A few years ago, someone from the Feminist Majority Foundation called the Muslim Women’s League to ask if she could “borrow a burka” for a photo shoot the organization was doing to draw attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. When we told her that we didn’t have one, and that none of our Afghan friends did either, she expressed surprise, as if she’d assumed that all Muslim women keep burkas in their closets in case a militant Islamist comes to dinner. She didn’t seem to understand that her assumption was the equivalent of assuming that every Latino has a Mexican sombrero in their closet.
We don’t mean to make light of the suffering of our sisters in Afghanistan, but the burka was—and is—not their major focus of concern. Their priorities are more basic, like feeding their children, becoming literate and living free from violence. Nevertheless, recent articles in the Western media suggest the burka means everything to Muslim women, because they routinely express bewilderment at the fact that all Afghan women didn’t cast off their burkas when the Taliban was defeated. The Western press’ obsession with the dress of Muslim women is not surprising, however, since the press tends to view Muslims, in general, simplistically. Headlines in the mainstream media have reduced Muslim female identity to an article of clothing—“the veil.” One is hard-pressed to find an article, book or film about women in Islam that doesn’t have “veil” in the title: “Behind the Veil,” “Beyond the Veil,” “At the Drop of a Veil” and more. The use of the term borders on the absurd: Perhaps next will come “What Color is Your Veil?” or “Rebel Without a Veil” or “Whose Veil is it, Anyway?