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Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Rihanna, Lady Gaga and What's Really Behind Burqa Swag...
Ladies! Wondering what to wear tonight that will turn heads and get all the boys excited? May I suggest a sexed-up burqa or perhaps a naughty niqab? While harem pants are v last season, veils are terribly in vogue. Not only do they add an exotic edge, but black is extremely mu-slimming.
Rihanna's entire Instagram account is a chronicle of controversy and questionable decisions, so this latest episode isn't much of a surprise. What is noteworthy about the Abu Dhabi incident, however, is that it is the latest in a long line of attempts by western popular culture to eroticise the veil. From the creation of a burqa Barbie to Diesel ads featuring a tattooed woman wearing nothing but a denim niqab, overtly sexual depictions of the veil are suddenly everywhere. You can even buy a "Sexy Middle Eastern Arab girl burqa Halloween costume" from eBay. And there's a suitably ghastly name for this phenomenon: "burqa swag".
We can lay at least some of the blame for this on Lady Gaga. She's been trotting around in extravagant interpretations of the hijab for years. In August she took her Muslim-baiting to another level with the apparent leak of a new track called Burqa. With lyrics such as "Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?" Burqa isn't exactly a sensitive exploration of Islam. And nor were her fans' responses to it. Soon after the leak, Twitter was awash with Gaga fans posting pictures of themselves in Orientalist attire with the hashtag #burqaswag.
One of the many problems with burqa swag is its confusion over what a burqa is in the first place. There is a world of difference between a burqa, an abaya, a chador, a niqab etc. Yet in western discourse these are often grouped together. Indeed, the burqa has become something of a convenient symbol not just for the entire spectrum of Muslim culture, but for the Arab world and the Middle East in general. A handy way to lump all that "otherness" together and defuse the threat it poses.
There's a certain glamour associated with the pariah status that, much as we might like to think otherwise, Muslims bear in western societies. Cavorting with the Muslim world generates a kind of transgression by proxy for the savvy pop star. You could say #burqaswag is this generation's Like a Prayer. While Madonna romping with saints and dancing around burning crosses may have shocked 1989 sensibilities, goading Catholics just isn't that risqué anymore. No, if you're really going to prove yourself as a modern day bad girl, the most effective place to do so is in a mosque. Indeed Madge herself appears to be quite aware of this. According to recent reports, Madonna is now studying the Qur'an.
Of course, the irony of burqa swag is that it holds in itself the seeds of its own destruction. You can respond to a perceived threat either by attacking it or appropriating it. French politicians have channelled their prejudices against Islam into banning the full veil; burqa swag neutralises the threat of Islam by holding it in an erotic embrace.
Appropriate too effectively, of course, and all the danger is gone … and with it the allure. Which is good news for Rihanna fans because, let's face it, she looks better in hotpants.