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July 27, 2007

Your Turn: Girls Will Be Girls


Nothing against oil and camels, but this Anita Kunz New Yorker cover seems to have a bit more bite than the last one we pulled apart.

Debbie Nathan (“Was she implying that literalist Jewish women are less cosseted than burqa’ed Muslims and habited nuns? Gevald!”) sees it as a commentary on the New York Jewess.  Aside from the gender dynamics, I was reminiscing how end-of-July news never used to rise above the weight of a shark attack, but that nowadays, there is no summer shade to escape the tension and polarization between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

But then, I’m a lot more interested in the view from your platform.  (The post title, by the way, is taken from the title of the illustration.)

(illustration: Anita Kunz. July 30, 2007. Cover.

  • Lisa
  • Lisa
  • Rafael

    I saw this and one name jump into my mind…
    Ann Coulter?

  • Stephanie

    I’m Jewish and I didn’t think the middle woman was intended to be a secular Jew at all. I just thought it was a commentary on heavily-garbed religious women sitting next to lightly-garbed women who show it all. How does Ms. Kunz come to the conclusion that the middle woman is Jewish? There’s no star of David, and she’s not even stereotypically Jewish-looking (dark, frizzy hair, a bit zaftig and busty, etc.).

  • Oarwell

    She’s a symbol, Sigmund. She could be the shiksa from Smith down for the weekend, or a career gal doing some slummin.’ The burkha is enforced by society (yes?) and the nun’s habit is supposed to be self-chosen, quite a difference.
    Submission, or Choice? Or bikini top?

  • zatopa

    Like Rafael, I thought of Ann Coulter when I first saw this cover, then immediately thought: why? Coulter would die before appearing that curvy, and in flip-flops no less! Must have been some combination of the hair, halter, pose, and pinched, self-satisfied set to the mouth. And Coulter self-presents as evangelical Episcopalian, if I remember correctly.
    I don’t get the “Jewess” at all. I can see the logic (casual representative lineup of monotheistic religions), but that reading just doesn’t click for me. Debbie Nathan’s critique reads as satire to me, but I admit to not being familiar with her take on things.
    Actually the thing the cover made me think of next was the infamous Danish cartoon, the one with the scimitar-weilding terrorist, anonymity preserved, in the center, niqab’d women on either side with only their (petrified) eyes visible. Not that I think the New Yorker cover has anything like that kind of impact; I thought the cover was just summer fun, but again, it could be escaping me entirely.

  • ceenik

    Part of the joke is the reversal–the 2 religious uniforms allow only the eyes to show, while the modern secular outfit covers (almost) only the eyes.

  • Karen

    wow. Until you mentioned that the title you used was the title of the piece, I had a totally different take on the cover.
    The first interpretation (pre-title) was an echo of suppression and oppression, enabled by women, with the “american” woman caught in between oppressive women-enabled ideologies.
    The second, I’m still working on.
    But the woman in the middle doesn’t strike me as a visual comendium of a jewish woman. More of an
    American stereotype. A lindsey lohan look alike.

  • tardigrade

    Jewishness? Please! Religion does play a part in this but only as a proxy for who and what is not there. But then, if there was regular mammalian parthenogenesis I wonder what the cover would be like? Are women apt to suppress each other (themselves) if they were the dominant sex over men who have property and domination issues?

  • Steve

    The date is July 30, Harry Potter was released on the 29th … the nun’s glasses are Potter, eh? The Christian world is obsessed with an Atheist book about good vs. evil.
    It’s funny how flip-flops are so hard for some to accept. I wear mine with pride and know I’ll offend some everytime.

  • Betsy

    There but for the grace of somebody other than god–go American women. Watch out for theocracies. This woman is flanked by oppression, I hope it doesn’t overpower her.

  • tekel

    Yeah, why is a cross-dressing Harry Potter on the cover of the New Yorker? And, I’ve got to echo what others have said- why conclude that Sara Jessica Parker in the middle there is supposed to be jewish? Perhaps she is a Buddhist out of uniform. Or maybe she’s a Born-Again Evangelist Xtianist, whose only beliefs of the moment are whatever crap was poured into her head at the mega-church last weekend. Or maybe she is a Zoroastrian, a believer in the one true faith.
    Seriously. Are you saying she’s jewish just because she has bad posture and no muscle tone? What gives? Is there something that we’re all missing?

  • margaret

    I’m reading this cover as an expression of the fact that in America we have diversity and representatives of that fact can all sit on a subway in NY City in peace, together. The fact that they are all women might help the peaceful part of the scene.

  • ummabdulla

    “The first interpretation (pre-title) was an echo of suppression and oppression, enabled by women, with the ‘american’ woman caught in between oppressive women-enabled ideologies.”
    Except that I know a lot of American woman who dress just like the women on the left, and that’s self-chosen. And there are certainly American nuns, although that character doesn’t really ring true, because nuns don’t dress like that any more (American nuns anyway).
    Please don’t assume the one on the left is ignorant or oppressed – or foreign. And she only dresses that way to go out, unlike the nun who wears that stuff all day long every day.
    I wouldn’t have thought of the one in the middle as Jewish, either.
    I used to always wear flip-flops, but when I came to Kuwait and went outside with them, people would give me strange looks. Some people that I knew kind of gasped and said, “Why are you wearing those?” Flip-flops are used as bathroom shoes here; people don’t wear shoes in the house, but they leave a pair (or more) of these kind of shoes at the bathroom door for everyone to use there.

  • Chris

    If we assuem the two “girls” on the flanks are covering up to please ‘Men’ you can just as safely assume that the one in the middle is revealing her flanks to please ‘Men’ as well. Or perhaps they’re each actually more comfortable in their own way.
    There’s no question in my mind that Patriarchal culture has shaped both of these fashion extremes. That doesn’t make it so, I’m just explaining my subjective certainty.
    Whether or not it matches the artist’s intention my favorite analysis is Margaret’s with the focus on diversity and coexistence.

  • Dunc

    Er… she’s perhaps interpreted as Jewish because of the representation of the other two monotheistic religions alongside her? (L-R) Muslim, Jew, Christian… simple enough.

  • ummabdulla

    I keep looking at this picture, and I kind of like it. In some ways, the women are very similar – the same height, same expression on the face (from what we can see), all wearing black. A someone pointed out, with the women on the left, the only thing we can see are her eyes, but with the one in the middle, we can see almost everything but her eyes.
    I wonder what John Lucaites has to say about the lack of hands and feet on the Muslim woman and the nun.
    If these three are supposed to represent the three monotheistic religions, then that’s a step forward. Usually, if there are three religions represented, it’s Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. But I don’t think she’s representing Judaism – but it would make an interesting picture if she was dressed according to the modesty rules followed by Orthodox Jewish women.
    The Harry Potter references struck a chord with me, because I’ve been noticing that so many books and movies (especially for children) have “magic” themes. Why is this the case in a society that doesn’t believe in magic and looks down on belief in superstitions, etc?

  • readytoblowagasket

    ummabdulla said, In some ways, the women are very similar – the same height, same expression on the face (from what we can see), all wearing black.
    Yes, I noticed that too. I think that’s because the reference might be paper dolls. The “doll” in the middle is the main character, and her “outfits” are unmistakable religious costumes. Paper dolls are always clad in their underwear, ready to be dressed head to toe for a little girl’s fantasy narrative. The artist is being irreverent, of course, and possibly it’s a self-portrait, trying on the phrase There but for the grace of God go I for size.

  • John Lucaites

    Well, ummabdulla, I’m certainly pleased that you are attending to hands and feet. To be honest, I’m not sure what to make out of the portraits here in that respect. Which either proves my critical inadequacy (always a possibility) or that sometimes a hand is just a hand. For me the picture seems to call attention to the relationship between fashion and power. In each instance the mode of clothing can be seen as a mode of oppression, limiting agency in largely patriarchal societies. On the other hand, each is also a mode of empowerment and a way of controlling one’s environment, a way of exacting agency in cultures and contexts where options might otherwise be limited. And while gender is featured here, I don’t think this dialectical tension in the politics of fashion is necessarily to women … men face similar (if not comparable) options, e.g., compare the business suit with the military uniform and the cleric’s collar.

  • Mad_nVT

    Looking at this drawing from a narrow perspective:
    The woman on the left would be recognized as a member of everyday society in some parts of the world. She might be married, have kids, have a job and so on. Kind of normal.
    The woman in the middle? Could be married, have kids, have a job and so on. Maybe normal in some people’s dreams, but not a whole lot of people looking like that. Not normal in everyday society. And she’s hiding behind those glasses.
    But whoa, that woman on the right is definitely different. No mistaking her as being way out of the ordinary, she is not fully a part of everyday society.
    So the most normal of the three women is the one on the left.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Karen Armstrong, a scholar of religion and a former nun, writes compellingly of the paradox of “veiling”:
    In Victorian Britain, nuns believed that until they could appear in public fully veiled, Catholics would never be accepted in this country. But Britain got over its visceral dread of popery. In the late 1960s, shortly before I left my order, we decided to give up the full habit. This decision expressed, among other things, our new confidence, but had it been forced upon us, our deeply ingrained fears of persecution would have revived.
    But Muslims today do not feel similarly empowered. The unfolding tragedy of the Middle East has convinced some that the west is bent on the destruction of Islam. The demand that they abandon the veil will exacerbate these fears, and make some women cling more fiercely to the garment that now symbolises their resistance to oppression.

  • Doctor Jay

    The sunglasses were what struck me. The two flanking women were covering everything except their eyes. Whereas the girl in the middle was covering up nothing (ok, almost nothing) but her eyes.
    Eyes are the mirror to the soul. I take this to mean her dress says: “I’ll show you my skin, but not my soul.”
    Really, I see this as a visual paradox. Clothing, especially in the case of the other two girls, says much about who we are. By eliminating the clothing,(and covering the eyes) we know less about the girl in the middle, not more.

  • Mayfly

    I thought of the illustration as one of those, “Only in America” scenes. (Or maybe, “Only in New York.”

  • Sue Clancy

    “The Harry Potter references struck a chord with me, because I’ve been noticing that so many books and movies (especially for children) have “magic” themes. Why is this the case in a society that doesn’t believe in magic and looks down on belief in superstitions, etc?”
    The current era is VERY superstitions. In addition to various religions many people seem to actually believe that wearing certain types of clothing (Armani, Donna Karen, Vanderbilt, Levi’s, Lucky’s, etc.) imbue them with certain powers. Look at the advertising on television any time. Sex sells but so does the idea that by wearing or owning a certain brand of clothing or a certain brand object (BMW, Jaguar etc.) or a certian type of house will enable the owner to gain power or recognition in their community and workplace. Additionally we have ‘magic pills’ to cure any and all ailments – including being overweight. Corporations and Religions both need an audience that is willing to believe in ‘magic’. Thus we teach ‘magical thinking’ to kids early on in life.
    Our scientific literacy and our critical thinking skills have been decreasing dramatically in the past several decades.
    As a result we can say ‘bye, bye’ to the feminist concepts of a woman deciding for herself what she will or won’t do, how she will or won’t dress, what job she’ll have etc. But it’s not just women who’ve, willingly or not, lost the ability to think and reason for themselves. Men too, look for ‘magic’ ways to gain money, power etc.
    This cover would also work with men as the subject: One man dressed as a terrorist, on the other side a man dressed in a suit and televangelist hair-do as a fundamentalist christian preacher and a man in the middle in sunglasses, flip flops and swim trunks.

  • Amy

    I definitely didn’t see this as a comment on Jewish women in particular, because an Orthodox Jewish woman could be portrayed just as “modestly” as the Muslim and Catholic women.
    There are also Protestant sects that dress in a non-modern fashion.
    No, the woman in the middle is modern and secular – no matter her background, it’s moot.
    Her body is visible, and its pose implies confidence and comfort, and power. Her eyes, her “vulnerable” spot, are the only thing hidden, making her both a thing to be seen, and a “secret watcher”: she holds both the power of the vision and the voyeur, both the object and the subject.
    It also has some of that “only in America” aspect, no doubt, but to me it opens a complex conversation about the difference between the eyes and the body of a woman, one that ultimately argues for the modern, secular way of life.
    More here:

  • Shaun

    Did any of you even read Debbie Nathan’s post? She doesn’t think the blonde is Jewish. She describes her as “secular girl” and complains the cartoonist missed an opportunity to comment on fundamentalism of all stripes by not adding “a fourth woman on the IRT, with a stiff wig and a Hebrew prayer book in hand…” Good to see you idiots at the Bag are still missing the point of everything as usual.

  • Mary Soderstrom

    And I think it’s a comment on how women are socialized to the standards of whatever group they’re a part of. See my blog if you want more reflections.

  • Pooleside

    Notice the one outstanding visual similarity?
    The shape of the head-coverings and the hair.
    I never noticed before how the “concealing” garments mimic the natural fall of long hair.

  • acm

    why is the woman on the left looking sideways? the paper-doll theme (which I like, given all the parallels) would rather require that she be looking ahead like the woman on the right — a twist for realism, or some subtler commentary?
    much to read into this. when it arrived on my doorstep, I though more of the cartoonish takes than any more meaningful ones — another naked American among more conservative representatives of other cultures/lifestyles…

  • lowly grunt

    Harry Potter isn’t about magic. It is about relationships. Specifically, relationships that embue one with hope and purpose. The characters in the books who are after power are those on the Dark Side.
    As to the cartoon, all three women are living under fashion dictates and all three women have the ability to choose whether those dictates will confine or define them.

  • tina

    RTbag has got it right. In most places full niqab was becoming something only older women wore. Now its making a comeback as the symbol of being true to your culture and not Westernized.
    However, I don’t think any woman “chooses” to drag a black tent around on a hot day. When I saw the woman in the middle, she’s in a swimsuit, must be a hot day, right? And how are the other two gals feeling?
    One of the beauties of the burqa is that, like the corset, Chinese foot bandages, and similar restricting garments, it limits a woman’s mobility to the point where she’d rather not make the effort to go outdoors. And very few women will argue that they DID choose it, most will say their brothers and fathers make them wear it. I remember hearing from someone who saw a Muslim girl slapped and beaten by her brother and his friends on a London bus, right in public, because they caught her outside unveiled. So much for “choice”.
    Nobody chose slavery in the Old South, but it was common to find psychologically damaged slaves who would sing the virtues of the institution. Similarly women who “choose” the burqa are only so many Jupiter Hammonds, with the caveat that RTbag noted.
    As Ummabdulla pointed out few nuns actually wear those habits anymore. Women must look forward to the day when no Muslim women have to go around invisible, either. I am, unashamedly, not a cultural relativist on this issue. The burqa is a violation of human rights, nothing less than a portable prison. It is not even clothing per se. Period, end of story, fini.
    I think the picture is a cheap shot, apt to start anew the very stupid “burqa vs. bikini” debate—yawn (btw, google that phrase and see what you get–scary). Black-and-white or false choice fallacy, anyone?
    No woman with any judgement wears either garment on the New York subway, really.



  • ummabdulla

    Oh… where to start? Yes, many women choose to wear the abaya (the black outergarment), although some women wear it in the Gulf, because it’s the norm there, and wear other colors when they travel. As Tina probably knows, it is made of very thin material and is not tight anywhere, so it’s not anywhere near as hot as the nun’s habit is; in fact, when you walk, it sort of billows and creates a little breeze. Many of us find it very comfortable – you just throw it on over anything and go. And as I mentioned before, it’s just while you’re out; in your home, you wear whatever you want, and at parties, women are decked out; that woman could be on her way to a wedding and might look gorgeous when she gets there and removes the abaya.
    I’m sure some women are forced to wear the hijab, and I could say that about a lot of other outfits. But personally I know more women who wear hijab or niqab (the face veil) – or want to wear it – against their family’s wishes (especially younger women in Muslim families whose mothers don’t wear it).

  • mamita

    With a title of “girls will be girls” for a picture of 3 women sitting serenely in a subway coach, the message is surely not a heavy sociological one. I considered that these girls were doing what girls do often when they are out in public; they each signal that they wish to be anonymous and to guard their virtue. The women on the right and left find anonymity in their uniform-like robes (muslim hijab and catholic habit), while the woman in the middle hides her identity with the dark glasses. The muslim covers her face modestly with the niqab, the nun preserves her chastity with the (unusually ornate) cross (she is a bride of Christ), and the ’secular’ woman crosses her legs (and arms!)demurely to indicate her modesty. … indeed, girls will be girls!

  • tina

    The women who have talked to me have stated that wearing a burqa in the heat is horrible, and they arrive wherever they are going soaked in sweat. Hence they tried to avoid unnecessary movement. I had no reason to disbelieve what they said. Also they expressed jealousy of male relatives who could go out much more lightly clad, without the extra black layer, or even swim in the canals or otherwise enjoy themselves. They knew they would never have even one day like that. And it saddened them.

  • ummabdulla

    Tina, it’s just that I just don’t think that you talk to a cross-section of women; all of your references are negative.
    On hot days, I’d like to go swimming too, but I’ll do it in a women-only environment. And when it’s really hot, anyone is going to be hot – including the woman in the bikini top. So yes, these days when the temperature hits 50C/122F, I’m hot in an abaya, and my husband is hot in a dishdasha (the long white robe), and my kids are hot in t-shirts and shorts. And that nun is going to be hotter than any of us.
    My kids saw this picture just now; one of them said, “Arab, American, Christian” and another one thought the one in the middle was Lebanese. Actually, that had occurred to me, too – that you might be more likely to see this combination in Lebanon than in New York, if only because Middle Eastern nuns still wear habits, while Americans mostly don’t. Not that many Lebanese women cover their faces, but a lot of women from the Gulf go there during the summer.

  • Harley

    I am puzzled why so many commenters have singled out the blonde as Jewish. Is this a newyorkthang? In California, a woman dressed like that would be presumed to be a valley girl on her way to the beach, especially with the flip-flops. Like totally beach wear, dontcha know.

  • Hana

    Well, I am a Muslim woman, so I think I’m a tiny bit more qualified to talk about niqab than the rest here. I read the New Yorker every week and I got a kick out of this. I appreciated the point that many women cover, not just Muslims, and that what seems strange to most of us, i.e. niqab, is similar to something we’re familiar with, i.e. a nun’s habit. To me the barely-clad woman seems to be trying a little too hard. I know many women who wear niqab fully by choice, and I have two myself that I like very much. To be honest, if I had the energy to deal with the negative reactions of people like some of you who’ve commented above, I’d wear them frequently. The feeling of privacy and dignity is very pleasant. As it is I cover my hair and my body, even though my husband and my family would prefer I didn’t, and I think it’s a real plus of being Muslim. Anyway, I would never, ever, ever sit on a New York subway train without plenty between me and the seat!

  • does it really matter

    that is soo rude with that naked girl in the middle
    but it shows how muslims and nuns are more modest about themselves than western people

  • Rosana

    So, how many of you have travelled outside america much?
    I see the illustration, particularly taking the title into account, as a comment on variety and, in a certain way, the freedom to express yourself as you will (be it in muslim attire, clearly secular, or christian). There might be a hint, also, on the fact that muslim and christian are not all that different (the nun and the muslim woman are very much alike in fact), despite what we might be compelled to think these days. Particularly in America (or BECAUSE of America).
    What worries me is the fact that so many of you think that is a scene that could only be seen in the states. It worries me very much. The extreme ethnocentrism is one of the main things about the United States that turns me off. I was born in Venezuela (which we all know is a terrible, terrorist supporting, “bolivarian socialism” promoting, near dictatorship these days), travelled to the states a lot as a child, and then during my teens and now in my early 20’s continue to travel to very different places and experience very different societies. I now live in Barcelona, Spain, where scenes like that one are so normal they’re not even worth commenting on. I’ve seen this much variety, this peaceful coexistence in MANY different countries. In fact, the only place I HAVEN’T seen it as peaceful coexistence is in the United States. So no, NOT only in America. More like hardly in America, sometimes in New York (the most cosmopolitan city there).
    Actually, the worst part is how much you feel the need to emphasize the difference. In your efforts to avoid racism, you tend to exaggerate it and make people more aware of it, thus, ironically, promoting it. Sociology calls it the “self-fulfilled prophecy”. Teachers tend to use the severe racism in America as an example: a black man tends to be rejected because people think he is violent, regardless of his actual personality, this rejection frustrates the black man so that it eventually does turn him violent, and in that way making the original opinion -sadly- a reality. Having lived the for one year, what struck me the most is the fact that different races tend to develop their own cultures and separate themselves from each other. I’ve never seen it happen to such an extreme anywhere else… scary.

  • Madison Perry

    I have a question about this post. Will you please email me at your convenience. Thank you in advance.

  • Hans

    Actually, the nun is the Cross dresser.

  • Hans

    Oppression? The women on either side have – within the boundaries of their faiths or calling – a kind of freedom that the woman in the center does not. They need not be concerned with fashion, trendiness, unwanted attention from men, worry about their hair and figure, or expectations from a consumer pop society as to how women should look and act. They have (if you ask them) more important things to think about. The woman in the center is “freer” in some respects, but the “freedom” that she enjoys is really just the right to choose from a broader palate of things that shackle her nevertheless.

    • russimp

      To me, it’s a reminder that underneath the burkha and the habit are women like any other.

    • russimp

      To me, it’s a reminder that underneath the burkha and the habit are women like any other.

  • Garrison Hack

    With regards to determining whether or not the female in the middle is indeed Jewish or not Jewish, I believe there are a number of clues within context. Firstly, based on the orange and yellow plastic seat color and three-seat together configuration upon which they are sitting, one can determine immediately that the three are on an IND subway line. The NYC subway map is also a good clue. The woman in the center has her right lower extremity crossed above her left one. Note that her right upper extremity appears more visible than her left. Her black top allows her to somewhat match the color of her travel companions’ garbs. Her blue short-shorts match the color (but not the hue) of her flip flops. She wears sunglasses, the nun wears glasses, the Muslim woman has no eye wear. She wears hoop earrings (of an indeterminate number). The nun has a crucifix. The Muslim woman shows no jewelry. The uncustomary long blonde straight hair notwithstanding, I would still have to state that the woman in the middle is not Jewish.


    Look at the color of her nails. Her finger nails are Jungle Red. And her toe nails? They are Jungle Red as well. Any self-respecting Jewish girl who would dare wear Jungle red in 2007 (be it on acrylic fills or silk wraps) would definitely and unequivocally have her toe nails done in a French manicure.

    I rest my case!


    Why are people so quick to judge and not so quick to obtain proper knowledge.? All these labels people put on Muslim Women as being oppressed, please. Yes people of all kinds of religions are oppressed and even people who claim no religion. Yes there are Muslim Women who are abused and forced to do certain things, well that applies for other people in other religions as well. A Muslim Women is not oppressed because she chooses to cover. Read about Islam, Read about Muslims and Read about why Muslim Women Cover. In Islam there are obligations,laws, rules and opinions that we all must go by. Know in every religion like Islam there are some who don’t follow obligations, laws, rules and opinions. And know those who don’t follow properly will be punished either in this life, the next or both. And who will they be punished by? Allah (The Creator of All). No Man whether Muslim, Non-Muslim, father or brother is to abuse a woman of any kind. Allah is fair, kind, loving and so on. In Islam Allah has it where Muslim Women are highly honored And that’s as daughters, Wives, and Mothers. We are even given titles like Queens, Princesses, Scholars and so on. There are even books on Great Strong Women in Islam who were and are honored. Men are obligated to be kind,love, teach,protect, and severe the Muslim Women (basically have her back at all times). Did you know a Muslim Husband and Wife (that has children) could both have jobs and the Muslim Women has a right to keep all of her money for herself. And the Husband has to make enough money to pay for all of the needs and wants of his house hold. A Muslim child is even taught to respect and love the mother. A child could be asked who do you love, the child would say “my mother”, then they would be asked again, the child will say “my mother”, then they would be asked again, the child will say ” my mother” and when asked for the fourth time they would say “my father” and that’s once. A Muslim Women covers her body to shield herself, she values and honors herself. We are like diamonds so we are to be protected. We want people to know us for what’s on the inside (heart/mind) not the outside. We believe in being modest and pious. We choose to not dress to where our bodies are exploited and men are lusting after us. We only allow who we want to lust after us and that’s our Husband. The picture of the three Women I like, and why? well even though they are all unique, they are all sitting together humbly. Their demeanor is relaxed. Even though the Muslim is looking in another direction and her face is still forward, well the lady in the middle has shades on and we can’t tell which way she is looking. Nice Picture (it’s a thinker). Please people learn about Islam and Muslims, by Google, You tube, Book Stores and Muslims it’s that simple. Peace!

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