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Representations of Muslim women and the veil: questions of image and voice
Unformatted Document Text:  veiled woman dancing or clapping her hands. When we do, there is something surprising in the image. A documentary by Imran Khan on Muslim life in Pakistan reveals young women students enthusiastically gyrating to the latest pop songs, despite their asserted detestation of American values. These women, of course, are educated, middle-class and not denied the basic rights that characterized the burqa-clad women of Afghanistan or the veiled women of Saudi Arabia. As soon as Afghanistan re-entered the headlines in the West in the autumn of 2001, the woman in the burqa became one of the key images used to claim the humanity of the ‘war on terror’. Even without the gendered aspects, the burqa is represented as alien in its denial of facial expression, long assumed to be a key ingredient in open communication. Reading non-verbal facial signals is, we are led to believe, essential to establish sincerity, frankness and honesty. Yet, ironically, of course, recognition of this has led in the West to professions which expressly teach us how to manage our facial expression, how not to reveal what we are really thinking, how to ‘mask’ our real emotions. The burqa-clad woman, especially in Afghanistan, appears as silent and silenced victim, but silenced by whom? As Laura Flanders, author of a book on reporting of minority women, puts it: ‘there are a lot of pictures of silent, shrouded, Afghan women on the news. But the US media veil Afghan women, too. You sure don’t get to hear what any of them have to say’ (rawa.false.net/alternet.htm). While undercover footage of a burqa-clad woman being executed in Kabul for the murder of her abusive husband in 1999 was widely disseminated, few of the media outlets acknowledged the source of this: it was recorded by a digital camera concealed underneath a burqa and distributed by the

Authors: Macdonald, Myra.
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background image
veiled woman dancing or clapping her hands. When we do, there is something surprising
in the image. A documentary by Imran Khan on Muslim life in Pakistan reveals young
women students enthusiastically gyrating to the latest pop songs, despite their asserted
detestation of American values. These women, of course, are educated, middle-class and
not denied the basic rights that characterized the burqa-clad women of Afghanistan or the
veiled women of Saudi Arabia. As soon as Afghanistan re-entered the headlines in the
West in the autumn of 2001, the woman in the burqa became one of the key images used
to claim the humanity of the ‘war on terror’. Even without the gendered aspects, the
burqa is represented as alien in its denial of facial expression, long assumed to be a key
ingredient in open communication. Reading non-verbal facial signals is, we are led to
believe, essential to establish sincerity, frankness and honesty. Yet, ironically, of course,
recognition of this has led in the West to professions which expressly teach us how to
manage our facial expression, how not to reveal what we are really thinking, how to
‘mask’ our real emotions.
The burqa-clad woman, especially in Afghanistan, appears as silent and silenced victim,
but silenced by whom? As Laura Flanders, author of a book on reporting of minority
women, puts it: ‘there are a lot of pictures of silent, shrouded, Afghan women on the
news. But the US media veil Afghan women, too. You sure don’t get to hear what any of
them have to say’ (rawa.false.net/alternet.htm). While undercover footage of a burqa-clad
woman being executed in Kabul for the murder of her abusive husband in 1999 was
widely disseminated, few of the media outlets acknowledged the source of this: it was
recorded by a digital camera concealed underneath a burqa and distributed by the


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