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April 29, 2012

Foreign Policy’s Painted Lady: Sex Issue Cover Model Too Sexy For “Her Burqa”

Mona Eltahawy’s Foreign Policy article, “Why Do They Hate Us?” quickly went viral last week, illustrating the public’s appetite for serious coverage of global gender issues. Ironically, the visuals that graced the magazine’s cover and accompanied the essay suggest that FP’s editors thought they needed to appeal to a different appetite in order to sell their magazine. And every good magazine editor knows that nothing moves copy faster than naked women’s bodies (just ask Tina Brown).

The cover photo typifies the growing trend of news magazines opting to feature provocative art pieces on their covers instead of more costly (and politically relevant) photojournalistic images. It also speaks volumes about the Western war on women that FP opted to ignore in its “Sex Issue.”

Although Eltahawy’s article details the litany of human rights abuses to which women are subjected in many non-Western countries, the accompanying images reflect a distinctly Western gaze. The anonymous woman is shrouded in black body paint meant to invoke a traditional burqa, but the woman’s thin frame, protruding bones, visible breast, and submissive stance mirror the aesthetic of the fashion photography common in Western advertising. FP editors populate the magazine’s special issue (which ostensibly champions women’s strength) with illustrations that reinforce women’s physical vulnerability—and then suggest that such vulnerability is sexy. The photos also have a voyeuristic quality that is particularly disrespectful of both women and Islam (so that’s what they’re hiding under those burqas . . . ).

The titillative quality of the images complements the broader theme of the FP special issue. Dubbing it “The Sex Issue” (as opposed to the “gender justice” issue or the “women’s rights” issue), the editors featured articles with titles such as “The Bedroom State” and “The Ayatollah Under the Bed(sheets).” Although many of the articles offer nuanced analysis of the ways in which the personal is political, the thematic and visual choices employed by the editors to frame the special issue trivialize and sexualize gender politics. They also serve as another example of the ways in which political culture is becoming increasingly pornified.

At the bottom of the digital edition of the “Why Do They Hate Us?” article, readers are directed to the issue’s other essays with the following graphic:

The artistic depiction of Muslim women’s alleged voicelessness morphs into the visage of a coquettish girl giggling surreptitiously at a dirty joke. The real issue here, at least reading the pictures, is that sexism is no joke.

– Karrin Anderson

(photos: Aaron Goodman for FP)

  • Scarabus

    To hear talk of “gender” and “sex” is always frustrating because the respective terms mean so many different things to so many different people. I’ll stick with “sex.”

    Question is, Why do conservative Muslims want to keep women’s bodies covered up when they’re out in public? Why do Amish do the same thing? Why did Victorians cover the “limbs” of their pianos? Why do conservative Christians get so apoplectic about something like, say, Janet Jackson’s nipple-pop at the Super Bowl?

    I’m resisting the phrase “strange bedfellows,” but the commonality here gives one pause. Is women’s sexuality so powerful that if it’s revealed visually men will be tempted to do sinful things themselves and subsequently tempt women to do the same? Is the unspoken fear that once Pandora’s “box” is even seen, let alone opened, a flood of unspeakable evil will be released?

    I admit that my reference to Pandora’s “box” was in poor taste, but I think the photos above are even worse.

  • Troutcor

    Here we go again, tut-tutting about how bad those foreigners (especially our Mohammedan friends) are when it comes to women. And yet women make up about 10 of the CEOs of fortune 500 companies and there are how many female members of Congress. So, yes, by all means, criticize others. It sure is much easier than changing something we actually have to power to change.

    • KVA

      Actually, the Bag post makes clear that the Western gaze exhibited in the photos is the problem.

  • Seitan_Worshiper

    Not to diminish any of Ms. Anderson’s commentary – or to disagree with some of the comments already made, but – if I may – a technical/cultural correction:

    “Burqas” are only worn in Afghanistan; “chadors” in Iran; “abayas” in Saudi and the Gulf; galabias/jellabas in much of N. Africa and much of the rest of the Islamic world.

    Just so we don’t view the various peoples of the Islamic world as all exaclty the same, even if they hold to the same religion.

  • Seitan_Worshiper

    One other quick comment, on the substance of the post:  All very well-put.  As is pointed out in Melissa McEwan’s blog, Shakesville, this is all of a piece with the larger patriarchal nature of the Rape Culture.

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