Art of the burqa: exploring the many narratives of the women under the veil
“My Motherland Beach” by Hangama Amiri. All photos courtesy of OF NOTE Magazine.
Celeste is an editor at OF NOTE Magazine and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working on her book of short stories or interviewing social entrepreneurs, she occasionally participates in modern life and tweets @celestehdennis.
Over 100 people gathered at the home of the women’s art and literary nonprofit Pen and Brush to celebrate OF NOTE’s latest Burqa Issue. From street art to documentary film to painting, the artists featured in the all-women’s issue explore a range of themes that trouble our perceptions of the women who actually wear the burqa—by choice or by force.
The afternoon set out to offer a more nuanced view of a garment that is as personal as it is political, as unifying as it is divisive. With burqa bans all over the world and the growing anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S., having the conversation seemed necessary more than ever.
“In our current political and social climate when cultural differences are being challenged instead of celebrated, it is critical to support conversations that promote greater respect for, and understanding of, our differences,” said Pen and Brush Associate Executive Director Dawn Delikat.
In her opening remarks about the “The Art of the Burqa” artists and writers whose roots span from Afghanistan to Haiti to India, OF NOTE editorial director and founder and ivoh trustee Grace Aneiza Ali challenged the audience to go beyond the traditional “versus” mentality.
“They are not here to glamorize the burqa nor are they here to diminish or devalue it. They are certainly not here to reinforce a Western gaze of the burqa as inherently oppressive,” Ali said. “These are the easy questions. The burqa is much more complicated.”
As the editor at OF NOTE, I’d been intimately familiar with their art and words. But it was one thing to see their work on a computer screen, and another to see it come alive for an audience surrounded by stacks of books about women artists and handwritten letters strewn across the wall.
The burqa took on even more meaning for me that afternoon. And like any good conversation, the event generated more questions than answers. Here are some insights that have stayed with me:
Alongside art curator Erin Haney, artist Mariam Magsi talked about her striking photograph “You May Veil Us, But You May Never Dictate Who We Love.” Winner of the World Press PRIDE award, the photograph gives insight into queer Muslim culture.
“The burqa is usually linked with oppression and the degradation of a woman’s body,” she said. “But this garment is also being used by people in subcultures to liberate themselves because that’s the only way to express who they really are, by being hidden.”
Continuing with the theme of the unseen, just as powerful was Magsi invoking women who weren’t able to be in the room. She recalled observing women in burqas and hot pink Nikes running through the park in her home country of Pakistan. Magsi also gave a nod to her mother, a published poet and real estate tycoon, who wears a veil because she wants to.
Artist Hangama Amiri was more unapologetic in her negative stance of the burqa, given that it was forced on women by the Taliban in her home country of Afghanistan in the 90s. In conversation with Danish-American artist Suzanne Russell, Amiri talked about the “My Motherland” video installation she created with her sister Fazila Amiri, and how it was a homage to her mother’s secrets and desires while under the burqa.
On loop in the Pen and Brush space, the installation showed idealistic landscapes Amiri’s mother dreamed of but couldn’t access: an European art gallery, Canadian fields, a beach, and more. For Amiri, the limitations of her mother’s dreams are inextricably and unfairly linked to wearing a burqa.
“A piece of material should not describe who I am as a woman, or who you are as a woman. A woman’s power is her education, her voice, and her action,” Amiri said.
I have to admit: I wasn’t even sure of the difference between a burqa, hijab, and niqab before working on The Burqa Issue. More troubling, even though I consider myself liberal and informed, I didn’t know why women wearing a burqa mattered to me and feminism in my corner of the world.
It turned out this was a common theme among the Western writers, who were vulnerable in their admissions of not knowing much about the burqa before embarking on this project. Journalist Rajul Punjabi, for one, presented on graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani and recalled Hassani being straight up with her about how while the burqa was a fascination for Punjabi, it was part of the day-to-day reality for women in Afghanistan — a politicized situation that wasn’t going to change how women were treated, burqa or not.
Hassani also posed the provocative question to Punjabi in their interview, “What burqas are we putting on everyday?”
In a group panel moderated by Dawn Delikat, poet Hajar from the Afghan Women’s Writing Project spoke about the power of using words to create a new identity for oneself, and the danger of ascribing onto others our own ideas of what a woman’s narrative should be.
“People especially in the U.S. think that wearing a burqa is a sign of extremism, which is not true. In Afghanistan, it doesn’t mean that my friends who are wearing burqas are not open to education or new ideas,” she said. “That unconscious bias you have toward a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf makes them marginalized.”
Awakening and uniting
The dangerous notion of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche deems “a single story” was a common thread throughout. Writer and educator Gia Harewood gave a lively presentation on the connection between Adiche and artist Behnaz Babadezah’s work of interrupting stereotypes through creating edible burqas from candy. Harewood also reinforced being open to multiple narratives when one of the few men in the audience asked how he could be an ally.
“We can start being allies in our everyday lives right where we are,” Harewood said. “If you want to help someone whose identity is being targeted, then start by actually listening to them and believing their story.”
Writer Bureen Ruffin’s introductory remarks about Brishkay Ahmed’s film, “Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan,” echoed this idea of truth seeking via storytelling, as Ahmed’s film sets out to challenge the burqa’s supposed Islamic roots. Ruffin also reflected on William Stafford’s poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” as to why this exploration is necessary.
“What does it mean to be awake? What does it mean to know myself and know another? For me being here with all of you, all of us together, is an act of being awake,” she said. “Art and its ability to ask questions, challenge beliefs and theories, share stories and experiences, is an act of being awake.”
Between the chatter and new connections happening in the room at the end of the afternoon, it was clear that those who’d chosen to spend their Sunday learning more about the burqa were anything but sleepy. Like many others, I left with an interrupted bias and an even deeper understanding of the woman under the veil, with my first question to her now being, “What’s your story?”