Women’s groups and conservative spokespersons alike have been sputtering with outrage over the decision to auction off Burqa Barbies for a Save the Children “Rewrite the Future” fundraising campaign. (The organization’s purpose is “to educate children in conflict areas around the world”.) Italian designer Eliana Lorena has outfitted 500 Barbies in their respective cultural clothing; Burqa Barbie was meant to represent Afghani culture, not make a political statement.
Why the uproar, then? First of all, the burqa is seen as a symbol of oppression by Western feminists. In essence, what these feminists are saying to women who wear them is: We’re sure that you wouldn’t wear these if you weren’t being forced to. What they fail to take into account is that the clothing has cultural and religious significance for Muslim women in many areas of the world. Imagine if you had worn the burqa all your life, if all the women around you wore them and, furthermore, that you don’t have to wear them all the time (you can wear what you want at home). You might wonder what all the fuss is about.
Then imagine also that your faith means a lot to you and that you believe that the burqa is a sign of your devotion to God. The burqa, or other forms of Muslim dress, may make you feel closer to God and more a part of your religious community. Would you then be so quick to throw it off?
Obviously, though, the burqa is offensive to many people for another reason: it is used in anti-Islamic propaganda to symbolize what is seen as the dark side of Islam. (See this poster that was used in the campaign to ban minarets in Switzerland.) The burqa, and especially the niqab (the face covering), bring to mind all kind of sinister images. What are they hiding under there? Why won’t they show who they really are? What are they so afraid of?
When I tell people that I converted to Islam, at some point I’m usually asked if I’m going to wear the headscarf. The implication is always that if I did, I would be seen as extreme, even threatening, definitely “other.” And that’s just if I wore the headscarf. Imagine if I covered everything! (Some Muslimahs–Muslim women–cover their hands and/or faces as well.) But if I did, that would be my choice, not something that is foisted upon me.
Muslims sometimes criticize Western women for their “immodest” ways of dressing. In some cases, I think there’s justification for that. But Muslims and non-Muslims both need to cut each other some slack. What is considered immodest to Muslims is usually perfectly acceptable to non-Muslims and what is extreme to non-Muslims is ordinary to Muslims. Non-Muslims are arrogant when they insist on judging others by their own standards. Muslims can be arrogant as well. But the arrogance is usually a mask for fear: we’re all afraid that our cultures will be taken over by the “other.” Until we learn that we can co-exist without losing our identities, we will continue to be threatened by Barbie dolls.