melville/Reuters in; image 2: Targets/Leo Burnett for Saudi Fransi Bank in the New York Times)

  • Matthew Walsh

    Being from the U.S., but living in a foriegn country for a long time, I thought the image was of the blue-eyed woman being a student of a host culture, someone that had lived abroad long enough and progressed far enough along the process of acculturation that she had adopted the appropriate customs concerning clothing for women. From what I gather, clothing that would seem normal to a female from the U.S. would seem absolutely ridiculous in an Arab culture. Isn’t it every human’s duty to transcend the box of our own culture and find what is common to humanity so that it may be shared?

  • GKoutnik

    “Frankly, I’m shocked that came out of me. I thought I was more enlightened.”
    Very little light reaches the subconscious, where that image came from. My subconscious handed me the image of a white dagger.

  • Sherry Chandler

    I saw the Empire State but in some odd Klannish draping that made it featureless. It took me several seconds to resolve the “faces.” Almost like one of those coup d’oeil (sp?) experiments — is this a lass or a crone?

  • greentuna

    I’m puzzled by the caption that accompanies the picture. These women are protesting?? To me it appears as if they are talking quietly to each other. If there is any activity happening in this scene, it doesn’t seem like these two are involved at all, because there is no hint of any passions you might associate with protesting (anger, fear, etc.). To me, the photo strikes me to be something closer to an artistic offering from National Geographic.

  • jj

    To me the blue eye, which is in the light, looks sad, resigned, thoughtful, listening maybe. The brown eye looks frightened. Perhaps she is warning the blue eye about the photographer or some other event she has sensed. I suppose the Empire State building could be an accident of composition, but it is dramatic, seen from below, like a finger pointing to heaven.

  • Eli

    I am a voracious reader of the news, and have always felt that news photos are under-appreciated for the impact they have. I felt this especially keenly while living in Morocco during the Iraq war. Because I could read only a small amount of Arabic, the photos were what really grabbed my attention. I was amazed at the differences between them and western media. Since then I have paid closer attention, and I appreciate being able to check this site daily to read your insightful commentary.
    I do have a small point of contention with todays post. From what I understand and have expereinced, many women throughout the Arab world who wear hijabs also wear eleborate make-up. A woman wearing heavy make-up is not necessarily westernized or trying to adopt western culture. I’m pretty sure that Middle Eastern women have been wearing make-up long before there was even such a thing as western civilization.
    However, I do agree that many western photographers revert to the “erotized other” mentality and focus on sexaulized images of exotic arab women, such as the Economist and Newsweek covers.

  • Parallel Universe

    Strangely, the first thing I saw in that image was a sort of after-effect of the Hooded Man (wired, on the box) from Abu Ghraib, in the space between the women’s heads and the light area of their eyes.

  • Maxcat

    I read the bagnews quite often and I appreciate what you do very much.
    At my very first look at this pricture I saw something totally different than what you saw. What I saw was one face being formed by the two faces. Not the faces of woman but of one face looking straight at the viewer. Having been an art major in college and an artist for all my life this image reminded me very much of an optical illusion type of image.
    I don’t know what this says about the meaning of this image but to me it conveys the idea that these women can or could be as hostile towards the west as anyone else involved with terror.

  • Johnny Gosch

    I usually think of this site as a humor destination. Your artwork and image selection has always been top-notch, and your eye for irony is pitch-perfect.
    But this week you have featured some incredibly poignant and piercing imagery alongside equally piercing commentary.
    You are doing a fantastic job.

  • adrian

    like Maxcat, I first saw one face — as in a hooded terrorist (with a very odd nose). Took me a few seconds to resolve the two heads.
    I think you are reading a little too much into the eyes, though. Scheming? The blue eyes is looking down so looks vaguely sad, but brown eyes is looking at the camera – challenging the photographer perhaps?

  • Tilli (Mojave Desert)

    The Saudi bank ad seems to represent the public (image) rather than the private (day-to-day reality on the street) of Saudi women. I think Saudi women newscasters/tv personalities may dress like this, but vice-police on the street scold average women who don’t cover their faces.
    The 2-women photo reminds me of a perfume ad. Exotic, dangerous East! I think it’s been heavily Photoshopped to bring out the dagger.
    (BTW, the blue eyed woman is possibly wearing blue contact lenses. It’s a popular trend.)

  • aethorian

    At first glance, the two women look like one person wearing a mask with a long white nosepiece, much like this Mexican wrestling mask (which might be an interesting subject for another thread).
    The positive—negative effect in “Islamic Eyes” is the classic “vase or face” optical illusion, one version of which is this two-faced woman illustration. It also echoes the disconcerting result obtained by blending a person’s profile with their full face (Mr. Capone’s original mug shot is here). Nelle Ferrara is an artist who employs this technique in many of her paintings.
    For millenia, artists have recognized that the attention of the viewer should be drawn to the subject’s eyes. This is one advantage that women wearing hijab have: you may have little else to focus on (this is harder with someone wearing a burka, but it has its own benefits). The eye makeup in these images does not seem excessive, especially when compared to kohl, which women have used for centuries to enhance their eyes. Modern makeup may more subtle, easier to apply, and less dangerous [PDF], but even it can be perceived as a Western encroachment on Middle Eastern traditions.
    The whole issue of Western fashion and body image is another clash of cultures altogether (not to mention the trouble that Western men have comprehending it). We’ve still got a long way to go, Baby.

  • dave

    Being familiar with this case perhaps I can fill in US readers on the background to the case the first photo relates to (two female faces).
    Baber Ahmed was arrested in the UK in Dec 2003 as a terror suspect, was held in custody, during which time he sustained around 50 separate injuries (consistent with a severe beating), and then released without charge.
    He publicly complained about his brutal treatment at the hands of police officers in the UK.
    Nearly a year later he was then arrested again, this time pending extradition to the US relating to terror charges.
    These women were obviously amongst the people protesting the extradition process – they want him to be tried in this country (UK), and for his prior complaints to be dealt with properly.
    Therefore the blue-eyed woman is probably a white British convert to Islam who has chosen to wear niqab.

  • dave

    Being familiar with this case perhaps I can fill in US readers on the background to the case the first photo relates to (two female faces).
    Baber Ahmed was arrested in the UK in Dec 2003 as a terror suspect, was held in custody, during which time he sustained around 50 separate injuries (consistent with a severe beating), and then released without charge.
    He publicly complained about his brutal treatment at the hands of police officers in the UK.
    Nearly a year later he was then arrested again, this time pending extradition to the US relating to terror charges.
    These women were obviously amongst the people protesting the extradition process – they want him to be tried in this country (UK), and for his prior complaints to be dealt with properly.
    Therefore the blue-eyed woman is probably a white British convert to Islam, living in London, who has chosen to wear niqab.

  • andrew

    Watch the racial assumptions. Blue eyes are not uncommon in some predominantly Islamic countries, such as Afghanistan. Why assume that the woman must be a white convert to Islam?
    Which gets back to what this photo is really about — assumptions.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    it’s perverse :-/
    colourful, well-composed images employing “fashion photography” technics ~ of subjugated peoples, or as it were “gender” in this case ~ and all that they convey to Western eyes, are perverse.
    i’m sorry but… imagine (men, not women), eg.,
    well-composed images of detainees in orange jumpsuits
    …how colourful! lets admire the geometry, the composition!
    evil masquerading as “beauty”
    Juan Cole today: “Fallujah… no longer exists”
    Amnesty Int’l: “women sentenced to death by stoning, a country -by- country accounting”
    LA Times: “GIs shoot Iraq battle footage and edit it into music videos…”
    gotta go ~ goin’ down to the ol’ village to see them carve off my cousin’s clitoris.
    she’s ~13. she looks so lovely in her veil.

  • Tilli (Mojave Desert)

    Glancing again at the 2-women-eyes photo,
    I’m reminded of The Manson Girls.

  • Shaula Evans

    I highly recommend 3 books, if you are not already familiar with them, that will help you deconstructing images like these:
    Orientalism – Edward Said
    Europe’s Myths of the Orient – Ranna Kabbani
    Subliminal Seduction – Wilson Bryan Key
    The first two deal with the exoticism and voyeurism elements that you mention above.
    The third is just an advertising classic that demystifies the “sell” in advertising images–a category into which I would confidently include most US news images right now.

  • Dave

    The top picture was taken in London. Therefore statistically/demographically the blue-eyed woman is far more likely to be a white British convert to Islam (hence my assumption, and my use of the qualifier ‘probably’). But, would you view the picture differently if it was of Afghan women in Afghanistan? It might well be easier to absorb the picture if it was (‘exotic’,'foreign’ etc).
    But, for two British women to adopt this mode of dress carries powerful messages about their religion and their sense of identity. Indeed, it also carries political baggage which many people may see as ’sinister’ – but I guess this indicates more about prejudices and stereotypes than it does about the two human beings in the photograph.

  • andrew

    Well, there may be an Afghan immigrant or two in London. I’m not sure. I don’t have at my fingertips any figures on the number of blue-eyed Muslim immigrant women in the UK compared to the number of blue-eyed female converts to Islam, so I can’t dispute your claim that “statistically/demographically the blue-eyed woman is far more likely to be a white British convert to Islam.”
    The point is that you are making an assumption about the person’s ethnicity based solely on her eye colour. (In fact, you’re also making an assumption about her religion based on her dress — she could be a white, British, atheist political activist donning a veil for the purpose of the protest, for all you know. See? I made an assumption of my own in my earlier post.)
    And assumptions are what an image like this encourages us to make. The blue eyes, in particular, invite all kinds of speculation. But as a news photo, it’s devoid of content. It tells us nothing, and invites us to superimpose our own prejudices on it. This photo’s appearance as a “picture of the week” backs up the assertion that news photos increasingly resemble advertising images.

  • Johanna

    I just found your site. Fantastic.
    When I saw this picture I first saw a cross! The eyes being the horizontal portion.
    Yikes! And it was constructed out of 2 obviously deeply religious Muslim women. It troubled me actually.

  • Dvae McCarthy

    Im Irish -and what i saw straight away was a black masked IRA bomber; to me an instantly recognisable symbol of indiscriminate and inhuman terrorism.
    The bombers face is hiding in the picture of two secretive, perhaps conspiring, Moslem women. The effect of the photo could not possibly be accidental, it is screaming out Fear and suspicion.

  • Mahmud

    I am both disappointed and amused by yoursand others of the comments here today. From the perspective of a muslim, I have to tell you that even without the caption this seems very staightforward. Two woman in full hijab. One speaking, one listening. Both covered to protect theit modesty in the way of their perticular sect. The assumptions and projections made are so purely biased by the foreigness that westerners feel when confronted by curtain muslim cultural habits and traditions.
    For muslims, the hijab worn by woman in their varrying forms and ethnic permutations, are a symbol of the traditions carried from the earliest days of the faith. The fact the the hijab is an element of both both jewish and christian religious dress dating back to the time of Moses, is well documented. One needs only look to a reprsentation of the Virgin Mary, the habits of the nuns (shed in the past few years) or a simple wedding dress, to see the roots of this are much deeper that they appear on the surface.
    The west views the hijab as a violation of the inherent rights of woman in the Muslim world. A way to keep them down. Subserviant and bondage asspects creep in from our own culture, but they don’t cross over well. The image is scewed in the western mind and interpreted by western standards. Freedom is relative. A woman in the muslim world is freed from the imodest dress standards and fashion whims of the west. She is free to wear what ever she chooses in her own home, in the company of her husband and family.
    She is freed from the cosmedic rituals that western woman and men seem so obsessed with and now dominates half of the media we see. When she deals with others in public, they deal with her face, the focus of comunication and expression. She feels no need to be self concious about her appearance or distracted by it.
    In western society, we judge woman by their appearance and attractiveness to us, and deal with them on a different level than we do other men, persons in uniform(s) or even religious figures of both sexes. We are driver by the overwelming sexual dives that are part of our psychy and programed culture. The implications of this are as abhorent to Muslims viewed from their perspective as we seem find the image of cloaked woman from ours.

  • Sara

    I am an Arabic, muslim teenage girl living an a British Society, and after reading most of these remakes and opinions that were given before, I don’t really understand why and how so many people suggest that these muslim women look like terrorists, I believe that most of these views are put forward by the media to ruin the true meaning of Islam….I am also quit annoyed that people can be so judgemental and in a way very nieve!
    I myself would love to wear the traditional Islamic scarf as the picture shows as I would like to show to the world that I am a Muslim, and I am not ashamed. However because of all the criticizes about Muslim women (and Muslims in general) here in England I a not able to do so, and I think that this is very sad. Being a British Muslim gives me the advantage of hearing both sides of the argument i.e. Arabic -Vs- English, and I find that people have not idea how hard it is to be a Muslim women especially living in a British society. I would also like people who do read this to think about what Islam really is, its not about terrorism, or suicide bombers (as almost ALL muslims are agents that!!) but what its actually about; PEACE (‘Islam’ comes from the Arabic word of ‘Salaam’ meaning, peace!)

  • samera

    Sara ya habeebtiyou should not worry about people, you should wear a hijaab to show that you will stand for what you believe in. I fpeople want to think things then khalaas let them

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